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Happressed

December 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Ray (the “singularity” dude) Kurzweil‘s web site has summarized Science magazine‘s breakthrough of the year: the world’s first quantum machine. The gizmo is a tiny, but visible to the naked eye, metal “paddle” whose vibrational frequency can be controlled.

No big thing right? Well, here’s what some rocket scientists from UC Santa Barbara achieved:

First, they cooled the paddle until it reached its “ground state,” or the lowest energy state permitted by the laws of quantum mechanics (a goal long-sought by physicists). Then they raised the widget’s energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

Wild and exciting stuff, no? A  macro object composed of a collection of atoms (not just some singular, invisible, sub-atomic particle) operating in two supposedly mutually exclusive states at once. Just think of any point of reference on the paddle. The scientists proved (<- this is a key word as you’ll see below) that they could force it appear in two places at once. It’s sort of like being both ecstatically happy and depressed at the same time?

When I read about this breakthrough, I frantically searched the web for a video of the event. Hell, I want to actually see and experience what it looks like. Sadly, I was disappointed. I found this clip from Gizmodo that explains the absence of any visual evidence:

“It’s important to realize that they didn’t actually observe it in a superposition. All they said was that the paddle is large enough that it could be observed by the naked eye, but not while it is in a superposition state.”

D’oh! Upon reflection, this makes sense to me based on my layman’s knowledge of quantum physics. Prior to observation by, uh, an observer, so-called reality exists as a superposition of an infinite set of continuous matter waves that can be modeled by Erwin Schrodinger‘s unassailable wave equation. At the moment of observation, poof!, an observer “collapses” the wavefunction into a singularity – in effect creating his/her own reality. The mysterious question to me is: “Why do most people seem to see essentially the same reality when they observe an object at the same point in space and time?“. After all, what are the chances that my collapsed wavefunction will coincide with yours?

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