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Quantum Christmas gift list: A reality check - spooky physics, exploding cats and punching twins in the face

by Jon Connell

December 22, 2012

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Donate The strange world of quantum physics is well understood - well almost. Engineers design our appliances using quantum physics every day. That quantum physics makes your cell phone work is not disputed (engineers could not design working transistors without quantum physics). But Albert Einstein just hated quantum physics — what he called "spooky action at a distance". Mainly Albert hated that quantum physics required apparently faster than light travel of information, but actually I think really it was the way that it went against everyday rational experience that got to him. Apparently impossible things happen all the time under quantum physics' rules. Einstein was a realist. He disliked it so much simply because quantum physics conflicts with all we know to be real.  ...Multiple realities, action at a distance and the seemingly impossible implication of the Schrdinger's cat experiment are all permitted and even required to happen.

There is a fundamental conflict for the realist here -  if  the weird demonstrably makes the small things in your cell phone work and the world is in turn made up of a very large number of the very small things in your cell phone (I mean atoms) then perhaps the weird is pervasive and just perhaps the world is thoroughly weird too. ...however if the world really is as weird as quantum physics tells us it is then why don't we notice a few impossible things happen once in a while? Generally called nonlocality these spooky effects on the small scale are used to good effect in everyday electronics — they are indisputably real. At the extreme end quantum physics can imply something as philosophically nuts as your coffee cup really not being there until you look at it — ditto that anything you can't physically see or feel moment to moment.

Acid trips or acid test

So, avoiding acceptance of anything completely nuts there appears to be two levels of reality — one we know and understand and another which we can't see, which is totally strange but that we know is there because we use it regularly. Truth be told we know that nothing would be here at all were it not for that invisible layer of quantum strangeness all around us. So the fundamental philosophical question becomes "can these same whacky quantum effects really be experienced by us humans?" If we could do so a true birds-eye view of reality could then look more like an acid trip with multiple copies of ourselves all multiplying and spinning away into infinity. We know that what we experience each day is real, we also know that weird quantum effects are real. So then the real question becomes' what is real anyway?

Strange but true

An effect known as quantum entanglement is a perfect example of strangeness. Consider two identical twins, one living in London and the other in New York. Simply put, entanglement would be analogous to punching the London twin in the face and the New York twin spontaneously getting a nose-bleed. We know this to be impossible of course, but we actually can make atoms do it on a small scale in the lab right now. Impossible yes, yet according to quantum physics it happens all the time at the atomic level.  And we are made from atoms after all. ...Matter of fact both your cell phone and your brain are probably performing unlikely quantum tricks right now and we certainly do use this same entanglement principal to make a bunch of cool new technology widgets work.

Never mind

So, if on the large scale we are made up of large numbers of these same atoms that can do quantum conjuring tricks,  the argument goes just maybe there is some quantum weird going on all around us. Science steps stage left and shares the stage with metaphysics and at that point reads on imponderables like "if a tree falls in a forest" and the possibility of unperceived existence. Man has debated the nature of reality for thousands of years of course and many philosophies would claim that an atom is no more real than a cat — they all exist only in our minds. The big difference in the debate today is that we now have two quantifiable but contradictory conditions: 1) the world we can experience and 2) the quantum world that we can experience only through measurement.  We can show that the latter creates the former - the world that we see around us. The big difference today is that the two realms of experience deliver completely different results about what real really is moment to moment. So then this is real stuff, but for some reason we are not apparently aware of it moment to moment in our lives. As rational people seeing is believing, yet as rational people we must also believe the results of our engineers and scientists. There is a fundamental question at play here — and it's a doozey.

Getting real

Today's view on "real" is that, despite what you are told, size really is important. It turns out that there seems to be a cutoff point where the weird, whacky, and spooky quantum stuff all stops and what we experience as reality kicks in or at least predominates. What you and I consider reality is what physicists call an "emergent" reality. Emergent meaning our real is what we experience fractions of moments after the spooky stuff stops. Scientists refer to that change as decoherence, the process of the whacky and the random quantum state collapsing into everyday normalcy that we experience.

The Tommyknockers?

