Archives For quantum mechanics

grumpy_cat_600

A long time ago, I shared one of my favorite jokes about philosophers. It went like this. Once, a president of a large and prestigious university was asked who were his most expensive staff to fund. "Phycisists and computer scientists," he replied without hesitation, "they always want some brand new machine that costs a fortune to build and operate, not like mathematicians who only need paper, pencils, and erasers. Or better yet, my philosophers. Those guys don’t even need the erasers!" Yes, yes, I know, I’m a philosophical phillistine, I’ve been told of this so many times that I should start some sort of contest. But my lack of reverence for the discipline is not helped by philosophers who decide to speak up for their occupation in an age of big data and powerful, new tools for scientific experimentation to propose answers to new and ever more complex real world questions. Case in point, a column by Raymond Tallis declaring that physics is broken so much so that it needs metaphysics to pull itself back together and produce real results.

Physics is a discipline near and dear to my heart because certain subsets of it can be applied to cutting edge hardware, and as someone whose primary focus is distributed computing, the area of computer science which gives us all our massive web applications, cloud storage, and parallel processing, there’s a lot of value in keeping up with the relevant underlying science. And maybe there’s already an inherent bias here when my mind starts to wonder how metaphysics will help someone build a quantum cloud or radically increase hard drive density, but the bigger problem is that Tallis doesn’t seem to have any command of the scientific issues he declares to be in dire need of graybeards in tweed suits pondering the grand mechanics of existence with little more than the p’s and q’s of propositional logic. For example, take his description of why physics has chased itself into a corner with quantum mechanics…

A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

As science bloggers love to say, this isn’t even wrong. Tallis and Wallace have mixed up three very different concepts into a grab bag of confusion. Quantum mechanics can do very, very odd things that seem to defy the normal flow of time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t know the general topology of a quantum system. The oft cited and abused Uncertainty Principle is based on the fact that certain fundamental building blocks of the universe can function as both a wave and a particle, and each state has its own set of measurements. If you try to treat the blocks as particles, you can measure the properties of the particle state. If you try to treat them as waves, you can only measure the properties of the waves. The problem is that you can’t get both at the same exact time because you have to choose which state you measure. However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states. In other words, measurement of quantum systems is very possible.

All right, so this covers the Uncertainty Principle mixup, what about the other two concepts? The biggest problem in physics today is the lack of unification between the noisy quantum mechanics on the subatomic scale and the ordered patterns of general relativity. String theory and the very popular but nearly impossible to test many worlds theory tries to explain the effects of the basic forces that shape the universe on all scales in terms of different dimensions or leaks from other universes. So when Tallis says that it’s still 40 years and we don’t know which one is right, then piles on his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on top of Wallace’s seeming inability to tell the difference between multiverses and string theory, he ends up with the mess above. We get a paradox where there isn’t one and scope creep from particle physics into cosmology. Not quite a ringing endorsement of philosophy in physics so far. And then Tallis makes it worse…

The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

Again, a grab bag of not even wrong is supposed to sell us on the idea that a philosopher could help where our tools are pushed to their limits. Considering that Tallis dismisses the entire idea that neuroscience as a discipline has any merit, no wonder that he proclaims that we don’t have any clue of what consciousness is from a biological perspective. The fact is that we do have lots of clues. Certain patterns of brain activity are strongly associated with a person being aware of his or her environment, being able to meaningfully interact, and store and recall information as needed. It’s hardly the full picture of course, but it’s a lot more than Tallis thinks it is. His bizarre claim that scientists consider some nerve pulses to be conscious while the majority are said not to be is downright asinine. Just about every paper on the study of the conscious mind in a peer reviewed, high quality journal refer to consciousness as a product of the entire brain.

The rest of his argument is just a meaningless, vitalist word salad. If brain activity is irrelevant to consciousness, why do healthy living people have certain paterns while those who had massive brain injuries have different ones depending on the site of injury? Why do all those basic brain wave patterns repeat again and again in test after test? Just for the fun of seeing themselves on an EEG machine’s output? And what does it mean that it’s a surprising fact that we can perceive matter around us? Once again, hardly a serious testament to the usefulness of philosophers in science because so far all we got is meaningless questions accusing scientists of being unable to solve problems that aren’t problems by using a couple of buzzwords incorrectly, haphazardly cobbling bits of pieces of different theories into an overreaching statement that initially sounds well researched, but means pretty much nothing. Well, this is at least when we don’t have Tallis outright dismissing the science without explaining what’s wrong with it…

Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication.

