Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You - Marcus Chown (2007)
ABSOLUTE ZERO Lowest temperature attainable. As a body is cooled, its atoms move more and more sluggishly. At absolute zero, equivalent to –273.15 on the Celsius scale, they cease to move altogether. (Actually, this is not entirely true since the Heisenberg uncertainty principle produces a residual jitter even at absolute zero.)
ACCRETION DISC CD-shaped disc of in-swirling matter that forms around a strong source of gravity such as a black hole. Since gravity weakens with distance from its source, matter in the outer portion of the disc orbits more slowly than in the inner portion. Friction between regions where matter is travelling at different speeds heats the disc to millions of degrees. Quasars are thought to owe their prodigious brightness to ferociously hot accretion discs surrounding “supermassive” black holes.
ALPHA CENTAURI The nearest star system to the Sun. It consists of three stars and is 4.3 light-years distant.
ALPHA DECAY The spitting out of a high-speed alpha particle by a large, unstable nucleus in an attempt to turn itself into a lighter, stable nucleus.
ALPHA PARTICLE A bound state of two protons and two neutrons—essentially a helium nucleus—that rockets out of an unstable nucleus during radioactive alpha decay.
ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE The idea that the Universe is the way it is because, if it was not, we would not be here to notice it. In other words, the fact of our existence is an important scientific observation.
ANTIMATTER Term for a large accumulation of antiparticles. Anti-protons, antineutrons, and positrons can in fact come together to make anti-atoms. And there is nothing in principle to rule out the possibility of antistars, antiplanets, or antilife. One of the greatest mysteries of physics is why we appear to live in a Universe made solely of matter when the laws of physics seem to predict a pretty much 50/ 50 mix of matter and antimatter.
ANTIPARTICLE Every subatomic particle has an associated antiparticle with opposite properties, such as electrical charge. For instance, the negatively charged electron is twinned with a positively charged antiparticle known as the positron. When a particle and its antiparticle meet, they self-destruct, or “annihilate,” in a flash of high-energy light, or gamma rays.
ATOM The building block of all normal matter. An atom consists of a nucleus orbited by a cloud of electrons. The positive charge of the nucleus is exactly balanced by the negative charge of the electrons. An atom is about one 10-millionth of a millimetre across.
ATOMIC ENERGY See Nuclear Energy.
ATOMIC NUCLEUS The tight cluster of protons and neutrons (a single proton in the case of hydrogen) at the centre of an atom. The nucleus contains more than 99.9 per cent of the mass of an atom.
BIG BANG The titanic explosion in which the Universe is thought to have been born 13.7 billion years ago. “Explosion” is actually a misnomer since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once and there was no preexisting void into which the Universe erupted. Space, time, and energy all came into being in the Big Bang.
BIG BANG THEORY The idea that the Universe began in a superdense, superhot state 13.7 billion years ago and has been expanding and cooling ever since.
BIG CRUNCH If there is enough matter in the Universe, its gravity will one day halt and reverse the Universe’s expansion so that it shrinks down to a Big Crunch. This is a sort of mirror image of the Big Bang.
BLACK BODY A body that absorbs all the heat that falls on it. The heat is shared among the atoms in such a way that the heat radiation it gives out takes no account of what the body is made of but depends solely on its temperature and has a characteristic and easily recognisable form. The stars are approximate black bodies.
BLACK HOLE The grossly warped space-time left behind when a massive body’s gravity causes it to shrink down to a point. Nothing, not even light, can escape—hence a black hole’s blackness. The Universe appears to contain at least two distinct types of black hole—stellar-sized black holes that form when very massive stars can no longer generate internal heat to counterbalance the gravity trying to crush them and “supermassive” black holes. Most galaxies appear to have a supermassive black hole in their heart. They range from millions of times the mass of the Sun in our Milky Way to billions of solar masses in the powerful quasars.
BOSE-EINSTEIN CONDENSATION Phenomenon in which all the microscopic particles in a body suddenly crowd into the same state. The particles must be bosons and the temperature must generally be very low. Helium atoms, for instance, crowd into the same state below –271 degrees Celsius, turning liquid helium into a superfluid.
BOSON A microscopic particle with integer spin—that is, 0 units, 1 unit, 2 units, and so on. By virtue of their spin, such particles are hugely gregarious, participating in collective behaviour that leads to lasers, superfluids, and superconductors.
BOYLE’S LAW The observation that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure—that is, doubling the pressure halves the volume.
BROWNIAN MOTION The random, jittery motion of a large body under machine-gun bombardment from smaller bodies. The most famous instance is of pollen grains zigzagging through water as they are repeatedly hit by water molecules. The phenomenon, discovered by botanist Robert Brown in 1827 and triumphantly explained by Einstein in 1905, was powerful proof of the existence of atoms.
