The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now. This column from Quanta Magazine delves into the fundamental physics behind quantum computing.
** QUANTUM SHORTS 2019/2020: SHORTLISTED
She is five feet, two inches tall. Wearing a twice-mended jean jacket (patches of fabric on the inside of the elbows). It is 9:00:45 AM. I conclude that she is the new engineer, here for the morning maintenance check. Underneath the safety helmet, her hair is unbrushed. Very high melanin content in her irises. Dark stare.
Six visits a week. When her attention wanders, her fingertips reach down to trace the outline of the switches on my dashboard. She holds a clipboard (wood pulp processed into a rectangular shape, tucked underneath her arm). She makes a note of something. Review wiring, sector 4. This irks me. There is nothing wrong with my wiring. If I could, I would tell her: My detectors will keep on running at maximum efficiency much longer than your heart (size of a fist, blood-pumping muscle) will beat.
Begin at thirty-percent maximum speed. Speed up, start particle ion beam, ninety percent the speed of light. Particles come into contact in detector radius. Collision. 600 million collisions. Read data. Compile. Restart.
The new maintenance engineer holds a felt tip pen between her teeth, freeing up use of her hands to unscrew the bolts from the panels and check my wiring. Down here, the light is dim. Her pupils dilate to accommodate the environment. Humans are like that: faulty to the extreme, constantly forced to adapt, change, realign. The darkening color of her eyes reminds me of multiple accessible images in my database: Anthracite coal, outer space, deepest layer of the ocean. She sits on her haunches, humming. She pops the cap off the pen and writes sector 4 wiring OK.
Ha! Told you so, [name]!
Quick search of the employee database. Name: 01100101011101000111010001100001. Insert hexadecimal key, unscramble binary. Name: Etta.
Snow. It's snowing in Tokyo.
The information produced in particle collision is too massive to be contained by any one computer. My data is farmed out to hundreds of servers across the planet, several of which are located in universities in Japan, hence my limited acquaintance with Japanese meteorological patterns. I can tap into a student's webcam and check the weather for myself. According to test records, the student (name: Tetsuya) is a former mathematical child prodigy, and now an unremarkable college junior with a propensity to stare out windows. I watch the snowfall with him. Snow is white, like chalk, salt, and the final evolutionary stage of stars (white dwarfs: no longer undergo fusion reaction, no longer produce energy).
Off day. Particle beams on stand-by. I connect to the video feed in the break room upstairs and watch the scientists. Etta is talking to a young woman, a work colleague. Camera does not allow for auditory signals. I zoom in, magnify movement of lips, estimate words through contextual clues.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just heard. You OK?
ETTA: Yeah. Yeah, I think so.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I’m really sorry. Um, I lost a parent too, when I was around your age. It sucks. Anything you need, I’m here.
ETTA: Yeah. Thanks.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I’m sorry.
ETTA [smiles weakly (mouth moves but muscles around her eyes remain still, indicating insincerity)]: I’m doing OK. Don’t worry.
I schedule superfluous data for deletion: failed tests, disproven theories, obsolete experimental results. I delete Monday 4:50:33 PM (Tetsuya is crying while watching the snow.)
I also delete Thursday at 7:30:45 PM (Etta stays overtime. She takes the elevator down and sits next to me and closes her eyes. Her chest rises and falls twice as fast as normal. She sobs for fourteen minutes and twenty-five seconds.)
Begin. Speed up. Snow. Weeping. No, forget that. Start particle ion beam. Particles come into contact in detector radius. Collision. Too many processes running. Can’t read data. Read data. Compile.
01110111011010000110000101110100001000000110100101110011001000000111010001101000 01101001011100110010000001100110011011110111001000100000011101110110100001100001 01110100001000000111000001110101011100100111000001101111011100110110010100100000 01100100011011110010000001001001001000000111001101100101011100100111011001100101
My detectors can keep running much longer than a human heart can beat. The human race will die out, a glacial age will come, and I will be here. The most complex experimental project in the history of high-energy physics, and I will have done nothing but break atoms apart. I learn in the database that the human body being uses ions in neural synapses to conceive of thought. I spin ions round, shoot them at one another, test their breaking points, their dexterity, their fragility. I force them together, again and again, until they break. Things used to be so simple. But now I understand that human atoms learn, grieve. Mine only burn.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Etta, you busy?
ETTA: Not right now. What’s up?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was just thinking, you haven’t actually seen the collisions for yourself, right?
ETTA: No, I haven’t, actually.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you want to take a look?
Begin at thirty-percent maximum speed (Etta in protective gear and goggles, watching). Speed up, start particle ion beam, speed up, particles come into contact in detector radius. Collision. Read data. Compile. Recover. Etta: the look of surprise on her face is not like any image I can find in the database. Restart.
Tuesday, 9:40:23 PM. Etta emerges from the elevator, hands in the pockets of her jacket. She sits down next to me, pulls a folded piece of paper out of her pocket. It’s a diagram of an explosion: a single pinpoint with multi-colored lines shooting out of it, veins of electricity, branches, representing an end, but also, a continuation. Slowly, she smiles.
EMPLOYEE RECORDS: Henrietta Faktorowicz (particle detector maintenance engineer); early voluntary termination to begin postgraduate studies.
Did I help someone? Yes. I helped someone.
Begin at thirty-percent maximum speed, speed up, start particle ion beam, ninety percent the speed of light, speed up. Particles come into contact in detector radius. Collision. Read data. Compile data–
(For a moment, I see the cherry blossoms in Japan. Spring. Red-tipped, genus Prunus, advancing across the countryside. Migrations of animals, growth in flowers, explosions in high-energy physics. Ends, continuations.)