CBS News Logo Einstein’s unfinished dream: Marrying relativity to the quantum world

This November marks the centennial of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. This theory was the crowning achievement of Einstein's extraordinary scientific life. It taught us that space itself is malleable, bending and stretching under the influence of matter and energy. His ideas revolutionized humanity's vision of the universe and added such mind-blowing concepts as black holes and wormholes to our imagination. Einstein's theory of general relativity describes a broad range of phenomena, from nearly the moment of creation to the end of time, and even a journey spiraling from the deepest space down into a ravenous black hole, passing through the point of no return of the event horizon, down, down, down, to nearly the center, where the singularity lurks. Deep into a quantum world If you were reading that last paragraph carefully, you'll note that I used the word "nearly" twice. And that wasn't an accident. Einstein's theory has been brilliantly demonstrated at large size scales. It deftly explains the behavior of orbiting binary pulsars and the orbit of Mercury. It is a crucial component of the GPS system that helps many of us navigate in our cars every day. But the beginning of the universe and the region near the center of a black hole are very different worlds -- quantum worlds. The size scales involved in those environments are subatomic. And that's where the trouble starts. Einstein's heyday coincided with the birth of quantum mechanics, and the stories of his debates with physicist Niels Bohr over the theory's counterintuitive and probabilistic predictions are legendary. "God does not play dice with the universe," he is famously reported to have said. However, regardless of his disdain for the theory of quantum mechanics, Einstein was well aware of the need to understand the quantum realm. And, in his quest to understand and explain general relativity, he sought to understand how of gravity performed in his epic theory when it was applied to the Continue Reading

Quantum physics just solved one of space’s biggest mysteries

Tech & Science Planets Black Holes galaxies Quantum mechanics is concerned with the behavior of the tiniest of particles, and usually the mathematics behind it is relegated to this tiny realm. Now, a researcher from the California Institute of Technology has used a fundamental quantum physics equation to understand huge self-gravitating space disks. Konstantin Batygin, an assistant professor at Caltech, has discovered that the changing shapes of spinning disks of matter around massive astronomical objects like black holes can be described by the Schrödinger equation. The evolution of these disks has stumped astrophysicists for many years. Swarming matter An artist's impression of the research, published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. James Tuttle Keane/California Institute of Technology See all of the best photos of the week in these slideshows From the satellites that fly around Earth to the the planets that swarm around the sun, gravitational forces create huge rotating disks of matter throughout the universe. Over time, these flat circular disks can become warped and distorted, but astrophysicists don’t really know why. Batygin decided to use a mathematical scheme called perturbation theory to try and explain why these spinning disks lost their shape. The model, frequently used in astronomy, blended individual bits of matter traveling on particular orbital trajectories into wires. These concentric loops of matter slowly spread angular momentum between each other. "When we do this with all the material in a disk, we can get more and more meticulous, representing the disk as an ever-larger number of ever-thinner wires," Batygin said in a statement. These wires can mirror the real orbital evolution over millions of years, resulting in a fairly accurate approximation of the changing disk. Batygin’s mathematics, however, revealed an unexpected result. A fundamental quantum physics equation was Continue Reading

A legendary quantum material called skyrmion has shed light on mysterious of ball lightning

Tech & Science Quantum Physics Lightning Scientists have finally succeeded in producing a strange phenomenon they've been hunting for more than 50 years now. Called a Shankar skyrmion, it's a knot of matter looped together by twisted magnetic fields that, just like a giant tangle of yarn, often only gets tighter when you pull on a string. When the team of scientists created this weird structure in a quantum material, they realized it looked awfully familiar: Now they think its secrets might help explain a dramatically long-lived type of lightning. That's all according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances, which outlines the new discovery and its possible implications. An artist's conception of a skyrmion. Heikka Valja See all of the best photos of the week in these slideshows “The biggest moment was when we realized we got the same electromagnetic fields as predicted for ball lightning,” co-author Mikko Möttönen, a quantum computing researcher at Aalto University in Finland, told Gizmodo. “We didn’t aim for that. But wow.” Möttönen and his colleagues started with a Bose-Einstein condensate, an incredibly weird state of matter beyond the traditional solid, liquid and gas. To make a Bose-Einstein condensate, scientists take rubidium gas and cool it way down to just above absolute zero, but in such a way that it doesn't freeze solid like orderly ice. Instead, it becomes a wacky mess of particles all in the same quantum state. Read more: Watch Stephen Hawking Explain What He Thinks Came Before the Big Bang Then, the team applied a loopy magnetic field, which successfully knotted the quantum gas to produce the skyrmion in three dimensions. And by looking closely at the skyrmion, they were able to study its magnetic field—which they realized was exactly what happens in ball lightning. That's a strange form of lightning that forms knots of light Continue Reading

