A Nobel that points us toward our quantum future

By Chris Lee
October 15, 2012

Scientists like to think that true measures of our understanding are our ability to predict something, and, in experimental physics, control something. This year’s Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for controlling the quantum world in ways that, not so long ago, were simply unthinkable. When I say “controlling the quantum world,” I mean controlling not just the physical motion of a single atom, but also the internal state of the atom. It is the difference between being able to set off an avalanche, and being able to control where every snowflake goes once the avalanche is in motion.

This level of precise control allows us to use the internal states of atoms, ions and photons as information carriers, similar to bits in today’s computers. That means that certain calculations that have been impossible until now can become a lot easier. Soon, thanks to quantum computing, we’re going to be inventing things we never thought to invent before.

Ultimately, quantum physics research is about the pursuit of control—a pursuit that has a long history. Technology, after all, is at its most base form an attempt to better understand and manipulate nature. The first steam engines, for example, were the products of inspired engineering, based on very little understanding of heat, energy, pressure and temperature. The desire to produce more powerful steam engines with higher efficiencies drove us to research, develop and understand more about this aspect of nature. With that understanding came control, in this case over the thermal behavior of groups of atoms and molecules.

The next revolution, and one that is already upon us, is driven by absolute control of individual electrons, atoms, light particles and ions. This year’s Nobel Prize recognizes the latest achievement in humanity’s attempts to control and predict the natural world. I’ll eschew a deep dive into scientific detail—you can read that kind of thing here—but to understand what Haroche and Wineland have done, picture a swing. Swings have a certain rhythm to them that make them very predictable. But the quantum swings that Haroche and Wineland play with are very delicate, and the slightest passing breeze will disturb them. In short, these swings are, left to their own devices, unpredictable and short lived. That is, a quantum swing, once set in motion, quickly stops again.

Haroche and Wineland have worked on ways to keep their quantum swings in motion. Indeed, not just in motion, but predictable for long periods of time.

The commonality between Haroche and Wineland’s work is control of this internal quantum swing. Talking about the future is always a dangerous business, but in this case scientists are quite clear about where all this is going: quantum information technology. The quantum laws that govern the behavior of light and matter can be harnessed to provide new technologies. The earliest applications are already on the market: you can ensure your data’s security using quantum key distribution, where the laws of quantum mechanics are used to create codes to securely encrypt data.

But that pales in comparison to what’s coming: quantum computers. Quantum computers will shine in ways that are not obvious. Consider this: the strength of the fibers that make up your cotton-polyester blend jacket are determined by the quantum mechanics governing the atoms and molecules that make them up. But predicting and controlling the strength of a fabric are pretty much impossible at the moment. Essentially, the materials that we have at the moment are a combination of lots of lab-work, inspired insight, and blind luck. A quantum computer will change all of that.

The lack of predictability isn’t due to the failings of quantum mechanics. It’s down to our failure to solve the mathematics used to describe quantum behavior. We don’t have the tools to do so. The most powerful computers in the world have difficulty computing the properties of the simplest of molecules. Quantum computers will potentially change that.

Imagine a world where a chemist can use a computer to design molecules that have particular properties. Need a strong plastic that biodegrades into harmless by-products? Let me fire up my Q2000 quantum computer, and see what we can invent. Or imagine stumbling across a new protein, whose properties seem inexplicable. Again, a quantum computer will, at the very least, provide you with the beginnings of an explanation.

This is the shining promise of a future with quantum computers. It is a future that is being brought about by the great experimental physicists of our time, but it is also a future that will be owned by biologists and chemists.

Being a scientist, I love the idea of knowing more about proteins and materials. Moreover, I think everyone else will love it too. Harder materials will increase the longevity of gadgets: who hasn’t watched in horror as the glass in their cellphone cracks after being dropped? Paints will hold their color for longer, and be more scratch resistant. Products will come in packaging that protect their contents better, but also are more environmentally friendly.

At the moment, science is limited by what it can and can’t control. If scientists can’t control something, they can’t conjure it. Quantum computers have the potential to unleash scientists, leaving them limited only by the laws of nature and their own imaginations. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re already taking tiny quantum baby steps.

PHOTO: U.S. physicist David Wineland talks about is experiment in his lab during a media tour after a news conference in Boulder, Colorado, after learning he and Serge Haroche of France were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, October 9, 2012.  The two men were awarded the prize for finding ways to measure quantum particles without destroying them, which could make it possible to build a new kind of computer far more powerful than any seen before.  REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell

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