Wednesday, September 3, 2008

prepare to become obsolete!

Quantum computing. I never really understood this, and—believe me—I still don’t. But, via several rabbit trails, including a particularly interesting Science Friday article with Ira Flatow, I found myself excitedly reading wiki after wiki on particles, integer spin, and a 17 mile supercollider.

I remember hearing about the Texas supercollider in my junior high science class. It was funded by the U.S. government, but construction discontinued in 1993. I definitely want to visit the skeleton of a structure like this; it sits, rotting, in Texas, having been used only for the set of a John-Claude Van Damme movie in the 90s. At age 13, the concept of particles smacking together at inconceivable speeds was exciting mostly because I figured they’d blow up, or create radioactive-man or something. Then, in high school physics, Dr Helman addressed the “God Particle,” which is the basic component of the supposed field through which all things pass to get mass: a bunch of these particles create a field, just like a bunch of photons make an electromagnetic field.

This “field” is all referred to as Higg’s Field, and the materials needed for the field are called Higg’s Boson, although no one’s ever really seen this boson. We can't see the particles because they have dubious mass, like photons (which I think have no mass--nope, definitely don't understand that!), or maybe they have something to do with another dimension, or something even crazier. I guess it takes a lot of heat and energy to observe Higg's things. Like the Big Bang.

I don’t know if I ever really understood how a thing could be massless and then—suddenly—massful. And I still don’t understand the theory behind a particle collision and why it’s the best experiment in which to view Higg’s Boson, unless it’s a case of trying to observe way more energy than we’ve ever observed before—as in, inevitably, something awesome will happen. But all this is to preface what you’ve probably already heard: the Hadron Large Collider stands nearly ready for use, and is the talk of the world.

I’m so excited to be alive (for now)* and a bystander to a scientific experiment of this magnitude. It’s amazing! Sure, nothing substantial may come of this: scientists may not discover the God Particle or another dimension or dark matter. It’s doubtful, but maybe nothing will happen. Still, as my friend Matt said to me, half-joking, “I like how as a species we’re so fearless! We’re gonna get to the bottom of it even if we have to build a 17 mile loop under Switzerland and France.” It’s morbidly hilarious when you examine humankind from the perspective of God, or an intelligently-superior space-alien, or in the wake of all our disastrous social mistakes, or historically-silly scientific theories. But, while I love to laugh at people, I hate to set up camp with anyone who can’t see the beauty in evolution—the bigger philosophy behind progress, failure, investment, recession, and experiment.

There is so much awesome stuff to learn! and so much of science-technology is related to stuff we do every day. For instance, as a web user, you obviously make use of 1 or more processors, each of which can process millions of instructions per second. The instructions (and the data your chip processes) are all communicated through one of two states: 0 and 1. Your chip processes all that data through circuits, which are little gates and tunnels and storage receptacles, through which pass a bunch of electrons. Doy, you know this already. But quantum computing, man. It could happen! You know the story: if you can create and control qubits in superposition, you can build a quantum computer. Haha, OK maybe you don’t know that. Basically, qubits are particles that are able to represent both 1 and 0, simultaneously, by adding another dimension, or manipulating time, or whatever. We don’t really know how to do it yet, but there are all sorts of ideas.

For instance, this and this article talks about how researchers observe electron spin. An electron’s spin is measure in integers (which you will read more about if you start looking up bosons) and the orientation of the spin could potentially represent binary numbers, because there are basically two kinds of spinning electrons. By manipulating the spin of electrons, we can create more than two states, more options than 1 and 0. That's awesome.

Yeah, yeah, quantum computing won’t happen for a long time, but the supercollider has got me all excited about it anyway. Can you even imagine how rapidly technology would accelerate? It makes me wonder why we spend so much money on the military and stupid stuff like that, and why every kid is not learning the basics of building a computer in 3rd grade.

For some great (and quick) synopses of Higg’s Boson, go here.

*According to some, I may not be alive much longer. Check this out!

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