Skip to main content

Cosmic thinkers probe secrets of the atom

June 13, 2007

ASU's innovative “cosmic think tank” – BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science – will conduct an international workshop this month to probe the innermost secrets of the atom.

Physicist Yakir Aharonov, the Distinguished Professor of Quantum Information Science in the Center for Quantum Studies at George Mason University, will deliver the opening address.

Paul Davies“The most successful scientific theory in history – quantum mechanics – describes the murky microworld of atoms and subatomic particles, and famously defies intuition,” notes ASU professor Paul Davies, director of BEYOND and organizer of the workshop.

Davies recalls this quote from legendary Niels Bohr, the theory's main architect: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics hasn't understood it.”

“Quantum weirdness includes the ability of atoms to be in two places at once, of particles to tunnel through barriers and for distant parts of the universe to be subtly linked by what Einstein called ‘ghostly action-at-a-distance,' ” says Davies, an acclaimed theoretical physicist, cosmologist and popular author. “It plays havoc with the commonsense notion of reality.

“Now a whole new set of even more bizarre paradoxes have been uncovered, and form the basis for the workshop. Physicists are studying so-called ‘Cheshire Cat' states – experiments in which a particle can be in one box and its electric charge in another; or arrangements in which past and future are strangely entangled.”

Aharonov is the “trailblazer of these wild new ideas,” Davies says, adding: “Aharonov has shown that by making only very weak measurements of atomic systems, one can lift the veil of secrecy imposed by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, a founding tenet of quantum mechanics that says, to paraphrase Einstein, ‘God plays dice with the universe.' Now it seems, we might just be able to sneak a look at how the dice roll.”

Davies notes that the workshop also will be attended by world famous theoretical physicist James Hartle, whose work with Stephen Hawking put the subject of quantum cosmology on the map. Hartle is a research professor and professor of physics emeritus at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Other attendees, including Gerald Milburn of the University of Queensland in Australia and Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are working on a multibillion-dollar project to build a quantum computer – a machine that could make the world's fastest supercomputer seem like an abacus, Davies says.

The June 13-15 workshop is cosponsored by George Mason University.

Other attendees include David Albert (Columbia University), Alonso Botero (Universidad de los Andes), Lajos Diosi (Research Institute for Particle and Nuclear Physics), Yuval Gefen (Weizmann Institute), Lucien Hardy (Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics), Poul Jessen (University of Arizona), Graeme Mitchison and Neil Turok (University of Cambridge), Lars M. Johansen (Buskerud University College), Don Page (University of Alberta), Richard Jozsa and Sandu Popescu (University of Bristol), Tirzah Kaufherr and Lev Vaidman (Tel Aviv University), Dan Parks (Naval Surface Warfare Center), Philip Pearle (University of Hamilton Physics), Daniel Rohrlich (Ben Gurion University), Aephraim Steinberg (University of Toronto), Howard Wiseman (Griffith University), and Menas Kafatos and Jeff Tollaksen (George Mason University).