News Stories

Quantum Weirdness in Real Life

Scientists used to think that the ideas of quantum physics?for instance, that everything is in "superposition" (both everywhere and nowhere) until observed and that particles can be "entangled" and affect each other at great distances?applied only on the atomic level, but now they're using quantum weirdness to create incredible new inventions.

In Business Week, John Carey quotes physicist William D. Phillips as saying, "To common sense, quantum mechanics is nonsensical." But it's already been used to create lasers and MRI machines. Phillips is clumping together groups of atoms that are both "everywhere" and "nowhere" at the same time. He says, "Every atom is everywhere?that's what makes it so wonderful?It can do some amazing things."

Physicist John Preskill says, "Physicists relish the weirdness, but now we're starting to ask if we can put the weirdness to work." Quantum weirdness makes unbreakable codes possible and could enable us to transmit electricity over long distances with no loss of power.

One of the most important quantum inventions being worked on is a computer that can solve problems in 30 seconds that would take 10 billion years using today's supercomputers. "We have not yet begun to figure out what the applications are," says physicist Carl J. Williams. "But the risk is underestimating the impact."

Mark Peplow writes in nature.com that scientists have evidence that an atom and a photon (the smallest particle of light) can share the same information, an important step in creating a quantum computer, which would process information using atoms instead of transistors and circuit boards. This new discovery means that light can carry the atom's information from one place to another?at the speed of light!

Computers store information as a series of bits, which are switches that can be "on" or "off." In the cadmium atom, the tiny magnetic fields of the nucleus and an outer electron can either point in the same direction (on) or opposite directions (off). Once the atom is in one of these states it will stay that way for thousands of years, says researcher Chris Monroe. But in the quantum world, the cadmium atom can be both on and off at the same time, since it's in "superposition" and the atoms are "entangled." "Einstein called this 'spooky action at a distance,'" says Monroe. "It is as if there are hidden wires connecting the two. We do not know how they got there, but they are essential for quantum computing."

"The goal is the control of quantum matter," says physicist Immanuel Bloch. "It's a great challenge, but there are great rewards."

If you thought there were no more Indian Jones-type explorers in the world, you're wrong. They're here, they're on Dreamland, and they look for things like mysterious scrolls hidden in the desert and ancient cities sunk underwater in the Bahamas. And now they're on sale!

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