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Thursday, April 12, 2012

As it is Above, So it is Below...

The "Quantum Machine"
The other day Mrs. Wolf and I were watching TV.  I had found a series of TED shows and was watching one about Aaron O'Connell who had constructed the first human-made object to demonstrate quantum behavior.

Quantum mechanics is a language describing what happens on an incredibly small scale - electrons, photons, sometimes atoms and molecules.  It was invented some hundred years ago to explain why, when hot metal cooled, the cooling was not "uniform" but instead dropped by "quanta."

Today the most famous and infamous aspect of quantum mechanics is the "two slit experiment."  I will leave it to Dr. Quantum to explain this:

At issue is not what actually happens, i.e., is something like an electron or photon actually two different things (a wave and particle) at one, but what we observe happening.  To date no one knows what actually happens at the quantum level, i.e., why we see what we see with the two slit experiment.

In the case of Aaron O'Connell he has created an object much larger than an atom or electron and has demonstrated that quantum effects can be induced and measured there, essentially a quantum "machine". (See this in Science Magazine - you have to register but its free save for spam).

He speaks in his talk about how, in his mind, he could not accept that something like an electron could behave as both a particle and wave at the same time and set out to show that conventional physics was wrong by building a device to show the effects larger than an atom.

Mrs. Wolf is very scientific - our home is always filled with a variety of biological, health, botanical and chemical wonders and experiments.   But she's not very comfortable with the physics thing though - particularly the one things is in two places at the same time aspects of quantum mechanics.

My interest in this particular program was not so much for the physics aspect, even though Aaron's achievement is remarkable, but for how it demonstrates the processes of breaking through the "standard dogma" of science.

Prior to Aaron's work quantum effects were only visible at the atomic scale.   They are not represented at the scale human beings operate at.

 Mrs. Wolf is not the first to find these behaviors so troubling either. 

A physicist name Erwin Schrödinger claimed that, if quantum mechanics were in fact true, then a quantum measuring device could be placed in a sealed box with a cat.  The measuring device would be connected to a vial of poison such that when a quantum effect occurred the vial would be broken and cat would die.  Since quantum effects can exist in more than one state, i.e., have occurred and not occurred, just like Aaron's vibrations in his metal detector, Schrödinger argued that the cat would have to exist in the box as both dead and alive.

To me what's fascinating is where work like Aaron's will lead because no one knows and he's found a way to "break out" of the classic (no pun intended) modes of thinking about quantum mechanics.  How large a quantum machine can one build?  What aspects of us are quantum, if any?  And so on...

Quantum physics today is a hundred years old and much of the new physics work revolves around other things like "string theory" today. 

Aaron's work will I think offer new avenues of exploration in both "real" and quantum world.

At another level there is an old saying: "As it is above it is below."

What this means is that in many ways things at a larger level mimic that at a smaller level, and vice versa. 

For example, if you have ever watched a fast-flowing river passing over exposed rocks you'll see what's called an "eddy."  This is the place downstream of the rock were the water actually flows back upstream.  What happens is the fast moving water is split by the rock and, where the water splits, there is a "hole".  Water must flow back upstream to fill it.

Now imagine yourself visiting a large auditorium where thousands of people are flowing in through many doors.  But one set of doors is "out of order and locked."  Like the river the "fast moving crowd" flows in through the open doors.  But those, having entered the building, who need to adjust their coats or fiddle with a small child often move over to the space behind the locked doors because the crowd is not flowing there. 

Just like the molecules of water in the river the "particles" of crowd - humans - behave in the same way.

I think this applies to quantum mechanics and our lives as well - we just don't yet understand how.

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