Quantum Pinch

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Things used to be so simple, on Earth, when it came to engines. You would put some fuel in your engine. The engine would burnt it, and then the energy released would propel the vehicle, stuck around that engine, to move in the direction you wanted. Unfortunately, this simple but practical approach was a nightmare when it came to interstellar travel. The only ships that worked, using this method, were powered by fusion, fission or directed plasma. They were hideously dangerous and violently unstable. Only the most dedicated, the most brave and reckless people climbed aboard them and travelled across the galaxy. Something new had to be developed, something safe and clean, so that all humans could star-hop. Eventually, scientists and engineers found what they wanted, the quantum-pinch engine.

A quantum-pinch engine, or QPE, takes advantage of several quantum phenomena. Firstly, empty space contains potentially infinite energy, known as zero-point energy. Secondly, our universe’s inherent quantum uncertainty means that a lot of that energy can appear, in space, out of nothing if it appears in a short enough length of time. A quantum-pinch engine siphons off this energy during the fleeting moments that it appears. As a result, it gets power for nothing, effectively stealing it from the universe, hence the name ‘quantum-pinch’. It was a brilliant breakthrough… but it had problems, quantum problems.

The first quantum problem that the QPE suffered from was the Observer Effect. Because it was deeply connected to quantum events, it had to be constantly observed to stay real. If no one kept an eye on it, it could disappear or worse, explode. The scientists and engineers working on its development did their best to handle this flaw but two months into development, an engineer called Alex, tasked with watching the drive, nodded off. He failed to report in, the base alarms went off and staff rushed to the scene. Before they opened the sealed door to the engine room, they realised something awful. Since Alex and the drive were both in a fully sealed-off chamber, disconnected from any outside influence, then according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, they weren’t real any more. Just like Schrödinger’s Cat, they could not be said to be physical. Instead, they were in a superposition of all possible states, including ‘Alex and the engine are safe-and-sound’ and ‘the engine has exploded, obliterating Alex’. No one, therefore, wanted to open the sealed door and observe if Alex was alive or not, as that might collapse the quantum-state superposition inside and kill him. Since then, the room has remained closed, pending a legal resolution. Alex is still, officially, both alive and dead. Because of this, as a mark of respect and accuracy, his colleagues celebrate his birthday every other year.

After the Alex disaster, the QPE project-team changed tack. Dozens of them worked day and night on a new engine, inspecting it, measuring it, focussing on its behaviour and generally keeping it real. Eventually, they made a working, usable and physically stable QPE, able to power a ship through interstellar space using its limitless source of energy. Travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy had become possible for anyone.

In the next two years, hundreds of ships fitted with QPEs were built. Ordinary, everyday humans could explore the Milky Way, safe in the knowledge that their ship’s engine would hum away to itself, supplying all the power they needed. Everything looked great, and then, one day, the QPE ship Vector left Earth, heading for a planet around Aldebaran. It got halfway there in two weeks and then exploded in a minor nova because the ship’s janitor had lost confidence in the whole endeavour. Its last message was an internal memo about poor motivation amongst the cleaning staff and it was gone. The ensuing investigation discovered something awful. All quantum-pinch engines suffered from the Pauli Effect, named after the famous Quantum Physicist Wolfgang Pauli. It was simple; the presence of a certain person could cause an experiment to fail. Something about a certain person’s mental presence could crash a quantum-based system. No one, up to that point, had noticed this problem because the scientists and engineers had believed that the QPE would be a success. As a result, the engine had always worked. The first people to use a ship powered by a QPE were also convinced that the drive would work, because of its safety record and test results and it therefore did just that, but once everyone found out that a QPE spaceship could blow up if its crew stopped believing in it, then suddenly almost no one wanted to travel in one.

After that revelation, human space-travel entered a new era or, in some ways, returned to its earlier era. Once again, just as in the time of fusion-fission-plasma ships, only a few dedicated, reckless, obsessively-focussed human beings got into space-ships and travelled across the galaxy. Once again, human star-travel was the domain of only the most courageous, the most daring and the most optimistic. Perhaps, after all, that’s the way it should be.

About the Author: 
I am a full-time writer and illustrator. I've been published in the New Scientist's science-fiction magazine 'Arc' and written popular science material for the O2 mobile phone company. I recently won a University of Southampton international sustainability writing prize. I Iive in London.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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.

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.

M is for ...
Maths

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ...
Gluon

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

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
Information

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

R is for ...
Randomness

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

K is for ...
Key

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

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.

T is for ...
Time

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ...
Kaon

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

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”.

S is for ...
Sensors

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

C is for ...
Clocks

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 ...
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.

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