CAUSALITY The idea that a cause always precedes an effect. Causality is a much-cherished principle in physics. However, quantum events such as the decay of atoms appear to be effects with no prior cause.
CHANDRASEKHAR LIMIT The largest possible mass for a white dwarf. It depends on a star’s chemical composition, but for a white dwarf made of helium it is about 44 per cent more massive than the Sun. For a star bigger than this, the electron degeneracy pressure inside is insufficient to prevent gravity from crushing the star farther.
CHARGE-COUPLED DEVICE (CCD) Supersensitive electronic light detector that can register close to 100 per cent of the light that falls on it. Since photographic plates register a mere 1 per cent, CCDs allow a telescope to perform as well as a telescope with 100 times the light-collecting area.
CHEMICAL BOND The “glue” that sticks atoms together to make molecules.
CHRONOLOGY PROTECTION CONJECTURE The stricture that time travel is impossible. No one has yet managed to prove it—in fact, the laws of physics appear to permit time travel—but physicists such as Stephen Hawking remain convinced that some, as-yet-undiscovered law of nature forbids time machines.
CLASSICAL PHYSICS Nonquantum physics. In effect, all physics before 1900 when the German physicist Max Planck first proposed that energy might come in discrete chunks, or quanta. Einstein was the first to realise that this idea was totally incompatible with all physics that had gone before.
CLOSED TIME-LIKE CURVE (CTC) Region of space-time so dramatically warped that time loops back on itself in much the same way that space loops back on itself on an athletics track. A CTC, in common parlance, is a time machine. It is permitted to exist by the current laws of physics.
COMET Small icy body—usually mere kilometres across—that orbits a star. Most comets orbit the Sun beyond the outermost planets in an enormous cloud known as the Oort Cloud. Like asteroids, comets are builders’ rubble left over from the formation of the planets.
COMPTON EFFECT The recoil of an electron when exposed to high-energy light just as if the electron is a tiny billiard ball struck by another tiny billiard ball. The effect is a graphic demonstration that light is ultimately made of tiny bulletlike particles, or photons.
CONDUCTOR A material through which an electrical current can flow.
CONSERVATION LAW Law of physics that expresses the fact that a quantity can never change. For instance, the conservation of energy states that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. For example, the chemical energy of petrol can be converted into the energy of motion of a car.
CONSERVATION OF ENERGY Principle that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another.
COOPER PAIR Two electrons with opposite spin that pair up in some metals at extremely low temperature. Cooper pairs, unlike individual electrons, are bosons. Consequently, they can crowd into the same state, moving together in lockstep through the metal like an irresistible army on the move. The electrical current in such a “superconductor” can run forever.
COPERNICAN PRINCIPLE The idea that there is nothing special about our position in the Universe, in either space or time. This is a generalised version of Copernicus’s recognition that Earth is not in a special position at the centre of the solar system but is just another planet circling the Sun.
COSMIC BACKGROUND RADIATION The “afterglow” of the Big Bang fireball. Incredibly, it still permeates all of space 13.7 billion years after the event, a tepid radiation corresponding to a temperature of –270 degrees Celsius.
COSMIC RAYS High-speed atomic nuclei, mostly protons, from space. Low-energy ones come from the Sun; high-energy ones probably come from supernovas. The origin of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, particles millions of times more energetic than anything we can currently produce on Earth, is one of the great unsolved puzzles of astronomy.
COSMOLOGY The ultimate science. The science whose subject matter is the origin, evolution, and fate of the entire Universe.
COSMOS Another word for Universe.
DARK ENERGY Mysterious “material” with repulsive gravity. Discovered unexpectedly in 1998, it is invisible, fills all of space and appears to be pushing apart the galaxies and speeding up the expansion of the Universe. Nobody has much of a clue what it is.
DARK MATTER Matter in the Universe that gives out no light. Astronomers know it exists because the gravity of the invisible stuff bends the paths of visible stars and galaxies as they fly through space. There is between 6 and 7 times as much dark matter in the Universe as ordinary, light-emitting matter. The identity of the dark matter is the outstanding problem of astronomy.
DECOHERENCE The mechanism that destroys the weird quantum nature of a body—so that, for instance, it appears localised rather than in many different places simultaneously. Decoherence occurs if the outside world gets to “know” about the body. The knowledge may be taken away by a single photon of light or an air molecule that bounces off the body. Since big bodies like tables are continually struck by photons and air molecules and cannot remain isolated from their surroundings for long, they lose their ability to be in many places at once in a fantastically short time—far too short for us to notice.
