Oct. 15, 2010 at 9:06 PM ET
Physicist James Kakalios is famous for looking at the science behind comic-book superpowers, but his latest book is grounded in real-world science that can be as bizarre as anything the Watchmen could come up with: quantum mechanics.
In "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics," Kakalios lays out his case that quantum physics is what makes real-life superpowers possible — such as the ability to watch a movie on your mobile phone or have your purchases tallied on a supermarket laser scanner.
Kakalios, a professor at the University of Minnesota, promises that his telling of the story is "math-free," and he mostly holds to that pledge. However, you do have to wrap your mind around Fermi-Dirac statistics, wave functions and Cooper-paired electrons. Fortunately, Kakalios leavens his scientific prose with examples drawn from pulp fiction and comic books. For instance, Kakalios points to Dr. Manhattan of the "Watchmen" graphic novel when explaining matter waves. How can Dr. Manhattan zip from Earth to Mars in an instant? By extending his de Broglie wavelength over 36 million miles, of course. Duh!
The bigger point behind the pulp-fiction references is that over the past century, discoveries in quantum physics have redefined the future. "Here we are in the 21st century," Kakalios told me. "We were promised jetpacks and flying cars, and we got cell phones and laptop computers instead. What did they miss? The writers of science-fiction pulp thought we would get a revolution in energy, but what we got was a revolution in information. That information revolution was made possible by semiconductors and solid-state physics, which in turn were made possible by quantum mechanics."
During an interview this week, Kakalios and I discussed the significance of quantum mechanics' amazing story, the science of superpowers and more. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Why does the world need another book about 'quantum mechanics made simple'?
Kakalios: There are many excellent books about quantum mechanics, the theory and the philosophical implications ... many books about the history ... not that many books about how useful quantum mecahanics is. One of the most amazing things about quantum mechanics is how practical it is. Back in the 1920s, scientists developed quantum mechanics because they were trying to understand how atoms interacted with light. A generation later, using the insights provided by those scientists, another generation of scientists developed the transistor and the laser. Now we have iPods, DVDs, cell phones, laptops, computers, television remote controls, pretty much everything without which life is not worth living. None of those are possible without the transistor and/or the laser, neither of which are possible without quantum mechanics.
Univ. of Minn.
My book does not get into all sorts of theories about Schroedinger's cat, or questions about what's called the measurement problem, but it really shows how quantum mechanics can be applied in day-to-day life. How it helps explain how your computer hard drive works, how MRI lets doctors see inside you without the cut of a knife. It explains the difference between CDs and DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. It explains how your USB drive works.
I explain the three key ideas you have to accept — not so much to understand the details of quantum mechanics, but to understand how that quantum mechanics is applied in things like lasers or transistors. ...
Q: When you mention that there are three key ideas, I have to ask you what those three ideas are.
A: Right. Basically, it's that light, which is typically treated as an electromagnetic wave, actually is composed of discrete particles, namely photons. That matter, which is made up of discrete solid particles, actually has a wavelike nature. And that everything, matter and light, has an intrinsic momentum or spin. This last part is important to understand how electrons interact with each other, or how beams of light interact with each other. It makes the difference between understanding chemistry, understanding the periodic table of the elements, solid state physics and also understanding lasers. Without understanding that intrinsic momentum, we wouldn't get those last bits.
Q: Why should ordinary civilians like me need to know about this? What good does it do? After all, people can drive a car without knowing in detail how an internal combustion engine works.
A: That is of course true. Well, there are several reasons. One is that it really is an amazing story: how the work of a handful of scientists. driven just by their curiosity to understand how atoms and light behaved, led to developments that underlie the world we live in. There were certainly computers before transistors. They were large. They had vacuum tubes. They were bulky. They were expensive. If we still had vacuum-tube computers, to make them more powerful we would have to make them bigger. Only the federal government and a few large corporations would have them. So there would be no reason to link them together. There would be no World Wide Web, and hence no msnbc.com. It really is the foundation for our lifestyle, and many people don't realize how often they come into contact with quantum mechanics in their day-to-day life.
There's another important reason. My book is not a textbook, and you're not going to read the book and suddenly become a scientist or an engineer. But I think that nearly everyone who reads my book will be a citizen and a potential voter. As citizens, we're being called upon more and more to have informed opinions about science and technological issues — whether it's alternative energy, or nanotechnology, or the next generation of devices we should put our research efforts into. The more we understand the basic principles that underlie our lifestyle, the better able we'll be to make informed decisions.
Q: Are there aspects of this that you feel are particularly important for voters, considering that we have an election season upon us?
A: The bottom line is, when you see all of the benefits that have accrued to us through these applications of basic scientific research, you get a sense that basic science really matters. Recently there's been a tendency to denigrate scientists. People take the titles of certain research grants out of context and ridicule them. But people will explore different things for very different reasons. These are usually peer-reviewed proposals. Many proposals get rejected, but the ones that get accepted are projects where other scientists see true value.
The world is a knowable place, and science is a way of providing that knowledge. The philosophy that guides my book is the idea that science is not "just another opinion." You can argue about, say, the age of the earth, but science provides an answer. We may have to improve on the answer and refine it, but we all agree on the criteria for the answer. It's not just an opinion. It provides you with something you can really depend on. If you don't believe in science, that's fine, but at least put the cell phone down.
Q: You're well-known for your earlier book, "The Physics of Superheroes," and so I'm wondering whether there are some new trends in superhero movies or comics that are interesting from a scientific point of view.
A. Well, yes, it's interesting that Hollywood has been reaching out to scientists, both in films and television, trying to get the science correct. Ultimately, they want to tell an interesting story, and I certainly want that as well. When I go to the movies, I don't go with a pen and paper and a calculator and say, "My physics sense is tingling!" But anytime when an audience is looking at something and realizing that the science is wrong, or that the portrayal of the scientist is inaccurate, is a moment when they're not paying attention to the story. So the creators of shows in Hollywood realize they have a vested interest in getting the science right.
In addition, for us as scientists it's interesting because we can leverage the public's interest and use it to promote science and the scientific approach. So you have 14 million people watching "The Big Bang Theory," and you can argue about whether they're just presenting nerd stereotypes, but basically everyone on that show is smart, and they're respected because they're smart. There was a great line in an episode from last season where they bounced a laser beam off the moon ...
Q: Right, I remember that one.
A: ... And they said, "We are thereby proving that 60 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, man put manmade objects on the moon." They left those laser reflectors up there. And, wow, that happened just within two generations. I never really made that connection before. It makes me proud to be a person, not even just an American. It makes me proud to be a human. This is our superpower. We are not super-strong. We can't fly. We can't turn invisible. Our superpower is our intelligence, and we should use it every day — because the forces of evil are always waiting.
More about quantum physics:
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