“The civilizations barter in coldness; they peddles it, reinforces it, market it, entices with it, reward it, and then flees from it when it’s unchecked force is too much to marvel at. Soon absolute zero will be on sale, and people will warm up to that notion as well.”
― Justin K. McFarlane Beau
With winter approaching, we are starting to prepare for that chill in the air, a respite from the seemingly unending summer inferno that gripped much of the United States. And when you think of a blustery place, Germany certainly comes to mind. Appropriately so, because a group of German researchers are pushing the limits of the definition of what we mean by “cold.” According to Science Alert, “a group of German scientists achieved the bone-chilling temperature of 38 trillionths of a degree above -273.15 Celsius by dropping magnetized gas 393 feet (120 meters) down a tower.”
Specifically, the researchers were investigating the quantum properties of the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a sort of fifth-state of matter in which a derivative of gas exists only under ultra-cold conditions. While matter is in the BEC phase, it begins to behave like one large atom instead of a group of smaller, individual atoms. The BEC was actually predicted in 1924 by Albert Einstein and “allows scientists to study the strange and extremely small world of quantum physics as if they are looking through a giant magnifying glass,” according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The temperature involved here is important because it closely approaches a phenomenon known as “absolute zero.” As Science Daily defines it, absolute zero is “the point at which the fundamental particles of nature have minimal vibrational motion, retaining only quantum mechanical, zero-point energy-induced particle motion.” In plain speak, absolute zero means there is effectively no energy occurring since energy is essentially the vibration, or movement, of atoms. When absolute, or near absolute zero temperature (–273.15 Celsius) is acheived, strange things start to happen to not only the atoms but also to theoretical particle physics.
That’s because of a concept known the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that we can never know exactly both a particle’s speed and position simultaneously. So, the more we precisely know its speed, the less precisely we know its position and vice versa. Therefore, at absolute zero, there is a scientific conundrum. Because if an atom could attain absolute zero, we could locate it. Yet by locating it, through let’s say probing, we then give it some velocity, and thus it no longer can have a non-zero temperature, by definition.
“To understand the general idea behind the uncertainty principle, think of a ripple in a pond. To measure its speed, we would monitor the passage of multiple peaks and troughs. The more peaks and troughs that pass by, the more accurately we would know the speed of a wave—but the less we would be able to say about its position. The location is spread out among the peaks and troughs. Conversely, if we wanted to know the exact position of one peak of a wave, we would have to monitor just one small section of the wave and would lose information about its speed. In short: the uncertainty principle describes a trade-off between two complementary properties, such as speed and position.”
At such low temperatures, scientists are able to peer into the subatomic workings of matter and observe them in the form of waves. This understanding of how waveforms function may one day lead to the creation of incredibly sophisticated technology. In fact “At these kinds of temperatures, we’ll be able to see strange atomic behaviours that have never been witnessed before. And being able to remove as much heat from a system is going to be crucial in the race to finally build a functional quantum computer,” reports Science Alert.
Instead of working on bits, essentially optical pulses expressed as binary patterns (0s or 1s), as ordinary computers do, quantum computers would process qubits, which are typically subatomic particles, such as electrons or photons. Qubits, in turn, have some funky properties called “superposition” and “entanglement.” MIT Technology Review explains that “a quantum computer with several qubits in superposition can crunch through a vast number of potential outcomes simultaneously,” which once measured, “immediately causes their quantum state to collapse’ to either 1 or 0.”
Entanglement, on the other hand, is a phenomenon in which a pair of qubits become stuck together, or entangled, in a sort of quantum physics dance. In doing so, they become operationally interdependent. As MIT explains, “Changing the state of one of the qubits will instantaneously change the state of the other one in a predictable way.”
The bottom line is that both superposition and entanglements, which can theoretically regularly happen at absolute zero, would provide computers with unimaginable computing power, far surpassing even the most robust supercomputers we currently have.
Google already has a working model of a quantum computer, Sycamore, which they wrote about in a recent article in the publication Nature. Using comparison, Google explains that “Our Sycamore processor takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of a quantum circuit a million times — our benchmarks currently indicate that the equivalent task for a state-of-the-art classical supercomputer would take approximately 10,000 years.”
So these quantum computers would compress time frames immensely, allowing even the most complex of tasks and problems to be explored and potentially solved in a fraction of the time our current computers can. When that happens, everything from enhancing article intelligence to creating new molecular compounds would be easier and happen much more quickly. That would be the biggest chill, ever.
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