Quantum Physics Is Very Real

Just ask the Nobel Prize committee: is quantum physics some sort of speculative new science? (A smart educated woman asked me, just a week ago, `What do you think about that quantum physics stuff?’, as though it were in the same category as theories of consciousness, speculations about the origin of life, and string theory.) No way: it’s all over your computers and cell phones; it’s in many modern light bulbs; it’s the laser that reads the prices at the grocery store and your ticket at a concert; it’s the heart of the best timepieces and the eyes of the best microscopes; it’s what makes solids solid and liquids flow, and powers chemical reactions and radioactivity; it’s probably playing a big role in biology that we’re just starting to understand; and it’s sunshine and moonlight and the glowing auroras borealis and australis.  It’s the foundation and fabric of your world.

And though it may be bizarre, it is by no means abstract.  Maybe in the early 1930s one could still say it was abstract; but already for many decades particle physicists have passively observed individual particles, one at a time, behaving in quantum mechanical ways.  Today scientists can control individual quantum objects, things whose behavior can only be predicted by accepting the odd rules and counter-intuitive implications of our quantum world.  In particular, physicists have learned to capture and manipulate individual photons (particles of light), atoms, and ions (atoms with an electron removed or added, to make them electrically charged — see the Figure below.)  It is for their work advancing these capabilities, making possible new classes of experiments and opening up the potential for new technologies, that Serge Haroche and David Wineland have won the Nobel Prize for 2012.  Read about it here (brief press release or summary for non-technical readers)… using your preferred quantum-mechanical device.

Light emitted from three individual ions of Beryllium, trapped and held in place for an extended period of time. (National Institute of Standards and Technology image gallery.)

27 thoughts on “Quantum Physics Is Very Real”

    • I never for a minute expected the Higgs-particle folks to get something this year. There’s no need for the Nobel Prize committee to make awards within two months of a discovery, especially since the evidence that the new particle really is a Higgs particle (as opposed to something else) is moderately compelling but by no means conclusive. We should have that evidence by March at the latest, which will set the committee up for a decision as to whether to make an award to the Higgs pioneers in 2013.

      Also, the committee has to decide how to handle the fact that there are still five living Higgs pioneers (Englert, Guralnik, Kibble, Hagen and Higgs himself — Brout unfortunately died too early to see his ideas were right). Since they have three people as their unofficial maximum, that’s a very thorny issue that will probably take a while to settle. They will have to violate their rules, or play favorites — either one will be extremely controversial.

        • Yeah. I think it is important to keep in mind that these five living pioneers have already won the only prize that really counts. It does not come with money, but no amount of money can buy you the joy and wonder and magic of having helped the human species learn something profound about our universe.

  1. Dear Dr. strassler :
    As we believe that quantum world is real , allow me to ask ; what prevents ALL quantum fields from having simultaneous interactions in ALL possible modes rendering the universe in a total chaos state ?

    • All quantum fields do have simultaneous interactions in all possible modes — in quantum mechanics all things that are possible do happen — but not with equal probability. Chaos is avoided because the probability of certain things happening (for instance, you and all your atoms slipping through a wall to the other side) is much smaller than the probability of other things happening (you continuing to sit in your chair and read my answer.) By “much smaller” I mean “muchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuchmuch…much smaller”.

  2. Professor Strassler.
    The provided “summary for non-technical readers” link apparently fails to open assumedly if it is the page you refer which can be accessed by scrolling down to “Information for the public” on the same page. Many thanks for your superb updates & keep up your good work. -Andrew.

  3. Back in high school before I started studying physics I used think the same way about quantum physics – that it’s some esoteric science of future with no real world applications in sight. In some sense, the fact that even educated (and future physics students) have such misconceptions about basic physics tells me that physicists have really failed to communicate with common people.

  4. Matt: “…these five living pioneers have already won the only prize that really counts. It does not come with money, but no amount of money can buy you the joy and wonder and magic of having helped the human species learn something profound about our universe.”

    If the new particle is not a Higgs, Higgs and the group might have miss-led the world for the past 50 years, instead of helped the human species learn something profound about our universe.

