As we go further and further down into the world of infinitesimally small physics the rules we use at the macro level start to break down. Where once we had defined rules that governed the behaviour of bodies interacting with each other we quickly end up in the realm of possibilities rather than definites, something which causes no end of grief to those seeking to understand it. Indeed whenever I feel like I’m getting close to understanding a fraction of what quantum mechanics is something else comes out of left field that ruins it, leaving me with a bunch of disjointed pieces of information that I try to make sense of yet again. Today I bring you one such piece which both makes complete sense yet is completely nonsensicalPhysicists at our very own Australian National University designed an experiment to test the wave/particle duality that single atoms can exhibit. Their experiment consisted of a stream of single helium atoms that were fired down an apparatus that contained 2 light gates which, if activated, would cause a interference pattern when measured (indicating a wave). However should only one of the gates be open then the particle would travel down a single path (indicating a particle). The secret sauce to their experiment was that the second gate, the one which would essentially force the particle to travel as a wave, was turn on randomly but only after the particle would have already traversed the gate. This essentially proves the theory that, when we’re operating at the quantum level, nothing is certain until measurements are made.
Extrapolating from this you can make some pretty wild theories about the mechanism of action here although there are only a few that can truly make sense. My favourite (and the one that’s least likely to be real) is that the information about the gate activation travelled back in time and informed the particle of the state before it traversed them, meaning that it was inevitable for it to be measured that way. Of course the idea of information travelling back in time violates a whole slew of other physical laws but if that proved to be correct the kind of science we could pursue from it would be straight out of science fiction. I know that’s not going to happen but there’s a part of me that wants to believe.
The far more mundane (and more likely) explanation for this phenomena is that the atom exists as both a particle and a wave simultaneously until it is observed at which point it collapses down into the only possibility that make sense. Whilst some may then extend this to mean things like “The world doesn’t exist unless you’re looking at it” it’s actually a far more nuanced problem, one that requires us to understand what constitutes measurement at a quantum level. At a fundamental level most of the issues arise out of the measurement altering the thing you’re trying to observe although I’m sure there’s far more to it than that.
I’m honestly not sure where these results will take us as whilst it provides evidence for one interpretation of quantum mechanics I don’t know where the future research might be focused. Such an effect doesn’t appear to be something we can make use of, given the fact that measurement needs to take place for it to (in essence) actually happen, but I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of this area is woefully limited.
Perhaps I should take a wander down to the university, although I fear I’d only walk out of there more confused than ever…
Many moons ago I graduated from the University of Canberra as a Bachelor in Engineering in Computer Engineering. If you’re brave enough to click that link you’ll will notice that it’s dated 2003 and that you should check the university’s site for more information. Attempting that will lead you down a long and convoluted path which eventually leads to this page, saying that this course is no longer open to enrolments.
Like many young people who are destined to leave college I looked towards university to further my education in the hopes of improving my career prospects whilst doing something that I enjoyed. At the time I was fascinated with consumer IT hardware and after attending the open day I was convinced that the computer engineering degree was the way to go. It felt like there was quite a bit of freedom to specialise after the first year and they even offered programs with languages, which really intrigued me.
The first year of my degree went like any other. I spent the first month trying to figure out the university way of life and settling in with the people who would form my university friends for the next 4 years. After that it was a bit of a roller-coaster with my first semester seeing me barely pass all my subjects, which seemed to be the norm for all of us. The second semester went quite a bit more smoothly, with me finally figuring out how to fit into the university mould. I was an energetic little go getter ready for second year.
I do count the second year of my stay in university as the best out of the 4. With a full year of experience under my belt I didn’t feel bewildered walking into a classroom and I’d worked out all the basics (note taking, tutorials, etc) so I didn’t have to spend time on that as well as the subject material. Everything was looking up, I even managed to dux a test and get myself inducted into the Golden Key Society, who recognises the top 15% of students (of which I’ve made little use). Things were definitely looking up then, but the problem with being up so high is that there’s only one way to go afterwards.
Towards the end of second year one of my lecturers walked into the class with a sad and dejected look on his face. We’d seen this before, when he had announced earlier in the year that the Computer Engineering, Software Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering courses would all be merged into one degree; with the third year onwards determining a “specialisation” into the respective merged areas. To be honest, the writing was on the wall from first year for this to happen. The total influx for engineering students in my year was only 15, with the makeup being 2 computer, 7 electronics and 6 software. Although these degrees share a common basis there are specialty subjects that only apply to the specific areas, and you can’t run a subject with only 2 students willing to take it.
The news he brought on this occasion was far more grim. The university was closing the entire engineering branch, and whilst our degrees would be taught out to their fullest extent most electives would not be available. As it turned out, none of them outside the general IT and programming electives were and we were relegated to the ranks of glorified software engineers with separate titles. Whilst our initial education had given us skills in other areas the last 2 years were filled with software courses, useless mathematics courses (3rd year Engineers doing Introduction to Statistics and Introduction to accounting which are both first year subjects? Surely you jest!). Although I did enjoy some of the management and economics education I received some of these courses were clearly a complete joke and felt like a personal insult to someone like me who had to take a beginners class next to something along the lines of say, multi-variate calculus.
This was then coupled with what I call the “Third Year Blues” which was introduced to us by the engineers who preceeded us. At the start of the third year most university students will end up questioning why the hell they’re in their degree. This is amplified in IT related degrees since from beginning to end technology will have rapidly changed and you could find yourself working from a basis that is no longer relevant. It was strange to see the once highly energetic engineers questioning their very foundation, we even lost a couple since they couldn’t bring themselves to finish the degree off.
Feeling thoroughly dejected I started looking for answers. After questioning many of my lecturer’s the story became very clear, but it only worked to deepen my bitterness towards the situation.
Approximately 10 years before the close the Australian National University opened up its doors to Engineering students for the first time. Whilst they have a superb reputation in all the fields they foray into they do have a distinct taste for the more academic side of subjects. Engineering was no exception to this rule, and many discussions with ANU branded engineers showed that whilst they had a great theoretical understanding, they lacked a lot of real world implementation. Many of the subjects they were learning used out-dated tools and languages, and the practicals were very lacklustre. However, the opening of a competing engineering university in Canberra more then halved the numbers that the university of Canberra saw, especially those with post-graduate aspirations.
Looking into the ANU’s books brought up some astonishing figures. They were in as much trouble as UC, with numbers dwindling at a similar rate. However their post-graduate programs showed no decline, whereas UC’s were declining. My lecturer’s confirmed that ANU pushed for people to go to the post-graduate level, where they focused closely on employment. This is why ANU continued to run whilst UC died ever so slowly.
Maybe it was a misplaced sense of patriotism towards UC but I’ve never really let go of that fact. The true essence of engineering is solving a problem and then iterating to improve it. ANU’s lack of practical focus went against what I feel is the true sense of engineering, and their continued existence just adds salt to the wounds.
All of these factors made the day when I was given my degree bitter-sweet. I was elated that could now call myself a true Engineer, a thing that my father had scoled me for calling myself before I had finished. However, looking over the sea of graduates that day I knew only a handful were engineers, and all were the last of their breed to exit those halls with a UC degree under their arm.
Whilst I may be bitter about the experience that university gave me I’m still thankful for it. Although the content of the degree might not be what I wanted the meta-skills (problem solving, time management, critical thinking, etc) have proven themselves to be far more valuable.
And thus, the bitter engineer was created. Sometimes I wonder if all university students turn out this way, but even that’s too cynical for someone like me.