The Qubit of Doubt

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             Everything was falling into place.  Carlo was all shave-headed and ready to go.  Dr Tamil was smiling encouragement with his wrinkled-up eyes.  But when Carlo reached across the desk to sign the final consent form, a strange thing happened— his left hand grabbed his own wrist and pulled it back.
            “Did you see that?” he said through a crooked smile.
            “That was involuntary?” asked the doctor, his eyebrows arched as high as they would go.
            “Yes.  How weird.”  He tried again, and again his left hand betrayed him.  He stared at it.  “That just sucks.”
            “Maybe we should take a breath.  This is a scary undertaking.  It’s not too late, if you want more time.”
            “No, I absolutely want this.”
            “Okay, then see if you can tell me exactly why.”
            “Same reason you’re willing to do it to me—I’m curious as hell and I think it would be the coolest thing ever.”
            “All right, how about your family?  Are you maybe putting them through some grief and feeling guilty?“
            “What family I’ve got is just fine with it, as long as they get their damn alimony child support.  I’m worth more dead, you know, so that’s not a problem.  Damn it, look, I’m no scientist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what this world is about.  In another life maybe I’d be sitting where you’re sitting, but the way things turned out, this might be my only chance…. It’s as if I’ve been blind all my life, and now I’m going to get a chance to see.”
            The doctor’s face lit up.  “Yes, that’s how I see it.  We’re blind in so many ways, and along comes this artificial cortex which happens to be adapted from the very device we use to give sight to the blind.  People have seen entirely new colors with it.  Except, of course, for the duration of your experiment, you’ll be seeing a fourth dimension instead.  It’s a bit abstract.  Disappointing, maybe?”
            “No, I get it.  Four dimensions, with the weird metric of time—I’ll see in all its glory what Einstein could only imagine in a kind of Braille.”
            “And think what if means if it works.  Someday we’ll be able to conceive new truths that could never resonate into an unmodified brain.  Now that’s been a touchy issue.  Do you have any religious misgivings?”
“What about the idea of plugging your brain into a quantum computer?  Is that frightening to you?”
            “I wouldn’t want to plug into any other kind.  Not after all you guys have been telling me about how I already am a quantum computer.  I just don’t know where I’ll put it all.  I imagine I’ll be seeing your graphic inputs out the back of my head where I just see darkness now.”
            Suddenly inspired, Carlo made a lunge with the pen, hoping to catch his left hand by surprise, but it was too quick.  He looked at the doctor with pleading eyes.
“It isn’t me,” he said.   Dr Tamil started to speak, but Carlo pressed on.  “You know how, when you’re going to say something, when it’s there in your mind, as an idea, yet prior to being put into any kind of sequence-- not sounds, not finger movements, not the wiggling of a pen-- it’s a moment when it could become any of those things, but it’s none of them yet, and there’s nothing there to describe, no shape, no color, yet somehow you sense the meaning, because if you didn’t you’d never know what you might say and you could never dare speak.  What kind of existence is an idea like that?  Is that what you call an implicate order, where my brain dips into some quantum state?”
“We’re still working on ‘meaning.’”
“I can tell there’s some kind of meaning, a sense of opposition that stops me when I try to sign.  But what matters is-- whatever it is, it isn’t me.  Do you understand?  You don’t know how much our talks have meant to me.  It’s not often in my life I’ve felt so encouraged.  You treat me as if we could be colleagues in this.  Listen, I’m telling you my life depends on you now.  Please, hold my arm down and help me sign.”
So the doctor held down his arm, and to all outward appearances the experiment went as expected.  It was the inward appearance that hid an anomaly.  To his mind’s eye the strange geometry of space and time was revealed in a vision that needed no words or equations.  It had its own kind of beauty unlike any other in unmodified human experience.  But then, as he let himself be absorbed, he lost his balance and tipped over and saw his world-line from birth to death spread before him like a landscape.  The horror of it was that from this timeless perspective he couldn’t change anything.  He could only helplessly see the temporal version of himself make all the same mistakes.  Quantum correlations are allowed to transcend time, but only so long as they are hidden within the localized randomness.  So no one could ever realize the true source of Carlo’s conflicting hands, because that would have brought the correlations out of hiding and unraveled the whole illusion of local causality.
Still, it wasn’t all terrible.  The untimeless part of him went on with life as usual.  Besides, it isn’t really pain in itself that hurts, but only how its projection is welcomed, or not, by someone, or some thing’s, “brain”.   To the quantum cortex, who had never thought to wonder where its inputs were coming from, it was a sheer analogue of joy to be melded for a timeless moment to a new and alien wonder.

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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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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”.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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!

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.