    After three months (not two) of the July 4th announcement, the data is not promising for Higgs. But, most importantly, the neutron decay can be explained with a much better mechanism instead of Higgs’. We will see.

    Truth has no way to fail.

    • Even if the discovered particle were finally not THE higgs, that would not mean that the higgs pioneers or anybody else has “mis-led” the world!

      Thinking honestly about theoretical ideas that seem to explain how things work but that can be proven wrong later, is just how the scientific method works.
      There is really no reason for accusing people, who had ideas that did not pan out or were shown to be incomplete as our knowledge increases, of doing something wrong, misleading, dishonest, etc

      • Going further: Even if this particle is not ANY kind of Higgs, It is still an (very!) advance in humanity’s understanding of the universe.

    • This question makes a few incorrect assumptions.

      Firstly Schrodinger’s cat paradox doesn’t explain anything, it’s a ‘thought experiment’ initially created to highlight the problems in current thinking. Namely, if particles really don’t collapse into something unless observed, then the ‘real world’ should behave rather oddly. Why doesn’t it? (trying this experiment with a real cat has very different results from those predicted.)

      This is the problem of superposition and decoherence, and one of the things people forget is that an ‘observer’ doesn’t need to be a human, (the cat is observing itself is it not?) or even alive. A particle can be ‘observed’ just by something else bumping into it.

      The second problem is assuming science is trying to explain ‘eternal life’; the mainstream scientific opinion is that there is no solid, reproducible evidence for eternal life; we cannot scatter protons off of heaven, and we’re quite sure that when someone dies they’re well… dead. Some scientists are looking at testing things like out of body experiences (With bright, simple pictures on the ceilings of operating theaters for example.) but most of our ‘evidence’ so far is just stories people have told. Even as a believer in the spiritual I don’t expect much proof to be forthcoming.

      Science would do better aiming for reincarnation, since we know that earth is made of stardust and that our atoms will, when we pass away quite quickly become part of another living thing. It’s almost poetic.

  5. I tell students on the first day of Quantum that these are the real rules of the universe. A colleague put it best: Objective Reality is an emergent concept.

  6. Quantum mechanics certainly seems to be an excellent explanation of (some) aspects of reality. It’s incomplete, but any new theory will have to reduce to QM at the scales QM operates at to be consistent with observation (just as general & special relativity reduce to Newtonian physics at small relative velocities/low gravities.)

    QM is abstract in the sense that any abstraction describing the world can be real, but it’s not a physical object. It’s no more abstract than any other theory of physics. I would say that it’s less abstract than a lot of theology, since it’s directly and observably related to reality. I’m not sure where to place mathematics on such a scale, but I think it’s probably less abstract than theology, since it seems that we discover new mathematical concepts in logical frameworks created from observation.

    Not directly related to this post, but I found the following paper interesting:

  7. Are we still assuming superposition because we don’t have the capability to see and measure (the flux tubes and/or the curvature of space due to the varying densities of energy and/or tunneling effects of high temperature regions) at that scale?

    What causes this upper limit on the speed of light?
    Is radiation real or the shadows of the real stuff?

  8. I like this Nobel in physics since it underlines the overall importance of QM. But I think that microbiologists, organical chemists etc who investigate how and under what conditions the first signs of life could have occured on earth are not just doing garbadge either …

    • … and efforts to understand how consciousness could emerge by coarse graining what the single neurons do for example to obtain an effective theory that describes the macroscopic observation of consciousness is certainly not only nonsense. I’ve heared in some video lectures about emergence recently announced on Cosmic Variance that neuroscientists, psychologists, and physicists are seriously working on this …

      • I believe that quantum entanglement, of the highest order, may have something to do about consciousness. Like Prof Strassler barely hinted, “it’s probably playing a big role in biology that we’re just starting to understand:” the dynamics at that small scale are so precise why wouldn’t play a major role in the macroscopic, classical world?

        And what about a universal consciousness that permeates all of spacetime, now that would be “Divine”. 🙂

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