Like a Steven King story, quantum weirdness resolves itself into everyday normality an infinite number of times per second. A roiling atomic soup of random future possibility collapsing into the thing that we call reality and doing so one moment at a time.  Some even believe that during collapse every possible thing that can happen each moment really does happen -  that we split off into an infinite number of copies of ourselves in an infinite number of universes an infinite number of times per second. Incidentally that is known as the Many Worlds Hypothesis and is a perfectly respectable explanation of quantum probability. Albert Einstein quote: "it is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware. He was talking about the same thing. Cool, but happily not just talk. Scientists are busy working on finding out how that really happens.

Today scientists can actually make just a few atoms perform these whacky quantum tricks while we watch in the lab. But there's a big problem. Take too many atoms or look at them just a moment too long and the weird spontaneously resolves itself to the less weird of the everyday world.  Collapse. The quantum state is really, really sensitive. Any noise, heat, light — in fact anyone seeing them or hearing the thing under test destroys the experiment.

Size matters

If you studied chemistry at high school you may remember something called Avogadro's number (Definition = a word that you can't remember). It just so happens that Mr. Avogadro's number is about the maximum number of atoms you can put together in a weird state in the lab before for some yet unknown reason bam! - the weird stops happening, the experiment collapses and reality kicks in. (...Or at least so far that's around the limit we can get to play ball in the lab). Today nobody knows if that number of atoms is a hard wall of "real" that we can't ever get beyond, or if the number simply arises from random things accidentally lifting the lid of Schrdinger's box and ending the experiments. Some say there is an unknown physical principal that we don't understand yet in effect that prevents us ever experiencing quantum effects on the large scale. Nobody knows for sure. This is the point where physics meets philosophy head-on today — and within the science are huge questions. Definitely an exciting time to be into science.


If you could get that blob of quantum experimental soup in the lab to be much, much bigger — big enough to experience as say two quantum entangled cats — then you would have one weird pair of cats on your hands. As entangled, one cat would have to mimic every action of the other cat. But bizarrely they would both be breaking a few causality rules while you watched — both having to copy each other...with no leader between the two. One floating impossibly around your room and passing though walls as the other played and both seemingly able to vanish at will.

If Steven Hawking owned those cat twins he would probably want to throw one of the pair into a black hole and watch what the remaining one did — he's like that.  Steven says the remaining one would probably turn increasingly blue over a few hours for various reasons. Some say eventually turning infinitely blue as the other twin drops further into the black hole — something which is one of the biggest questions in physics today incidentally - blue cat twins and how one can't ever be infinitely blue. On the same subject others say both cats would spontaneously vanish in a causality-violation avoiding puff of furry particles. Others still say that they were both holograms the entire time and aren't really there at all unless you stand outside of our reality and watch them. The work at the LHC at CERN is trying to figure that out. That whole God Particle thing. Coincidentally as I write today there seem to be some big holes in the search for the Higgs Boson over at CERN, so we can likely expect some new theories on blue kitties to emerge in the very near future as a result.

Everything's OK — probably...

So the weird quantum state collapses into a reality we can understand. In fact that collapse, that is the decoherence of the quantum state into reality accidentally or by some yet unknown rule is the main reason that humans can't be in two places at the same time or walk through walls. We have too many atoms and take too long doing it to stop our quantum state collapsing for very long.  We are sensitive — or at least our atoms are. That being said this is just a huge branch of research today, scientists pushing the limit of the weird up into realms of scale that humans can experience.

The quantity of atoms that we can actually observe perform these spooky tricks and in effect the limit of the weird-size cutoff point keeps growing larger in laboratories. My own feeling is that by sheer weight of research someone clever will work how to see these quantum effects on the very, very large scale sooner or later — a life size Schrdinger's cat in your living room someday. Entanglement is an important area of research for military encryption and in the next generation of computers. Sooner or later it is probably coming to your home and I suspect shortly after it arrives in your computers it will first do so as a party trick. Think the Rubic's cube of 2025.

Santa better get a bigger sack

In the meantime if you want to you can observe some quantum weirdness for yourself right now using the link below. Of course, in reality (if you will excuse the phrase) you are doing weird quantum tricks all the time yourself, but  now you can prove for yourself that the world is weirder than you realize and do so in your own home for a mere $28,000. A desk top large-scale quantum entanglement demonstration, called a Quantum Eraser (don't you love scientists?) It really works, although what it all means nobody really knows yet of course. The proof of the Xmas pudding is deadly serious and available for the holidays. ...Mom?

by Jon Connell

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