The Work Function in Quantum Mechanics

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I was always 50/50 on the whole afterlife thing--not exactly a skeptic, but not really big on faith, either--so I was naturally pretty nervous about dying. Rolling the dice is always scary when the stakes are so high. But then, I didn't have a choice in the matter, did I?
 
So I died, and then I realized that I had died and that I was still kicking, so to speak. Woohoo! Soon as I saw those Pearly Gates, well, I started dancing like I'd won the mother of all crapshoots.
 
Then they told me to get a job.
 
"Think of it this way," the angel said. We were doing my intake paperwork in a cozy little office, and I was trying not to laugh every time her wings bumped into the walls. "You're going to be here for a long time. You need something to do to give meaning and purpose to your afterlife."
 
"But I worked my whole life!" I said. That wasn't strictly true, but it sure felt like it.
 
"Uh-huh." She gave me a look I remembered from every teacher I ever had. "And now you'll work in the afterlife--the same as everybody else."
 
I sighed: some things never change. I felt like I was thirty again.
 
To buy time, I flipped through a pamphlet with smiling cherubs in hardhats on the cover. Praise department: boring. Guardian angel corps: meh. There had to be some way out of this.
 
"Listen," I said. "I'm not really a hard work kind of guy."
 
"Oh, I've seen your file." "Right," I laughed, and I took my shot: "So ... maybe you could set me up with something easy, OK?" I flashed her my charming, roguish smile. "As a little favor."
 
I did not get the reaction I expected. For a fraction of a second, I swear she flickered, like that weird 3-D cube thing that people draw that flips back and forth when you stare at it too long and hurts your eyes: angel and devil in superposition, and both glaring at me--
 
And then everything blinked back to normal. The angel smiled at me like nothing had happened and said, "I think I can do that. How about a nice, easy desk job?"
 
OK, I was pretty freaked out, but the die was cast. I nodded, slowly.
 
"All right then." She grinned a little too wide and fluttered her wings. "Quantum Sector it is."
 
Poof! I popped into another office, with a desk and some plants and a squishy cloud floor that sprung like a mattress. The air had that great fresh smell you get after a light rain, and the ceiling was just clear blue sky. I relaxed right away: maybe working here wouldn't be so bad.
 
The guy at the desk sighed and stood up to greet me. Well, my eyes practically popped right out of my head. "Hey, you're the guy!" I said, "With the hair!" and I stuck my tongue out at him.
 
All right, I guess I deserved the look he gave me; I backed off. "So, what do we do here, Mister, uh ..."
 
"Einstein," he grumbled, in that cool German accent.
 
"Yeah! That's it."
 
Einstein shook his head and led me down a hallway that hadn't been there before.
 
"You are joining an important team," he told me as we walked. "Quantum sector runs the universe. You might even say that we make the universe tick."
 
He glanced into a little side room filled with silent, unmoving clockwork and smiled wistfully.
 
"Ah ... things used to be so simple. Do you know the quantum theory?"
 
"Uh, kind of," I said. Well, I had heard of it.
 
"It doesn't matter. It describes the smallest of things--atoms and photons and such. The world is very strange at that scale: certain things are unpredictable, even in theory."
 
We walked out into--I can't even describe how big it was. Desks, as far as the eye could see, nestled among the clouds and filled with blank-faced people working. Angels zipping up and down the aisles, and this constant low rumble like someone shaking an enormous bag of marbles. I started feeling very uncomfortable again: there was some spooky action in the distance.
 
Einstein shook his head. "I never liked it," he said. "The randomness in the theory felt wrong. I was always certain that there was an order underneath it, something deeper that we just hadn't figured out yet."
 
He led me to an empty desk in the infinite field of desks. "And I was correct," he said, "in a way. God does not play dice with the universe."
 
"Oh?" I tried not to look confused.
 
"He delegates." That was the rumbling: all around us the people were rolling dice, writing number after number down on slips of paper and then handing them to angels as they sped by.
 
"Every particle," Einstein said. "Every interaction. Everything that happens in the entire universe. We take care of it all right here." His voice was so low and tired it sounded like it was coming from a black hole.
 
He handed me my dice. "Easiest job in the world," he said, with a dead smile. Then he popped onto a bicycle and rode off into infinity.
 
Poof! A quantum angel popped up beside me. He grunted impatiently and stuck out his hand.
 
What could I do? I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go; the only things around were grim faces and harried angels. Maybe if I hid under my desk ... but when the angel started flickering, I sat down instead.
 
Well, I guess someone's gotta do it, right? Maybe I'd affect some famous scientist's favorite atoms, or something. There was always a chance. I clenched the dice in my hand, and I rolled.
 
I rolled sixes.

About the Author: 
Steven Stampone is from Philadelphia, which means that he can say 'yo' without shame or irony. He's discovered that making things up is more fun than actually learning physics—though he does hope to do the latter eventually.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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.

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.

G is for ...
Gluon

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

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.

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 ...
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.

U is for ...
Universe

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

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.

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.

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 ...
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 ...
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

K is for ...
Kaon

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

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.

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.

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 ...
Information

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

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.

R is for ...
Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

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 ...
Act of observation

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

I is for ...
Interferometer

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

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