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Backstory: The Qubits of College Acceptance

A Q&A with Lily Turaski, Winner of the People’s Choice prize and Runner Up in the Youth Category, Quantum Shorts 2015
 
What inspired your story of unopened letters?
 
I'm a member of a local astronomy club. Another member found out about this competition and said, “Hey, maybe some of you would be interested.” I got the idea to do something on the observer effect from a YouTube video my teacher showed us in chemistry class, it’s one of the things that makes quantum theory a little bit weird, which lends itself well to an interesting plot. I personally am a junior in high school, so I haven’t applied to any colleges yet; that’s next year. But I have a couple of friends who are seniors, and I was mulling over the idea for this story at the time they were doing college applications. That’s where my story came together.
 
Where do you go to school?
 
I'm homeschooled. I do most of my classes at home, but I take a chemistry class through the local community college. I really enjoy science; that's my favourite subject. There are a lot of things I can do really well at home because I'm good at studying on my own. But for chemistry in particular there are some advantages to having an actual laboratory versus what I have in my kitchen.
 
I originally started homeschooling because I also race horses competitively long distance, and being able to take my school on the road makes that a possibility. My nana got me started with horse racing – she lives just down the trail in the woods from me and keeps horses. I started racing when I was eight.
 
Being homeschooled means that you have a flexible schedule, which makes it easier to join clubs and competitions. One really fun thing I’ve done is Science Bowl.
 
What is Science Bowl?
 
It’s a US competition for middle school and high school kids; I’ve been taking part since sixth grade. It’s like a game show where they ask questions about different science topics, and you have to buzz in as soon as you know the answer. My first introduction to quantum physics was being asked a question about Schrodinger’s cat when I was in eighth grade. I didn't know what it was - I had to google it. The Science Bowl has influenced a lot of what I've learned. It is what inspired me to look at particle physics, and it's also why I decided I love astronomy. Recently Tennessee had 59 teams come to the State-level competition, and my team actually won, which means that we'll go to the national competition in Washington DC in April. We’re a team of five from a homeschool group based around Knoxville.
 
How did you feel about winning the Quantum Shorts prizes?
 
I was very excited! At one point, someone asked me about the other essays. I said, “Well, you know, I really liked all of the essays that were shortlisted, but the People's Choice award isn't necessarily for the best essay as much as it is for the person who has the most friends, and I have a lot of friends.” I asked all my friends to vote for me. I asked the astronomy club that originally told me about the contest. I told all of my friends from horse racing, I asked everybody in my church, I asked my 4-H club, all my friends from Governor’s School, everybody in my chemistry class, all my family, and because I live in a small town, I even asked the postman, the librarians, the teller at the bank, my doctor, and my dentist!
 
Editor’s note: The Qubits of College Acceptance won not only the People’s Choice prize decided by public vote but also the Runner Up prize in the Youth Category, decided by a panel of expert judges.

Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

I is for ...
Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ...
Key

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

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.

U is for ...
Universe

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

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 ...
Cryptography

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

K is for ...
Kaon

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ...
Randomness

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

G is for ...
Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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