Why Quantum Mechanics Matters

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Quantum mechanics makes for great headlines: The latest developments at the Large Hadron Collider are always (appropriately) covered as major new events.

Quantum mechanics has effectively described the structure of the atom and the makeup of the nucleus. Without knowing these details about the atom, some of the most groundbreaking physics and chemistry discoveries wouldn't have been possible.

The field of quantum mechanics is based on three fundamental principles. First, some properties of particles, such as location or speed, only occur as set, specific amounts. Second, light can act as both a particle and a wave. Third, matter can also act as a wave.

The Importance of Quantum Mechanics

The average person may wonder why, at the end of the day, they should care about quantum mechanics. Simply put, many aspects of modern life would not be possible without the principles that fall under the umbrella of quantum mechanics. Both the laser and the transistor, on which all modern computers are based, would not be possible without quantum mechanics.

Computers existed before the transistor; they used vacuum tubes to perform calculations. To get more computing power meant you had to get more vacuum tubes, which meant only the government and wealthy organizations could have useful computers. There would be no internet and no world wide web if we still had vacuum tube computers.

It's vital to note the researchers who developed the science behind transistors were not trying to make a laptop. What we now know from quantum physics research laid the groundwork for the technology revolution we are currently living through.

The Transistor and Modern Society

The transistor was initially created to boost radio signals, and transistor radios eventually replaced vacuum tube radios. Decades later, they were repurposed as logic elements; making the 1s and 0s of basic computing. Applying a voltage to a transistor opens or closes a gate and this permits electrons to either pass through, or obstruct the flow of electrons. This results in two different current states, high and low, or '1' and '0'. Once you have these two foundational building blocks, you can combine them to perform logic operations and encode data. You can also create a language of 1s and 0s with the purpose of storing and manipulating information.

The research that led to the transistor didn't have an end product in mind. Just as today's quantum physicists probably can't imagine how their research will be used in a hundred years' time. However, that doesn’t mean this kind of research doesn’t matter to the average person.

Looking Ahead

Scientists and engineers are still unpacking decades-long research in efforts to develop the next generation of technology.

Quantum computing is one area where quantum mechanics research looks particularly promising. Because quantum particles can have multiple states of existence at the same time, they can be used to perform multiple calculations at once. Current quantum computers are very small and simple, but experts say bigger, more powerful systems could find their way to the average person within a decade or so.

Computer scientists are also excited about the promise presented by a principle known as quantum entanglement, a condition that involves two particles connected by a quantum link. When two quantum particles are in a state of entanglement, they can be linked across many miles and disturbing one particle affect the state of the other. Furthermore, any attempt to measure this system causes it to be disrupted.

These qualities can theoretically allow for the creation of a computer encryption system that is virtually hack-proof and researchers are currently working on developing such a system.

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