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The Bizarre and Wonderful World of Quantum Theory—And How Understanding It Has Ultimately Changed Our Lives
"In fact, it is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. Some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it, in fact, is that it is unquestionably correct."
Almost since its inception, the development of quantum theory has been built by some of the greatest minds of their day. Some of the framework for this theory can be traced back to the following discoveries:
- In 1897 the discovery of the electron proved there were individual particles that make up the atom.
- In 1900, the German Physical Society received a presentation by Max Plank on his version of the theory where he made the conjecture that energy was made of individual units which he referred to as quanta. Plank took his version of the quantum theory a step further and derived a universal constant which famously became known as Planck’s constant which is used to describe the sizes of quanta in quantum mechanics. Planck’s constant states that the energy of each quantum is equal to the frequency of the radiation multiplied by the universal constant (6.626068 × 10-34 m2 kg / s).
- In 1905, Albert Einstein theorized that not just the energy but the radiation was also quantized in the very same manner and summarized that an electromagnetic wave such as light could be described by a particle called the photo with a discrete energy dependent on it's frequency.
- Ernest Rutherford discovered that most of the mass of an atom resides in the nucleus in 1911. Niels Bohr refined the Rutherford model by introducing different orbits in which electrons spin around the nucleus.
- In 1924, the development of the principle of wave-particle duality by Louis de Broglie stated that elementary particles of both matter and energy behave, depending on the conditions, like particles or waves.
Many other people have since contributed to the advancement of the theory including Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg with the development of the Uncertainty Principle to name a few. Needless to say, the quantum theory is a combination of contributions of many great minds of science and thus cannot be attributed to any one individual. In short, the quantum theory allows us to understand the world of the very small and the fundamental properties of matter.
Our deepest understanding of the atomic world comes from the advent of the quantum theory. Having this deep understanding of the various elements of the theory allows us to do much more than just move atoms around or know exactly why things behave the way they do. The theory itself underlies the entire architecture of the world we see today and beyond. It has ultimately allowed us to develop the most advanced technologies to make our lives easier. The marvels of science that we see and use every single day including the Internet, your cell phone, GPS, your email, HD television—all of it—comes from our deep understanding of this theory.This theory offers a very different way to view the world they we live in—one where the simple laws of conventional physics simply don’t apply at all. Quantum theory is so eccentric and peculiar that even Einstein himself couldn’t wrap his head around it. The great physicist, Richard Feynman once stated that "It is impossible, absolutely impossible to explain it in any classical way".
Some of what quantum theory predicts and states is almost like something out of science fiction. Matter can essentially be in an infinite number of places at any given time; it is possible that there are many worlds or a multiverse; things disappear and reappear somewhere else; you cannot simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of an object; and even quantum entanglement (Einstein referred to it as spooky action at a distance) where it’s possible for two quantum particles to link together effectively making them part of the same entity or entangled. Even if these particles are separated, a change in one is ultimately and instantly reflected in it’s counterpart. At the end of the day, the world of entanglement caused physicists like Einstein to both dislike the predictions and feel nothing more as if their were serious errors in the calculations. As Einstein once wrote: "I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will, not only its moment to jump off, but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming house, than a physicist".
The strange predictions of quantum theory also prompted many famous "thought" experiments such as "Schrodinger’s Cat" devised by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. As I state in my book "Hyperspace," on page 261: "Schrodinger placed an imaginary cat in a sealed box. The cat faces a gun, which is connected to a Geiger counter, which in turn is connected to a piece of uranium. The uranium atom is unstable and will undergo radioactive decay. If a uranium nucleus disintegrates, it will be picked up by the Geiger counter, which will then trigger the gun, whose bullet with kill the cat. To decide whether the cat is dead or alive, we must open the box and observe the cat. However, what is the state of the cat before we open the box? According to quantum theory, we can only state that the cat is described by a wave function that describes the sum of a dead can and live cat. To Schrodinger, the idea of think about cats that are neither dead nor alive was the height of absurdity, yet nevertheless the experimental confirmation of quantum mechanics forces us to this conclusion. At present, every experiment has verified quantum theory." So quantum theory sounds preposterous and its predictions seem to be something out of a science fiction movie. Yet it has only tiny thing going for it: It works.
