The Puzzle Of Quantum Reality

Science Facebook Twitter Flipboard Email Enlarge this image Pasieka/Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF Pasieka/Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF There's a hole at the heart of quantum physics. It's a deep hole. Yet it's not a hole that prevents the theory from working. Quantum physics is, by any measure, astonishingly successful. It's the theory that underpins nearly all of modern technology, from the silicon chips buried in your phone to the LEDs in its screen, from the nuclear hearts of the most distant space probes to the lasers in the supermarket checkout scanner. It explains why the sun shines and how your eyes can see. Quantum physics works. Yet the hole remains: Despite the wild success of the theory, we don't really understand what it says about the world around us. The mathematics of the theory makes incredibly accurate predictions about the outcomes of experiments and natural phenomena. In order to do that so well, the theory must have captured some essential and profound truth about the nature of the world around us. Yet there's a great deal of disagreement over what the theory says about reality — or even whether it says anything at all about it. Even the simplest possible things become difficult to decipher in quantum physics. Say you want to describe the position of a single tiny object — the location of just one electron, the simplest subatomic particle we know of. There are three dimensions, so you might expect that you need three numbers to describe the electron's location. This is certainly true in everyday life: If you want to know where I am, you need to know my latitude, my longitude, and how high above the ground I am. But in quantum physics, it turns out three numbers isn't enough. Instead, you need an infinity of numbers, scattered across all of space, just to describe the position of a single electron. This infinite collection of numbers is called a "wave function," because these numbers Continue Reading

‘The Dialogues’ Takes On Physics And Reality In Words And Pictures

Culture Facebook Twitter Flipboard Email Enlarge this image An image from Clifford Johnson's The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson hide caption toggle caption Courtesy of Clifford Johnson An image from Clifford Johnson's The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe. Courtesy of Clifford Johnson The origin of the universe, the nature of space, the reality of time: These are ancient questions. Libraries across the world are filled with heavy books that are, themselves, heavy with equations on these issues. But how many graphic novels are exploring these questions? More importantly, how many graphic novels written and drawn by expert theoretical physicists are there? Well, happily for us all, the answer to the latter question is "at least one," thanks to University of Southern California physicist Clifford Johnson. Johnson's new book The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe is a penetrating exploration of questions — that are both ancient and modern — about the nature of the universe. I found The Dialogues to be compelling, and the use of the graphic novel format only deepened that impression. After finishing the book I wanted to understand more about how this project took shape. Clifford Johnson was kind enough to answer my questions, included below, over a series of emails. Why did you decide to use this format? Once I decided that it was important to me to present ideas in the form of an accessible series of conversations, I realized a bit later that it would be really great to see who was having the conversations: ordinary people of all kinds. Then, I thought it would be valuable to see where the conversations were taking place — out there in the world, in cafes, on the street, etc. So visually, I get to drive home the idea that science is in the mouths of everyday people, and out there in the world, as opposed to Continue Reading

CBS News Logo 2-decade-old bright idea scores Nobel in physics

Last Updated Oct 7, 2014 12:45 PM EDT STOCKHOLM -- Two Japanese scientists and a Japanese-born American won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for inventing blue light-emitting diodes, a breakthrough that has spurred the development of LED technology to light up homes, computer screens and smartphones worldwide.The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says the invention is just 20 years old, "but it has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all."Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and naturalized U.S. citizen Shuji Nakamura revolutionized lighting technology when they came up with a long-elusive component of the white LED lights that in countless applications today have replaced less efficient incandescent and fluorescent lights."They succeeded where everyone else had failed," the Nobel committee said. "Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps."Red and green light-emitting diodes have been around since the mid-20th century and have been used in applications such as watches and calculators. But scientists had struggled for decades to produce the shorter-wavelength blue LED needed in combination with the others to produce white light when the three laureates made their breakthroughs in the early 1990s.Their work enabled LED lights - more efficient and long-lasting than previous light sources - to be used in a range of applications, including street lights, televisions and computers. It can even disinfect surfaces and light up green houses."It is very satisfying to see that my dream of LED lighting has become a reality," Nakamura, 60, said in a statement released by the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor."I hope that energy-efficient LED light bulbs will help reduce energy use and lower the cost of lighting worldwide," he said.Akasaki, an 85-year-old professor at Meijo University and Nagoya University, said in a nationally-televised news Continue Reading

CBS News Logo 3 share Nobel Prize in physics for discoveries on strange states of matter

STOCKHOLM  Three British-born scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for discoveries about strange states of matter that could result in improved materials for electronics or quantum computers. David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, who are now affiliated with universities in the United States, were honored for breakthroughs they made in the 1970s and ‘80s. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their work opened the door to a previously unknown world where matter can assume unusual states or phases. “Their discoveries have brought about breakthroughs in the theoretical understanding of matter’s mysteries and created new perspectives on the development of innovative materials,” the academy said. The 8 million kronor ($930,000) award was divided with one half going to Thouless and the other to Haldane and Kosterlitz for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties of objects. The judges said that there is now hope that “topological materials will be useful for new generations of electronics and superconductors or in future quantum computers.” Nobel judges often award discoveries made decades ago to make sure they withstand the test of time. Thouless, 82, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Haldane, 65, is a physics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. Kosterlitz, 73, is a physics professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and currently a visiting lecturer at Aalto University in Helsinki. Speaking by a phone link to a news conference in Stockholm, Haldane said he was “very surprised and very gratified” by the award, adding the laureates stumbled onto the discoveries. “Most of the big discoveries are really that way,” he said. “At least in theoretical things, you never set out to discover Continue Reading

