Quantum physics blew us away 6 times in 2022

Quantum physics blew us away 6 times in 2022

  • Science
  • December 19, 2022
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The quantum world defies common sense at every turn. Shaped by biological evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, our modern human brain struggles to make sense of things outside of our familiar naturalistic context. It’s easy to understand a predator chasing its prey across a grassy plain; Understanding almost everything that goes on at the subatomic level can take years of intense science and lots of gnarly math. It’s no surprise, then, that every year physicists come up with startling new ideas and discoveries reaped from the deep foundations of reality, far beyond the limits of our perception. Here, Scientific American highlights some of our favorites from 2022.

The universe is kind of, kind of unreal

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to researchers who have spent decades proving that the universe is not locally real – a feat which, to quote humorist Douglas Adams, “has enraged many people greatly and is widely considered worse.” move is considered”. “Local” here means that each object – for example an apple – can only be influenced by its immediate surroundings, not by events on the other side of the universe. “Real” means that every object has certain properties regardless of how it’s viewed – no amount of squinting will turn an apple from red to green. Except that careful, repeated experimentation with entangled particles has conclusively shown that such seemingly reasonable constraints do not always apply to the quantum domain, the most fundamental level of reality that we can measure. If you’re not sure what exactly the demise of local realism means for life, the universe, and, well, everything, don’t worry: you’re not alone—physicists are confused too.

Lasers create time crystals and portals to higher dimensions

Despite appearing like plot elements from a sci-fi cult film, two independent articles published earlier this year describe far from fictional ways of harnessing light at the quantum frontier. In one study, researchers reported the first-ever construction of laser-based time crystals, quantum systems that exhibit crystal-like periodic structures not in space but in time. In the other, a team studied in detail how precise patterns of laser pulses caused ion chains to behave like a never-before-seen phase of matter that occupies two dimensions in time. The former study could lead to cheap, rugged microchips to create time crystals outside of labs. The latter proposes a method for boosting the performance of quantum computers. However, for most of us, these studies may be the most useful for sounding smart at cocktail parties.

Quantum telepathy conquers an unbeatable game

The Mermin-Peres Magic Square (MPMS) game is the kind of competition that can only be won by not playing. In this dark cousin of Sudoku, two participants take turns adding the value of +1 or -1 to cells in a three-by-three grid to collectively meet a win condition. Although players must coordinate their actions to succeed, they are not allowed to communicate. And even if each guesses the other’s move correctly, the pair can still only win eight of the game’s nine rounds – unless they play a quantum version. If qubits (which can swap values ​​between +1 and -1) are used to fill each cell, two players can theoretically pull off a perfect run, avoiding conflicting moves for all nine turns. In practice, however, the chances of correctly guessing every move are negligible. But through careful use of the entanglement between qubits, players can guess each other’s actions during each turn without actually communicating — an annoying technique known as quantum pseudotelepathy. In July, researchers published a paper reporting their successful real-world demonstration of this strategy to achieve flawless performance. It’s not all fun and games either: work like this explores the fundamental limits of how information can be exchanged between entangled particles.

Testing the untestable unruh effect

According to the tenets of quantum field theory – a difficult marriage between Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the quantum mechanics used to model the behavior of subatomic particles – empty space is not really empty. Instead, what we perceive as emptiness is filled with overlapping energetic fields. Fluctuations in these fields can create photons, electrons, and other particles essentially out of “nowhere.” Of the various bizarre phenomena predicted from such strange circumstances, the strangest is the Unruh effect, a warm veil of ghostly particles conjured up by any object accelerating through a vacuum. Named after the theorist Bill Unruh, who described it in 1976, this effect is so subtle that it has not yet been observed. That could soon change if a tabletop experiment proposed in April is successful. The experiment involves accelerating a single electron through an intense and carefully configured electromagnetic field. This setup should lower the acceleration threshold for the visible manifestation of the Unruh effect and increase the chances of catching a glimpse of its elusive quantum glow, the proposers say.

A new perspective on Quantum Spin

Not all of the counter-intuitive quirks of quantum physics are linked to natural causes. Some are arguably more self-inflicted, resulting from questionable choices made by researchers in naming and describing particular phenomena. Consider the case of quantum “spin,” the term attached to the angular momentum inherent in elementary particles. The term is confusing because such particles cannot physically spin — if they just kept spinning subatomic tops, their rotation would be incredibly fast, well in excess of the speed of light. However, quantum spin is crucial in explaining the observed behavior of electrons and other particles: although they may not actually be physically spinning, the particles are clearly doing something. Exactly what that “something” is can be captured with great accuracy by mathematical equations, but its causal physical basis remains obscure. A relatively new (and very controversial) hypothesis invokes quantum field theory to explain it. In this proposal, particles (arising from fluctuations in quantum fields) gain their spin (angular momentum) from their original fields, much like a turbine being spun by the wind. “If that’s where the angular momentum is,” says the Scientific American article on the idea, “the problem of an electron spinning faster than the speed of light disappears; The area of ​​the field that carries an electron’s spin is much larger than the supposedly point-like electron itself.”

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