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Quantum Physics: The Brink of Knowing Something Wonderful

Sunday, 4 September 2011

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IMAGE 1: Dave Bowman Chats with Dr. Floyd

In the movie, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Dave Bowman, the astronaut that saw stars (“My God, it’s full of stars!”¹) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, returns to warn the crew on the Russian spaceship, Leonov, that they needed to leave the orbit of Jupiter immediately because something’s going to happen. When Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) asks, “What’s going to happen?,”² Dave answers, “Something wonderful.”

Quantum Physics (aka: Quantum Mechanics) research is in a similar dilemma. Humans are at the brink of discovering the nature of the micro-micro world of subatomic matter (smaller than atoms.) The possible answers don’t really tell us much about what knowledge we will gain once we understand it, but it will be, “Something wonderful.”

Parents may have had to field questions about Quantum Mechanics and never realized it. When a toddler or young child asks a parent was asked, “What’s this made of?” they were being asked the most basic question in Quantum Physics. Usually our answer to this question assumes the child wants to only know the most rudimentary quality of the thing or object in question, but science is not satisfied with approximate answers or guesses. That is why scientists and mathematicians are blazing the trail in search understanding the basic components of matter.

IMAGE 2: Microscopic View of Carbon Atoms

Why mathematicians? Scientists have observed particles as small as an atom, but things smaller than atoms have so little mass and move so fast that it’s like trying to observe a fly on Earth from an observation post on a planet circling Alpha Centauri. We have reached the edge of what can be observed and we still need to see farther. This scientific observation gap is being filled by mathematics, which take ‘what we know’ about the behavior of matter at the quantum level and extrapolates what is theoretically possible, might be possible, and/or not possible from different theoretical models of the quantum world. Mathematicians have become the Sherlock Holmes of Quantum Physics by using deductive reasoning to narrow down the possibilities of the quantum world, in large part by determining what it can’t be.

For those of us who were taught that atoms (protons, electrons, and neutrons) were the most basic building blocks of matter, we have to reject that with the new knowledge that protons and neutrons are made of quarks. In turn, quarks and electrons seem to be made up of vibrating strings of energy that exist in multiple time/space dimensions. If this makes your head hurt, join the club.

REFERENCES AND NOTES:

¹Clarke, A. (Book/Screenwriter), Kubrick, S. (Producer/Screenwriter/Director). (1968). 2001:  A Space Odyssey [Motion Picture]. United States: MGM (original), Warner Brothers (current).

²Clarke, A. (Book), Hyams, P. (Producer/Screenwriter/Director). (1984). 2010:  The Year We Make Contact [Motion Picture]. United States: MGM.

IMAGE CREDITS:

IMAGE 1:  Image thanks to http://www.2001exhibit.org/scitech/time/thw-dennis2010.html

IMAGE 2:  Image thanks to http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=198340

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