DEGENERACY PRESSURE The bee-in-a-box-like pressure exerted by electrons squeezed into a small volume of space. A consequence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it arises because a microscopic particle whose location is known very well necessarily has a large uncertainty in its velocity. The degeneracy pressure of electrons prevents white dwarfs from shrinking under their own gravity, whereas the degeneracy pressure of neutrons does the same thing for neutron stars.
DENSITY The mass of an object divided by its volume. Air has a low density, and iron has a high density.
DIMENSION An independent direction in space-time. The familiar world around us has three space dimensions (east–west, north–south, up-down) and one of time (past-future). Superstring theory requires the Universe to have six extra space dimensions. These differ radically from the other dimensions because they are rolled up very small.
DOUBLE SLIT EXPERIMENT Experiment in which microscopic particles are shot at a screen with two closely spaced, parallel slits cut in it. On the far side of the screen, the particles mingle, or “interfere,” with each other to produce a characteristic “interference pattern” on a second screen. The bizarre thing is that the pattern forms even if the particles are shot at the slits one at a time, with long gaps between—in other words, when there is no possibility of them mingling with each other. This result, claimed Richard Feynman, highlighted the “central mystery” of quantum theory.
ELECTRIC CHARGE A property of microscopic particles that comes in two types—positive and negative. Electrons, for instance, carry a negative charge and protons a positive charge. Particles with the same charge repel each other, while particles with unlike charge attract. ELECTRIC CURRENT A river of charged particles, usually electrons, that can flow through a conductor.
ELECTRIC FIELD The field of force that surrounds an electric charge.
ELECTROMAGNETIC FORCE One of the four fundamental forces of nature. It is responsible for gluing together all ordinary matter, including the atoms in our bodies and the atoms in the rocks beneath our feet.
ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVE A wave that consists of an electric field that periodically grows and dies, alternating with a magnetic field that periodically dies and grows. An electromagnetic wave is generated by a vibrating electric charge and travels through space at the speed of light.
ELECTRON Negatively charged subatomic particle typically found orbiting the nucleus of an atom. As far as anyone can tell, it is a truly elementary particle, incapable of being subdivided.
ELEMENT A substance that cannot be reduced any further by chemical means. All atoms of a given element possess the same number of protons in their nucleus. For instance, all atoms of hydrogen have one proton, all atoms of chlorine have 17, and so on.
ENERGY A quantity that is almost impossible to define! Energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. Among the many familiar forms are heat energy, energy of motion, electrical energy, and sound energy.
ENTANGLEMENT The intermingling of two or more microscopic particles so that they lose their individuality and in many ways be-have as a single entity.
EVENT HORIZON The one-way “membrane” that surrounds a black hole. Anything that falls through—whether matter or light—can never get out again.
EXOTIC MATTER Hypothetical matter with repulsive gravity.
EXPANDING UNIVERSE The fleeing of the galaxies from each other in the aftermath of the Big Bang.
FERMION A microscopic particle with half-integer spin—that is, 1/2 unit, 3/2 units, 5/2 units, and so on. By virtue of their spin, such particles shun each other. Their unsociability is the reason that atoms exist and the ground beneath our feet is solid.
FRAME DRAGGING The dragging around of space-time by a massive rotating body. The effect is very small—though potentially measurable—in the vicinity of Earth but enormous near a fast-rotating black hole. Such a black hole sits at the eye of a tornado of whirling space-time.
FUNDAMENTAL FORCE One of the four basic forces that are believed to underlie all phenomena. The four forces are the gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong force, and weak force. The strong suspicion among physicists is that these forces are actually facets of a single superforce. In fact, experiments have already shown the electromagnetic and weak forces to be different sides of the same coin.
FUNDAMENTAL PARTICLE One of the basic building blocks of all matter. Currently, physicists believe there are six different quarks and six different leptons, making a total of 12 truly fundamental particles. The hope is that the quarks will turn out to be merely different faces of the leptons.
FUSION See Nuclear Fusion.
GALAXY One of the basic building blocks of the Universe. Galaxies are great islands of stars. Our own island, the Milky Way, is spiral in shape and contains about 200,000 million stars.
GAS Collection of atoms that fly about through space like a swarm of tiny bees.
GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY Einstein’s theory of gravity that shows gravity to be nothing more than the warpage of spacetime. The theory incorporates several ideas that were not incorporated in Newton’s theory of gravity. One was that nothing, not even gravity, can travel faster than light. Another was that all forms of energy have mass and so are sources of gravity. Among other things, the theory predicted black holes, the expanding Universe, and that gravity would bend the path of light.
