Man of Information

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Yesterday I walked into the house and observed that my wife and daughter were watching one of their favorite Jane Austen movies, Emma. Who is this mysterious and anticipated Frank Churchill, Emma wanted to know. 

Emma: “Was he handsome?” 

Jane: “Many say he is.”

Emma: “Was he agreeable?”

Jane: “He was in no way disagreeable.”

Emma: “Was he a man of information?”

Her last question caught my attention. Even before we were married, Alison knew about my passion for information. We met doing research and data analysis with the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and our work kept us both busy and together. Soon after our daughter was born, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse from a digital imaging firm, where I stayed for 5 years before Alison suggested I would be happier getting back into research. She was right. I dove headlong into the emerging field of quantum information. Oh, that I could tell her, face to face, how she was right about so many things.

After a few minutes silently watching the scene at my home, I found myself weakening. I walked out the door and picked up something to eat before going back to my lab. The emotions were too much for me to handle.

Two summers ago I took Alison and Mei to the beach for the day. Mei built a sand sculpture and tried to ride a boogie board, while my wife read a book and occasionally took a break to identify a nearby shorebird. Mei and I made a game of estimating the number of grains of sand on that beach. She asked me to take her picture against the sunset; as usual, I had forgotten to bring the camera. Still, it was a beautiful day.

That night during the drive home Alison told me she wasn’t happy. I didn’t understand why. Who are you, Robert, really? she wanted to know. I remember feeling uncomfortable and responding with a line from a movie we had watched together. She laughed for a second, and then was quiet.   

Eight months ago I remember saying goodbye as I left for Brazil, where I was to take part in a set of experiments related to my research on quantum computing. Bits are nothing to snub your nose at, I told my daughter, but qubits are really special, like your young life, spinning and layered with possibilities waiting to be realized. I went downstairs and found Alison in the kitchen. I wish I could have perceived then how the wave carrying our shared future was beginning to collapse, through little choices and measured judgments. As she looked up from our brief hug, I found that I could not read the expression on her face.

I close up my lab and take the elevator down to 7B, through the security check and into a media room which contains state-of-the-art 3D laser-holography projectors. As I initiate the pre-programmed sequence I see an amazingly realistic re-creation of the door of my house, which I move through today with only a slight pause. There are Alison and Mei, watching a Jane Austen film. They are always watching Jane Austen.

I am still limited to this single scene, which I have painstakingly extracted from my memory. It’s been six months and thirteen days since Alison and Mei left, without a trace. The thoroughness of the erasure of even their digital traces – photos, financial and legal transactions, social media interactions – underscored the seriousness of the break, signaling that our familiar rhythm of communication would be replaced with the agony of silence.   

I have tried seventy-three times to re-create additional scenes of my wife and daughter – such as our day at the beach – which live now only as impressions in my mind. To date I have had no success in bringing this hope to reality. Without the supplement of digital images, packed with life-giving pixels, there simply has not been enough data for the holographic resurrection to succeed. So I cherish this one scene, as sentimentally as I know how.

I pull a small digital camera out of my pocket and snap a picture of Alison just as she looks up from the movie. This photo, this sampling of a sampling, containing a mere 33.6 billion bits, is strangely precious to me. I go home, print out the photo, and hang it on my apartment wall, alongside my 67 other photos taken of the re-created scene.

As I study the print on the wall, I detect in this particular frame something I have not observed before: on her face and in her eyes, a smile of true affection. Perhaps this is due to a trick of light, perhaps a quantum fluctuation in the holography, or perhaps some psychosomatic alteration in my visual perception. For once, I don’t know. But in the spirit of Mr. Darcy, this smile of yours has taught me to hope as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.

Alison, I am broadcasting and disseminating this 5 kilobyte confession through all possible channels, with all the technological know-how at my disposal, that it might reach you and that you might respond– even if with just a single word. I know I have not been without waver, and I cannot plead a perfect reform. But if even the Universe swerves from the rational choice sometimes, permitting the strangest and unlikeliest of outcomes, can I not hope for a second chance? To be able to take a photo of the real you and the real Mei sitting in our house again would be the materialization of the happiest dream I have ever had.  

You asked me who I am. I remain, undeniably, a man of information – yet one now sifting and filtering for the bits and pieces that really matter.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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”.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!