Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Introduction to Quantum Physics and your watch

***Quantum Physics and your watch - by Tyler

Continuing on from our introduction of Michael Biercuk, Professor of Quantum Physics and Quantum Technology at the University of Sydney and our rebelde ambassador, I thought I’d take this chance to introduce you a little more to the incredible field of Quantum Physics.

Why does it matter to you? Why might you, as a watch enthusiast, find it interesting? For one, as I’ve learnt, watch enthusiasts tend to have a constant hunger for learning. Yes, we can be a nostalgic bunch, but we’re often design and technically minded, always interested in what the future holds. The subjective nature of watches creates an inherent understanding amongst us that though perfection isn’t possible we’ll constantly strive for it regardless.

So, if you’re wondering where technology is headed, then you needn’t look any further - the future is Quantum Physics, so powerful are the potential applications of it. Already, your mobile phone, laptop, GPS system and WiFi network all work because of our (still rudimentary) grasp on the quantum world.

But getting a basic grasp on the field may well prove to be humanity's greatest collective individual challenge to date. Whilst concepts like Einstein’s general relativity, Hawking’s light-swallowing black holes and the expansion of our universe at a rate faster than the speed of light, have pushed us to the limits of our comprehension ability, still many concepts in Quantum Physics defy comprehension entirely.

Try quantum entanglement, for example, wherein two particles are ‘entangled’, such that if you touch one, the other one responds instantly - regardless of the distance between them. The length of the universe or one metre, it makes no difference.

I’m sure you can think up all sorts of incredible applications for this, but let’s talk about how this might be useful for timekeeping. As it turns out, the importance of keeping track of time spans far beyond the need for us to stay punctual.

I’ve spoken previously about how sailors of old relied on marine chronometers (such as those made by famed clockmaker John Harrison) to stay on course at sea, and time plays just as big a part today.
Keeping our instruments updated with accurate readings is the job of the vast network of satellites hurtling around our planet. Many of these satellites now carry atomic clocks, the ticks of which are regulated by atoms vibrating billions of times a second. They’re the modern day sea-clocks. While we’ve been lead to believe that quartz watches that use a resonating crystal to regulate time are accurate, they’re not even in the same league as an atomic one. Whilst a quartz watch might only lose five seconds a year, an atomic clock might lose a second every five million years.

In order for these satellites to provide accurate coordinate data, the clocks on them must all be carefully synced. The slightest variance can cause all sorts of problems, and engineers and scientists alike have developed complex systems to try to solve it. But, with quantum entanglement, we may be able to ‘sync’ the atoms in the clocks, effectively making them all tick at exactly the same time.

Here on Earth, quantum timekeeping may help us predict earthquakes and other natural phenomena resulting from shifts in the Earth’s crust.

As you may have heard, the continents are shifting, and Australia, moving towards Indonesia at a rate of 7cm a year (0.1mm a day) is the fastest moving continent of all. As small as this may seem, most movement in the Earth’s crust is many magnitudes smaller, and picking up on these minute shifts requires extremely precise and coordinated timekeeping - a level only a quantum timekeeper could provide.

Detecting these shifts would also help us solve the previous problem I mentioned - that of maintaining an accurate coordinate system. The Geoscience Australia foundation recently stated that Australia’s latitude and longitude coordinates are off by almost 1.5 metres, and being able to detect these shifts doesn’t just help us guard against natural disaster but is also the key to an accurate coordinate system.

In a world where we, and devices small and large, are increasingly dependent on having a perfect coordinate system, quantum timekeeping is the key that’ll allow us to take our technology to the next level.

It’s with this wrestle with time that you begin to notice some similarities between our fields. A mechanical watch can never be completely accurate. No rebelde will ever be a perfect timekeeping instrument. We’re locked in a never-ending improvement of timekeeping by the smallest of fractions. But none of that matters: even if your watch loses 10 seconds a day, it’s still 99.99% accurate. If the few seconds your watch gains/loses a day is the supposed cause of your lack of punctuality, you’ve got bigger problems. We persist, regardless.

And in quantum physics it’s much the same – the scientists need to content themselves that they’ll never really get a hold of time. I’m not sure if ‘perfect’ timekeeping is theoretically possible, but my layman’s guess is that it isn’t due some more fundamental laws of nature such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (we can never know a particle's momentum AND position at any moment) and the observer effect (we can’t observe certain systems without altering the system itself). Maybe I’m completely wrong and it’s possible, or maybe I’m right but the reasons are very different. Either way, it’s something I’ll be sure to ask Professor Biercuk next time. For now though, it seems that perfect timekeeping is a fiction that we use in our calculations but which can never actually be achieved.

Watchmaking isn’t a science that’ll change the world, but the goals of watchmaking and quantum physics are much the same. Watchmakers spend their days ‘chasing the micron’, quantum physicists chase the...whatever unit of measure a subatomic particle is. I don’t mean to say the two are equally complex, but the goals are the same even though the methodology is completely different.

It’s these parallels that drew Professor Biercuk into watches and it’s what makes me so interested in his work. As I continue to talk about his research and how it relates to timekeeping I’m sure you’ll find it just as interesting too.

Professor Michael Biercuk's rebelde in the midst of ion-trapping hardware, in which Michael and his team at the University of Sydney can trap and manipulate individual atoms.

Until next time,

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