Heisenberg Criminals

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It was about 3 AM, and the cops were surrounded the bank. A robbery was in progress. “Nobody else is in there” called the chief, “just turn on the heat seeking map” Officer Carlson took a measurement, and found the thief in the vault.  “I’ve got her in the vault sir!” he announced. “But wait, that can’t be right, I found her in the lobby” said another squad member. The lobby was at least 100 meters away. “Well which one is it?!” shouted the chief. They both looked down at their map to see that neither one was still displaying the heat signature of the thief. As each officer tried to locate the perp they would instantly lose her location. “I just can’t seem to keep a consistent read on her!” Officer Carlson called out. The chief gripped the bridge of his nose in frustration. “Well alright then! Go inside and look for clues!” Carlson, obedient as ever, went in to investigate and stumbled upon a note that read, thanks for the money! –Pwave. “Hey guys! C’mere!” he shouted excitedly as he waved them over. They all gathered around, but they were confused. “What the heck is a pwave?!” the chief grumbled. “Rodriguez!” he shouted, “get back to the station and do some research on “pwave” and see what you find.” the chief commanded. “Yes sir!” he responded curtly. Rodriguez jogged back to his car and got in, starting up the engine. He looked into his rearview mirror and gasped when he saw a woman smiling at him from the backseat. She sat very still and calmly waved to him. “Hi there. How’s it going?” She said, mocking him and smiling gleefully at his shock. Officer Rodriguez quickly found his weapon and whipped around to face her. “Who are you, how did you get in here, and what do you want? Are you the robber? Where did you hide the money?” he drilled quickly in an authoritative tone. But she just yawned and slumped down in the seat. “Yeah I’m the robber but you’re really boring, y’know? I think I’m gonna go, will you mind closing your eyes?” She asked, still quite charming. Officer Rodriguez, visibly perplexed, sat in the seat as the mystery woman leaned forward and quickly blew right into his eyes. The instant he blinked she was gone but he was surrounded by a charge of energy. He felt everything around him almost being alive with this strange energy. Officer Rodriguez snapped back to reality for an instant. He had direct orders from the chief to go research what a “pwave” meant, but he was captivated by the mystery he had just witnessed. He contemplated driving away, but he was so curious about this mysterious woman that he took a deep breath, sighed and mentally left the police force behind. “Hello!” He called out, “are you there?” The woman materialized instantaneously onto the hood of his car, wearing the same smug grin. “Well now that’s much better” she said almost cooing, “a bit too curious aren’t ’cha?” She was leaning into the windshield to get a good look at Officer Rodriguez who was completely dumbfounded. “How are you DOING that?” He whispered in awe, as he slowly opened his car door. He got out, and closed the door behind him, sitting right next to the woman. “Its kinda like electrons” she started to explain, but the officer accidentally blinked. When he opened his eyes she reappeared, right behind him this time, but her speech was completely undeterred as if nothing had happened. “so when you’re not looking at me, I’m everywhere I could possibly be, and when you start observing me again I collapse into this much more physical form. Officer Rodriguez looked at the criminal and he could see her thinly veiled need for friendship, and knew it must be lonely being an electron. Officer Rodriguez scooted a bit closer, put his hand over hers, looked into her eyes and started to ask her “Are you very lonely then? If nobody can ever really be with you?” but he couldn’t help himself, and he blinked. But instead of the woman next to him reappearing a large burly gentleman who wore a large toothy grin took her place. “Actually, we usually work in pairs!” He declared just as he punched Officer Rodriguez straight in the nose. As he began rapidly blinking due to pain he saw the two appear and disappear around him, first the woman about fifty meters away, then in the car, then the man again on the roof. And finally they were gone. 

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Quantum Theories

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.