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“Yes, son?”

“Daddy, where did it go?”

“Where did what go?”

Hank had taken his eight year old son Trey to his first professional football match.  Roughly thirty minutes into the action, they were now seated halfway up the grandstand, sharing a cup of orange Fanta.  Each of them wore the appropriate colors for the home team.  During a lull, Trey had decided to ask his father about something he had witnessed that didn’t make sense.

“That thing that was going round and round…where did it go?”

Hank was perplexed.  What “thing” was going round and round?  He scanned the field to find it.

“Dad, it’s gone now.  Where did it go?”

“Where did you see it?  I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

“Not down there.  Up here and over there.”  The boy twirled his hand around in a sweeping gesture, pointing to the fans.  “It was rolling around a minute ago.  Now it’s gone.”

Hank suddenly understood what his son was talking about.  The wave!  For several minutes, people in the stadium did the wave.  You participate by standing up at the same time as everybody around you stands, then you sit down.  As a result, a pattern emerges.  Groups of people take turns, timing their rise to coincide with others in the vicinity, so that from a distance it looks like a giant wave of humanity flowing around the field.

Hank had to think for a moment.  Trey had asked a good question.  Nobody organized the thing.  It just sort of happened.  There were no instructions, no systems of reward and punishment, no leaders of any kind.  Just a spontaneous, mass amusement.  And when it finally ebbed, no single person had put a stop to it.  Folks simply quit doing it and resumed watching the match.

“You mean the wave?”

“Yeah.  It did look like a wave.  Where did it go?”

“Well, the wave isn’t really a thing, like a ball or this cup here.  It’s just a lot of people acting in concert, um, at the same time.  It just looks like a wave.”

“So where did it go?”

“It sort of died out.  People lost interest.  It didn’t really go anywhere.”

“Is that like Grandpa?  Grandpa died out.”

Hank was brought up short.  The funeral two years had obviously made a tremendous impression on his son.  Every so often, Trey would ask about his grandfather and about death.  But this was a different kind of question.  And a tough one to answer.

“No, Trey, that was different.  Grandpa was a real thing.  When he died, we buried him at the cemetery.  You remember.”

“He was here.  Now, he’s not.  I remember you told me that Grandpa wasn’t in the hole in the ground.  You said something like ‘he’s gone to a better place’ or something.”

Hank thought about this for a moment.  “Okay, yeah, let us imagine Grandpa like that wave.  It emerged, rolled around here a few times, then disappeared.  You and I participated in it.  So let’s say that Grandpa is like that wave.  Energy took on a particular form that we call Grandpa, but then the energy went out of him.”  He stopped.  That’s not quite right.  And he was being too technical.  “Let me try again.  Unlike the wave, or at least what we know is just a bunch of people who took on the ‘form’ of a wave, Grandpa’s form continued to exist even after he had died.  We know this because you and I buried that form.”

Trey was not comfortable with this level of abstraction, but he let his father continue.

“So, I guess a part of him disappeared, like that wave did, but the material part, the outward form, persisted.”

“Just like when the wave died out, the people were still here?”

“Maybe,” he said.  “Huh.  Maybe.”

“So if Grandpa is in a better place now,” said Trey, “Is the wave in a better place now, too?”

“No.  It’s just gone.  It didn’t go anywhere.”

“Was it even real?”

“Well, yes, it was.”

“I liked it.  It was cool.”  The boy paused.  “Will it come back?”

“Probably so.  But it wouldn’t come back from someplace else.  It would start up again.”

“That would be cool.  Do you think Grandpa will start up again?  Pastor said he’d come back one day.”

“He did say that.”

Hank thought it best to let the conversation end there.  It was too philosophical for a football match and probably too philosophical for an eight-year-old boy.  It was getting too philosophical for Hank!  Besides, he missed his father painfully, especially at sporting events such as this.  Talking about him just made Hank sad.  He decided to end on a cryptic note.

“Grandpa is still here,” he said, pointing toward his heart and then at the boy’s.

“So is the wave,” replied Trey, grinning.


About the Author: 
Nathan Harter is a weekly columnist for the Greensburg (IN) Daily News, as well as a professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.