Here we get a double whammy of Tallis getting the science wrong and deciding that he doesn’t like the existing ideas because they don’t pass his smell test. He’s combining competing ideas to declare them inconsistent within a unified framework, seeingly unaware that the hypotheses he’s ridiculing aren’t complimentary by design. Yes, we don’t know how the universe was created, all we have is evidence of the Big Bang and we want to know exactly what banged and how. This is why we have competing theories about quantum fluxes, virtual particles, branes, and all sorts of other mathematical ideas created in a giant brainstorm, waiting to be tested for any hint of a real application to observable phenomena. Pop sci magazines might declare that math proved that a stray quantum particle caused the Big Bang or that we were all vomited out by some giant black hole, or are living in the event horizon of one, but in reality, that math is just one idea. So yes, Tallis is right about the confusion under the algebra, but he’s wrong about why it exists.

And here’s the bottom line. If the philosopher trying to make the case for this profession’s need for inclusion into the realms of physics and neuroscience doesn’t understand what the problems are, what the fields do, and how the fields work, why would we even want to hear how he could help? If you read his entire column, he never does explain how, but really, after all his whoppers and not even wrongs, do you care? Philosophers are useful when you want to define a process or wrap your head around where to start your research on a complex topic, like how to create an artificial intelligence. But past that, hard numbers and experiments are required to figure out the truth, otherwise, all we have are debates about semantics which at some point may well turn into questions of what it means to exist in the first place. Not to say that this last part is not a debate worth having, but it doesn’t add much to a field where we can actually measure and calculate a real answer to a real question and apply what we learn to dive even further.

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industrial laser

Most of us learned about lasers from science fiction. We know that lasers come in red if you’re the bad guy, and green or blue if you’re the good guy. We know that they travel at the speed of sound between two space fighters, and they make a phew-phew sound when fired. And they all travel in perfect straight lines. Of course real lasers are very different. They come in all colors, depending on how they’re powered and fired, they’re silent, some are invisible until they reach the kind of energy levels used in fusion reactor prototypes when fired at a real world target, and they travel to their targets so quickly, they seem to flash into existence and disappear in an instant. Oh and they don’t always travel in a straight line. In fact, as noted elsewhere on the web by a scientist and science blogger, they can bend it like Schrodinger if they emit an Airy beam, curving slightly after passing through a filter that changes their quantum waveforms. Previously, this feat has only been accomplished with photons, but now, it’s been done with electrons.

Airy beams — named after a British astronomer who tried to solve Schrodinger’s equation in the field of optics — have a couple of very interesting properties. Not only do they curve, but they’re not as prone to diffraction as our run of the mill laser beams and they can heal themselves after hitting an obstacle that should severely diffuse them, reassembling to continue their curved path after passing through it. It’s even more impressive that electron Airy lasers behave just like their photon counterparts because that allows for significant improvements in electron microscopes, precision sensors, and possibly even alternative computer chip designs that can better control the flow of electrons through themselves. How do you get electrons to do such bizarre things? A specially designed hologram projected in front of an electron gun changes their quantum state and sends them on whatever trajectory you need them to follow. Pretty much anything that uses the flow of electrons to do something very precise in tight quarters can benefit from the ability to attach a sort of steering wheel to particles that would otherwise travel in straight lines.