How Stephen Hawking transformed our understanding of black holes

An artist’s illustration of a supermassive black hole ever discovered.  (Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science) There's a lot we still don't know about black holes, but these light-gobbling behemoths would be even more mysterious if Stephen Hawking hadn't plumbed their inky depths. For starters, the famed cosmologist, who died yesterday (March 14) at the age of 76, helped give more solid mathematical backing to the concept of black holes, the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein's 1915 theory of general relativity. "Hawking actually proved some rigorous mathematical theorems about Einstein's equations for gravity that showed that, under quite general circumstances, there were places where the equations broke down — what are called singularities," said Tom Banks, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey. "And, in particular, the region inside of a black hole is such a singularity." [Stephen Hawking: A Physics Icon Remembered in Photos]  But it was Hawking's investigation of black holes' nature that would prove revolutionary. Initially, his work suggested that a black hole could never get smaller — specifically, that the surface area of its spherical event horizon, the point beyond which nothing can escape, could never decrease. More From Stephen Hawking Stephen Hawking: A Physics Icon Remembered in Photos Hawking radiation Stephen Hawking's Most Far-Out Ideas About Black Holes Similarly, the second law of thermodynamics holds that the "entropy," or disorder, of a closed system can never go down. And, in the early 1970s, physicist Jacob Bekenstein explicitly connected the concepts, proposing that a black hole's entropy is linked to the area of its event horizon. Hawking was originally skeptical of this idea, Banks said. After all, entropy and black holes didn't seem to go Continue Reading

Stephen Hawking, who brought physics to the masses and battled ALS for decades, dies at age 76

Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant mind ranged across time and space though his body was paralyzed by disease, died early Wednesday, a University of Cambridge spokesman said. He was 76 years old.Hawking died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, England.The best-known theoretical physicist of his time, Hawking wrote so lucidly of the mysteries of space, time and black holes that his book, “A Brief History of Time,” became an international best seller, making him one of science's biggest celebrities since Albert Einstein.“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” his children Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, `It would not be much of a universe if it wasn't home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”Even though his body was attacked by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, when Hawking was 21, he stunned doctors by living with the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years. A severe attack of pneumonia in 1985 left him breathing through a tube, forcing him to communicate through an electronic voice synthesizer that gave him his distinctive robotic monotone.But he continued his scientific work, appeared on television and married for a second time.As one of Isaac Newton's successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a “unified theory.”Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects like planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest — he said finding a “theory of everything” would allow 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

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

Quantum Computing: Graphene-Based Device Theoretically Proves Existence Of Non-Abelian Anyons

Researchers from University of California, Santa Barbara, have developed a device that could prove the existence of non-Abelian anyons. These 2-dimensional quantum particles were theorized and mathematically predicted to exist but have not been synthesized till now. A study published in the journal Nature has taken the first steps toward finding conclusive evidence of the existence of non-Abelian anyons. The researchers used graphene, an atomically thin material derived from graphite, to develop “an extremely low-defect, highly tunable device in which non-Abelian anyons should be much more accessible,” said a news release published on the university website. These anyons are a type of quasiparticle that occur only in two-dimensional systems, with properties much less restricted than those of fermions and bosons. Here, when the system undergoes degeneration by exchanging two identical particles, there will be a change in state but the particles themselves will retain the same configuration. Anyons are generally classified as abelian or non-Abelian. Abelian anyons have been detected and play a major role in the fractional quantum Hall effect. Non-Abelian anyons have not been definitively detected, although this is an active area of research. In a 3D world, elementary particles can either be fermions or bosons. "The difference between these two types of 'quantum statistics' is fundamental to how matter behaves," physicist Andrea Young, author of the study said. Several fermions cannot remain in the same quantum state. This allows us to push electrons (fermion) around in semiconductors given its unique properties and also helps prevent neutron stars from collapsing, Young added. But bosons can occupy the same state and this property gives rise to pre-existing principles in physics known as the Bose-Einstein condensation and superconductivity. According to the team, if a few fermions (protons, neutrons and electrons in atoms) are Continue Reading

Physicists just accidentally discovered a whole new kind of quantum material

Physicists have discovered the existence of an entirely new kind of quantum material, more or less on accident. The breakthrough could lead to the creation of a semimetal with the potential to revolutionize energy transmission technology.Researchers from the Rice Center for Quantum Materials in Houston, Texas, and the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, recently created a theoretical model they hoped would help them better understand high-temperature superconductivity, according to a Rice University press release. To their surprise, the model revealed the potential to create a never-before-seen semimetal in an completely separate branch of physics: topological quantum materials. The research was described in a new paper published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Keep up with this story and more Corresponding author Qimiao Si, a theoretical physicist at Rice University, explained to Newsweek that what they stumbled upon was a new theoretical model in which electrons suddenly acted as if they didn't have any mass.“In other words, the electrons move like they were photons," Si told Newsweek over email. "A group of such electrons move like a ray of light does.”Massless electrons are indicative of the elusive particles known as “Weyl fermions,” which though theorized nearly a century ago have never before been observed. Si and his colleagues demonstrated that Weyl fermions result from strong, mutual interactions between the material’s electrons, and believe their work could help experimental physicists create a solid-state material whose electrons have zero mass, which they’ve coined as a “Weyl-Kondo semimetal.”At extremely low temperatures, beyond the reach of the thermal energy forces that would otherwise dictate their behavior, the electrons begin to act “quirky,” Si explained to Newsweek. “Quirky” Continue Reading