Quantum Leaps and Boundaries

A Guest Blog from CEO, John Jutila

Every year on May 16, the global community celebrates the International Day of Light, a UNESCO initiative that celebrates the role of light in science, culture and art, education, and beyond. To commemorate this occasion, our CEO John Jutila has contributed some reflections on the history and present state of quantum mechanics.

Quantum Leaps and Boundaries

One hundred years ago, in May 1919, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington and his expedition landed on Príncipe, a remote island off the west coast of Africa, to measure light rays during a solar eclipse. He set out to prove Albert Einstein’s hypothesis that light from distant stars would bend by a specific amount (in this case, 1.75 arcseconds due to the Sun’s gravitational field) based on his General Theory of Relativity, in which gravity warps spacetime.

This proof made Einstein famous, and the scientific community began exploring Einstein’s novel theories in earnest. The discourse over the next twenty years ushered in a new field of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics describes how our world behaves at the sub-atomic level, where classical Newtonian physics (think of billiard ball collisions) do not apply.

The odd thing is that, while we can now describe quantum rules with great accuracy, we do not yet understand or comprehend them – they are mathematical constructs with no reference frame in our own physical experience. At the level of subatomic particles, the quantum world is strange. Particles exist in quasi-states as both particles and waves; probability functions describe their positions in space (Schrödinger Wave Equations). We lack the ability to know both the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously with accuracy (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). Instantaneous interactions occur between two particles located far apart (Particle Entanglement). Particles appear to pass through two separate narrow slit openings simultaneously (based on Wave Particle Duality) – as if in two places at the same time.

My father once told me that when you cannot understand why something happened, “it may be driven by hidden politics.” Indeed, some theorists suggest that there are hidden variables at play that are driven by “agents” that we have not yet discovered. Newtonian holdouts suggest that we do not understand quantum mechanics simply because we have not yet found the right “hidden variable” or reference models that we can understand – it is only a matter of time.

Despite the advances in quantum science, theorists are still unable to explain the forces of gravity, a big hole in the integrated “standard model” of particle physics which attempts to explain all subatomic forces. The current assumptions required to make quantum theory work well with electromagnetism and strong and weak forces must be changed to accommodate gravity (via a ‘Graviton’ particle). This renders the base theory potentially incorrect. It may be difficult to understand how to accommodate new interactions when dealing with pure mathematical constructs that we do not fully understand.

Moreover, some trickery has been involved in making the quantum functions work properly to render them mathematically pliable. For example, ‘renormalization’ is used in Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) to deal with infinite integrals. Perhaps some of the theoretical assumptions we have made thus far to make the math work are incorrect.

For the time being, quantum theory is working well and leading to new discoveries in fields such as cryptography, quantum computing, optical sensing, high-resolution quantum dot displays, and optical communication. The resulting new products and solutions will continue to revolutionize our world – but you will generally not need to understand how or why they work. Unless, of course, you are mathematically inclined, and prefer to discuss topics such as the Hilbert Space, the Klein-Gordon equation, or Poincaré symmetry at your dinner parties.