Now it’s important to keep in mind that curving is not what makes this an Airy laser, it’s the ability to change the quantum states of the photons and electrons being fired, and being able to scale up such lasers could be huge not just in the lab or in specialized applications, but even for very common, everyday things like high speed wi-fi access, secure transmissions, and major gains in energy efficiency for a whole slew of electronic device we use on a regular basis. With so much talk about how much money is being "wasted" on basic research like this, it’s amazing how little attention has been paid for the possibilities Airy lasers can offer if we could integrate their key principles into today’s devices. After all, experiments like this one are the very definition of basic research. The science says something should be possible, let’s try it and see what happens. In this case, Israeli scientists showed that Airy lasers can indeed do some pretty cool things…

See: Voloch-Bloch, N., et al. (2013). Generation of electron Airy beams Nature, 494 (7437), 331-335 DOI: 10.1038/nature11840

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hello monster

Oh for crying out loud, I’m gone for a Murphy’s Law kind of week and as soon as I can get back to blogging, the universe is supposed to explode. Well at least it’s all uphill from here. I mean if the end of the universe in a random fiery explosion of quantum fluctuations isn’t the worst thing that could happen to us, what is? You can blame the Higgs boson for all this because due to its effects on matter as we know it, we can extend the known laws of the Standard Model one way and end up with a universe that’s more or less stable as it is today, but could easily be brought down to a lower energy level, which is a theoretical physicists’ euphemism for "cataclysmic blast violent enough to change the fabric of existence." All that’s needed is a little quantum vacuum and next thing you know, fireballs will engulf the entire cosmos at the speed of light.

Or at least that’s one way to read that data which makes for an exciting headline from what’s an otherwise very specialized conference where scientists throw around big ideas just to see if any seem to catch the mass media’s interest. You see, we just found out that matter is stable over a very, very long period of time, and we’re also pretty sure that tiny quantum instabilities happen pretty much all the time, forming virtual particle/anti-particle pairs, so little quantum vacuums in the depths of space shouldn’t force matter across the cosmos to start radiating energy. And on top of that, as noted by Joseph Lykken, the originator of the hypothesis, if the tiniest change to our current models has to be made after the LHC performs its next round of experiments in the next three years, the entire notion of a universe on the brink of disaster from a quantum vacuum has to go out the window. Suddenly, doomsday doesn’t seem so imminent, huh?

Basically this idea is like forecasting that humans will be exterminated by an alien horde one of these days. It’s not entirely unthinkable and it could happen, but the odds aren’t exactly high in favor of this event and we have very little reliable data to be used to make this prediction with any sort of concrete authority. Sure, the Standard Model is incredibly well tested and underpins much of what we know to be true about matter, but when it comes to its predictive powers for all things cosmic, it’s not exactly a crystal ball, more of a murky lake with odd shapes twitching and slithering underneath. So why would Lykken make such a claim? Remember the media interest part about the purpose of the meeting where the idea was aired? There you go. Now the media is abuzz with doomsday fever and people are talking about quantum physics on the web, exactly what the meeting’s organizers were hoping would happen.

Again, this could all be true, but if we consider that the claim was made for the press and laden with enough caveats to make it more or less a wild guesstimate based on a hunch rather than a peer reviewed body of work on entropy with an attempt at the Grand Unification Theory, I’d say that it’s a pretty safe bet of be very skeptical of this one. Though it’s rather hard not to concede that "instantaneous death by quantum collapse of the cosmos" would be a pretty badass cause of death on your official paperwork because you could well claim that when you went down, you took the entire damn universe with you in a fiery explosion. Just a thought…

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beyond absolute zero

Suppose you take some potassium atoms and put them in a vacuum where you cool them to as close to absolute zero as you possibly can in a lab. What you’ve done is reduced the entropy of this system of atoms because the colder it gets, the less kinetic energy they have, and the less energy they could exchange with each other. Sure there will be some quantum effects that will upset the perfect stillness of these atoms which is why it’s theorized that we’ll never see absolute zero temperatures in the wild, but for all intents and purposes, you’ve hit the coldest that matter can get. Now, with a laser, start heating up the atoms but charge them so they attract each other and stay in their place in the system. Their energy goes up but they can’t exchange it or move in any direction. The overall entropy of the system is now technically less and you’ve just broken a limit we had the gall to preface with the word "absolute." You’ve effectively "cooled" potassium to a billionth of a degree below absolute zero, or at least to a quantum state that seems like it.

