Archive February 2012

Quantum Physics #1 Roger Hanson Feb 16


Quantum Physics for Beginners # 1

Until the 20th century, the only physics humankind was aware of was that which involved energy and time. The science that successfully describes these processes is called thermodynamics. This is based on the very reasonable idea that any activity in this Universe requires energy to be expended and takes time to complete. Alas this isn’t true. At the beginning of the 20th century Einstein completely revised the traditional thinking on time. Time had always been thought of as universal, one time for all; however Einstein showed that your time is different from mine. Indeed your time depends on the speed you’ve been travelling, the acceleration you’ve been subjected to, and the gravitational field you’ve been living in. But Einstein’s theory of relativity is incomplete; it provides a mathematically useful geometric analysis of time and space but by-passes the fundamental science completely.

Until the 20th century we thought that thermodynamics and relativity described everything there was to know about the Universe, or perhaps more accurately, the fabric of the Universe. Max Planck in 1900 had fired the first warning shot that showed that all wasn’t so cosy when he discovered that light can absorb and admit radiation only in energy bundles (later called quanta) whose size was proportional to the frequency of radiation. It ranks as one of the greatest discoveries in science but Planck hated his idea. He was obsessed with thermodynamics (particularly the second law), his problem was that for his quanta to work they had to temporarily break the second law (for reasons to be explained in later posts). Photographs show a miserable Planck at the time — yes, really miserable. The discovery won him a Noble Prize in 1918 but that didn’t cheer him up, I guess you can’t please everyone.

The wonderful (I use the term advisedly) thing is that thermodynamics and relativity are not the underlying truth of the Universe; they are just special cases of a more fundamental physics. That physics is called quantum physics. Quantum physics does away with the pesky inconvenience of time and energy, indeed any particle that finds itself in the quantum world will be everywhere simultaneously. Don’t laugh — life, including you, couldn’t exist if for significant periods the sub-atomic particles that you are made of don’t temporarily appear everywhere in the Universe simultaneously. You don’t have to take my word for this, the great Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in 1965) spent a large chunk of his career demonstrating it.

Next article I’ll get down to specifics, and if you don’t agree with any of it or don’t understand it then please comment.

Science in New Zealand Roger Hanson Feb 02


Here’s the dream: New Zealand continues its superbly innovate and world beating work in the dairying industry and continues to star in Hollywood thanks to the amazing efforts of Weta Workshop and Peter Jackson. These two outstanding examples show that NZ can take on the world and win. But this is not enough; we need more world class companies, we need knowledge based companies. Forget trying to stitch clothes together in sweat factories or make low grade steel in coal and gas fired mills; we’ll never compete with Asia on that front. We need knowledge based companies powered by science-trained brains.

Professor Sir Paul Callaghan in his excellent series shown on Stratos TV last year, interviewed some captains of industry and presented thoughts of his own on what New Zealand needed to do to raise its game. For example, on almost any measure, an electronics factory beats the dairy industry heads down; cleaner and greener, smaller area required, bigger income per employee and so on. Australia gets its GNP largely from digging bits of it up and flogging it overseas, and good on them, but that for many reasons can be a long term curse. New Zealand is not in that position, at least not to the same extent, so we must in the future take the German, Korean and Japanese route. We must make money by adding value. Get this right and it sends you into financial orbit (Apple are currently sitting on a cash pile of US$100 billion and Samsung Q4 2011 profits are up 17% to US$3.5 billion).

Can New Zealand be the source of another Apple or Samsung? You bet it can. Ask any Kiwi 20 years ago if one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, James Cameron, director of Avatar would go out of his way to fly to Wellington to discuss future projects with a Wellington based visual effects company and you would be looked at as if you were insane. The Wellington film industry came from nowhere to world class player, so don’t say New Zealand can’t enter the global science based knowledge community.

As an almost evangelical fan of quantum physics, I can see an enormous scientific and technological juggernaut heading towards the human species with the words ‘Quantum Physics’ emblazoned on it.  Of course quantum physics based technologies exist today: lasers, flat screen TVs, medical scanners, are all based on quantum physics laws, however, marvellous as these devices are, this is at the level of tinkering compared with what must be possible. The real action is still to come. For example: understanding and exploiting the quantum aspects of living organisms; developing quantum computing and above all, evading time by engineering processes to do their stuff in the quantum universe not the thermodynamic universe. It ain’t going to be easy; to use the old cliché, if it was then someone would have already done it, but that can be said about any technology from car engines to GPS units.

I’ll finish with the thought that the Universe we are aware of, that is, the structures and activities we detect with our senses and with our instruments, is merely the front-stage. Being unable to detect something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. More than that, the  Universe itself has a limit to what it can detect. We know that limit precisely. Behind this world of detection is a hidden world, a world where quantum physics plays where the impossible is possible. Experiments allow us to glimpse at this. This is not science fiction. What goes on there makes anything existing electronics can do infantile in comparison. Lifting the quantum veil will reveal a whole new playground for science and technology.

The dream: the person who does this, the next Bill Gates, calls New Zealand home.

In future blog posts I’d like to clarify some quantum issues for the beginner and draw attention to what is possible.

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