Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

Quantum mechanics is the theory that explains the invisible world that makes up the world of matter that we live in. Einstein was one of its fathers, though as the theories grew stranger, he came to doubt some of the implications of quantum mechanics.

One of the ones he had the most trouble with was coherence, the theory that many realities exist at the same time until one of them is chosen and the other realities collapse into the one. It’s the theory that is popularly known as Schrödinger’s cat. Schrödinger, who was another father of quantum mechanics, used the idea of a cat in a box to illustrate the absurd implications of coherence. In a thought experiment, he places a cat in a sealed box with a radioactive material, a Geiger counter, and an “infernal contraption” that releases a poison gas if an atom of radioactive material randomly decays. He said that until you open the box, you cannot know if the cat is alive or dead. In fact, he said, until you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

He didn’t really think that a cat could be both alive and dead at the same time, but quantum theory predicted that at the size of subatomic particles and maybe even in larger cases (millions of atoms), something could be in two different states or even two different places at the same time. A few days ago, a paper was published that is another proof that what Einstein couldn’t believe actually exists. Schrodinger’s cat lives, or is dead, whichever.

As most of us learned in junior high school, plants turn sunlight into energy through a process called photosynthesis. This experiment shows that one of the mechanisms that plants use to pull off this trick is quantum mechanics, and in particular, coherence. The scientists shone light on a plant’s photo receptor cells on the surface of the plant, then watched with a high speed laser as the light found its way deep into the plant where the light converting cells lie. They captured records of the light as it took all the possible paths from the surface to the cells inside the plant. Then they watched as the multiple paths collapsed instantaneously into the single shortest path.

For a brief moment, about a couple of billionths of a second, all the possibilities existed. Then there was only one. Strange indeed. But it seems likely, since this was not the first time this phenomenon was seen, that all plants can pull off this trick.

But what I find really strange is that a few physicists, including Roger Penrose, who is a giant in the field, believe that the same thing is going on in our brains, and that it may account for consciousness and maybe even free will.

Next time on Strange Science (I’m joking), quantum entanglement, a really strange (and true) phenomenon.


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Late last week the universe shuddered a bit, but didn’t collapse. Newton rolled over in his grave and Einstein was heard to mutter “Vat is das?”

But most of us ate breakfast, hugged the children, went to work. The sun didn’t quit shining; the bills tumbled through the letter slot.

In a time of deep pain and economic woe, the discovery that an invisible subatomic particle was clocked breaking the speed limit of light is little more than a distraction to most of us. In the physics world, if it is proven to be something other than a measurement error, it is a revolution.

Because nothing is supposed to beat the speed of light, according to the world’s most famous formula, the only one everyone knows, Einstein’s special relativity theory, which says E=MC2. But now if there is a crack in the formula, we may be able to peek through it into an even stranger universe than we already thought we had — one that is strange enough already.

After all, we have quantum entanglement, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” and dark matter that makes up 83 % of the universe, but we don’t know what it is. There appear to be entire galaxies being sucked toward some specific part of the sky like water gushing down a drain. Maybe our universe is emptying into another dimension. It’s a dangerous neighborhood to live in, but what other choices do we have?

The big reason that UFOs always seemed like a silly idea was that our nearest neighbor lived at least four years away from us and there was probably nobody home there anyway. Some scientists calculate that the likelihood of other intelligent life in the universe is 100%, which given the number of new planets astronomers have discovered in orbit around other stars, seems like a safe bet. But if there is a law against faster than light travel, we might as well be on separate islands in the ocean without a canoe. We can hail each other, but it might take a thousand years to get a reply.

If the little muon neutrino really is coasting along faster than light, the game has changed. Now we can imagine FTL communications — neutrino dots and dashes from another island in space. And the dream of my teenage science fiction fantasies — the faster than light drive, galactic empires, alien contact, the whole wonder-inspiring trip I took when I looked up at the night sky — is a little less far-fetched.

That’s a lot of hope to put into a little neutrino that weighs next to nothing and has so little strength that billions have zipped through your body while you were reading this, without your noticing. We’ll have a hard time harnessing neutrinos to a starship and taking off on the greatest adventure of all time. But if it can be done, if things with mass can break the light barrier, then someday, somehow, someone will do it. Then, of course, we will be the aliens.

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