Quantum Mechanics is…weird. Anyone who’s had a passing education in the world of physics will know of certain principles that hold true for pretty much everything but the second you dive into the quantum world all that knowledge and understanding won’t help you one bit. Even simple things like “2 objects can’t exist in the same place at the same time” aren’t true when you’re down at that level, destroying any sense of logicality you might have had when approaching the subject. Indeed there’s a quote famously attributed to Richard Feynman that “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”, although I’ve yet to find anyone say that they do understand it (I sure as heck don’t). Worse still even when you think you’ve got one principle figured out an experiment will come around and turn it on its head, like quantum entanglement recently was.
Quantum entanglement, in its simplest form (at least in my understanding) is the phenomena whereby two particles are linked together at the quantum level. Should you attempt to measure some attributes of one of the particles, say an electron’s spin, the other particle will instantaneously assume the same observed state regardless of the distance separating them. Whilst we don’t know the exact speed at which that state travels we do know it’s at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light, something which would appear to violate the cosmic speed limit. However no information is actually transferred between the two particles, they simply assume the same state at the exact same time, and indeed any applications you might think of to use it to transfer information will, unfortunately, fail. Up until recently it was thought that such entangled particles needed to be close to, or create with, each other in order for entanglement to happen. However that’s not the case anymore as particles can be entangled even without knowing each other.
I think I actually ended up understanding less about quantum mechanics after finding this out.
The research, done at Chapman University, attempted to explore what’s called the Pigeonhole Principle in the realm of quantum mechanics. It’s a relatively simple mathematical concept to explain: say you have 3 pigeons and 2 pigeonholes, if you were to put all the pigeons into those holes at least one of them would contain 2 pigeons. Simple right? Well it is and simple proofs like this have a multitude of uses in mathematics, however when it’s applied to quantum mechanics some…strange things happen. Essentially the research team found out that you could put infinite pigeons into only 2 different holes and none of them would end up in the same hole. If that sounds confusing that’s because it is, but this has what lead the research team to demonstrate that particles, even those which had no idea their entangled partner existed, could in fact be entangled.
Like most discoveries in the area of quantum mechanics the potential practical applications of this discovery aren’t readily apparent. The big issue we have with using quantum entanglement for anything currently is that making entangled particles is ridiculously hard. However if there’s potential for particles to be entangled without them needing to be near each other, or having even known each other at all, there’s potential to do away with the expense of creating them ourselves. Just how we go about harnessing these naturally entangled particles, and whether or not they have any practical uses, is something that will have to be worked on.
I have no doubt that quantum mechanics is a fertile ground for research to be conducted however I sometimes wish it wasn’t so weird. It took me the better part of 2 hours just to make sure I was understanding what the hell was actually going on and to verify that what the various reports were saying lined up with the actual research. Don’t get me wrong though, this kind of stuff is incredibly exciting, but it feels like you have to be wired in a slightly weird fashion for any of it to make sense to you the first time around. I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m thoroughly confused again, especially if anyone out there points out some factual inaccuracies in this post.
I think I need to lie down…