Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Einstein Throws Snake Eyes

Translated from Jesus Hidalgo Bravo's article on the Órbita Laika blog


Quantum Mechanics are very, very odd. Everything around us behaves in a strange way at a sub-atomic level. Two far-distant objects can communicate with each other instantaneously, in an effect which Einstein named “Spooky Action”. The German physicist gave it this name because he didn't believe that this theoretical effect was possible, since there is nothing in the universe which can travel faster than light. But now some scientists have been trying  to prove the genius wrong. And they have succeeded.

Einstein had no time for Quantum Theory, which has finally been shown to be a pillar of modern physics. He thought that a theory in which uncertainty reigned, where the only way of predicting an outcome was to predict all of the total possibilities which might result from a particular premise, made no sense  at all. In short, he did not accept a universe where cats could be both alive and dead at one and the same time. For him, the cosmos should be ruled by orderly and predictable laws. There was no place for chance. The famous phrase “God doesn't play dice” arose out of this.

But convoluted quantum theory predicts that the observation of an object can affect another at any given moment, even if it is at the other end of the universe, without having anything at all to connect the one with the other. This strange effect is called Quantum “Entangling”. We have known about this for a long time on a theoretical level, but some scientists, with a great deal of patience, have transferred it from paper to the laboratory.

The team comprises researchers at the University of Delft, together with the ICREA Group based at the Catalan Institute of Photonic Sciences and has managed, no less, to show that Einstein was wrong by showing that 2 electrons separated by a distance of more than a kilometre not to say to a distance of infinity and beyond) can maintain an invisible and instantaneous connection, just as the Sinc Agency explains.

How have they done it? Simplifying dramatically, the scientists “entangled” 2 electrons trapped inside 2 diamonds, which were in laboratories at a distance of 1.280 km from each other after measuring the orientation of their spin (or rotation). It turns out that an electron, just like a coin when we toss it in the air, can rotate in two directions (up and down). Quantum “Entangling” posits that the measurement of one electron's rotation will define the spin of the either, even if they are hugely distant from one another. In order to carry out the experiment they equipped themselves with a pair of “Quantum Dice”, designed by ICREA, which produced an extremely pure random bit for every measurement taken during the experiment. It's explained here, in Laika's Orbit style, with drawings.

To sum up, the scientists proved that the rotation of the electrons was the same and that modifying it for one, modified it for the other automatically. That is to say, these two particles had communicated in some way, and they had done it at faster than the speed of light. The measurements were made so rapidly that there was no time for the particles to transmit the information to each other, not even with a signal at travelling at a such a speed. Our universe is such a terrifying and strange place.

But “entanglement” is not the only bizarre thing in the Quantum world. Another effect - known as superposition – comes to complicate sub-atomic reality a little more. It involves a phenomenon which allows a physical system, say, an atom or a photon, to exist in two or more quantum states until they form in combination yet another valid state.

However, these effects or not observable in the real world. A lost sock cannot be in two places at once (if we discount the quantum properties of the humble washing-machine). So, what is the scale at which these strange events begin to occur? If we design an experiment under ideal conditions, will we be able to observe these effects with larger objects? A cat, for example?

Yes, yet again the conversation turns to Schrodinger's famed Cat. His celebrated paradox invites us to imagine a cat in a box (so far, so normal) to which is added (here comes the strange bit) a radioactive material which has a 50% chance of leaking and killing the cat. The idea is, unless we open the box and look at the cat, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. The state of the cat has “superposed” on that of the radioactive material.

In recent years, physicists have created “superposed” states using inanimate objects of ever increasing size, from electrons to photons to atoms, molecules and even minute mechanical systems. Now their ambition is another leap forward and to attempt this with a biological system. Much as scientists love cats, they have replaced them with a bacterium.

