2022, Three physicists received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on “creepy” quantum entanglement. Some quantum seekers are now imagining throwing a Halloween party in the subatomic world. There, they hope to experience firsthand the strange quantum effects that have long captured their imaginations.
But what would the subatomic world look and feel like and how would you get there?
The Quantum Realm
The good news is that the quantum world is not far away. We live in it. The theory of quantum mechanics describes the entire universe, including the everyday world with which we are familiar. However, at the macroscopic level, the strange quantum effects are relatively faint and difficult to perceive.
To experience quantum madness easily, a human would have to shrink to about the size of an atom, says Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. The problem with this is that all atoms are roughly the same size and cannot shrink themselves. Man is made up of about seven octillion atoms, and all of those atoms would have to be crammed into an atom-sized space. A shrunken human being would be unimaginably dense.
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“[Humans] would have to find a way to change the fundamental constants of the universe in order to change the size of their atoms. That’s not possible,” says Kakalios.
But what if you could defy the laws of physics and shrink to the size of an atom? “Once you reach that size, your interactions with light will be very different from what you normally see,” says Kakalios. “Our eyes could perceive single photons. […] Everything would be kind of static and weird instead of like a continuous stream. Single photons of light would hit your eyes like rain on a tin roof. How to process that is very difficult to say.”
Two human eyes could be likened to the early 19th-century scientist Thomas Young’s double-slit experiments, famous for leading us on the path to quantum mechanics. At the experiments, revisited in the 20th century, scientists attempted to determine whether light is a wave or a stream of particles and found that light actually acts as both a wave and a stream of particles. In one version of the experiment, a photon was sent through each slit and over time a ripple pattern formed on the photoplate behind the barrier.
When light enters our eyes photon by photon in the subatomic world, “I would guess that you see this weird blur and that you would have to stare at something for a while before you see a standard pattern, and even then the standard pattern becomes an interference pattern.” be,” says Kakalios.
Perhaps easier to observe in the quantum domain, entanglement occurs when you bring two identical particles together and then carefully separate them. “The two particles,” says Kakalios, “would be described by a single wave function, even if you separate them widely. And if you do something to one particle, the effects would be felt “instantly” by the other particle because they are still described by a single wave function.”
However, Kakalios says the idea is impractical even considering future technologies.
A micro world
We can’t shrink into the quantum realm, but Spiros Michalakis, a mathematical physicist at Caltech who was the scientific advisor to ant man and the inventor of the quantum realm of film, has an idea. How about bringing the quantum realm to our scale?
“We live in this world [and] We want to time travel in this world, not in the micro world. We want to teleport into this world. We want to have super powers in this world on earth. Science says all of this is possible,” says Michalakis.
The quantum realm, says Michalakis, is a kind of hackable “source code of reality”. And “quantum physics says that if you know how to put things together, you can do anything you can imagine. Once you have the ingredients and the recipe, you can make anything you want,” says Michalakis.
Michalakis envisions a quantum technological future of superpowers, a quantum internetStates of matter that create little Lego blocks of reality and much more, all drawn from the quantum realm.
“We want to create a macroscopic version of the quantum realm,” says Michalakis.
But according to Hideo Mabuchi, a professor of applied physics at Stanford, “a built-in feature of quantum mechanics is that all the really weird stuff just happens under the hood — you could never interact with it directly.” Even if you could imagine shrinking down to the size of an atom, you would never literally see or feel a particle that is in the superposition of two different positions […] How would that look or feel? It’s not something we’re drawn to.”
Mabuchi is skeptical that a macroscopic life-size technology would ever behave quantum mechanically. “You would have to isolate large things perfectly from any environmental influences over a long period of time,” says Mabuchi.
However, Mabuchi believes that with virtual reality we could have a version of advanced microscopy. “You could […] Use this scientific equipment and throw a Halloween party in the atomic world, at least through some sort of proxy. That’s something I […] could become a reality one day,” says Mabuchi.
While we might want to shrink like Ant-Man, virtual reality technology isn’t there yet. Perhaps the closest we can come to an experience like the quantum-weird world is a night walk in the woods.
“Have you ever walked in the woods on a moonless night?” asks Lucas Wagner, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Your eyes kinda adjust and you can see things [but] they’re just very, very dark. The edges of things start to blur and they seem to move a little bit,” he says. “I think given what I know about physics, it would all be kind of like that [in the quantum realm].”