This is exactly what a team of scientists recently achieved in the lab and they’re excited about a slew of possible experiments to test the behavior of atoms and molecules in an exotic quantum state, opening new avenues for investigating the nature of dark matter and dark energy. As the media reports it, they managed to chill something below -273.15 °C, but take a moment to note that the word cooled in the description of the experiment is in quote marks. That’s because they didn’t actually go below this temperature. What they really did is way, way more complicated and has actually been long thought possible, just never accomplished. Absolute zero is still important because it marks a point at which injecting energy into a system changes how its distributed. For the positive temperature range, which in this case is anything above absolute zero, more energy brings more atoms to the same energy state. Negative temperatures, however, make exchange of energy much more difficult and can create inequalities between the atoms’ energy states.

Again, seems rather counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? In this setup, positive temperatures should be the low entropy ones, right? Well, in this range, atoms can move and exchange their energy with no limit which means that their possible number of quantum states could be infinite. Atoms which have to deal with negative temperature have a limit to how many energy states they could be in, meaning that you can keep injecting energy into the system but it will be more or less trapped in the atoms and the lattice will remain stable rather than fly apart as the atoms start moving more and more in response. In short, when you go into negative temperatures, you lower entropy as you add energy with the bizarre added twist that as you initially heat up the atoms, they could be in an infinite amount of energy states, then abruptly find themselves trapped in ever fewer. Just another way quantum mechanics makes things fun, and by fun I mean really, really weird.

So what does this all mean? It means that in this case, absolute zero has nothing to do with how cold things are, but how energy states are distributed in a system, and while we thought that this temperature was the dividing line between the two types of energy distribution, this is really the first experimental proof we have that this can happen in nature. If this seems really confusing, it is, because this is just the complicated nature of the beast. But knowing that one can achieve a negative temperature under the right conditions means that you can explore an entire realm of very bizarre quantum states what could explain otherwise seemingly inexplicable behaviors, one of which could offer an explanation for dark energy and give experimentally verifiable answers to one of cosmology’s biggest mysteries. And while yours truly would love to dive deeper into these possibilities, it may be best for everyone just to digest what we have so far and get ready for the imminent flood of Twitter and Facebook posts about cooling things below absolute zero…

See: Braun, S., et al. (2013). Negative absolute temperature for motional degrees of freedom Science, 339 (6115), 52-55 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227831

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schroedinger's cat

Here’s what sounds like a rather typical experiment with quantum mechanics. A pair of devices we’ll call Alice and Bob, or A and B in cryptographic parlance, measure entangled photons which we know can be entangled at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light. A third device called Victor, or an intermediary in the very same cryptographic convention that we just used, will randomly choose to entangle or not to entangle another pair of photons. So of course when Victor entangles its pair of photons, Bob and Alice would find the photons to be entangled, right? Except there’s a catch. Victor entangles or doesn’t entangle its photons after Alice and Bob already made their measurements. Barring some sort of technical guffaw in the setup, Alice and Bob are basically predicting what Victor will do or somehow influencing Victor’s supposedly random choice of whether to entangle its photons or not. In other words, causality just took a lead pipe to the kneecap as past and future are crossing wires on a subatomic level. This shouldn’t happen because the two pairs of entangled photons are not related to each other and Victor is dealing with a photon from each pair, and yet, it’s happening.

One of the reasons why the names of the devices are in cryptographic convention is because cryptography is the best way to follow what’s actually happening. Imagine sending two secure e-mails containing two entirely separate passwords to two friends, then, after these e-mails have been received, forwarding copies of those passwords to a system administrator who might just randomly reset them. And when those passwords are reset, somehow, your two friends get the new passwords instead of the ones you just sent them even though the system administrator hasn’t even received the original ones to reset yet. This prompts the question of why and how in the hell this could possibly happen. According to the researchers, we could view the measures of the photons’ states not as a discrete result but a sort of probability list of their possible states, i.e. they’re both entangled and not entangled depending on what will happen through the rest of the system. Then, when their fate is decided, the waveform collapses into the particular result like the famous Schrödinger’s cat taken one notch higher up the causality ladder, and which will only be truly dead or alive when the observer writes down the result of his or her observations into the official logbook after another observer confirms them.

