Lucky Day

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I knew you were smart from the beginning. The first half-dozen students I interviewed asked less-than-insightful questions like "why would I want to be in a box with cyanide?" or "does this position involve working with animals?", but you wanted to know how I could manage to hold-off wave-function collapse at macroscopic scale. And you understood my answer. Together, we made it all work. We crawled inside Schrodinger’s box. And then, before the world even started to understand, we doubled down. We found a way to choose which outcome was ultimately observed. Not only could we tie the fate of a cat to the random decay of a radioactive atom in practice, we found a way to be there when the cat lived, and not be there if it died. (Metaphorically speaking – no poisons or animals involved.)
The first three years were amazing – a partnership of motivated minds. Schrodinger’s cat had been just a story to help explain the quantum world – a fable from a land a billion times smaller than ours. Until we perfected the laser isolation technique that let us make a real box – on the lab table – where quantum choices (to decay or not to decay!) could grow, over minutes and then indefinitely. One quantum difference, changing the fate of local atoms, and then those they collided with until, just as Schrodinger described, the cat was alive, and had been dead. Or in our case, a stopwatch had been running for days after the decay and had yet to start.
That would have been enough for a lifetime – we had made a box so tightly closed that nothing, not the faintest nanoscale jiggle could get through and cause the contents to collapse into just one reality. Then we learned to peek inside and, surprisingly soon after, to link boxes together, regardless of where they were. More bits of quantum weirdness – non-destructive measurements, entanglement, teleportation. Phenomena that were, for others, just quirks to study became a toolkit  – windows for our box and a quantum internet to put parts of the box anywhere.
Our window was foggy – we couldn’t actually see the cat (our stopwatch) because any classical observation would randomly fix the outcome – one fate or the other would have always existed. But we could measure the quantum phase – the sign of the oscillation between the outcomes – without collapsing to one outcome. That proved that both realities existed inside the box, and then – told us when to open the box to see what we wanted! We could watch as reality oscillated – alive, dead, alive, dead – and make sure we opened the box at the right time, in the right way, to be in the world where our wish had come true.
I think we were both shocked – I certainly could not believe it at first. How could we open the box and always find a live cat? How could our action in opening the box affect the past? Schrodinger’s cat was not just alive or dead – it was alive for two weeks eating food or dead and decaying for two weeks. If we could choose the outcome, we were choosing the past – our past!
That was when our partnership began to unravel. The paradox we had uncovered went beyond the ‘spooky action at a distance’ that had bothered Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen – we had ‘spooky action in the past’. Yet you, after we’d spent countless days and nights hammering out all the details to make our experiments work, suddenly didn’t care. You were busy, distracted, then off on vacation.
For two months, I wracked my brain to understand how we could do what we did without violating causality, without invalidating everything that was known about physics. I finished our second-generation box, largely using your design. Then you reappeared, saying little, working around the clock and, within a week, you had won the lottery. Not long after, the company you invested your winnings in announced their breakthrough chip and your wealth increased tenfold.
I’m not sure when I knew, really knew, what you were doing, and finally understood who you were. I suspected after the money, was more certain after your surprise selection to the president’s science board, and decided it no longer mattered if I was right when the SEC inspector looking into your affairs had that car crash. Physics shouldn’t be used to kill. And if god doesn’t place dice, you shouldn’t be using a loaded pair. That isn’t why we – I – did this.
Funny, you never asked what I did while you were away. I did make progress – of a sort. For one thing, I convinced myself that we weren’t violating quantum physics – picking the outcome that the ‘you’ you think you are will see doesn’t stop there being other ‘you’s who see the other outcomes. Multiple worlds, and we’re just helping free will with a little entanglement. No violation of thermodynamics here.
I also, though I don’t know why I thought it might be needed, used our old system, still quietly humming in the corner, to entangle the new one. (Maybe it was your off-hand question about whether the action of our device could be detected.)  What did that accomplish?  In plain English, I can (and now do) chose to live in a world where our new equipment never quite worked – all of its outcomes have been random chance. And its next one will be too.
I guess that means that the you I know is absolved of any guilt for what you’ve done – in our reality, it was all just luck. And if your next scheme fails, it can’t be payback. Just luck, but I’ll think I’ll feel better. So congratulations, you’ve had a great run –let’s see how long it remains your lucky day…

About the Author: 
James spent too many cold mornings walking to quantum mechanics classes and had too much fun with friends trying to collapse each others' wave functions.He now spends his time confusing his wife and children, hopefully in a good way.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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!

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.

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.

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”.

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.