Backstory: A Future with Fortran

A Q&A with Lily Turaski, winner of the People's Choice prize
 
 
 
Congratulations on winning the People's Choice prize. How do you feel about receiving awards in your second Quantum Shorts competition running?
 
It is fun to write for the Quantum Shorts competition, so I enjoy creating my submissions regardless of the contest’s result. That being said, I am both ecstatic and honored to have received the People’s Choice award for both 2015 and 2017. I definitely squealed and jumped when I first heard the news. And I am thankful for the support of everyone who voted for me!
 
Where did you get the idea for 'A future with Fortran'?
 
Like all good stories, ‘A Future with Fortran’ starts from a kernel of truth. Granny is based on my real-life Nana, who is my kindred spirit (and one of my biggest supporters). Nana and I ride horses together, and she taught me how to play the piano and drive a tractor. She met her current sweetie using online dating, and within our family his official nickname really is “Fortran Man.” Nana also worked at a national lab, where as far as I know she did NOT invent time travel (although come to think of it, I only know vague details about the projects she worked on… hmm). With this as my story’s basis, the rest of the essay flowed naturally.
 
Have you learned Fortran programming (and if so, why)?
 
I have not personally used Fortran programming, but in high school I took a course in Python, and I am currently taking a course in Matlab. My Matlab professor teaches computer science in a very hands-on way, which makes it one of my favorite classes. He explained the concept of loops by having students juggle tennis balls, and he taught indexing of cell arrays using balloons and chocolate bars (I was one of the lucky volunteers that day!). One of my friends at Georgia Tech predicts that Fortran is about to have a comeback as a powerful programming tool!
 
What kind of research did you do to inform your writing?
 
I took a physics class last semester, and, around the time I wrote my essay, we used Maxwell’s equations to calculate the speed of light and discussed the implications of a limiting speed on the universe. I also knew about tachyons from studying particle physics in preparation for the science bowl competition in high school.
 
In your entry in 2015, you wrote about college acceptance letters. Now you're at Georgia Tech. What made you choose this school and Materials Science Engineering?
 
Materials Science Engineering (MSE) combines my loves of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Georgia Tech has a fantastic program for MSE, providing many MSE-specific opportunities for undergraduates, such as research scholarships, mentoring from industry professionals, and the student-run Materials Innovation Learning Laboratory (where I lead tours for the outreach team). My decision was also influenced by receiving the Stamps President’s Scholarship to attend Georgia Tech, which completely covers the cost of attendance, as well as providing me with a community of other scholars from whom I can learn and grow. I am thankful for the opportunity provided by this scholarship, and I am so happy I came to Georgia Tech.
 
What do you hope to do in the future?
 
In the future, I would like to attend graduate school in MSE and pursue a career either in a research lab (such as Oak Ridge National Lab) or as a research professor. I am especially interested in the development of new materials for solar cells to make them more efficient and economical. Because most sustainable energy technologies have low operating efficiencies, successful implementation of green energy is a very important issue facing our world today. I have already gotten a head start toward my goal- I was selected for the 2018 MSE Research Scholars Program, through which I am studying 3D solar cells with Dr. Jud Ready at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. I am excited to participate in this program!
 
Do you have other writing or science projects you'd like to tell us about?
 
I just submitted some poetry with mathematical flair (fingers crossed that it is accepted for publication). Writing poetry is like crossing into another dimension after writing essays!
 
Have you read any science-inspired books recently that you would recommend to others? What did you like about them?
 
I am currently reading the Three Body trilogy by Cixin Liu. The first book, The Three Body Problem, includes entertaining references to famous scientists of the past; for example, in one scene Newton and Leibniz duel each other. In my favorite scene, John von Neumann invents a computer powered by 13 million soldiers, where logic gates are built by soldiers trained to raise white and black flags corresponding to the ‘0’ and ‘1’ outputs of traditional transistors. Toward the end, there is a really cool bit of quantum sci-fi relating to superstring theory, but I don’t want to give away too much!
 
This year's contest required all stories to use a line from your 2015 entry "There are only two possibilities: yes or no". You wrote in your submission bio that you were "thrilled to have her superposition sentence emulated in so many alternate realities in the entries of Quantum Shorts 2017". Did you have a favourite story (or stories) among this year's submissions? 
 
I loved reading this year’s submissions - there are so many aspects of quantum science reflected in the entries. I especially enjoy whimsical, happy-ending essays like “Multiverse Meetup” or “Where Thought Experiments Become Reality” or essays that have a surprise ending like “Acceptable Loss.” I look forward to the next installment of the Quantum Shorts competition!
 

Quantum Theories: A to Z

T is for ...
Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

Q is for ...
Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

P is for ...
Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

S is for ...
Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

R is for ...
Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

Z is for ...
Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

H is for ...
Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

Q is for ...
Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

O is for ...
Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

V is for ...
Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

G is for ...
Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

G is for ...
Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

K is for ...
Key

Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is a way to create secure cryptographic keys, allowing for more secure communication.

B is for ...
Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

Y is for ...
Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

F is for ...
Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

L is for ...
Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

A is for ...
Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

M is for ...
Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

K is for ...
Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

I is for ...
Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

N is for ...
Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

E is for ...
Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

S is for ...
Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

W is for ...
Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.

A is for ...
Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

U is for ...
Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

I is for ...
Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

C is for ...
Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

U is for ...
Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

S is for ...
Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

W is for ...
Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

T is for ...
Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

D is for ...
Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

D is for ...
Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

L is for ...
Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

A is for ...
Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

R is for ...
Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

P is for ...
Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

R is for ...
Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

B is for ...
Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

J is for ...
Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics and is a technology to build qubits for quantum computers.

C is for ...
Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

X is for ...
X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

H is for ...
Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

M is for ...
Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

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