Arguments and Entanglements

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The conversational hum in the Faculty Club dining room dimmed as visiting professor Jessica Banning walked to an unoccupied table. A black wrap dress accentuated the graceful rhythm of long strides and displayed an exceptional figure. Charles King’s eyes darted back to his soup, and his face clouded over.
His table companion stared. “Her appeal is obvious. So what’s the problem?”
“I was talking with her after her last seminar. She was so argumentative, so dogmatic. I have the impression she thinks people who believe in the Standard Model are poor physicists.”
“C’mon, Charles. Just because you disagree on quantum theory doesn’t mean you can’t connect. Look at Carville and Matalin. You’ve been divorced a year. Get back in the game.” He downed the last of his wine. “Got to go.”
King sat several minutes, rehearsing, then took his wine and approached Banning’s table. She extended her hand.
“Dr. King. Won’t you join me?”
“Please, it’s Charles.” As he pulled up a chair it screeched, and wine sloshed from his glass, making a Rorschach stain on the table cloth. “I’ve been enjoying your seminars.”
“Really? From our discussion after the last one I would have thought they made you uncomfortable.”
“Well…I do think the ontic structural realism theory has problems.” He opted for honesty while masking the strength of his disagreement.
Jessica leaned forward. Her green eyes flashed. “And what, exactly, would those be?”
“First of all...” He froze for a moment, unsure how to proceed. “Dr. Banning, I didn’t come over to argue. I wanted to—want to—ask you to dinner.” He was astonished that he was so direct and now far ahead of his plan.
“Please call me Jessica.” She took a sip of coffee. “We could argue at dinner, I suppose.”
“We could. But it is possible to talk about more than quarks and leptons.”
Jessica smiled. “Of course. But I do want to know what you think. Why not have it out now?”
As he had feared: engaging smile, but combative attitude. “Tell you what, Jessica. You agree to dinner and I’ll agree to a discussion…at dinner. I’ll give you a quick preview now, but have to leave soon for a meeting.”
She studied his face, looking for—she didn’t know what. Why am I always so thorny in these situations? Do I want to start dating again or not? I do like his pluck. She finally said, “OK, deal.” There was silence as she took a sip of coffee, then she said, “The electron has a probability of being anywhere, but I believe it is now in your court, Charles.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. OK. Jessica, I try to be open to new theories. It’s just that the ontic idea—all that exists is relations between things, not the things themselves—seems counterintuitive in the extreme. Sure, quantum theories have plenty of difficult pills to swallow: entanglement, particle-filled vacuums, a lot of stuff. But how can a rational person step away from the existence, the real existence, of objects, be they bosons or…bicycles?” He felt embarrassed by the pretentious alliteration, and regretted the harshness of his rhetorical question, but soldiered on. “No objects? Only relationships? I mean, where does ontic take us in understanding the universe? How do we think of the DNA molecule, or solar wind, or colliding galaxies? There’s such a gap between your view and the reality scientists deal with every day!” Damn, don’t make it so personal.
His iPhone beeped. “It’s later than I thought.” His chair screeched again. He winced. “So Jessica, I’ll e-mail you about dinner.”
Returning to the hotel, she felt the familiar anxiety creeping in. It’s a bad idea. I’m not ready. Oh? Then why are you wearing this dress? As she entered her room and turned on the laptop, she admonished herself to keep her shields down and present a softer target.
They dined at Star’s. Before the appetizer was finished they were in a contentious discussion of quantum physics that didn’t end until Charles finally said, “This is a little intense, isn’t it? How about this for a segue to something calmer: I know a lot about what you think, but not much else about you. What led you to become a physicist?”
Jessica’s shoulders and face relaxed for the first time. “My grandfather taught at Florida State when Paul Dirac was there. His stories about that strange genius fascinated me. I think that’s what got me interested.”
Charles pointed his finger at the table. “And here you are. No colleagues as strange as Dirac, but plenty of strange theories, right?”
“And I latched onto one of the strangest. But I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not a true believer. I take what sounds like a rigid position on ontic theory because when I get a strong reaction, like yours, it helps me clarify my thinking. I’m actually somewhat agnostic about a lot of quantum stuff. How about you? What got you started? I can tell you love physics.”
“I do. And I have a secret of my own. Well, not much of a secret. I love to dance.” He waited for her comment, but none came. Push on, he told himself. “Jessica, I know a great salsa club. If you don’t know salsa, they start with lessons. How about it? Just think of yourself as a delocalized electron. Get a little wild.”
Jessica stared at what was left of her dessert. Shields down, she told herself. “I don’t know how, but…OK, what the heck. If Feynman can play the bongos I guess I can learn salsa dancing.”
As they got up to leave, Charles’ chair screeched, but he didn’t notice.

About the Author: 
During my career as a chemist I had diverse writing experiences: In marketing I wrote brochures and technical manuals. In engineering I wrote papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I now write essays, poems and short stories from my home in Sonoma, California.

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Quantum Theories

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 ... Universe

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

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!

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!

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.