Quantum computing is driving me up the wall

Let me just preface by saying that I am not a theoretical physicist. In fact, I am not any kind of physicist. Physics was my most hated science in school, mostly because I did not get it. I still don't. Ask me to define voltage, and I might burst into tears. Which makes me wonder how I ever became an engineer. But I digress.

I recently read an excellent article in the New Yorker about quantum computing. The way I see it (which has nothing to do with reality), quantum computing is some sort of a holy grail for physicists. Imagine a computer that could do a bazillion calculations at once - just picture what such a machine would be capable of. Hacking encryption codes based on multiplication of two large prime numbers would be a piece of cake. And um... well there must be a host of other significant problems that this computer would be able to solve. Maybe it will make "buffering" an obsolete word. Who knows. It sounds pretty great anyway.

Except for one little detail. The whole concept of quantum computing relies on the notion of entangled particles. This is such a particularly nasty sort of an idea that I've had many unresolved arguments about it with D (who happens to be an actual physicist). Yes, we are a bunch of dorks. When we go to our favorite restaurant and sit at the bar and discuss life, the universe, and everything, the bartender gives us a flashlight and a calculator (true story). But back to those entangled buggers. The idea goes like this. You have two particles that are entangled. What it means is that if you know the "value" of one particle, then you automatically know the value of the other. Once you know these values, they are set. However, until you know the value of at least one, these particles have a 50/50 chance of having one value or the other (say, 0 or 1). Or, as physicists like to argue, the particles have BOTH values AT THE SAME TIME.

Which makes no sense to me. Surely they mean that the particle has a set value, and we just don't know what it is until we look at it, right? But no, they mean that the particles actually exist in two different states at once. I don't know why, but I just can't seem to wrap my brain around this concept (even voltage seems more tangible in comparison). So I begin quizzing my dear D about it every time this whole entanglement thing pops up (which it does with surprising frequency). My current understanding is that physicists somehow figured out that quantum mechanics correctly describes the universe and everything, but they don't really understand how it works. Which to me sounds like a whole lot of concepts have to be accepted on faith. And this goes against the notion of how science fundamentally works, at least for me.

So the interesting thing in the New Yorker article is that some brilliant English theoretical physicist came up with an explanation for the entangled particles. He postulates that there are many parallel universes that exist at once, and the particles that exist in multiple states actually do so in different universes. Of course, the whole concept of parallel universes is a lot to swallow, but for some reason it actually makes a lot more sense to me than just accepting that some particles can exist in multiple states at the same time, in the same universe.

Anyway, sorry if I made your head spin. Or bored you to tears. Science is a big part of my life, and so it seems like a legitimate topic to blog about in this corner of the internet where the pieces of Anna come together.


  1. So you've never heard of Schrodinger's Cat?


  2. Yes, of course I have heard of that poor cat. But that just proves my point. Just because we don't know whether the cat is dead or alive, does not mean the cat is actually dead AND alive at the same time. It is either dead or alive, and we simply don't know which is true.

  3. Cool. I am a biologist and this reminded me of my classes in molecular biology. Of complicated descriptions of the life and works of molecules so small that you can barely see. It all seemed like a dogma of faith to me. Sure you can "run" this molecules in a nice little gel (with a little Voltage help :) ) but it is hard to visualize. Ironically, I am working at a virology lab right now... doing a lot of molecular biology.


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