GEODESIC The shortest path between two points in warped, or curved, space.
GRAVITATIONAL FORCE The weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature. Gravity is approximately described by Newton’s universal law of gravity but more accurately described by Einstein’s theory of gravity—the general theory of relativity. General relativity breaks down at the singularity at the heart of a black hole and the singularity at the birth of the Universe. Physicists are currently looking for a better description of gravity. The theory, already dubbed quantum gravity, will explain gravity in terms of the exchange of particles called gravitons.
GRAVITATIONAL LIGHT BENDING The bending of the trajectory of light that passes by a massive body. Because the space in the vicinity of such a body is warped like a valley, the light has no choice but to travel along a curved path.
GRAVITATIONAL RED SHIFT The loss of energy as light climbs out of the valley in space-time around a massive celestial body. Since the “colour” of light is related to its energy, with red light having less energy than blue light, astronomers talk of light being shifted to the red end of the spectrum or “red-shifted.”
GRAVITATIONAL WAVE A ripple spreading out through spacetime. Gravitational waves are generated by violent motions of mass, such as the merger of black holes. Because they are weak, they have not yet been detected directly.
GRAVITY See Gravitational Force.
HALF-LIFE The time it takes half the nuclei in a radioactive sample to disintegrate. After one half-life, half the atoms will be left; after two half-lives, a quarter; after three, an eighth, and so on. Half-lives can vary from the merest split-second to many billions of years.
HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE A principle of quantum theory that there are pairs of quantities such as a particle’s location and speed that cannot simultaneously be known with absolute precision. The uncertainty principle puts a limit on how well the product of such a pair of quantities can be known. In practice, this means that if the speed of a particle is known precisely, it is impossible to have any idea where the particle is. Conversely, if the location is known with certainty, the particle’s speed is unknown. By limiting what we can know, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle imposes “fuzziness” on nature. If we look too closely, everything blurs like a newspaper picture dissolving into meaningless dots.
HELIUM Second lightest element in nature and the only one to have been discovered on the Sun before it was discovered on Earth. Helium is the second most common element in the Universe after hydrogen, accounting for about 10 per cent of all atoms.
HORIZON The Universe has a horizon much like the horizon that surrounds a ship at sea. The reason for the Universe’s horizon is that light has a finite speed and the Universe has been in existence for only a finite time. This means that we only see objects whose light has had time to reach us since the Big Bang. The observable universe is therefore like a bubble centred on Earth, with the horizon being the surface of the bubble. Every day the Universe gets older (by one day), so every day the horizon expands outwards and new things become visible, just like ships coming over the horizon at sea.
HORIZON PROBLEM The problem that far-flung parts of the Universe that could never have been in contact with each other, even in the Big Bang, have almost identical properties such as density and temperature. Technically, they were always beyond each other’s horizon. The theory of inflation provides a way for such regions to have been in contact in the Big Bang and so can potentially solve the horizon problem.
HYDROGEN The lightest element in nature. A hydrogen atom consists of a single proton orbited by a single electron. Close to 90 per cent of all atoms in the Universe are hydrogen atoms.
HYDROGEN BURNING The fusion of hydrogen into helium accompanied by the liberation of large quantities of nuclear binding energy. This is the power source of the Sun and most stars.
HYDROSTATIC EQUILIBRIUM The state in which the gravitational force trying to crush a star is perfectly balanced by the force of its hot gas pushing outwards.
INERTIA The tendency for a massive body, once set in motion, to keep on moving, at constant speed in a straight line in unwarped space and along a geodesic in warped space. Nobody knows the origin of inertia.
INERTIAL FORCE A force we invent to explain a motion that is actually due to nothing more than inertia. A good example is centrifugal force. There is no such force flinging us outwards in a car rounding a sharp corner. We are simply continuing to move in a straight line because of our inertia, and the interior of the car, because it is moving along a curved path, intercepts us.
INFLATION, THEORY OF Idea that in the first split-second of its creation the Universe underwent a fantastically fast expansion. In a sense, inflation preceded the conventional Big Bang explosion. If the Big Bang is likened to the explosion of a grenade, inflation was like the explosion of an H-bomb. Inflation can solve some problems with the Big Bang theory such as the horizon problem.
INFRARED Type of invisible light that is given out by warm bodies.
INTERFERENCE The ability of two waves passing through each other to mingle, reinforcing where their peaks coincide and cancelling where the peaks of one coincide with the troughs of another.
INTERFERENCE PATTERN Pattern of light and dark stripes that appears on a screen illuminated by light from two sources. The pattern is due to the light from the two sources reinforcing at some places on the screen and cancelling at other places.