Hold on though, what about the entanglement being nearly instantaneous? Maybe it’s more simple than all of this mumbo jumbo about collapsing waveforms and we don’t need to awaken the zombie of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics? Victor could have entangled the photons and the spooky action moving much, much faster than the speed of light reached the detectors before the first measurements. We broke the rules of special relativity which dictate that information can’t travel faster than light, but surely this is a far more elegant solution, right? Unfortunately, we can’t prove that information travels faster than light as shown by the neutrino saga at the OPERA labs, and until we find a way to detect honest to goodness tachyons, we have to follow the special relativity framework, and in the experiment, the each half of the photon pair was measured a few femtoseconds prior to reaching Victor. Granted, since a glitch in OPERA’s fiendishly delicate arrangement turned into a 60 nanosecond error, surely a femtosecond or two discrepancy could be caused by a bad angle or a tiny manufacturing defect inside of the fiber optic wire as well. This is why the researchers suggest more experiments using much longer wires to make sure that the delay is even longer to see if their results will be further supported. However, the experimental setup here has been well calibrated and seems rather unlikely to be subject to a systematic error, so you probably shouldn’t bet the farm on their results being wrong.

Provided that future research validates their experiment, what does this mean for practical applications? Well, we may not have to cool a quantum computer to near absolute zero to measure its output if we can simply collapse the waveform with an algorithm that uses it as an input. Furthermore, we could implement quantum computer-like features in photonic computing for speeding up ordinarily time consuming processes we can’t readily parallelize across several CPUs with an algorithm that tries to collapse the waveforms on all possible relationships between objects, or all objects with a certain value. So obviously this is an exciting result and it’s interesting to think about all the things we could do with this quantum phenomenon in the realm of computing and ultimately, communications technology. And one also wonders whether objects much bigger than run of the mill photons can be induced to laugh in causality’s face by being cooled to near absolute zero since in the recent past, experiments have shown that objects much larger than we’d think can adopt the odd behaviors of subatomic particles and what we can ultimately do with these super-cooled pseudo-quantum things. But first and foremost, as with any groundbreaking and bizarre experiment, it may be a good idea to replicate it to rule out any interference or technical anomalies to avoid another OPERA-esque drama…

See: Ma, X., et al. (2012). Experimental delayed-choice entanglement swapping NatPhys DOI: 10.1038/nph…

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Here’s an oldie but a very persistent one, almost magically rearing its physics-defying head at random in pop sci articles describing a potential breakthrough in energy generation like fusion, or lamenting potential future shortages of energy as our demands grow. Back in the 1970s or the 1980s, maverick scientists not working for greedy conglomerates not only discovered zero point energy but also how to harness it into an infinite and extremely cheap power source. Needless to say, energy companies weren’t having any of this free or virtually free energy stuff and proceeded to either buy patents to zero point energy machines, intimidate the scientists into staying silent about their discoveries, or even outright kill them, then disguise their dirty work as accidents or a sudden illness. And this is why instead of buzzing around the galaxy in shiny new warp drives feeding off the expansion of the fabric of space and time itself, we’re burning dead plans and heating water with uranium pellets. It’s because the man keeps us down to make a buck. Well it’s either that or those who believe that an infinite source of energy is out in the quantum wild seem to have a profound misunderstanding of physics…

Now there really is such a thing as zero point energy and some of the weirder constructs in quantum physics known as virtual particles, detected by measuring the Casimir effect in a lab, are tied into this concept. But in true popular conspiracy style, those who believe that we can harness it to drive a post-industrial revolution are far too focused on the energy part to take note of the zero point prefix. And that prefix is the important part here because rather then denoting that there’s energy floating in nothingness, there for the taking with enough tech savvy and the right tools for the job, it’s really a measurement akin to absolute zero. Just like -273.15 °C is the coldest to which an object can possibly be cooled, zero point energy is the lowest possible energetic state an object can achieve. Of course zero point does not really mean that there’s zero energy in a system because a number of quantum phenomena, such as virtual particles randomly popping in and out of the fabric of space and time, would mean that there’s never truly zero energy within a physical structure. And that’s why physicists think that truly attaining absolute zero and ceasing entropy is just not possible, although there are objects in space very close to the absolute zero threshold and we can generate even colder temperatures in labs to do things like create exotic fluids and materials and test CPU components for quantum computers.

