Quantum Rocks

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My husband, John and I are hikers. Most weekends and holidays we get out on the trails. As members of the Bruce Trail Association we have hiked a good part of the 900 kilometre (560 mile) trail that wends it’s way through southern Ontario from Niagara to Tobermory.

 Over the years I have been plagued by bloody little rocks that get into my boots when we hike trails containing pebbles or sand. I call them rocks, only because they feel bigger than pebbles when they are inside my boots. Periodically, I have to stop and take off a boot to shake out the offensive little buggers. John gets them too, but to use more moderate language than I.
 What mystifies me is how they get in there. It’s not like our boots have holes in them. They are good quality hiking boots that fit snugly above the ankle. I asked some of the other association members if they had this problem and most people replied yes, although few saw it as a problem and generally considered it to be just a normal occurrence when hiking. Some also take delight in calling me a “tender foot” when I mention it.
 One day while sitting on a fallen tree to empty my boot it hit me. When I got up, I had sap on my shorts and in a fit of exasperation I exclaimed loudly “these dammed quantum rocks have ruined my clothes”. “What was that” said John. “These must be quantum rocks” I replied. “How else do these dammed things keep getting in my boots?” He got a good laugh from that even though he understands less about quantum physics than I do. When I insisted that it must be the explanation he said, “April, are you pulling my leg again?”
 Often I get strange looks from friends when I try to explain some of the weird aspects of the quantum world in which we live. Things like a particle that can go through two slits simultaneously or the “Uncertainty Principal”. Don’t get me started on “Quantum Entanglement” and non-locality. I got into a discussion of that once, at a party and it brought the house down but not in a humorous way. More of a party killing way.
 It doesn’t help that I was named April because my birthday is on April 1st. It’s hard to get people to take me seriously. What I often hear is “April is trying to fool us again, Ha Ha Ha.”
 I am not a physicist by any means but I have a long standing curiosity with regard to this universe in which we find ourselves. I am an avid reader of Scientific American. John and I have attended many of the public lectures presented by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Even John, the investment banker, whose view is that “Money makes the world go round”, says he is often surprised by the fact that some of this stuff makes sense.
 Getting back to sap on my shorts and quantum rocks, I spent the rest of that hike thinking about it. A well known quantum effect is tunnelling. That’s where a particle, say an electron, can get from one side of a barrier to the other even though it does not have sufficient energy to go over it. It is called tunnelling but it doesn’t really go through a tunnel to get to the other side. There is just a certain probability based on its wave function that it can find itself on the other side of a barrier from where it was before.
 In the case of my quantum rocks there must be a finite probability that a pebble under my boot can suddenly be inside my boot. Saying this usually gets good laugh because rocks are not electrons I am told. True, but where does the quantum world end and the familiar world of classical physics begin. Everyone has heard of Schrödinger’s cat. Although a cat that is both alive and dead at the same time is probably a stretch, still it serves as an example of how little we know about the interface between the quantum and classical worlds.
 One of the things I have noticed is that I tend to pick up more small pebbles than larger ones. The smaller ones would be on the order of 1.5 millimetres in diameter where larger ones could be 2 or 3 larger but are much less frequent. Also when I get home I find sand on my socks which were clean before.
Suppose that the probability of a pebble tunnelling inside my boot is extremely, low say 1 in 10 million. How many pebbles do I tread on during a single hike? The area under my 2 boots is approximately 300 square centimetres. My stride is only about 0.36 meters so for each kilometre I will take 2,777 steps (1000/0.36). My boots will have stepped on an area of about 833,100 square centimetres (2777 X 300) or 83.31 square metres. There could easily be 10 million pebbles in an area that large and most certainly many more grains of sand. That’s only about 12 pebbles per square centimetre (107 / 833,100). And this is only for 1 kilometre. We often hike 10 to 20 kilometres so multiply the chances by 10 or more.
 John is still not convinced. He usually has less of them than I do, but then his stride is 50% longer than mine so he takes fewer steps. Once he said it was because of the way I walk, but quickly covered himself by saying how he really enjoys watching the way I walk.
 Its fine to be a sceptic but it would be nice if someone would do a proper scientific study to find out. I would be happy to help. Maybe even find a way to keep those dammed quantum rocks out of my boots.
 April Foremost


About the Author: 
I was an embedded systems programmer for most of my career. Now retired, I live on the shore of Lake Huron with my wife and two cats.

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