INTERSTELLAR MEDIUM The tenuous gas and dust floating between the stars. In the vicinity of the Sun this gas comprises about one hydrogen atom in every 3 cubic centimetres, making it a vacuum far better than anything achievable on Earth.
INTERSTELLAR SPACE The space between the stars.
ION An atom or molecule that has been stripped of one or more of its orbiting electrons and so has a net positive electrical charge.
ISOTOPE One possible form of an element. Isotopes are distinguishable by their differing masses. For instance, chlorine comes in two stable isotopes, with a mass of 35 and 37. The mass difference is due to a differing number of neutrons in their nuclei. For instance, chlorine-35 contains 18 neutrons and chlorine-37 contains 20 neutrons. (Both contain the same number of protons—17—since this determines the identity of an element.)
JOULE The standard scientific unit of energy. The energy of motion of a flying cricket ball is about 10 joules; the chemical energy provided by a single slice of bread is about 100,000 joules; and the electrical energy of a lightning discharge is about 10 billion joules.
LAMBDA POINT Temperature below which liquid helium begins to turn into a superfluid.
LASER Light source in which the gregarious nature of photons—bosons—comes to the fore. Specifically, the more photons there are passing through a material the greater the probability that other atoms will emit others with the same properties. The result is an avalanche of photons all travelling in lockstep.
LIGHT, CONSTANCY OF The peculiarity that in our Universe the speed of light in empty space is always the same, irrespective of the speed of the source of light or of anyone observing the light. This is one of two cornerstones of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the other being the principle of relativity.
LIGHT, SPEED OF The cosmic speed limit—300,000 kilometres per second.
LIGHT BENDING See Gravitational Light Bending.
LIGHT-YEAR Convenient unit for expressing distances in the Universe. It is simply the distance that light travels in one year in a vacuum, which turns out to be 9.46 trillion kilometres.
LORENTZ CONTRACTION The contraction of a body moving relative to an “observer.” The observer sees the body shrink in the direction of its motion. The effect is noticeable only when the body is moving close to the speed of light with respect to the observer.
LUMINOSITY The total amount of light pumped into space each second by a celestial body such as a star.
MAGNETIC FIELD The field of force that surrounds a magnet.
MANY WORLDS The idea that quantum theory describes everything, not simply the microscopic world of atoms and their constituents. Since quantum theory permits an atom to be in two places at once, this must mean that a table can be in two places at once. According to the Many Worlds idea, however, the mind of the person observing the table splits into two—one that perceives the table to be in one place and another that perceives it to be in another. The two minds exist in separate realities, or universes.
MASS A measure of the amount of matter in a body. Mass is the most concentrated form of energy. A single gram contains the same amount of energy as 100,000 tonnes of dynamite.
MAXWELL’S EQUATIONS OF ELECTROMAGNETISM The handful of elegant equations, written down by James Clerk Maxwell in1868, that neatly summarise all electrical and magnetic phenomena. The equations reveal that light is an electromagnetic wave.
MILKY WAY Our galaxy.
MOLECULE Collection of atoms glued together by electromagnetic forces. One atom, carbon, can link with itself and other atoms to make a huge number of molecules. For this reason, chemists divide molecules into “organic”—those based on carbon—and “inorganic”—the rest.
MOMENTUM The momentum of a body is a measure of how much effort is required to stop it. For instance, an oil tanker, even though it may be going at only a few kilometres an hour, is far harder to stop than a Formula 1 racing car going 200 kilometres per hour. The oil tanker is said to have more momentum.
MOMENTUM, CONSERVATION OF Principle that momentum can never be created or destroyed.
MULTIVERSE Hypothetical enlargement of the cosmos in which our Universe turns out to be one among an enormous number of separate and distinct universes. Most universes are dead and uninteresting. Only in a tiny subset do the laws of physics promote the emergence of stars, planets, and life.
MUON Short-lived subatomic particle that behaves like a heavy version of the electron.
NEUTRINO Neutral subatomic particle with a very small mass that travels very close to the speed of light. Neutrinos, of which there are three kinds, hardly ever interact with matter. However, when created in huge numbers, they can blow a star apart in a supernova.
NEUTRON One of the two main building blocks of the atomic nucleus at the centre of atoms. Neutrons have essentially the same mass as protons but carry no electrical charge. They are unstable outside of a nucleus and disintegrate in about 10 minutes.
NEUTRON STAR A star that has shrunk under its own gravity to such an extent that most of its material has been compressed into neutrons. Typically, such a star is only 20 to 30 kilometres across. A sugar cube of neutron star stuff would weigh as much as the entire human race.