So what zero point energy proponents are really saying, if we apply their terminology to real physics, is that an object with the lowest energy state it can achieve in nature can be used to power our cities. How will that work out exactly? Isn’t their proposal a bit like saying that we should ditch our nuclear power plants and replace all of them with just one narcoleptic hamster on a wheel? How efficient will that be at providing all the megawatt hours a modern metropolis needs to keep all its automated systems running and beam enough power into a few million homes and tens of thousands of offices to keep modern life humming along? Even if through very complex devices we could extract energy from the quantum mesh (and there are news of a study saying that it can be done submitted to a top journal for publication), the gains are bound to be meager. Think about it. If particles in their least energetic state are actually brimming with immense power, wouldn’t they tear apart just about every atom in the universe by uniformly driving the expansion of the space-time fabric as they fluctuate? Were zero point energy an efficient and effective power source, we should be nothing more than a four trillion degree hot quark-gluon plasma broiling for billions of years across immeasurably long manifolds of space.

Considering that particles constantly collide, zipping around space at either the speed of light or very close to it, constantly bombarding everything from planets, to stars, to us, and still generate just barely enough energy to be harnessed for more than wiggling a few atoms around in highly specialized instruments, how can their stationary cousins in a vacuum possibly be harnessed to do anything more useful than help scientists test a novel hypothesis about the quantum world? But of course the zero point conspiracy theory isn’t about science or terminology. It, like much of traditional UFO folklore, is really about the theorists’ disappointment with how slowly our species is advancing in science and technology compared to their favorite sci-fi novels, and a long standing distrust and suspicion of massive energy conglomerates and their motives. I’m sure we can agree that questioning how energy companies deal with technologies that can challenge their business models is certainly not unwarranted, especially considering how oil companies managed to help turn the discussion of global warming into partisan shouting matches in order to keep the industry’s status quo. And we should be asking whether energy companies employ executives with minds open enough to integrate a new technology. But that technology needs to exist first, or at least be physically possible before we start asking…

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Have you ever wondered about the anatomy of a neutron star? You probably already know that it’s wrapped in an immensely dense crust a cubic centimeter of which would weigh as much as a small mountain on Earth, and that something akin to an atmosphere might be sloshing around the surface, periodically emitting death beams from its poles. But what about its innards? Since the deeper you go, the more exotic the matter would become, what could we expect in the extreme conditions in the cores of neutron stars? How do we describe the basic composition of one of these stellar cadavers? Well, according to a pair of new new studies, neutron stars are dense and crunchy on the outside with a liquid, superconducting center which forms when neutrons under extreme pressures behave like frictionless fluids. How do we know? Well, it seems that neutrons stars’ cores liquefy with age and as they do, they release a steady stream of neutrinos and cool these massive and turbulent cosmic corpses. The evidence for this theory comes from observations of a neutron star located at the center Cassiopeia A, a neutron star which mysteriously cooled by 800,000 degrees in just a decade.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, this stellar remnant isn’t exactly extinguishing itself since it’s still several million degrees hot, but its 4% drop in temperature is still pretty significant. If you combined that rapid drop in temperature with its steady neutrino emissions, you might just gather some clues about what’s happening on the inside of this object. The best explanation so far seem to be neutrons combining into a quantum fluid in a nice and cozy temperature range of 500 million to 1.8 billion K. In this heat and under crushing pressures just one quantum state away from puncturing the fabric of space and time as we know it, this neutron fluid would churn, helping to conduct massive electromagnetic currents while cooling the stellar remnant inside which it’s trapped. Oddly enough, you can create this odd, frictionless, resistance-less fluid right here on Earth, provided you have access to a lab in which you can lower temperatures within a whisker of absolute zero. Then you can have all sorts of fun with a liquid that can crawl up walls and seep through hermetically sealed containers. But in their apparently natural habitat, this superfluid would be immensely hot, entombed in a hyper-dense shell of degenerate matter for eons on end. Or at least that’s as far as we seem to know…

Of course the only way to really find out what’s inside of a neutron star is to fly to one and crack it open to look at what’s there, but incidentally, that feat would release exponentially more energy than any hypernova, be felt across an entire galaxy, and instantly disintegrate anyone crazy enough to try it. That means we’ll be restricted to observing these cosmic corpses from a distance and guessing what lies inside them by inference, using a number of constantly updated mathematical models. Still, what we have been able to measure and deduce in the decades since we’ve discovered these weird aftermaths of star death is pretty amazing, and we do know that the superfluids we think their cores contain exist because we’ve actually managed to make them on Earth and created their insanely hot relatives in real world quantum oddity, known as quark gluon plasmas, in some of our top supercolliders. So while it’s going to be very hard to conclusively prove that there’s really a quantum liquid surging with energy at the core of a neutron star, all the physics and measurements seem to agree with the idea, and for all intents and purposes, we could start revising our basic conception of its structure.