In the coming century, mastering the quantum theory will enable us to radically transform our world in ways previously thought unimaginable. Superconductors, for example, are a miracle of quantum physics and they are an outstanding example of us gradually becoming masters of matter itself. If you take a look at the ongoing advancements of Maglev trains, you can see that the world of transportation will be substantially different in the future as a result of our increased understanding of this theory. In the future we will also create materials with amazing new properties not found in nature. The furthering development of meta-materials or artificial materials will allow us to create things like cloaking devices. Other developments could include seismic meta-materials designed to counteract the adverse effects of seismic waves on man-made structures; the creation of ultra-thin sound-proof walls; and even super-lenses capable of capturing sharp details far below the wavelength of light. As we are still only in the early stages of understanding the development of these artificial materials, it appears that the surface has a merescratch on it so there is no telling what the future holds.
In the coming decades, you will most likely be hearing the word "quantum" quite a bit as our understanding of very small is helping us revolutionize virtually every aspect of technology we see today and even creating entirely new ones. Some examples of technologies that we are currently working on but not limited to are:
-- Quantum Computing which is making direct use of the quantum mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement to perform operations on data. In contrast with a classical computer which has memory made of bits where each bit represents a one or a zero (binary code), a quantum computer will operate on what is called "qubits." According to Wikipedia, a single qubit can represent a one, a zero, or, crucially, any quantum superposition of these; moreover, a pair of qubits can be in any quantum superposition of 4 states, and three qubits in any superposition of 8 and so on. Superposition refers to the quantum mechanical property which states that all particles exist in not one state but all possible states at once. In short, a quantum computer will essentially be able to crack any algorithm, solve mathematical problems much more quickly and ultimately operate millions of times faster than conventional computers.
-- Quantum Cryptography whose most famous example (quantum key distribution or QKD) which uses quantum mechanics to guarantee secure communication. It enables two parties to produce a shared random bit string known only to them, which can be used as a key to encrypt and decrypt messages.
The list goes on an on an on: Quantum Dots; Quantum Wires or Carbon Nanotubes; Metamaterials; Invisibility; Quantum Optics; Teleportation; Communication; Space Elevators; Limitless Quantum Energy; Room Temperature Superconductors; Personal Fabicators; Nanotechnology and even Time Travel. Other applications that will strive are advances in battery technology; solar panels; stealth applications; and even advances in biotechnology and medicine. Needless to say, we have only scratched the surface of some of these technologies and time will perfect them. We've got a very interesting future ahead of us....
To be continued...
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
This is going to force a major shift in the way we see these early hominids. Researchers had thought that Neanderthals were profoundly primitive, and just barely human. This cave in France's Aveyron Valley changes all that: It's suddenly obvious that Neanderthals were not quite so unlike us.
According to The Atlantic, Bruniquel Cave was first explored in 1990 by Bruno Kowalsczewski, who was 15 at the time. He'd spent three years digging away at rubble covering a space through which his father felt air moving.
Some members of a local caving club managed to squeeze through the narrow, 30-meter long tunnel Kowalsczewski had dug to arrive in a passageway. They followed it past pools of water and old animal bones for over 330 meters before coming into a large chamber and a scene they had no reason to expect: Stalagmites that someone had broken into hundreds of small pieces, most of which were arranged into two rings—one roughly 6 meters across, and one 2 meters wide—with the remaining pieces stacked into one of four piles or leaning against the rings. There were also indications of fires and burnt bones.
Image source: Etienne FABRE - SSAC
A professional archeologist, Francois Rouzaud, determined with carbon dating that a burnt bear bone found in the chamber was 47,600 years old, which made the stalagmite structures older than any known cave painting. It also put the cave squarely within the age of the Neanderthals since they were the only humans in France that early. No one had suspected them of being capable of constructing complex forms or doing anything that far underground.
