N = - 0

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      Dr. Matheson smiled as he walked along the hallway of the observatory annex building, the voices of his younger peers echoing down the corridor. Someone was standing in the open doorway to the large office space known colloquially as “The Treehouse”, though there was no “tree” and the “house” was  a squat brick building erected in 1965, not a whimsical dream shanty with a rope ladder. But it was where adults got to play with various telescopes, satellites and instruments on a majestic mountaintop in the desert. 
     “What does entanglement have to do with it? I simply don’t know where they are,” said the man in the doorway to another man in a swivel chair a dozen feet away.
     “They’re nonlocal,” said the man in the chair. 
     “Excuse me, Phil,” Dr. Matheson said as he gently squeezed past the man in the doorway. “Lose your keys again?”
     “Maybe if he’d quit misplacing them,” said the man in the chair.
     “Maybe if you’d quit hiding them,” Dr. Matheson said.
     “Check the countertop over there,” said the seated man.
     Phil turned to look, bumping into Dr. Matheson. “Ah! Now I can go home.”
     Phil had inadvertently nudged Dr. Matheson into the bank of light switches on the wall and, subsequently, all the ceiling lights went off. 
     The office banter took on a different tone.
     “What!? Guess it’s time for that beer, everybody,” someone said from the gloom.
     “More budget cuts.”
     “Sure, I can work in the dark. Management does.”
     “Sorry. Sorry,” Dr. Matheson said as he searched for the light switches.
     “I’m afraid of the dark,” someone said.
     “Yes, we all get to know one another better with the lights turned off,” someone said to the sound of laughter.
     “Dr. Matheson? I’d like to file a harassment complaint,” someone teased.
     “You wish,” said another voice to raucous laughter.
     Dr. Matheson found the switches and flipped the lights back on. “Apologies everyone.”
     He paused to look at a sheet of paper taped to the wall. It read, “Last one out, turn off the lights. Once we figure out the answers to life, the universe and where Phil’s keys are, we can all head into town for a round of beers. On me!” Dr. Osterman put the sign up years ago. He’d long since retired, but nobody had the heart to take it down. 
     It was a 24/7 workspace and the lights were always on.
     Dr. Matheson walked self-consciously to his desk, one of a handful that sat in the middle of the roughly seven hundred square foot space. The remaining workstations were crowded along the perimeter of the four walls where astronomers, physicists, post docs and scientists from various partner nations sought the structure of the cosmos, dark energy, potential exoplanets and to unify disparate models and theories.
     Dr. Matheson settled into his desk chair and logged onto his computer.
     “Hey, Mia, can you come here for a second?” a man named Carl asked from his desk to Dr. Matheson’s left. 
     A woman walked over to Carl. “If you ask me to reset your password one more time. I have a Master’s in Computer Science with a specialization in artificial intelligence, remember?”
     “Artificial Intelligence? That explains why you’re helping Carl,” someone said. That earned some snickers.
     Carl didn’t seem to hear.
     Dr. Matheson picked up an old baseball, his son’s first home run, and idly rotated it in his hand as he scanned his emails. His son was married now, had children of his own. Dr. Matheson thought about retiring but his mind turned to the mysteries that continued to enthrall him: The limitations of the speed of light and the fact that the furthest points in space were speeding away faster than light speed, a kind of mathematical lensing. The fact that there wasn’t enough mass in the known universe to explain the orbital mechanics of galaxies. He remembered the push and pull of theories about black holes, one stating that information contained in a black hole was the same amount that could cover it’s “surface”, or it’s spherical event horizon. He looked at the baseball and thought of Earth. “Could all of the information contained by Earth be on its surface? Were human beings ‘information’?” he wondered.
     “Carl, I’m telling you, the system is working fine,” Mia said. 
     Carl responded by emphatically pointing to his computer screen.
     “Hey everybody! Did you see the news from the Federation of International Scientists? They did it!” Isabella called out from her desk in the back of the room. 
     “Did what?” someone asked.
     Isabella looked at her computer screen. “They reconciled general relativity with quantum mechanics. And…wow…they explained gravity. At least mathematically,” she said. “They played with number theory and determined that the key was ‘n equals negative zero’. Applying that to mathematical models, using  something called floating point…” Isabella’s voice trailed off.
     Mia walked over to Isabella’s desk.
     “And gravity?” another person asked.
     “Um, they say that everything in the universe is expanding and moving outward at a high rate. All matter, all atoms and their components are expanding in magnitude and away from centers of mass. They theorize that gravity is acceleration.” Isabella was quiet for a moment. “It’s a lot to think about.”
     Mia looked at Isabella’s computer and knit her brow. “Floating point calculations are used in computer programs. They’re used for approximating and processing massive amounts of numbers.”
     “What is happening?!” Carl yelled.
     Dr. Matheson walked over and looked at Carl’s computer that showed a live feed from an optical telescope. 
     Before he knew it he had run down the hallway, flung the exit doors open and was peering frantically into the cold desert night sky. 
     Clutching the baseball to his chest, he gazed in stunned disbelief as entire swaths of starlight  disappeared into featureless darkness, like banks of stadium lights being turned off after the big game.
     Then all motion, time itself, stopped.
     Result: N = - 0
     Run simulation again? Y/N
About the Author: 
A non-scientist in the southwest United States who loves science, because truth is stranger than fiction. A non-author who is ten chapters into his first novel thanks to a lot of free time in 2020. And someone who loves the words “what if”.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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.

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.

T is for ...

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.

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. This column from Quanta Magazine ​delves into the fundamental physics behind quantum computing.

E is for ...

As the world makes more advances in quantum science and technologies, it is time to think about how it will impact lives and how society should respond. This mini-documentary by the Quantum Daily is a good starting point to think about these ethical issues. 


K is for ...

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

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.

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.

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”.

I is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

R is for ...

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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.

X is for ...

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.

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.

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.

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.

Q is for ...
Quantum States

Quantum states, which represent the state of affairs of a quantum system, change by a different set of rules than classical states.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

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.

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 ...

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

G is for ...

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

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 ...
Act of observation

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

K is for ...

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

S is for ...

The feature of a quantum system whereby it exists in several separate quantum states at the same time.

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 ...
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.

T is for ...

The arrow of time is “irreversible”—time goes forward. On microscopic quantum scales, this seems less certain. A recent experiment shows that the forward pointing of the arrow of time remains a fundamental rule for quantum measurements.

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.

G is for ...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

U is for ...

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

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.

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 ...

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

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