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Surfing the waves between two worlds


Special To The Japan Times

In a Tokyo lab, a remarkable experiment is exploring the meeting of worlds. This is not a boring old metaphor for a meeting between East and West, it’s a description of the interface between the world we live in and the frankly insane world of quantum objects.

Quantum physics is famously difficult. Renowned Danish physicist Niels Bohr described it ominously: “Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it.”

I’ll try not to let that put me off. Today, I’m going to explore a small part of the quantum world, courtesy of the laboratory of Yasuhiro Ohshima in the Department of Chemistry at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

To say quantum physics is difficult to understand is an understatement. However, it underpins our world and even a hint at its incredible power makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“The heart of quantum physics is that particles also behave like waves,” Ohshima says. “Our work clearly demonstrated this experimentally.”

Before I go over the work Ohshima has done, let’s look at the fact that matter and light can behave both as a particle and as a wave.

More than 100 years ago, German physicist Max Planck discovered that energy is not continuous but is, instead, divided into packages, or quanta. Einstein then showed that light, at its most basic level, also comes in packages, or photons.

It’s often observed that works of genius are achieved at a precocious age. Einstein, for example, won his Nobel prize for work carried out in his 20s. And so it is with quantum physics. One of its architects was a young German called Werner Heisenberg.

Heisenberg realized that fundamental particles such as electrons don’t always exist. Sounds crazy, right? It’s no wonder that scientists still struggle with the implications of quantum physics a century later.

What’s really crazy, however, is that Heisenberg was right. As Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli writes in his new book, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” “it’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored, but just dotted it with a faint outline.”

We’re not even saying everything we know is built on quicksand. Our foundations are even more precarious — even more uncertain.

How can the basis of reality not be solid? I don’t understand the equations that describe this result, but I grasp the meaning and it leaves me both dizzy and exhilarated.

Fortunately for us and all objects bigger than subatomic particles, reality is quite secure — we are not likely to wink out of existence suddenly.

It’s now time to examine the work of Ohshima and his colleague, Kenta Mizuse, at the Institute for Molecular Science, National Institutes of Natural Sciences.

They have managed to capture an image of a spinning molecule of nitrogen — no easy feat, since the molecule was rotating at 100 billion times per second. Nitrogen gas is obviously going to behave like a particle, as it is made of two rather large atoms stuck together. However, it is still governed by the rules of the quantum world.

“It is usually more difficult to see the quantum behavior of atoms than that of electrons, because of the atoms’ much heavier masses,” Ohshima says.

By using a laser to capture an image of the spinning molecule, Ohshima and Mizuse saw the molecule showing wave-like behavior, the first time this has been achieved experimentally. The work is published in the journal Science Advances.

Ohshima and Mizuse say the result will help develop more sophisticated molecular manipulations, such as an ultrafast molecular “stopwatch.”

However, what I like about it is that they saw the fuzzy, shifting interface between our familiar world and the bizarre world of quantum physics.

In the world of quantum physics, it’s not possible to say where anything is. We are unable to determine where an object is, exactly, unless we observe it. It turns out it’s only possible to say that something will probably be at a certain place.

It might not seem like much, but the shock is still sinking in 100 years later. Physicists used to have a world that was complicated, but at least it fitted together predictably, like a huge clockwork mechanism. Now the world is built on a ghostly, mysterious foundation.

We don’t have to fully understand it — thank goodness — but quantum mechanics is here to stay. Because of it, I can write this on my laptop. Transistors, microprocessors, LEDs, lasers, magnetic imaging in hospitals, electron microscopes — they are all applications of quantum physics at work.

Novelist Natsume Soseki — he who adorns the ¥1,000 bill — gave a lecture at Tokyo Higher Technical School in 1914 (bit.ly/1CvicIo). The school would go on to become Tokyo Institute of Technology, and Soseki’s words are still remembered to this day, despite the fact that he opened by saying, “I cannot speak of anything interesting … and my talk has no title.”

“You aim to reduce distances between destinations, save time, make lives easier,” Soseki told the students. “That is what you do. Literature, art, music and theater, on the other hand, exhaust human energy. That is what I do. I do not measure anything in terms of time or distance.”

Soseki went on to illustrate how the two apparently different breeds — artists and scientists — could learn from each other. It is often said that a wall exists between art and science but, 100 years later, Soseki’s words at the institute remind us that the barriers are not insurmountable.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”). Follow Rowan on Twitter @rowhoop.