When speaking with students interested in engineering I emphasize that you don’t need to visualize science like Einstein or love math like Newton. But… Even as a middling student throughout my math and science education, I cultivated a genuine curiosity for the theoretical discoveries at the boundaries of our knowledge of physics. The guided tour that I took through Fermilab some years ago left me with the happy conclusion that science fiction is real (see my three part series on particle physics… Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
Though particle physics plays out in the infinitesimal scale, it still feels tangible. Even a toddler can relate to observing the consequences of smashing things together. On the other hand, quantum mechanics requires equal parts blind faith in science and a capacity for mental distortion of what you think you know. Despite the fantastical nature of quantum theory, its tenants shape our word. With a little bit of creativity and humor, I believe I can even associate it with the real world of building design. Always one to relate the things I learn to my own profession, I drew some similarities between quantum theory and the building construction industry. After the actual science, below I’ve included a tongue-in-cheek corollary with my Quantum Theory of Architecture.
Physicist Brian Greene recently starred in a Nova series about quantum theory and the stranger-than-fiction reality being realized by physicists today. Though the theory dates back to the early 20th century, engineers are learning to turn the science to practical innovation that might soon revolutionize computing and eventually enable teleportation.
The basic principle and naming of quantum physics is related to the measurement of Quanta or energy blocks emitted by electrons. A quantum leap is the process of an electron jumping orbits. When electrons drop down from higher energy states, energy is emitted as light. Specific wavelengths corresponds to specific colors, but not all the colors of the spectrum are represented. When researchers superheated gas to emit light they noticed that the refracted beam resulted in clear color bands, not a spectrum.
The missing light spectrum weirded out the scientists until quantum theory was used to posit that the energy discharged as electrons move between concentric orbits must be a fixed value. This is something like a motor needing to be in one gear or another. An electron cannot choose just any energy level. These defined quantities of energy are the Quanta. So far, so good?
As researchers began to monitor the movement of the atomic particles, they were again confounded to find that their predictions were often times wrong. This was particularly disconcerting in the case of the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, particles are sent through a screen with two slits. You might think of a bowling ball passing through a gap in two boards. You would expect if the pins were simply lined up in a row across the alley, that a pin directly beyond a gap would be knocked down. Instead of the rational outcome, the researchers observed the particles converging on the areas directly behind the impenetrable walls of the screen.
The resulting theory imagined that the movement of the particles ought to be visualized more like the ripple of a wave than a singular object. With two slits, a single wave is broken in two and the resulting waves cause areas of interference behind the wall where it is most likely the particles will end up. Researches coined this the visualization of a probability wave.
The scientific community was initially split over the idea that one could not predict precisely where electrons will go. Repeated tests showed to a high degree of confidence that it was possible to predict the probability that a particle would find any particular path. No less venerated mind than Albert Einstein resisted the theory declaring, “…He (God) does not throw dice.” Neils Bohr, the father of quantum theory, retorted, “don’t tell god what to do!”
The foundation of quantum physics enabled the digital revolution. We have successfully harnessed the electron as a beast of burden for the digital economy. Now physicists are looking beyond the binary application of electrons toward quantum computing. Instead of limiting each particle to just one bit (0 or 1) of data, we should be able to process a multitude of outcomes concurrently by riding the probability wave. Since particles can be in many places at one, you could try all paths at once and identify the correct solution on first path. Real research in quantum computing is under way. Recent exposés related to the National Security Administration’s (NSA) domestic spying also hyped the NSA’s budget for research in quantum computing. Such computing power would be able to break any code and allow every digital conversation to be read and analyzed.
Quantum theory requires one to accept that Nature is ruled by probability, not certainty. This causes a huge problem for physical research because, the act of measurement thereby resolves the uncertainty in the experiment. Basically, it can be reasoned philosophically that it is the act of measurement itself that forces a particle to choose a path, spin,or take on some other quality. Einstein despaired, “do you really think the moon isn’t there if you aren’t looking at it?”
But here’s where it starts to get really cool… Two particles can become entangled when close together and with similar characteristics. Using the direction of spin in electrons as a case study, you might imagine two raffle wheels with alternating red and blue stops. If entangled, when one wheel stops on red, the other always stops immediately on blue. And when I say immediately stops, I mean that very instant. The other crazy thing is that entanglement holds over very long distances, like to the other side of the moon, and there’s no physical connection. Einstein’s universal speed limit set by the speed of light can apparently be broken by a phenomenon quite seriously described by physicists as spooky action.
Lest you think this is all just theoretical mumbo-jumbo, John Stewart Bell actually devised an experiment to test spooky action in the real world. John Clauser later constructed a machine capable of comparing thousands of entangled particles. The details of this prize winning work is beyond the understanding of mere mortals like myself, but long since imagined by science fiction writers. Spooky action makes teleportation theoretically possible.
A lab in the canary islands is now teleporting photons (light particles). The process Requires three particles. First you split two entangled particles, keeping one at hand and moving the other to your destination by conventional means. Teleportation is achieved by forcing one of the entangled particles to assume the characteristics of a third unique particle that you want to send long distance. The receiving entangled particle will immediately assume the properties of their mate, creating a duplicate copy in the new location. Obviously, many obstacles remain before the real life Spock or Kirk are first beamed aboard, not least of which is the moral and ethical questions associated with all the resulting clones. It begs the philosophical question, is it just information that makes you, you?
Exploring quantum physics from here just gets heavier. Like, if particles can occupy all these myriad positions and characteristics simultaneously, why does our world appear so stable? Proponents of the multiverse theory might argue that we just happen to occupy the one of a nearly infinite number of possible universes that quite uniquely maintains order though each successive chance behavior of a subatomic particle. String theory offers the possibility that multiple universes are tied together, each particle representing just one data point on a curve or “string” charting conditions between universes.
For now, I’m content to observe the ongoing research in theoretical physics like a sci-fi fan waiting for their favorite author’s next release. Thankful that it’s not my job to write science fiction or solve the many unanswered questions tackled by physicists, I have instead drafted my own fan fiction linking quantum theory to my personal expertise.
The postulates of Quantum Architecture as applied to building columns.
- A column cannot be finitely located until constructed and surveyed. This outcome can be correlated with the planned location defined by the contract drawings only through probability.
- Until the first structural drawings are issued, columns exist in no rationally definable space. They may pop in and out of existence in any printing of the drawings. Their positions cannot be determined through the use of Newtonian physics.
- The only position that a column cannot occupy is the one first chosen by the structural engineer.
- A column grid cannot define the position of all columns in one particular building.
- String theory allows columns to vary in plan location from floor to floor.
- Entanglement applies to columns laid out using building information modeling software. Spooky BIM action may result in distant columns taking on the same characteristics.
- After contract documents have been issued by the structural engineer, moving a column requires a significant expenditure in energy, sometimes manifested in clenched fists and emission of loud vocalizations of discontent.
- The energy expenditure increases again if the move occurs after construction has started, this time the audible manifestation is voiced by multiple parties.
- If the change occurs after erection of the column, the energy intensifies to such degree that a black hole of progress forms and sucks all the energy out of any other process taking place concurrently on the site. The resulting gravitational field attracts attorneys.
- The importance of a column being located on site with high precision is inversely proportional to the probability that it is erected properly. The act of measurement itself can therefore be said to reduce the accuracy of placement as shown through empirical evidence.
Feel free to use the comment section below to add your own truisms.