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truths-and-myths-of-“the-quantum”

Truths And Myths Of “The Quantum”

Since the beginning of the 20th century, quantum mechanics has completely displaced the traditional theories of the classical Newtonian physics. The fact that this theory is based essentially on items that cannot be “seen” —atoms, quarks, photons— and everything that makes up the reality in the nanometric scale, at the same time disagrees with our “common sense”, is the main cause of its lack of knowledge.

Isabel Izquierdo-Barba
2016-07-22

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Dr Isabel Izquierdo-Barba,
Department of Inorganic and Bioinorganic Chemistry, College of Pharmacy,
Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.
Networking Research Center on Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine,
CIBER-BBN, Spain

Since the beginning of the 20th century, quantum mechanics has completely displaced the traditional theories of the classical Newtonian physics. The fact that this theory is based essentially on items that cannot be “seen” —atoms, quarks, photons— and everything that makes up the reality in the nanometric scale, at the same time disagrees with our “common sense”, is the main cause of its lack of knowledge.

However, outside of its oddities and its ignorance, the quantum theory invades our day to day in the form of smartphones, led lights, internet payment, etc… Furthermore, “the quantum” appears increasingly in terms such as “quantum healing” and “quantum medicine”, and it has become the buzzword in our modern world. However, its scientific relevance in these terms is purely accidental, without hardly having a scientific argument. All this boom illustrates that “the quantum” possess a mystique beyond the scientific.

A TRIP TO THE NANOSCOPIC WORLD
This fascinating journey began at the beginning of the 20th century, with the scientific findings of the so-called fathers of quantum theories, Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Since then, there have been many findings that have contributed, step by step, to a continuous advancement of this technology. Nowadays, Planck, Einstein and Bohr would be completely fascinated with the technological advances made since their discoveries…

The beauty of quantum mechanics is its little concession to common sense, having numerous paradoxes. Maybe, the most famous is the well-known paradox of Schrödinger’s cat: according to quantum mechanics, all atomic particles can be in multiple states at the same time. It is the action of measuring any parameter (speed, position, etc.) which leads to the manifestation of a particular state. In the paradox of Schrödinger there is a simile of a quantum cat enclosed in an airtight room next to a deadly trap: he is alive and death at the same time until the enclosure door is opened. The act of opening the room, that is to say, the observation or measurement, is what makes the cat to assume one of the two possible states: dead or alive.

Einstein himself, sceptical with his famous phrase: “The moon exists only when we look at it?”, couldn’t get into his mind that a particle —or a cat— could be in several places at once.

In the world we know, an object and its properties always go together. For example, a ball that spins cannot be separated from its rotation. The quantum theory predicts that a particle can be physically separated from one of its properties, as its polarization or its magnetic moment or even its spin. The expert researchers in this field, explained it by the paradox of the cat and his smile: “We found the cat in a place and his smile in another”. The phenomenon receives the name of the enigmatic feline from Alice in Wonderland, the “quantum Cheshire cat” who vanishes leaving his smile floating on air. We were a bit puzzled with this statement, as Alice does in her story: “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but not a grin without cat. It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”.

Without a doubt, quantum mechanics predicts effects that defy our intuition, our common sense. Niels Bohr said that “anyone who is not shocked when explained quantum mechanics, is that he has not understood anything”.

According to what experts ensure in quantum mechanics, as Juan Ignacio Cirac, one of the pioneer physicists in the field of quantum computing and director of the Theory Division of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany, according to the laws of quantum physics, that govern the microscopic world, when no one observes a particle, this one does not have defined characteristics and can present all the values of the properties at once. A strange peculiarity which constitutes the basis of quantum computing and, therefore, of the operation of quantum computers. Likewise, quantum physics can also be applied to computer science, in what we call the quantum communication. This discipline allows to send information from one site to another that is away without passing the information by the middle, which will attain that no one could intercept this data and making communication more secure.

A NEW ERA: QUANTUM COMPUTERS
The first programmable computer in history, the Z1, manufactured in 1936, was a huge calculator of 1.000 kilograms of weight that took ten seconds to make a simple multiplication. Who would have thought then in the possibility of manufacturing a laptop less than 500 grams of weight with the fast current processors?

As computers today, quantum computers will be used to solve problems (predict the time, search databases, etc.). The difference lies in the process that takes place in its interior. In a quantum computer, the information is stored in qubits, called quantum bits, which, unlike a bit, that presents a 0 or a 1, can transmit these two states and an unlimited variety of intermediate states (infinite). This property makes the processing speed excessively outdoes the current devices. There are currently small prototypes of quantum computers, but according to experts there are still 50 years for their complete development. Scientists know how to build them, how they have to operate and which programs to run. The problem is that they need some very special conditions for their manufacture and we still do not have the sufficient technology. In terms of measurement, a quantum computer of 30 qubits would be equivalent to a 10 teraflops processor (10 million of millions of operations per second), when current computers work in the order of the gigaflops (thousands of millions of operations).

NASA and Google work from 2013 with a system of this type, called D-Wave 2x, to investigate the possible applications of quantum computing in artificial intelligence and automatic learning.

MYSTICISMS OF THE TERM “QUANTUM”
Now, if we investigate over the term “quantum”, we find ourselves with a great multitude of applications, such as quantum diets, quantum healing, quantum homeopathy, quantum elixirs, quantum health, quantum integral medicine, quantum energy… The abuse that some subject to the quantum term is excessive and for advertising purposes. The quantum word sounds as mysterious, as science, and people may think that it is somewhat reliable. However, most of the things that are announced as quantum have nothing to do with quantum physics and the principles that govern it. In some cases, this relationship is made by ignorance and to make the product more saleable.

No doubt, the term quantum is fashionable, and though its laws are beyond our intuition and generate us a lack of intrinsic knowledge, we must not forget that the application of quantum physics, both at the computer and at the cryptographic level, are called to change the world that surrounds us in the coming decades.

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