See: Page, D., et al. (2011). Rapid Cooling of the Neutron Star in Cas A Triggered by Neutron Superfluidity in Dense Matter Physical Review Letters, 106 (8) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.081101

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Just as computer scientists and famous tech evangelists who wholeheartedly embrace the utopian outlines for Technological Singularity make me groan, so do woo-espousing physicians send Orac up a wall. In this case, the subject of our common ire is Dr. Robert Lanza who claims to have evidence for what happens the flow of time after death while ineptly plagiarizing Deepak Chopra’s quantum nonsense on that repository of unabashed New Age quackery and crankery, the Huffington Post. In fact, Lanza’s column could easily rival the vacuous rambling of pseudo-philosopher Dinesh D’Souza on the subject, leaving me wondering how an MD with an impressive research record and several science books under his belt could deem something as bad as this worthy of publication anywhere but some New Age spirituality magazine… Oh, wait, right. Never mind.

Though I should be a good skeptic and proper investigator who examines all claims with as few preconceived notions as possible, I have to admit that most links to HuffPo featuring a doctor of something or other instantly sends my woo alarm (woo-larm?) into overdrive because I know that the odds of that column diving both feet first into abject inanity are generally very high. Consider Deepak Chopra’s eruptions against his skeptics, the flood of quacktastic alt med woo, the intellectual laziness of Ervin Laszlo, or the idiocy of Dr. Larry Dossey’s screed comparing scientific education to child abuse. I think I have some pretty good reasons not to expect reasonable content on HuffPo outside of Michael Shermer’s and Steve Newton’s articles. And Lanza’s attempt at playing into the much fetishized role of a New Age shaman-scientist isn’t helping to sway me otherwise. To show you why, allow me to present his thesis about what happens to us after death.

… What happens when we die? Do we rot into the ground, or do we go to heaven (or hell, if we’ve been bad)? Experiments suggest the answer is simpler than anyone thought. Without the glue of consciousness, time essentially reboots.

You know, I’d sure like to see some of those experiments because last I heard, what actually happens during a near death experience, or after clinical death, is still an open question. We know that as the body is about to die, the brain goes into overdrive and generates bizarre, dream-like experiences. In rare cases, patients who underwent clinical death or experienced a state very close to it for a risky and complex surgery, give us highly accurate accounts of esoteric surgical tools or the surgeons’ mannerisms when they should be unconscious and seeing only their dreams. Were they suddenly awoken and really saw what was going on in a dream-like haze? Did they tap into some bizarre natural phenomenon that gave them superhuman perception that could kick in when we’re on the verge of death, kind of like how our muscles can develop superhuman strength in a life or death situation thanks to a surge of adrenaline? We don’t know.

We really want to find out what’s going on but this is so far on the edge of science and so reliant on personal recollections under immense stress, that an objective investigation is incredibly difficult. So what experiments have been able to show that time literally stops for us when we die? Lanza isn’t saying. Instead, he tells us a long, cryptic and pointless story about his childhood, and throws around terms borrowed from quantum woo that holds human consciousness to be at the center of reality as we know it, i.e. absolute bunk. I know of only one theory of quantum consciousness that even tries to use real science and even this idea doesn’t answer basic questions about self-awareness and cognition in any meaningful way. To use one’s ineptitude in very commonly known facts about quantum mechanics as proof that time, a property of the universe itself, is totally reliant on the human experience, is a sign of phenomenal arrogance and reprehensible ignorance.

