This summer, physicists celebrated a triumph that many consider fundamental to our understanding of the physical world: the discovery, after a multibillion-dollar effort, of the Higgs boson.
Given its importance, many of us in the physics community expected the event to earn this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Instead, the award went to achievements in a field far less well known and vastly less expensive: quantum information.
It may not catch as many headlines as the hunt for elusive particles, but the field of quantum information may soon answer questions even more fundamental — and upsetting — than the ones that drove the search for the Higgs. It could well usher in a radical new era of technology, one that makes today’s fastest computers look like hand-cranked adding machines.
The basis for both the work behind the Higgs search and quantum information theory is quantum physics, the most accurate and powerful theory in all of science. With it we created remarkable technologies like the transistor and the laser, which, in time, were transformed into devices — computers and iPhones — that reshaped human culture.
But the very usefulness of quantum physics masked a disturbing dissonance at its core. There are mysteries — summed up neatly in Werner Heisenberg’s famous adage “atoms are not things” — lurking at the heart of quantum physics suggesting that our everyday assumptions about reality are no more than illusions.
Take the “principle of superposition,” which holds that things at the subatomic level can be literally two places at once. Worse, it means they can be two things at once. This superposition animates the famous parable of Schrödinger’s cat, whereby a wee kitty is left both living and dead at the same time because its fate depends on a superposed quantum particle.
For decades such mysteries were debated but never pushed toward resolution, in part because no resolution seemed possible and, in part, because useful work could go on without resolving them (an attitude sometimes called “shut up and calculate”). Scientists could attract money and press with ever larger supercolliders while ignoring such pesky questions.
But as this year’s Nobel recognizes, that’s starting to change. Increasingly clever experiments are exploiting advances in cheap, high-precision lasers and atomic-scale transistors. Quantum information studies often require nothing more than some equipment on a table and a few graduate students. In this way, quantum information’s progress has come not by bludgeoning nature into submission but by subtly tricking it to step into the light.
Take the superposition debate. One camp claims that a deeper level of reality lies hidden beneath all the quantum weirdness. Once the so-called hidden variables controlling reality are exposed, they say, the strangeness of superposition will evaporate.
Another camp claims that superposition shows us that potential realities matter just as much as the single, fully manifested one we experience. But what collapses the potential electrons in their two locations into the one electron we actually see? According to this interpretation, it is the very act of looking; the measurement process collapses an ethereal world of potentials into the one real world we experience.
And a third major camp argues that particles can be two places at once only because the universe itself splits into parallel realities at the moment of measurement, one universe for each particle location — and thus an infinite number of ever splitting parallel versions of the universe (and us) are all evolving alongside one another.
These fundamental questions might have lived forever at the intersection of physics and philosophy. Then, in the 1980s, a steady advance of low-cost, high-precision lasers and other “quantum optical” technologies began to appear. With these new devices, researchers, including this year’s Nobel laureates, David J. Wineland and Serge Haroche, could trap and subtly manipulate individual atoms or light particles. Such exquisite control of the nano-world allowed them to design subtle experiments probing the meaning of quantum weirdness.
Soon at least one interpretation, the most common sense version of hidden variables, was completely ruled out.
At the same time new and even more exciting possibilities opened up as scientists began thinking of quantum physics in terms of information, rather than just matter — in other words, asking if physics fundamentally tells us more about our interaction with the world (i.e., our information) than the nature of the world by itself (i.e., matter). And so the field of quantum information theory was born, with very real new possibilities in the very real world of technology.
What does this all mean in practice? Take one area where quantum information theory holds promise, that of quantum computing.
Classical computers use “bits” of information that can be either 0 or 1. But quantum-information technologies let scientists consider “qubits,” quantum bits of information that are both 0 and 1 at the same time. Logic circuits, made of qubits directly harnessing the weirdness of superpositions, allow a quantum computer to calculate vastly faster than anything existing today. A quantum machine using no more than 300 qubits would be a million, trillion, trillion, trillion times faster than the most modern supercomputer.
Going even further is the seemingly science-fiction possibility of “quantum teleportation.” Based on experiments going on today with simple quantum systems, it is at least a theoretical possibility that one day objects could be reconstituted — beamed — across a space without ever crossing the distance.
When a revolution in science yields powerful new technologies, its effect on human culture is multiplied exponentially. Think of the relation between thermodynamics, steam engines and the onset of the industrial era. Quantum information could well be the thermodynamics of the next technological revolution.
The discovery of the Higgs — the confirming stroke of a grand, overarching theory of matter — will, eventually, yield a Nobel Prize, and when it comes the award will be justly deserved.
But the discovery’s impact on human society will most likely be dwarfed by the consequences of quantum information theory. The steady advances at its frontiers are turning us into safecrackers, nimbly manipulating the tumblers guarding the deepest secrets of nature and our own place within it. What we find when the locks snap open on the quantum world will surely be something far richer and far greater than our imaginations today can conceive.
Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester and the author of About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.