NEWTON’S UNIVERSAL LAW OF GRAVITY The idea that all bodies pull on each other across space with a force that depends on the product of their individual masses and the inverse square of their distance apart. In other words, if the distance between the bodies is doubled, the force becomes four times weaker; if it is tripled, nine times weaker; and so on. Newton’s theory of gravity is perfectly good for everyday applications but turns out to be an approximation. Einstein provided an improvement in the general theory of relativity.
NONLOCALITY The spooky ability of objects subject to quantum theory to continue to “know” about each other’s state even when separated by a large distance.
NUCLEAR ENERGY The excess energy released when one atomic nucleus changes into another atomic nucleus.
NUCLEAR FUSION The welding together of two light nuclei to make a heavier nucleus, a process that results in the liberation of nuclear binding energy. The most important fusion process for human beings is the gluing together of hydrogen nuclei to make helium in the core of the Sun since its by-product is sunlight.
NUCLEAR REACTION Any process that converts one type of atomic nucleus into another type of atomic nucleus.
NUCLEON Umbrella term used for protons and neutrons, the two building blocks of the atomic nucleus.
NUCLEUS See Atomic Nucleus.
PARTICLE ACCELERATOR Giant machine, often in the shape of a circular racetrack, in which subatomic particles are accelerated to high speed and smashed into each other. In such collisions the energy of motion of the particles becomes available to create new particles.
PARTICLE PHYSICS The quest to discover the fundamental building blocks and fundamental forces of nature.
PAULI EXCLUSION PRINCIPLE The prohibition on two microscopic particles (fermions) sharing the same quantum state. The Pauli exclusion stops electrons, which are fermions, from piling on top of each other and, consequently, explains the existence of different atoms and of the variety of the world around us.
PHOTOCELL A practical device that exploits the photoelectric effect. The interruption of an electric current when a body breaks the light beam falling on a metal is used to control something—for instance, an automatic door at the entrance to a supermarket.
PHOTOELECTRIC EFFECT The ejection of electrons from the surface of a metal by photons striking the metal.
PHOTON Particle of light.
PHYSICS, LAWS OF The fundamental laws that orchestrate the be-havior of the Universe.
PLANCK ENERGY The superhigh energy at which gravity becomes comparable in strength to the other fundamental forces of nature.
PLANCK LENGTH The fantastically tiny length scale at which gravity becomes comparable in strength to the other fundamental forces of nature. The Planck length is a trillion trillion times smaller than an atom. It corresponds to the Planck energy. Small distances are synonymous with high energies because of the wave nature of matter.
PLASMA An electrically charged gas of ions and electrons.
POSITRON Antiparticle of the electron.
PRECESSION OF THE PERIHELION OF MERCURY The fact that the orbit of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, does not follow a straightforward elliptical orbit but rather an elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the Sun gradually moves around the Sun, resulting in the planet tracing out a rosettelike pattern. The explanation is that the gravity of the Sun weakens with distance from the Sun more slowly than in the case of Newtonian gravity, which uniquely predicts elliptical orbits. It weakens more slowly because, in the Einsteinian picture, gravity itself is a source of more gravity.
PRINCIPLE OF EQUIVALENCE The idea that gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable.
PROTON One of the two main building blocks of the nucleus. Protons carry a positive electrical charge, equal and opposite to that of electrons.
PULSAR A rapidly rotating neutron star that sweeps an intense beam of radio waves around the sky much like a lighthouse.
QED See Quantum Electrodynamics.
QUANTUM The smallest chunk into which something can be divided. Photons, for instance, are quanta of the electromagnetic field.
QUANTUM COMPUTER A machine that exploits the fact that quantum systems such as atoms can be in many different states at once to carry out many calculations at once. The best quantum computers can manipulate only a handful of binary digits, or bits, but in principle such computers could massively outperform conventional computers.
QUANTUM ELECTRODYNAMICS Theory of how light interacts with matter. The theory explains almost everything about the everyday world, from why the ground beneath our feet is solid to how a laser works, from the chemistry of metabolism to the operation of computers.
QUANTUM INDISTINGUISHABILITY The inability to distinguish between two quantum events. These may be indistinguishable, for instance, because they involve identical particles or simply because the events are not observed. The crucial thing, however, is that the probability waves associated with indistinguishable events interfere. This leads to all manner of quantum phenomena.
QUANTUM NUMBER A number that specifies a microscopic property that comes in chunks such as the spin or orbital energy of an electron.
QUANTUM PROBABILITY The chance, or probability, of a microscopic event. Although nature prohibits us from knowing things with certainty, it nevertheless permits us to know the probabilities with certainty.
