THE SCHIZOPHRENIC ATOM - SMALL THINGS - Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You - Marcus Chown

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You - Marcus Chown (2007)




If you imagine the difference between an abacus and the world’s fastest supercomputer, you would still not have the barest inkling of how much more powerful a quantum computer could be compared with the computers we have today.

Julian Brown

It’s 2041. A boy sits at a computer in his bedroom. It’s not an ordinary computer. It’s a quantum computer. The boy gives the computer a taskand instantly it splits into thousands upon thousands of versions of itself, each of which works on a separate strand of the problem. Finally, after just a few seconds, the strands come back together and a single answer flashes on the computer display. It’s an answer that all the normal computers in the world put together would have taken a trillion trillion years to find. Satisfied, the boy shuts the computer down and goes out to play, his night’s homework done.

Surely, no computer could possibly do what the boy’s computer has just done? Not only could a computer do such a thing, crude versions are already in existence today. The only thing in serious dispute is whether such a quantum computer merely behaves like a vast multiplicity of computers or whether, as some believe, it literally exploits the computing power of multiple copies of itself existing in parallel realities, or universes.

The key property of a quantum computer—the ability to do many calculations at once—follows directly from two things that waves—and therefore microscopic particles such as atoms and photons, which behave like waves—can do. The first of those things can be seen in the case of ocean waves.

On the ocean there are both big waves and small ripples. But as anyone who has watched a heavy sea on a breezy day knows, you can also get big, rolling waves with tiny ripples superimposed on them. This is a general property of all waves. If two different waves can exist, so too can a combination, or superposition, of the waves. The fact that superpositions can exist is pretty innocuous in the everyday world. However, in the world of atoms and their constituents, its implications are nothing short of earth-shattering.

Think again of a photon impinging on a windowpane. The photon is informed about what to do by a probability wave, described by the Schrödinger equation. Since the photon can either be transmitted or reflected, the Schrödinger equation must permit the existence of two waves—one corresponding to the photon going through the window and another corresponding to the photon bouncing back. Nothing surprising here. However, remember that, if two waves are permitted to exist, a superposition of them is also permitted to exist. For waves at sea such a combination is nothing out of the ordinary. But here the combination corresponds to something quite extraordinary—the photon being both transmitted and reflected. In other words, the photon can be on both sides of the windowpane simultaneously!

And this unbelievable property follows unavoidably from just two facts: that photons are described by waves and that superpositions of waves are possible.

This is no theoretical fantasy. In experiments it is actually possible to observe a photon or an atom being in two places at once—the everyday equivalent of you being in San Francisco and Sydney at the same time. (More accurately, it is possible to observe the consequences of a photon or an atom being in two places at once.) And since there is no limit to the number of waves that can be superposed, a photon or an atom can be in three places, 10 places, a million places at once.

But the probability wave associated with a microscopic particle does more than inform it where it could be located. It informs it how to behave in all circumstances—telling a photon, for instance, whether or not to be transmitted or reflected by a pane of glass. Consequently, atoms and their like can not only be in many places at once, they can do many things at once, the equivalent of you cleaning the house, walking the dog, and doing the weekly supermarket shopping all at the same time. This is the secret behind the prodigious power of a quantum computer. It exploits the ability of atoms to do many things at once, to do many calculations at once.


The basic elements of a conventional computer are transistors. These have two distinct voltage states, one of which is used to represent the binary digit, or bit, “0”, the other to represent a “1.” A row of such zeros and ones can represent a large number, which in the computer can be added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided by another large number.1 But in a quantum computer the basic elements—which may be single atoms—can be in a superposition of states. In other words, they can represent a zero and a one simultaneously. To distinguish them from normal bits, physicists call such schizophrenic entities quantum bits, or qubits.

One qubit can be in two states (0 or 1), two qubits in four (00 or 01 or 10 or 11), three qubits in eight, and so on. Consequently, when you calculate with a single qubit, you can do two calculations simultaneously, with two qubits four calculations, with three eight, and so on. If this doesn’t impress you, with 10 qubits you could do 1,024 calculations all at once, with 100 qubits 100 billion billion billion! Not surprisingly, physicists positively salivate at the prospect of quantum computers. For some calculations, they could massively outperform conventional computers, making conventional personal computers appear positively retarded.

