Quantum Spin

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Stars everywhere! In all his hours gazing up at the night sky never had he seen stars as dazzling as these. This was a dizzying display. The entire stellar dome seemed to be spinning, counterclockwise, as if a planetarium program was in rewind. Why was he down here with these widgeting crickets, he wondered, on his back, in the middle of a field? There was a chill in the autumn air; why hadn't he worn a jacket?

As his eyes closed he welcomed the feeling of warmth upwelling from within; he could appreciate how this small portion of inner heat was all that separated him from the big-chill outside. The notion of an internal world, afterall, in a virtual sense, was something of which he was most familiar. For years he had been reading science books about the nature of the things within, the subjects of biology and chemistry, and he had read enough articles about particle physics to fathom that the innermost things were just as 'far away' as were the distant galaxies. The essential difference, of course, was that the further in one went the hotter it got. Deeper, hotter, until... well, that was the Big question: what was the ultimate Source of this radiant warmth from within?

So with curiosity invoked his attention turned inward and he began to imagine what was transpiring inside. He took a deep breath and followed the infusion of fresh air as it rushed into his lungs and watched as the oxygen molecules were drawn out, captivated by red cells passing in his bloodstream. He was amused when the oxygen and iron bonded on the hemoglobin, and then, with a convulsive pulse, were suddenly flushed away, through the heart's chambers, into branching arteries and out every capillary. He was amazed how quickly the oxygen was then evacuated, sucked through the lipid membranes of adjacent cells and immediately down the import pores of exigent multitudes of mitochondria.

These tiny organelles were the metabolic 'furnaces' that oxidized ingested carbohydrates to synthesize cellular fuel. He had read that the exothermic heat from this combustion process, as from all biological activities – twitching muscle fibers and flexing membranes, sputtering ion channels and flickering synaptic junctions – gets absorbed into the bloodstream and circulated throughout, gathering in the central organs. So he knew that mitochondrial respiration was the primary source of his immediate warmth, but he also knew there was more: to find heat's ultimate Source would require going deeper.

He recalled reading that the metabolic processes at the bottom of biology were really chemical in nature and that chemistry, when you got down to basics, was actually about atoms, electrons and protons. So he began to imagine the cascading complex of biochemical processes – the polypeptide synthesis and rapid redox reactions, catalyzing enzymes and electron transport chains – and observed how all this activity was being instigated at the agitated intersection of electron orbitals and their adjacent atomic nuclei. If heat was the result of matter in motion then things couldn't get much hotter, or quicker – these oscillating electrons were launching photons at the speed of light! What was the impetus behind all this kinetic energy? To find the causal Source would require going even deeper.

It would mean venturing into the sub-atomic domain where temperatures were so intense that the 'local' particle players of the metabolic and atomic worlds had melded into an integrated 'global' state. He was adrift now in an undulating underworld of fluctuating energy fields where evanescent "densities" were passing as particle 'antecedents'; and these tenuous identities were actually even more so – virtual "probability amplitudes" of particle potential. Was there anything in this internal realm that was real or absolute he wondered? He was feeling dizzy and disoriented; was it all these oscillating fields or were the heavens spinning again?

He took another deep breath and paused; he remembered reading that at the bottom of theoretical physics, resident in the "quantum" domain, was a harmonic oscillator called the quantum "wavefunction". This was the proffered "action principle" behind all the dynamic field configurations. This was also where the initializing "quantum of action" was found – "Planck's constant", the synchronizing first and finest of all possible oscillations. For theorists, this was the last measurable 'unit' on the way to Unity – the empirical "event horizon": the "discontinuity" defining the boundary beyond which nothing more could be observed.

Surely this final feature of the reality continuum must be very near the ultimate Source, he was thinking... when suddenly, he realized he couldn't get any closer! Any 'beyond' was forever unfathomable. Planck's constant, with its frequency of One, had to be the singular Source. This dynamic "unmoving mover" was the wellspring of his upwelling warmth. At last, something was revealed he could finally 'grasp': the Universe was a symphony in the key of Planck's Constant!

And with this revelation his imagination and the miracle of the Moment merged, for he was certain he was hearing something audible in the background... a distant "om"? It sounded remarkably like the transcendent mantra of Eastern mysticism! Was he perhaps hearing the omniscient resonance of the omnipresent Constant itself?

He took one more deep breath, paused and listened... there it was again, only louder, closer... no, wait a moment... this wasn't "om" he was hearing, this was the sound of a distant voice, a familiar voice from an exterior source – from outside!


"Tom", the voice was calling, "are you okay?"

"What... where am I" he responded, sitting up, eyes opening,the sound of crickets again, the chill in the air... "what happened?"

"Dude look!" And as the remains of his baseball glove came into view, severed lacings dangling, the pocket between thumb and forefinger entirely missing, he heard:

"Look, that line-drive went right through the web of your mitt, hit you in the head, and knocked you completely out!"

"You were gone for like a minute!", a second voice chimed in,

"Where did you go?" 

About the Author: 
Tom Ransom is retired living in East Lansing, Michigan (USA). Additional essays may be found at http://www.singularityshuttle.com.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

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 ... 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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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”.