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Weird Science – Teleportation

As you might have guessed by now, I like it when things can be condensed into series (see here and here); maybe it’s some sort of extremely-lite form of OCD, I don’t know. Something I’d been thinking about for a little while was an occasional science commentary. Only problem was, I wasn’t sure if there would be enough easily-digestible discoveries/inventions that I could expound on, and it’s better for everyone if I don’t try and rely on my natural writing abilities to take a less-than-notable event and make it seem important. Fortunately, President Obama’s arrival seems to have caused a deluge of announcements in the scientific world; all I have to do is keep up. Fair warning, it might take me a little while to find my voice with this, so try and bear with me. On the plus side, though, I’ve got something pretty neat to talk about; namely, that colleagues working at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan succeeded in teleporting a quantum state from one atom to a separate one approximately one yard away.

And yeah, I know, I know, I can’t believe that it the Terrapins and Wolverines were the ones to figure out teleportation. I mean, it’s not like a I had a list of schools that were likely to make some sort of big-time scientific discovery, but if I DID, Maryland and Michigan would not be on it. But let me just be clear about something. I wrote “teleport”, and a lot of you saw this. Others might have seen this. If something along those lines crossed your mind, minimize the window and concentrate on taking a few deep breaths, because we’re not anywhere near that point yet. In fact, the implications in the field of computing, particularly quantum computing, are staggering, much more so than in the science-fiction realm of Star Trek.

Now,  the article itself does a great job of breaking down the specifics of the experiment, so I’m going to try and sum up the basic science behind all of it. So: people are made up of organs, organs are made up of cells, cells are made up of a bunch of small bacteria-sized things, and those things are essentially made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Still with me? OK, now here’s where it gets weird. This whole time, we’ve been working with what everyday people would call the “regular” world, or what a physicist might describe as “classic mechanics”. Basically, you’ve still got gravity and thermodynamics, all that good shit that we like to think of as normal. But once you get past that first ‘tron level, all hell breaks loose, and you have to start messing with quantum mechanics, which is something like walking away from your house, turning the corner and finding yourself inside a cartoon. You ever hear about how light acts like a wave AND a particle? Well, that happens on the quantum level. In fact, it’s one of the least weird things that happens on the quantum level (check it out).

Another thing that happens on the quantum level is teleportation of energy between entangled  atoms. To understand what that means, you have to know that one of the key precepts of quantum mechanics is that at the quantum level subatomic materials exist in a state of “uncertainty”, and that only by observation do these materials take on measureable dimensions. Basically, at this level everything both exists and doesn’t exist. Unless you’re looking at it. Then it exists. But for some time now, scientists have noticed that occasionally they’ll see information (like the degree of spin on an atom) go from one particle to another instantaneously, over huge distances and without going through a physical medium. Naturally, this confused the hell out of physicists, until experiments showed that this phenomenon occured whenever two particles became entangled. In case you’re wondering how any of this is helpful since you can’t measure the quantum state of a particle without removing it from said quantum state (and if that is what you’re thinking, thank you for paying attention), entangling particles also means that when you feed info into one particle, the opposite can be inferred in the partner particle. Naturally, this confused the hell out of physicists even more. Eventually, however, the physicists just chalked it up as an indelible feature of the universe, and chose to move on from the “discovery” phase of science experiments, to the next phase: let’s see if we can do this shit too!

Which brings us up to the current. Now that we’ve learned that we indeed CAN do this shit too, it shouldn’t be long before the technology is procured or duplicated by computer chip makers in the great race to build the first quantum computer. Why? Modern computers, as fast as they have become, are still binary computers, dealing in bits that recognize only two states, on and off, or ones and zeroes if you like. But quantum computers are capable of being in both states at the same time, until the correct answer is found. To get a general idea, imagine taking an oral math exam, where someone asks you a question, and immediately upon answering it someone else asks you a question. Seems difficult, right? Now imagine 12 people asking you math questions at the same time and answering them. That’s the difference between a modern computer and a quantum computer. But if you’re still dreaming of being able to “shimmer” off your couch directly into the bar downtown, don’t get discouraged. The human body encapsulates a mind-boggling amount of information, terabytes and terabytes, that no current computer could be able to process. A quantum computer, on the other hand…

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  1. March 2, 2009 at 3:11 pm

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