Quantum Leaps

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                The light turns on.
                A cascade of photons erupts from the filament. The tiny packets of energy whirl about the room, ricocheting off objects which in turn reveal their lustrous surfaces.
                A few nanometres from the incandescent bulb, a hydrogen nucleus, grasping its single electron, awaits. The bombardment of photons continues, but the positive proton and negative electron remain unaffected as particles of light with too high a frequency pass through unperturbed.
                All of a sudden, a photon with the proper frequency collides and the electron is able to absorb the photon's energy. Energy level one, a sphere. Quantum leap. A burst of colour. Energy level two, a figure-eight. The proton clings desperately as the electron absorbs yet another quantum of matching frequency and accelerates forward. Level three, four, five. Red. Yellow. Blue. The electron moves faster and faster in its excited state. The final push of a perfectly energized photon. The ultimate leap. Five, ten, thirty, one thousand – all these discrete levels become blurred as the electron approaches convergence of shells and jumps to infinite, issuing a myriad of hues.
                Losing its electron, the atom ionizes. The sub-atomic particle of negative charge speeds through the space of the room. It passes and interacts with diatomic oxygen and nitrogen molecules -- an acrobatic performance of freefalls and pirouettes as all of their electromagnetic forces mingle and the infinitely small electric point slows. The electron dives into the sea of charge residing on an aluminum paper clip sitting next to the lamp.
                The light turns on.
                The scientist asks himself the question. "Why do...." He twirls his pen. He scans his research. "How can...." He leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling, resting his wrist on his forehead so the bend between the back of his hand and his arm mirrors the curve of his brow. As he stares at the hanging glass lamp, his eyes do not absorb any of the information entering them. He is concentrating the logical workings of his mind, seeking inspiration and answers.
                The light turns on.
                Unpredictably, the idea begins to creep up. "What if...." He picks up his pen. He looks out the window, but his eyes dart back to the blank page. "Then it must be that...." He jots down his thoughts. "Of course...." His idea jumps to the next state. "Thus...." He writes faster and faster. Words and symbols begin to fill the page, punctuated occasionally by scribbles and blotches. A pause. "Wait a minute. That can't be the case." He finds his error and rectifies it with one swift scratch of his pen. He pulls a new sheet from the pile. He continues. "Where was I....." Momentum increasing, he overcomes the finite bindings that restrained his thoughts. A spectacular moment of clarity. The quantum leap – idea to absolute certainty.
                He stares at the page, now covered with barely legible scrawls and diagrams. Arrows dart about the surface, directing the flow of his new-found insight. At the bottom of the page, squeezed into the only unoccupied space, he writes the all-encompassing equation. "There it lies," he thought, "the theory of everything." So simple; so gratifying.
                "I have advanced humanity." This was the thought now overtaking his mind – with such an achievement comes a deserved portion of vanity and self-flattery. Like all defining discoveries, it was not reached from a continuity of what is already known. It did not work that way.
                A vital insight is not transitional during its formation process; rather, an idea's genesis exists only at discrete levels. Fuelled by pure human creativity, intuition and logic, the unborn idea can skip between the distinct stages. When it resides at the lowest rung, the idea waits for inspiration, but it can remain there for decades. Without warning, spurred simply by the imagination, the idea can leap to the next step. Like the electron and the photon whose frequencies randomly match, the yet-to-be-formed idea and human creativity just suddenly align. Once at the next level, the unborn idea begins to correspond with intuition and logic, and can jump to higher and more excited states. Coming to its full formulation and conclusion, the thought is created and enters the world as a hallmark of discovery.
                The scientist's innovative theory carries us to the next level of understanding about our universe. Similarly, a writer's new poem transports humanity to a higher rung of enlightenment. A crucial idea undergoes quantum leaps in its formation. A crucial idea initiates quantum leaps once formed.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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!

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.