True, the dynamics of the quantum world can be truly bizarre, but to think that electrons and atoms actually care how we decide to measure them or whether or not we’re self-aware enough to recognize why atoms are important to the universe at large, is nothing more than vapid self-aggrandizing. And if anything, what we could all learn from the doctors on HuffPo promoting this kind of inanity is what physicians you probably should try to avoid if you’re sick and need some medical attention. Maybe some of them great doctors in practice, but I’d be very distrustful if the doctor looking at a CAT scan of my brain is trying to realign, rotate and balance a chakra rather than make sure I don’t have anything abnormal near any important cortex, and knowing that my doctor is completely woo-free and can easily explain to me what he’s prescribing, why and how it works, gives me quite a bit of relief. Not to mention plenty of interesting, real facts to learn about my own body and how it works.

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Richard Feyman once remarked “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics” and virtually every cutting edge experiment in the field seems to prove him right. Well, to be fair, physicists understand quite a bit about quantum mechanics but there are still quite a few mysteries to clarify including that of quantum entanglement. Usually, when you entangle two particles like photons they can be described by the same wave functions even if there are huge distances between them. But how? Do they just instantly mirror each other or is there some sort of delay in when the phenomenon spreads between the entangled photons? That’s what physicists in Switzerland tried to find out with pretty amazing results and as it turns out, while most phenomena in the universe fall in line with the rules of relativity, the quantum world acts as if it’s only begrudgingly obeying them, barely avoiding violating them through technicalities.

After a stream of entangled photons was fired through a fiber optic cables which split them to hit detectors 11 miles apart, the photons were still showing all the signs of entanglement after hitting their detectors. For that to happen, the quantum phenomenon must have been traveling faster than the speed of light. In fact, the math suggests an astonishing 10,000 times the speed of light if not outright instantaneously. But hold on a second, doesn’t that violate special relativity which dictates that nothing can move faster than the speed of light except the fabric of space itself? Well, the catch is that you shouldn’t be able to transmit any sort of information with a quantum phenomenon because you’re only learning about the photon’s states after they hit the detectors, and photons can only travel at the speed of light so the speed of light limit is technically not being violated. So even though we can induce macro objects to exhibit quantum phenomena, there’s a limit to when we can actually collect any information about what’s happening to them.

See: Salart, D., et al. (2008). Testing the speed of ‘spooky action at a distance’ Nature, 454 (7206), 861-864 DOI: 10.1038/nature07121

[ photo illustration by Derek Prospero ]

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Imagine driving down the highways of the future in a car that could teleport. Or at least behave as if it teleports because as we discussed a while ago, there seems to be no evidence of true teleportation for objects bigger than atoms. So let’s say you decide to get around some traffic up ahead, push a big red button, and you along with your car break apart into countless atoms traveling at the speed of light, joined by quantum entanglement for a fraction of a second, then reassemble ahead of the traffic jam as if nothing happened. But wait, there’s a police car right in front of you as you and your car coalesce back into your original form. Should you prepare to pull over and think of a good way to get out of an imminent speeding ticket? Or are you well within the law?

The technicality in this matter is whether you were actually moving. According to the strict physical definition of teleportation, there’s no traveling happening when an object changes its position in space and time. So if you aren’t moving, you’re not traveling above the speed limit. And if you’re not an obstruction for other vehicles as a cloud of atoms and various subatomic particles tangled together, you’re not under the speed limit either. This means that your teleportation, however bizarre, should be within the law. If you actually teleported. Remember the important note above about the physical limits of honest to goodness teleportation. For any macro objects to travel in a way resembling teleportation requires that they be broken down into their individual components which can only move at the speed of light in a vacuum at their fastest. Even traveling through our atmosphere, they’ll move just a little bit slower. And this is where we might hit a little legal snag.

Instead of teleporting in the quantum mechanical sense of the word, you were traveling at roughly 671 million miles per hour and exceeding the speed limit by a factor of 10.3 million. Which would probably be the cost of your ticket, if your license isn’t revoked and your super-car impounded by a particularly harsh traffic court. Then again, to actually write you a ticket and enforce the punishment, an officer has to have proof that you really did exceed the posted speed limit. That means the police radar has to register you in mid-relativistic jump, a task that’s way outside the capabilities of standard issue law enforcement equipment. Then again, if you bought a teleporting car, one could argue that someone would’ve come up with the technology to track this sort of thing and there will be some sort of an official law to govern pseudo-teleportation on a local level…

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