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29 FEB 2016

Quantum physics for the terminally confused

With new papers on the baffling world of quantum mechanics
appearing all the time, we thought it would be helpful if our resident
physicist Cathal O'Connell provided a primer to some bewildering,
but vital concepts.








Does quantum physics melt your brain? First, dont panic. Youre not alone in your
confuddlement. As legendary physicist Richard Feynman said: I think I can safely say
that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

Nevertheless, quantum theory is vital for describing how our world is screwed together.

So weve broken down the ideas of quantum theory to the level where even a five-(or 55)
year-old can get the gist.

What is quantum theory?

After a few thousand years of argument we finally know what stuff is made of tiny
particles called electrons and quarks. These guys gang together in little families to make
atoms such as hydrogen or oxygen and molecules such as H2O.

Atoms and molecules are the Lego blocks of our world.

To describe the way this tiny world operates, scientists use a collection of ideas called
quantum theory.

The theory makes weird predictions (for example, that particles can be in two places at
once), yet it is also the most precisely validated theory in physics.

It underpins much of the technology around us, including the chip that makes your
smartphone so smart.

Its weird, its right, its important.




But what does 'quantum' actually mean?

Step into your kitchen with a jar of peanut butter in your hand. You could decide to put
the jar on the counter-top, or on one of the shelves above it. But you cant put the jar

between shelves that just doesnt make sense.

In physics-speak youd say the shelves of your kitchen are quantised. It just means they
come in levels.

In the quantum world, everything is split into levels. For example, an electron in an atom
can sit in one of a few set energy levels just like shelves in your kitchen. But the
quantum world is weird. Give an electron a kick of energy and it will jump instantly from
one level to another.

Thats called a quantum leap.

Heres another analogy. If you drove a quantum car, you might be able to travel at 5
km/h, 20 km/h or 80 km/h, but at no speed in between. Shift gears and youd suddenly
jump from 5 to 20 km/h. The change in speed would be instantaneous, so you wouldnt
even feel the acceleration.

Thats another quantum leap.

Quantum mechanics vs classical mechanics

The microscopic world plays by very different rules than the classical world were used

Classical is a physicists word for common sense when something behaves the way
you might expect it to from everyday experience.




A billiard ball is a classical object (it rolls along the table in a straightforward way) but a
single atom within it follows quantum laws (liable to disappear through the green felt at
any moment).

Somewhere between the scale of the atom and the billiard ball there is a crossover point
in the laws of physics a bit like a jurisdictional handover between state and federal

Stick enough atoms together and weird quantum effects fade away, the behaviour
becomes classical. This is called the correspondence principle.

Heisenbergs uncertainty principle

Some things in quantum physics are literally unknowable. For example, you can never
know both where the electron is and where its going.

The reason for this comes down to the smallness of the electron to find out where it is,
you need to detect it with something (for example a photon of light) but this probing,
however gentle, will knock the electron off its original course.

The electron tells you where it is, but forgets where it was going.

Particle/wave duality
Quantum objects (like photons and electrons) have split personalities sometimes they
behave like waves, and sometimes like particles. The way they behave depends on the
kinds of questions you ask them (see the two-slit experiment below).

A bit of maths that describes what a wave looks like.




Crucially, quantum wave-functions can have many possible solutions each with a
distinct probability of being true.

Amazingly, the different possible answers seem to interact with one another in a sort of
limbo of states called superposition as if conspiring together to give us the reality of
our universe (see "two-slits" below).

Superposition and Schrdingers cat

Imagine a cat in a box along with a vial of cyanide. There is a hammer held by a string
above the vial. The hammer is designed to fall when tripped by a random quantum event
(for example, the decay of an atom of uranium).

This is the thought experiment dreamed up by Erwin Schrdinger to try to convey the
idea of superposition.

The atomic decay follows quantum laws, and so its wave-function has two solutions:
decayed or not decayed.

According to quantum theory, until you make a measurement these two possibilities are
equally valid. In fact you can consider the atom as both decayed and not decayed at the
same time.

Because the cats fate is intimately connected to the atom of uranium, until you take a
peek, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

What is entanglement?
Entanglement is when two particles (for example photons) are intimately connected so
that measurement on one instantly affects the other, no matter how far away it is.




Its like when you were a kid and your uncle showed you a coloured ball in each hand,
then mixed them up behind his back. From your point of view, the two balls were
entangled if the red ball is in his left hand, it means the blue ball is in his right.

But the quantum situation is more mysterious because the balls dont have defined
colours, they are colour shifting at any instant they can turn out red or blue with equal
chance. Its totally random.

The weird thing is, looking at one ball kills the randomness (freezes the colour shifting)
not just for the one you look at, but for both.If you see a red ball, you know the colour of
the other is fixed as blue.

In this way, one entangled particle can seem to affect the other instantly, and no matter
how far apart they are. Albert Einstein felt this violated the cosmic speed limit (aka the
speed of light) imposed by his relativity theory, and so he gave entanglement the label
spooky action at a distance.

How does a physicist entangle photons?

There are a couple of techniques. One is to break a high-energy photon into two
daughter photons of lower energy. Like identical twins in a horror movie, the two
daughters possess a mystical connection between them.

Another way is to pass the two photons through a maze of mirrors so that you cannot
possibly know which direction each travelled. This unknowability creates

Two-slit experiment (an illustration of most of the above)

This is the most famous experiment in quantum mechanics, in which particles (usually




electrons or photons) are fired at two slits before being detected on a screen.

It is so famous because it demonstrates many of the weird phenomena mentioned above.

The experiment hinges on the different behaviour of waves vs particles for the same set

For example, you can set up a barrier with two slits in it in a pool of water and then dip
your finger in and out to generate waves. The ripples will pass through the two slits, and
interfere with on the other side, making a pattern.

But if you take the barrier out of the water and fire a bunch of marbles at the two slits,
they fly straight through in two direct lines, without making an interference pattern.

The weird thing is, electrons can behave like both.

If you fire electrons at the slits, even one at a time, they form an interference pattern on
the screen as if each electron passes through both slits at the same time, and interferes
with itself. This seems to tell us electrons are waves.

Because the electron is a quantum object, we cant know its location (Heisenberg

uncertainty principle). The electron has some chance of going through one slit, some
chance of going through the other because both are possible, it actually goes through
both (superposition of states).

Now, the observation is when the electron hits the detector, showing a bright flash
(wave-function collapse).




But say you try to trick the electron by putting a mechanism at the slits which tells you
which one the electron goes through. Suddenly the interference pattern disappears.

Because you know which slit the electron went through, it is no longer in a superposition
of states, and so only travels through one of the slits. The electrons wave-like behavior
evaporates, and it behaves just like a marble.

If your head is hurting, be consoled that physicists also struggle to explain this apparent

paradox (see interpretations


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Though as Feynman noted in his Lectures on Physics, the paradox is only a conflict
between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.

Interpretations of quantum mechanics

The Shut up and calculate school physicists only interested in the answers, and who
refuse to speculate about what is really going on.

The Many worlds interpretation those physicists who maintain that every quantum
measurement sparks the creation of an infinite number of parallel universes, one for
each possible solution to the wave-function. The solution it just happens to be the one
that appears in our Universe.

The Copenhagen interpretation reality does not exist until we measure it. The act of
observing causes the wave-function to collapse.

The De Broglie-Bohm or pilot-wave interpretation treats quantum objects just like

classical particles, but imagines them riding like a surfer on top of a so-called pilot wave.
The wave determines where the particle ends up.




Cathal O'Connell is a science writer based in Melbourne.