In 2022, three physicists won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on “scary” quantum entanglement. Some quantum researchers are now planning to hold a Halloween party in the subatomic world. There, they hope to experience first-hand the strange quantum effects that have long fueled their imaginations.
But what would the subatomic world look like and how would we get there?
The quantum realm
The good news is that the quantum world is not far away. We live there. Quantum mechanical theory describes the entire universe, including the everyday world we know. However, at the macroscopic level, strange quantum effects are relatively weak and difficult to perceive.
To easily experience quantum weirdness, a human would have to shrink to about the size of an atom, says Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. The problem with this is that all atoms are about the same size and cannot themselves shrink. Humans are made up of about seven octillion atoms, and all of those atoms should cram into a space the size of an atom. A shrunken human would be unimaginably dense.
Read more: What is quantum entanglement? A physicist explains the science of Einstein’s ‘frightening action at a distance’
“[Humans] should find a way to alter the fundamental constants of the universe to change the size of their atoms. There’s no way to do that,” Kakalios says.
What if you managed to escape the laws of physics and shrink to the size of an atom? “When you’re at this size, your interactions with light will be very different from what you usually see,” says Kakalios. “Our eyes could detect single photons. […] Everything would be a bit static and weird instead of a continuous flow. Single photons of light would hit your eyes like rain on a tin roof. How you would be able to handle this is very difficult to say.
Two human eyes could compare to scientist Thomas Young’s double-slit experiments of the early 1800s, famous for leading us down the path to quantum mechanics. In the experiments, which were revisited in the 20th century, scientists sought to determine whether light is a wave or a stream of particles and found that light actually acts as both a wave and a stream of particles. In one version of the experiment, one photon at a time was sent through the slits and a wave pattern formed over time on the photographic plate behind the barrier.
As light enters our eyes in the subatomic world, photon by photon, “I guess you might see this weird blur, and you’d have to look at something for a while before you see a default pattern, and even then, the defect model will be an interference model,” says Kakalios.
Entanglement, which occurs when you bring two identical particles together and then carefully pull them apart, might be easier to observe in the quantum realm. “Both particles,” says Kakalios, “would be described by a single wave function even if you separate them by a great distance. And if you do something to one particle, the effects will be ‘instantly’ felt by the other. particle because they are always described by a single wave function.
However, Kakalios says the idea isn’t practical, even given future technology.
We can’t shrink into the quantum realm, but Spiros Michalakis, a mathematical physicist at Caltech who was the scientific adviser to The ant Man and the inventor of the film’s Quantum Realm, has an idea. What if we brought the quantum domain to our scale?
“We live in this world, [and] we want to time travel in this world, not in the microworld. We want to teleport to this world. We want to have superpowers in this world on Earth. Science says all of this is possible,” says Michalakis.
The quantum realm, says Michalakis, is a kind of hackable “reality source code.” And “quantum physics says you are allowed to do anything you can imagine if you know how to string things together. If you have the ingredients and the recipe, you can do whatever you want,” says Michalakis.
Michalakis envisions a future of quantum engineering superpowers, a quantum internet, states of matter that create small Lego blocks of reality, and much more, all derived from the quantum realm.
“What we want to do is create a macroscopic version of the quantum domain,” says Michalakis.
But according to Hideo Mabuchi, professor of applied physics at Stanford, “A built-in feature of quantum mechanics is that all the really weird stuff only happens under the hood – you can never directly interact with it. Even if you could imagine reducing yourself at the size of an atom, you would never literally see or feel a particle in the superposition of two different positions. […] what would that look or feel like? It is not something we are programmed to experience.
Mabuchi is skeptical that any life-size macroscopic technology would ever behave in a quantum mechanical way. “Big things would have to be perfectly isolated from any environmental interference over long periods of time,” says Mabuchi.
However, with virtual reality, Mabuchi thinks we could have a version of advanced microscopy. “You could […] use this scientific equipment and throw a Halloween party in the atomic world, at least by some sort of proxy. It’s something that I […] could imagine could one day become reality,” says Mabuchi.
While we might want to shrink like Ant-Man, the VR technology isn’t here yet. The closest to an experience like the Weird Quantum World may be a walk in the woods at night.
“Have you ever been in the woods on a moonless night taking a walk?” asks Lucas Wagner, professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Your eyes kind of adjust, and you can kind of see things, [but] they’re just very, very dark. The edges of things are starting to get blurry, and they seem to be moving around a bit,” he says. “I think given what I know of physics, everything would be a bit like this [in the quantum realm].”
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