Look At Me

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The first disappointment is when Erin McNeela tells everyone that she won't be tossing the bridal bouquet.


“We've decided to do away with an old tradition and start a new one,” she announces, smiling sanctimoniously: “We're going to break the flower arrangement down in the Mochrie Particle Accelerator, so that everybody at The Institute will have a chance at catching a tiny piece of it. Who knows, maybe one of you will discover a new particle!”


There is a polite round of applause. I'm standing on tip-toes, at the back of the crowd, absolutely seething. For once, I would have liked to have caught something, other than one of Annie Harman's colds.


Erin's keeping her maiden name. It's weird, the Co-administrators of The Institute being married, because there is so obviously a power struggle going on. It's almost like the wedding was a strategy on her part. Naturally, she is going to come out on top.


The wedding reception is a work-mandated activity. You have to attend! I walk in, passing Erin's husband, Derek Hemple, in conversation with Marion Andrews:


“...It's not enough to be carbon neutral when, for a few extra million, you can go carbon negative.”


An attendant hands me a pair of googles.


The invitation requested that all guests wear photon-cluster jewellery. You need special apparatus to see it. Things used to be so simple, but not any more.


Erin is wearing a chaplet of fifty-five electrons as a tiara. She bought it from Steffens' Jewellers, in Westcliff-on-Sea. The son of the owner studied applied physics at Oxford. He's modernised the business; moving away from silver, gold, and diamonds and focusing on the fundamental particles.


I made myself a natty photon broach. Only, I didn't have time to secure all the drifter points. It will break down to a waveform if there aren't enough people observing it.


There's Allan Nagle, standing on his own. I'll go over and talk to him.


“I'm mindful of Medora's new anti-harassment, three-second stare policy,” he deadpans, looking deliberately past my right shoulder. He's talking about Medora Lawrenson, the Head of Human Resources. “Actually I'm pondering the impact it will have on any double-slit type experiments. If we can only observe directly for three seconds, will we see less particles and more waves?”


“Do you like my broach,” I ask him.


“I'm sorry but, for professional reasons, I refuse to stare at your chest area.”


That's why no-one is looking. I should have made a tiara instead, like Erin.


Allan's got photons doing a calculation on his forehead. He glances at a corresponding set of figures on a mobile device.


“They're forecasting their own spatial position, thirty seconds from now. They seem to want me to go over there and stand in the corner,” he intones, before wandering off.


In need of attention, I move onto the empty dance floor, where I gyrate vigorously to YMCA. A few colleagues cast embarrassed, sidelong glances. The DJ flashes me the finger-guns.


Too late! My lovely light broach, that I slaved over for months during my lunch breaks, has regressed to a waveform, smeared across the eco-ceiling of the Niels Bohr Function Suite, like the aurora borealis.


And now Richard Fraher's coming over. He'll want to know if I've listened to his Tibetan jams playlist. I'm prattling away to him, but it's the champagne doing the talking. I'm just an observer:


“Like, in that interview, when you said that you apply the principles of quantum physics in your DJ sets, it sounds so natural. If any other person said that, I'd be like 'oh my god, that's so cringe...'


I'm being rude, and I know that I'm being rude, but I can't stop myself.


Anyway, it doesn't matter because everybody's looking at the ceiling, at my quantum wardrobe malfunction. All those scientific minds attempting to work out what it is. Maybe, if enough people observe the phenomenon, and give it plenty of likes on social media, my broach will collapse back into a singularity.


Something is happening. It's assuming a superposition. Suddenly, everyone in the room is wearing a variant of my broach. There are disembodied versions of it inhabiting the buffet, one on a platter of egg brioche sandwiches.


Okay, it's definitely returning to a singularity, only now it's on the lapel of Christine Glynn's gorgeous Chanel dress. Of course it would go there, all the attention she's been getting. It's like she's broken into my home and stolen a piece of my jewellery.


And now Erin's coming over to her:


“That's a lovely light broach you are wearing, Christine. You must tell me where you got it,” she says.


Christine is claiming that she made it herself. I've been the victim of a quantum heist. I bet she has an entire Arnison Box at home, filled to the brim with all the pilfered quantum jewellery that's settled on her over the years.


It's so unfair: I thought the popular girls were fated to struggle after they left school. It was nerds, like me, who were supposed to inherit the earth. I guess it's all relative. Wherever you go in life, there's a pecking order. Beauty and popularity will usually bring you out on top. It's the Christine Glynns of this world who get chosen by the BBC to fly to the Arctic, to present a documentary about gluons. People like me get shunted behind the camera to do the research.


Bill Benson, god bless his interminably-dull soul, says: “Actually I think that it was Rose's broach.”


Of course nobody is listening to him, on account of the fact he's Bill Benson.


Another wash-out. I'm going home early to watch Queens Crossing.


Nobody notices as I hand back my goggles.


I am an unsung particle, forever adrift in the corner of their eyes, becoming a wave, as I wave goodbye.




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Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

D is for ...

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.

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.

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.

M is for ...

Quantum physics is the study of nature at the very small. Mathematics is one language used to formalise or describe quantum phenomena.

K is for ...

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

L is for ...

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!

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.

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.

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!

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.

M is for ...

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.

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.

I is for ...

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer

S is for ...

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.

P is for ...

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.

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.

T is for ...

The arrow of time is “irreversible”—time goes forward. This doesn’t seem to follow the laws of physics which work the same going forward or backward in time. Some physicists argue that there is a more fundamental quantum source for the arrow of time.

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”.

Q is for ...
Quantum biology

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E is for ...

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

N is for ...

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.

R is for ...

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

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.

W is for ...

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.

C is for ...

The most precise clocks we have are atomic clocks which are powered by quantum mechanics. Besides keeping time, they can also let your smartphone know where you are.

S is for ...

Researchers are harnessing the intricacies of quantum mechanics to develop powerful quantum sensors. These sensors could open up a wide range of applications.

T is for ...

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.

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.

D is for ...

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

S is for ...
Schrödinger’s Cat

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X is for ...

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R is for ...

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!

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.

G is for ...

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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.

T is for ...

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K is for ...

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

M is for ...
Many Worlds Theory

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A is for ...
Act of observation

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A is for ...
Alice and Bob

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C is for ...

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

U is for ...

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

Q is for ...

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.

A is for ...

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

G is for ...

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

C is for ...

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

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