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Science and Technology




Exploradio - Quantum philosophy
The rules governing the universe become increasingly mysterious the smaller you look.  Quantum theory holds some, but not all the answers.
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
The sub-atomic world operates by its own set of mysterious rules described in part by quantum theory. Scientists may never fully understand the rules of the universe, but that doesn't stop them from trying.
Courtesy of V. Castelo
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There’s more to matter than the protons and electrons we learned in high school.  Scientists have discovered a whole menagerie of subatomic particles that behave in mysterious ways, following their own set of rules called quantum mechanics. 

In this week’s Exploradio we dive into the deep world of the very small with Kent State University physics professor Peter Tandy.

Exploradio - Quantum philosophy

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T: I do mathematical computer calculations of the interactions and the behavior of subatomic particles. I specialize in the interactions of the quarks and the gluons that make protons and neutrons and other subatomic particles.

STC: Many of us are familiar with the term proton and neutron and electron. You’re saying those themselves have components. Do we know, for example, what a quark is?

T: We know what they are in the sense that we have a lot of experiments that probe the degree to which protons and neutrons and pions and other particles are composed of quarks and gluons. And so we have many tens of thousands of experiments, and we can correlate all of that and understand with one mathematical theory.

STC: And what’s that?

T: That’s a theory in the general class of theories called relativistic quantum field theories. There’s only one big problem with this situation. The interaction between quarks and gluons is such that most physicists believe we can never get an isolated quark going into some detector or some experiment. No one has ever measured or detected a quark. No one’s ever detected a gluon. And it’s the nature of the mathematical structure of the field theory that says you can’t get these things far enough apart to be by themselves.

STC: What is the interaction between the world that you deal in, the quantum world, and the everyday world we have in front of us.

T: These days a lot of physics technology research has to do with what’s called nanoscale materials. Materials that are a little bit larger than an atom, about the size of a molecule or two, but not so large that ordinary Newton’s Laws of Motion and Interaction apply. But in an intermediate regime where it’s going to have some quantum mechanics, some quantum field theory-like behavior, and some behavior like we’re used to, in the micron range.

STC: Can you give an example of that where quantum mechanics that you’re describing, this theoretical world . . . that we interact with it in our world?

T: Well, the standard computer chip works like quantum mechanics. The computer chip is, these days, a very small physical thing, and its size is such that quantum mechanics is the operating principle in which it’s based.

STC: Like in your cell phone.

T: Yeah, your cell phone, or an iPad. Anything that uses a computer chip is quantum mechanics.

STC: So you’re saying the electronic circuitry in the chip is actually not behaving in accordance with Newton’s Laws but the quantum laws.

T: Yes. There’s the certain types of materials we call semi-conductors. When they were discovered in about the 50s, the first transistors were made. It’s this property of a semi-conductor that needs quantum mechanics for its operation.

STC: The work that you’re doing, trying to explain the nature of matter, is so elevated above the realm of most people’s understanding. Does it ever influence your understanding in a more spiritual sense or philosophical sense of who or what we are?

T: A little bit. My goals are more mundane just trying to understand the experiments that we have. And it’s very true when you do the sort of research you find that nature does work according to very specific, very simple, and very clear mathematical equations, and why should that be. This gets to a topic: is mathematics invented or discovered? I think we invent it in order to explain nature. Some people believe that there is not going to be some ultimate theory of everything. You just going to keep probing at smaller and smaller distance scales, larger and larger energy, and you’ll keep modifying and improving a theory and it will never terminate.

STC: It’s infinite.

T: It’s infinite. So if it did terminate, what are we going to do? What do people like me do when we know the theory of everything?

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