New Light Form Proves 3 Photons Can Interact, Could Help Quantum Computing

Photons, the constituent particles of light, normally have no mass and don’t interact with each other, passing each other by when put in each other’s paths. But an experiment by a team of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University has shown that photons can bind together in twos or threes, proof of interaction between them. Led by Vladan Vuletic from MIT and Mikhail Lukin from Harvard, the researchers conducted experiments with lasers and ultracold rubidium atoms. A weak laser beam was shone through a dense cloud of the ultracold atoms, and what emerged from the other side were photons bound in pairs or triplets — a completely new form of photonic matter. This interaction between photos was attraction, and the bound photons were also found to have acquired some mass (just a fraction of an electron’s mass). This new-found mass literally weighed down the photons, slowing them down from their usual speeds of 300,000 kilometers per second (the same as the speed of light) by about 100,000 times. “The interaction of individual photons has been a very long dream for decades,” Vuletic said in a statement Thursday, explaining that the attraction — or entanglement — of photons could herald a significant development for the future of quantum computing. “Photons can travel very fast over long distances, and people have been using light to transmit information, such as in optical fibers. If photons can influence one another, then if you can entangle these photons, and we’ve done that, you can use them to distribute quantum information in an interesting and useful way,” Vuletic said. Laser beam in a quantum entanglement experiment. Photo: Getty images Vuletic and Lukin have previously conducted experiments in which they observed photons binding in pairs, and the new experiments were designed to see if they could get more than two photons to interact at the same Continue Reading

Quantum speed limit may put brakes on quantum computers

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.) Sebastian Deffner, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (THE CONVERSATION) Over the past five decades, standard computer processors have gotten increasingly faster. In recent years, however, the limits to that technology have become clear: Chip components can only get so small, and be packed only so closely together, before they overlap or short-circuit. If companies are to continue building ever-faster computers, something will need to change. One key hope for the future of increasingly fast computing is my own field, quantum physics. Quantum computers are expected to be much faster than anything the information age has developed so far. But my recent research has revealed that quantum computers will have limits of their own – and has suggested ways to figure out what those limits are. The limits of understanding To physicists, we humans live in what is called the “classical” world. Most people just call it “the world,” and have come to understand physics intuitively: Throwing a ball sends it up and then back down in a predictable arc, for instance. Even in more complex situations, people tend to have an unconscious understanding of how things work. Most people largely grasp that a car works by burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine (or extracting stored electricity from a battery), to produce energy that is transferred through gears and axles to turn tires, which push against the road to move the car forward. Under the laws of classical physics, there are theoretical limits to these processes. But they are unrealistically high: For instance, we know that a car can never go faster than the speed of light. And no matter how much fuel is on the planet, or how much roadway or how strong the construction methods, no car will get close to going even 10 percent of the speed of light. People never Continue Reading

Physicists just upended quantum theory by tracking ‘secret’ particles, a feat considered impossible

Physicists have done the seemingly impossible: found a way to track mysterious quantum particles even when those particles aren’t being directly observed.In classical physics, an object occupies only one state of being at a time; something could be either alive or dead, for example, but not both simultaneously. But quantum physics, which seeks to explain how life works at the subatomic level, isn’t so intuitive. Quantum physics differs from classical physics in that under quantum theory, objects can exist as both waves and particles, occupying both states at the same time. They only exist as either one or the other after they’ve been measured, as a press release from the University of Cambridge explains.Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge have shown that the movements of those particles actually can be tracked without measuring them first—by observing the way the particles interact with their surrounding environments, according to the press release. A paper describing the work was published in the scientific journal Physical Review A. Keep up with this story and more Think of Schrödinger’s cat, the standard paradox for illustrating this particular aspect of quantum theory. A cat in a closed box that also contains a vial of poison could be thought of as either alive or dead, so long as we can’t see inside the box, as National Geographic has explained. To see that the cat is not occupying both states simultaneously, but either one or the other, we need to directly observe it by looking inside the box. In this case, the researchers have created a way to track the quantum object (the cat) to determine if it’s either a wave or a particle (either alive or dead) without directly observing it (peeking inside the box).“This premise [of Schrödinger’s cat], commonly referred to as the wave function, has been used more as a mathematical Continue Reading

How quantum physicists accidentally solved the most iconic Yahoo! Answers post of all time

A fundamental assumption we make about time is that it moves in only one direction—forward. We call this the “arrow of time.” In November, physicists revealed that it’s possible to reverse that arrow using quantum physics. But how did they do it?Let’s begin, as more stories ought to, with this iconic 2010 Yahoo! Answers post. Keep up with this story and more The idea that it's impossible to unbake a cake is a great example of how we view entropy as only able to move in one direction. You can mix those ingredients, no problem. But once you’ve done so, you can’t unmix them. The chaotic energy can only increase and move forward. Or so we believed.The physicists at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil demonstrated that a system can exist in which chaotic energy flows backwards. They showed a cold object heating up a hotter object, as PBS explained. It would be like the ingredients of the cake spontaneously separating and unbaking, a devastating blow to authors of many insistent comments on the Yahoo! Answers post. The physicists’ new system, as the MIT Technology Review reported, contains acetone, which is your standard nail polish remover, and chloroform. The chemical makeup of chloroform comprises one carbon atom, one hydrogen atom and three chlorine atoms—so, CHCl3.Physicists can manipulate the nuclear spins within that system using a technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance, according to the Technology Review. After aligning the nuclei within the carbon and hydrogen atoms with a strong magnetic field, and radio pulses flip one or both. This approach forces them to become entangled, which is quantum physics-speak for basically making them share the same existence. Then the physicists monitor the radio signals the nuclei emit to see how their quantum states evolve.Since the two nuclei are in what’s called “thermal contact,” the heat energy of each Continue Reading

Fusion breakthrough explained: What are quarks again?