After Rouzard suddenly died in 1999, exploration at the cave stopped until life-long caver Sophie Verheyden, vacationing in the area, heard about it and decided to try and uranium-date the stalagmites inside.
The team she assembled eventually determined that the stalagmites had been broken up by people 176,000 years ago, way farther back even than Rouzard had supposed.
There weren't any signs that Neanderthals lived in the cave, so it's a mystery what they were up to down there. Verheyden thinks it's unlikely that a solitary artist created the tableaux, and so an organized group of skilled workers must've been involved. And “When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that's not proven," Verheyden told The Atlantic.
Whatever they built, the Bruniquel Cave reveals some big surprises about Neanderthals: They had fire, they built things, and likely used tools. Add this to recent discoveries that suggest they buried their dead, made art, and maybe even had language, and these mysterious proto-humans start looking a lot more familiar. A lot more like homo sapiens, and a lot more like distant cousins lost to history.
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.
- Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
- Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
- The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
A year ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate warned of the parallel pandemics — the biological contagion of COVID-19 and the social contagion of misinformation, aiding the spread of the disease. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, anti-vaccine accounts have gained 10 million new social media followers, while we have witnessed arson attacks against 5G masts, hospital staff abused for treating COVID patients, and conspiracists addressing crowds of thousands.
Many have refused to follow guidance issued to control the spread of the virus, motivated by beliefs in falsehoods about its origins and effects. The reluctance we see in some to get the COVID vaccine is greater amongst those who rely on social media rather than traditional media for their information. In a pandemic, lies cost lives, and it has felt like a new conspiracy theory has sprung up online every day.
How we, as social media users, behave in response to misinformation can either enable or prevent it from being seen and believed by more people.
The rules are different online
Credit: Pool via Getty Images
If a colleague mentions in the office that Bill Gates planned the pandemic, or a friend at dinner tells the table that the COVID vaccine could make them infertile, the right thing to do is often to challenge their claims. We don't want anyone to be left believing these falsehoods.
But digital is different. The rules of physics online are not the same as they are in the offline world. We need new solutions for the problems we face online.
Now, imagine that in order to reply to your friend, you must first hand him a megaphone so that everyone within a five-block radius can hear what he has to say. It would do more damage than good, but this is essentially what we do when we engage with misinformation online.
Think about misinformation as being like the coronavirus — when we engage with it, we help to spread it to everyone else with whom we come into contact. If a public figure with a large following responds to a post containing misinformation, they ensure the post is seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people with one click. Social media algorithms also push content into more users' newsfeeds if it appears to be engaging, so lots of interactions from users with relatively small followings can still have unintended negative consequences.
The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology.
Additionally, whereas we know our friend from the office or dinner, most of the misinformation we see online will come from strangers. They often will be from one of two groups — true believers, whose minds are made up, and professional propagandists, who profit from building large audiences online and selling them products (including false cures). Both of these groups use trolling tactics, that is, seeking to trigger people to respond in anger, thus helping them reach new audiences and thereby gaming the algorithm.
On the day the COVID vaccine was approved in the UK, anti-vaccine activists were able to provoke pro-vaccine voices into posting about thalidomide, exposing new audiences to a reason to distrust the medical establishment. Those who spread misinformation understand the rules of the game online; it's time those of us on the side of enlightenment values of truth and science did too.
How to fight online misinformation
Of course, it is much easier for social media companies to take on this issue than for us citizens. Research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch last month found that 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media is linked to just twelve individuals and their organizations. Were the platforms to simply remove the accounts of these superspreaders, it would do a huge amount to reduce harmful misinformation.
The problem is that social media platforms are resistant to do so. These businesses have been built by constantly increasing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Getting rid of the creators of engaging content that has millions of people hooked is antithetical to the business model. It will require intervention from governments to force tech companies to finally protect their users and society as a whole.
So, what can the rest of us do, while we await state regulation?
Instead of engaging, we should be outweighing the bad with the good. Every time you see a piece of harmful misinformation, share advice or information from a trusted source, like the WHO or BBC, on the same subject. The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology. In the attention economy that governs tech platforms, drowning out is a better strategy than rebuttal.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.