The idea – which comes from researchers at Purdue University in Indiana and Tshingua in Beijing – is to place the microbe in two places at once. Sound like magic to you? For sure, but it will be a simple conjurer's trick compared to what quantum mechanics will bring in the future.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Avenida de Derechos Humanos

In our town this street heads down from one of the half-dozen primary schools to the roundabout, on the other side of which lies the Recinto Ferial, where the town lets its hair down at the annual fair. Off this street are the local police station and the social services office. Not even the town council is bold enough to have these entities actually on a street called “Human Rights Avenue”.

Our town is in the Guadalhorce valley, like this valley the town's name reflects its moorish ancestry. Alhaurin – the Garden of Allah. I wonder if the Moroccans in the town give a rueful smile when they discover this. So far, we haven't seen many immigrants: perhaps the town is too far from the coast. Two or three years ago the local press was full of stories concerning the pateros and their human cargo landing on Almerian beaches. These stories have disappeared, maybe the immigrants too. Whisper it quietly; perhaps the dire state of Spain's economy and the corruption of its political elite discourage refugees from heading here. No, it's Germany where the streets are paved with gold.

So, I ask myself, is no-one coming? Or is it something more sinister? I don't know. It's a long trek from Roquetas to reach even France, but it's also a long way to reach Dusseldorf if you start from Lesbos, in the Greek islands. The footage on Spanish TV is all from Lesbos, Macedonia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. So it does appear that no-one is knocking at our door. Unless… A moratorium? Some unspoken and complicit censorship? I like to think not. We'll see one day, maybe.

Anyway, if some unfamiliar faces appear in our little town, I hope they take a walk along the Avenida de los Derechos Humanos, for if they do, I won't feel so cynical about the name of the street.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Bear Man

It's quiet in La Higuera. It means The Fig Tree. Maybe you know it, a family run bar and restaurant on a corner site, one hundred yards down the hill from one of the town's High Schools. Tuesdays and Thursdays I find half-an-hour in my busy schedule to blow the change in my pocket on a small beer and a tapa.

The girl...When did women become girls? I know she must be in her twenties. Oh yeah, they didn't become girls, I just got old. Well, Ana, I think it is, on this particular Thursday, puts un tubo and some boquerones on the bar in front of me. I get a smile, but then I'm the old Guiri, who always tips. What use is all that change in my pocket, after all?

I'm just savouring the sweet-vinegared taste of the tiny fish when the shouting starts. A huge bear of a man is wearing bermuda shorts and a stained T-shirt. He looms over Javi, the – what? Manager I suppose. Bear Man is chest-poking as well as shouting. I make the same assumption as you are making now, but no, he isn't English. He is Alhaurino, Alhaurino Cateto. That is, he is from the town, a real town yokel. He's shouting Spanish, but not as we know it. I can see the spittle raining onto Javi's clean white shirt. There's only a sip gone from my beer. What other customers there were inside have melted away. The old men are still at their table on the terrace outside. For all I know they never move from their seats, except today they are craning their necks to look through the window at the show.

Javi's back is against the bar and he decides it's time to finish the dosey-do by pushing and shoving the Bear Man out of the main entrance. The old guys at the table outside have their noses pressed to the window. It's hard to see the front of the restaurant from the terrace at the side. The cook, Javi's mum, probably, shouts at Ana. She wants to know why she hasn't called the police. Ana looks out the window. Bear Man is giving Javi a few slaps. She gets her mobile out. She probably doesn't have the Policia Local on speed dial. I think Javi is handling the situation well, avoiding the blows and attempting to calm the man down. Bear Man doesn't think so much of this. By now all the neighbours are standing on the pavement or on the balcony of their apartments. Javi is being chased up the street.

I've still got half of my beer left. The fish are gone though, I can't remember finishing them. I ask Ana what it's all about. “Esta loco” - he's mad, she says. “Enfadado?” - angry? I say, although I know they are not the same thing in Spanish. Ana shakes her head and makes the universal sign for loony with her finger to her temple. Andalucia is not the most politically correct of regions.

Bear Man has chased Javi back down the street. He must be fit. The local police arrive. Bear Man quietens down and is taken away. My glass is empty, I nod at Ana and leave by the side entrance. The balconies are empty too. The old men have straightened their hats and signalled for another coffee.