QUANTUM SUPERPOSITION Situation in which a quantum object such as an atom is in more than one state at a time. It might, forinstance, be in many places simultaneously. It is the interaction, or “interference,” between the individual states in the superposition that is the basis of all quantum weirdness. Decoherence prevents such interaction and therefore destroys quantum behaviour.
QUANTUM THEORY The theory of objects isolated from their surroundings. Because it is very hard to isolate a big object, the theory is essentially a theory of the microscopic world of atoms and their constituents.
QUANTUM TUNNELLING The apparently miraculous ability of microscopic particles to escape their prisons. For instance, an alpha particle can tunnel through the barrier penning it in the nucleus, the equivalent of a high jumper jumping a 4-metre-high wall. Tunnelling is yet another consequence of the wavelike character of microscopic particles.
QUANTUM UNPREDICTABILITY The unpredictability of microscopic particles. Their behaviour is unpredictable even in principle. Contrast this with the unpredictability of a coin toss. It is unpredictable only in practice. In principle, if we knew the shape of the coin, the force exerted on it, the air currents around it, and so on, we could predict the outcome.
QUANTUM VACUUM The quantum picture of empty space. Far from ultra-shorth ultra-short-lived microscopic particles that are permitted by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to blink into existence and blink out again.
QUASAR A galaxy that derives most of its energy from matter heated to millions of degrees as it swirls into a central giant black hole. Quasars can generate as much light as a hundred normal galaxies from a volume smaller than the solar system, making them the most power-ful objects in the Universe
QUBIT A quantum bit, or binary digit. Whereas a normal bit can only represent a “0” or a “1,” a qubit can exist in a superposition of the two states, representing a “0” and a “1” simultaneously. Because strings of qubits can represent a large number of numbers simultaneously, they can be used to do a large number of calculations simultaneously.
RADIOACTIVE DECAY The disintegration of unstable heavy atomic nuclei into lighter, stabler atomic nuclei. The process is accompanied by the emission of either alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays.
RADIOACTIVITY Property of atoms that undergo radioactive decay.
RADIUM Highly unstable, or radioactive, element discovered by Marie Curie in 1898.
RELATIVITY, GENERAL THEORY OF Einstein’s generalisation of his special theory of relativity. General relativity relates what one person sees when looking at another person accelerating relative to them. Because acceleration and gravity are indistinguishable—the principle of equivalence—general relativity is also a theory of gravity.
RELATIVITY, PRINCIPLE OF The observation that all the laws of physics are the same for observers moving at constant speed with respect to each other.
RELATIVITY, SPECIAL THEORY OF Einstein’s theory that relates what one person sees when looking at another person moving at constant speed relative to them. It reveals, among other things, that the moving person appears to shrink in the direction of their motion while their time slows down, effects that become ever more marked as they approach the speed of light.
SCANNING TUNNELLING MICROSCOPE (STM) A device that drags an ultrafine needle across the surface of a material and converts the up-and-down motion of the needle into an image of the atomic landscape of the surface.
SCHRÖDINGER EQUATION Equation that governs the way in which the probability wave, or wave function, describing, say a subatomic particle, changes with time.
SIMULTANEITY The idea that events that appear to happen at the same time for one person should appear to happen at the same time for everyone in the Universe. Special relativity shows that this idea is mistaken.
SINGULARITY Location where the fabric of space-time ruptures and so cannot be understood by Einstein’s theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity. There was a singularity—a point where quantities such as temperature skyrocketed to infinity—at the beginning of the Universe. There is also one in the centre of every black hole.
SOLAR SYSTEM The Sun and its family of planets, moons, comets, and other assorted rubble.
SPACE-TIME In the general theory of relativity, space and time are seen to be essentially the same thing. They are therefore treated as a single entity—space-time. It is the warpage of space-time that turns out to be gravity.
SPECTRAL LINE Atoms and molecules absorb and give out light at characteristic wavelengths. If they swallow more light than they emit, the result is a dark line in the spectrum of a celestial object. Con-versely, if they emit more than they swallow, the result is a bright line.
SPECTRUM The separation of light into its constituent “rainbow” colours.
SPIN Quantity with no everyday analog. Loosely speaking, subatomic particles with spin behave as if they are tiny spinning tops (only they are not spinning at all!).
STAR A giant ball of gas that replenishes the heat it loses to space by means of nuclear energy generated in its core.
STRING THEORY See Superstring Theory.
STRONG NUCLEAR FORCE The powerful short-range force that holds protons and neutrons together in an atomic nucleus.
SUBATOMIC PARTICLE A particle smaller than an atom, such as an electron or a neutron.