December 11, 2017—“Quark fusion” may sound like “Star Trek” technobabble, but a recently confirmed particle could be the result of this process – an explosive reshuffling of some of nature’s smallest constituents. Q: What are quarks again?You’re looking at quarks right now. Magazines, screens, and air are made of atoms, and atoms are largely made of protons and neutrons – which are the most familiar examples of the three-quark bundles that physicists call baryons.Quarks come in six varieties: up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom. Up and down quarks form protons and neutrons, while the unstable and much heavier strange, charm, top, and bottom quarks tend to transform into lighter particles fractions of a second after being created.  Q: What is quark fusion?Fusion describes a general process in which particles recombine to form new particles, because the new particles need less energy to exist than the old ones did.According to a paper published online in Nature on Nov. 1, researchers have calculated the energy savings that would result if two charmed baryons (three-quark bundles including a charm quark) collided and shuffled their bits around to spit out a neutron (up-down-down) and a doubly charmed baryon (up-charm-charm). That energy output was unremarkable, but then the researchers considered what would happen if a similar fusion reaction took place between quark bundles featuring the much heavier bottom quark. “It was a shocker,” says coauthor Marek Karliner, a physicist at Tel Aviv University. The event would release about eight times as much energy as a nuclear fusion reaction.  Q: Does quark fusion really happen?Dr. Karliner’s calculation rests on an observation made in July by the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb) at the LHC, a powerful particle accelerator outside Geneva. The experiment confirmed the doubly charmed baryon’s existence and measured Continue Reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau schools reporter who tests politician’s knowledge of quantum computing

The Internet was abuzz with praise for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday after clips showing him schooling a reporter on quantum computing went viral. While political opponents learned a lesson about underestimating the photogenic Trudeau, 44, during last year’s surprise electoral upset, the unnamed reporter fell into the same trap during an event at a Canadian university on Friday when he jokingly tested the former teacher's knowledge. JUSTIN TRUDEAU'S YOGA PROWESS IS GOING VIRAL AGAIN Trudeau’s explanation on quantum computing generated cheers and applause from the room and set social media abuzz."I was like YEAHH I voted for this guy," said a Twitter user with the handle @smoakoverwatch. Canadian writer Anakana Schofield tweeted about the reporter's experience: "This is what teenagers call 'getting owned,'" using a colloquial expression for utter defeat. The exchange began when the reporter told Trudeau: “Morning, sir, I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing" but quickly added a question on when the prime minister expected Canada to resume its mission against Islamic State militants occupying parts of Iraq and Syria. Trudeau immediately shot back with an explanation on quantum computers, explaining how they do not operate on the principles of conventional physics and are more powerful than current mainstream computers. “I wish there were more like him,” said a Twitter user with the handle @tonticologo. Trudeau addressed Canada’s actions against the Islamic State militants directly afterward, although he did not announce any new measures. The son of a former prime minister, Trudeau led his center-left Liberals to a majority victory in last year’s election with a campaign that emphasized hope and optimism. His political opponents had attacked him as “just not ready” for the job, implying his best feature was his hair Continue Reading

Columbia University will ‘review’ weird antics of quantum mechanics prof Emlyn Hughes, who stripped onstage

Columbia University is investigating the antics of a nutty professor who stripped down to his skivvies and delivered a bizarre lesson in quantum mechanics, the institution confirmed Tuesday. Columbia Assistant Vice President Robert Hornsby said administrators “are currently reviewing” Prof. Emlyn Hughes’ off-the-wall behavior during class Monday. Students were bombarded with projected images of the collapsing Twin Towers and Nazi Germany as Hughes stripped down to his underwear and rap music played. The whole incident was caught on camera and later posted on the student website Bwog. During the five minute display, two people dressed as Ninjas blind-folded two stuffed animals and then impaled one with a sword. After, Hughes explained to the class that they would have to “strip raw” and “erase all the garbage” from their brains to properly learn quantum mechanics. “I thought that the 9/11 thing was a little offensive,” said freshman Andrew Stoughton, who said his dad worked in the World Trade Center but was late to work Sept. 11. “I try to take it with a grain of salt, like, okay, it's a personal tragedy for people but it's also a historical event that needs to be contextualized,” Stoughton said. “Walking that line is tricky and I think he misstepped.” On the other hand, Stoughton said, “I was definitely paying a lot more attention than I usually do.” Freshman Jared Greene agreed that the lecture kept him “awake,” but thought the class “might have been in poor taste.” That said, the frosh thinks it’s “misguided” for the prof to get “flak for trying to make a lecture more interesting.” Freshman Mariam Gulaid said she was just confused. “I wasn't thinking about it in an offensive or non-offensive way,” she said. “I was trying to figure out what was going on. “And Continue Reading