It"s A Quantum Thing
Even those who have devoted their lives to the study of the universe and its atomic structure will admit that many mysteries remain.
Well, I love mysteries, so let's set the scene for this one...
There's a Big Bang.
"Whoosh!" go all the molecules.
Much swirling commences.
Fast forward 12 billion years (give or take a billion) to present day.
People all over the world watch sci-fi movies, read physics texts, attend harmonic convergence gatherings, study nanotechnology, and gaze at the stars.
Our questions: How did we get here? Who are we? Where is here? Why? What next? If you're expecting quantum theory to answer those questions, you're going to be disappointed.
However, it does give us some heady new ways to anticipate those answers.
Let's take a look at some terms.
Back in the fifth century BC, our Greek friend Democritus had the idea that all matter is ultimately made up of tiny grains that cannot be divided into smaller pieces.
He called these little pieces "atoms" for the Greek phrase "a-tomos" which means "uncuttable".
Poor Democritus didn't have the advantage of sophisticated microscopes, so it's not surprising that, centuries later, it was discovered that atoms are actually cuttable.
In fact, atoms are themselves made up of tiny particles we've dubbed neutrons, protons, electrons and neutrinos.
But it doesn't stop there.
Now we're thinking that leptons, along with quarks, are the tiniest of particles of all and currently considered the ultimate building blocks of nature.
Since we keep finding particles inside particles and adding new names to pieces of atoms, it's easier to refer to the smallest chunks into which something can be divided as quanta.
The German physicist Max Planck first proposed that energy might come in little pieces called quanta back in the early 1900s.
So when we talk about quantum theory, we're just referring to the whole set of ideas surrounding the microscopic world of atoms.
Along comes Albert Einstein, who recognizes that this whole idea of quantum physics turns classical physics on its head and spins it around.
Here all these scientists had developed theories and precise formulas for calculating predictably and consistently the ways in which bodies move.
Now there's this idea that little particles actually behave in ways we can't predict with certainty.
These tiny quanta are mysterious.
They respond sometimes as particles, and sometimes as waves, and we can't always tell which way they're going to go.
If a particle is traveling from point A to point B, we can guess its path, but the tinier the particle, the less sure we are that that exact path is the one taken.
In fact--hold on to your hat here--we've come to understand that not only do we not know the exact path, but that the particles may actually be in two places at once.
Think that's radical? Back in 1957, a Princeton graduate student named Hugh Everett proposed what is called the "Many Worlds" interpretation.
According to his dissertation, quantum theory (the variable behavior of atoms) is true not just for atoms but for everything--like tables, flower pots, SUVs, and even people.
Everett was actually stating that these big things could, like tiny pieces of atoms, be in many places at once.
It gets wilder.
Everett hypothesized that if you observe a sports utility vehicle (SUV) which is in two places at once, your mind will also end up in two states at once--one which perceives that SUV in one place, and another which perceives it in another place! So, really, there would be two versions of you and each one would perceive a world in which there is a different version of the SUV.
Not only that, but these two selves and these two SUVs don't exist in a vacuum.
They actually interact with each other! This whole concept of multiple realities was a big boon for science fiction writers.
The truth is that these ideas are generally considered plausible but not in relation to the large-scale world.
We don't have a way of manifesting alternate universes full of multiple SUVs (thankfully) so we can't really test it.
But there is one area of the Big World (that which we can see without microscopes) that will be completely revolutionized by quantum theory, and that's the development of quantum computers.
In quantum computers, experimenters are taking advantage of the ability of particles such as atoms to be in many places at once to do many calculations simultaneously.
Talk about high-speed connections.
Quantum computers could solve in seconds problems that would take conventional computers millions of years to decipher.
We're talking WAY beyond quickly downloading your email, obviously.
What does this mean for the world? What will these quantum computers do? The staggering truth is that a quantum computer will actually perform in different realities--it will be engaging huge numbers of versions of other computers in alternate universes.
Freaky, huh? But real, and coming soon--or at least, eventually.
Next time you find yourself daydreaming about how your life could be different, ramp it up a notch.
Think about quantum physics and the Many Worlds theory.
Consider that your life might already be different in some other reality! If it's possible that it exists exactly as you dream it, there's no reason you can't create it here.
And heck, you only have to do it in one universe.
Piece of cake! Make that multiple pieces.