SUN The nearest star.
SUPERCONDUCTOR A material that, when cooled to ultralow temperatures, conducts an electrical current forever—that is, with no resistance. This ability is connected with a change in the conducting particles from fermions to bosons. Specifically, electrons (fermions) pair up to form Cooper pairs (bosons).
SUPERFLUID A fluid that, below a critical temperature, develops bizarre properties such as the ability to flow uphill and squeeze through impossibly small holes. The best example is liquid helium, which becomes a superfluid below a temperature of 2.17 degrees above absolute zero. Superfluid liquid helium owes its weirdness to quantum theory and the fact that helium atoms are bosons.
SUPERNOVA A cataclysmic explosion of a massive star. A supernova may, for a short time, outshine an entire galaxy of 100 billion ordinary stars. It is thought to leave behind a highly compressed neutron star or even a black hole.
SUPERSTRING THEORY Theory which postulates that the fundamental ingredients of the Universe are tiny strings of matter. The strings vibrate in a space-time of 10 dimensions. The great payoff of this idea is that it may be able to unite, or “unify,” quantum theory and the general theory of relativity.
TACHYON Hypothetical particle that lives its life permanently travelling faster than light.
TELEPORTATION The clever use of entanglement to pin down the exact state of a microscopic particle, in apparent violation of what is permitted by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This enables the information necessary to reconstruct the state of the particle to be sent to a remote site.
TEMPERATURE The degree of hotness of a body. Related to the energy of motion of the particles that compose it.
THERMODYNAMICS, SECOND LAW OF The decree that entropy, or microscopic disorder of a body, cannot ever decrease. This is equivalent to saying that heat can never flow from a cold to a hot body.
TIME DILATION The slowing down of time for an observer moving close to the speed of light or experiencing strong gravity.
TIME LOOP See Closed Time-Like Curve.
TIME MACHINE See Closed Time-Like Curve.
TIME TRAVEL Travel into the past or future—in the case of the future, at a rate of more than 1 year per year.
TIME TRAVEL PARADOX Nonsensical situation that time travel appears to permit. The most famous is the grandfather paradox in which someone goes back in time and shoots their grandfather before he conceives their mother. How then could they have been born to go back in time and commit the act?
TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN The coverage of the Sun by the disc of the Moon when the Moon moves between the Sun and Earth.
TWIN PARADOX The paradox that arises when someone travels at close to light speed to, say, Alpha Centauri and back while their twin stays at home. According to special relativity, the space-travelling twin ages less. However, from another point of view, it is Earth that receded from the space-travelling twin at close to the speed of light and therefore the stay-at-home-twin who ages less. The paradox is resolved by realising that the two situations are not equivalent. The space-travelling twin must undergo a deceleration and an acceleration at the turnaround at Alpha Centauri, and accelerations require general relativity not special relativity.
ULTRAVIOLET Type of invisible light that is given out by very hot bodies which is responsible for sunburn.
UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE See Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
UNIFICATION The idea that at extremely high energy the four fundamental forces of nature are one, united in a single theoretical framework.
UNIVERSE All there is. This is a flexible term once used for what we now call the solar system. Later, it was used for what we call the MilkyWay. Now it is used for the sum total of all the galaxies, of which there appear to be about 100 billion within the observable Universe.
UNIVERSE, EXPANSION OF The fleeing of the galaxies from each other in the aftermath of the Big Bang.
UNIVERSE, OBSERVABLE All we can see out to the Universe’s horizon.
URANIUM The heaviest naturally occurring element.
VIRTUAL PARTICLE Subatomic particle that has a fleeting existence, popping into being and popping out again according to the constraint imposed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
VISCOSITY The internal friction of a liquid. Treacle has high viscosity and water has low viscosity.
WAVE FUNCTION A mathematical entity that contains all that is knowable about a quantum object such as an atom. The wave function changes in time and space according to the Schrödinger equation.
WAVELENGTH The distance for a wave to go through a complete oscillation cycle.
WAVE-PARTICLE DUALITY The ability of a subatomic particle to behave as a localised billiard ball-like particle or a spread-out wave.
WEAK NUCLEAR FORCE The second force experienced by protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus, the other being the strong nuclear force. The weak nuclear force can convert a neutron into a proton and so is involved in beta decay.
WHITE DWARF A star that has run out of fuel and that gravity has compressed until it is about the size of Earth. A white dwarf is supported against further shrinkage by electron degeneracy pressure. A sugar cube of white dwarf material weighs about as much as a family car.
WORMHOLE A tunnel through space-time that connects widely spaced regions and so provides a shortcut.
X-RAYS A high-energy form of light.