But for a quantum computer to work, wave superpositions are not sufficient on their own. They need another essential wave ingredient: interference.

The interference of light observed by Thomas Young in the 18th century was the key observation that convinced everyone that light was a wave. When, at the beginning of the 20th century, light was also shown to behave like a stream of particles, Young’s double slit experiment assumed a new and unexpected importance—as a means of exposing the central peculiarity of the microscopic world.


In the modern incarnation of Young’s experiment, a double slit in an opaque screen is illuminated with light, which is undeniably a stream of particles. In practice, this means using a light source so feeble that it spits out photons one at a time. Sensitive detectors at different positions on the second screen count the arrival of photons. After the experiment has been running for a while, the detectors show something remarkable. Some places on the screen get peppered with photons while other places are completely avoided. What is more, the places that are peppered by photons and the places that are avoided alternate, forming vertical stripes—exactly as in Young’s original experiment.

But wait a minute! In Young’s experiment the dark and light bands are caused by interference. And a fundamental feature of interference is that it involves the mingling of two sets of waves from the same source—the light from one slit with the light from the other slit. But in this case the photons are arriving at the double slit one at a time. Each photon is completely alone, with no other photon to mingle with. How, then, can there be any interference? How can it know where its fellow photons will land?

There would appear to be only one way—if each photon somehow goes through both slits simultaneously. Then it can interfere with itself. In other words, each photon must be in a superposition of two states—one a wave corresponding to a photon going through the left-hand slit and the other a wave corresponding to a photon going through the right-hand slit.

The double slit experiment can be done with photons or atoms or any other microscopic particles. It shows graphically how the behaviour of such particles—where they can and cannot strike the second screen—is orchestrated by their wavelike alter ego. But this is not all the double slit experiment demonstrates. Crucially, it shows that the individual waves that make up a superposition are not passive but can actively interfere with each other. It is this ability of the individual states of a superposition to interfere with each other that is the absolute key to the microscopic world, spawning all manner of weird quantum phenomena.

Take quantum computers. The reason they can carry out many calculations at once is because they can exist in a superposition of states. For instance, a 10-element quantum computer is simultaneously in 1,024 states and can therefore carry out 1,024 calculations at once. But all the parallel strands of a calculation are of absolutely no use unless they get woven together. Interference is the means by which this is accomplished. It is the means by which the 1,024 states of the superposition can interact and influence each other. Because of interference, the single answer coughed out by the quantum computer is able to reflect and synthesise what was going on in all those 1,024 parallel calculations.

Think of a problem divided into 1,024 separate pieces and one person working on each piece. For the problem to be solved, the 1,024 people must communicate with each other and exchange results. This is what interference makes possible in a quantum computer.

An important point worth making here is that, although superpositions are a fundamental feature of the microscopic world, it is a curious property of reality that they are never actually observed. All we ever see are the consequences of their existence—what results when the individual waves of a superposition interfere with each other. In the case of the double slit experiment, for instance, all we ever see is an interference pattern, from which we infer that an electron was in a superposition in which it went through both slits simultaneously. It is impossible to actually catch an electron going through both slits at once. This is what was meant by the earlier statement that it is possible only to observe the consequences of an atom being in two places at once, not it actually being in two places at once.


The extraordinary ability of quantum computers to do enormous numbers of calculations simultaneously poses a puzzle. Though practical quantum computers are currently at a primitive stage, manipulating only a handful of qubits, it is nevertheless possible to imagine a quantum computer that can do billions, trillions, or quadrillions of calculations simultaneously. In fact, it is quite possible that in 30 or 40 years we will be able to build a quantum computer that can do more calculations simultaneously than there are particles in the Universe. This hypothetical situation poses a sticky question: Where exactly will such a computer be doing its calculations? After all, if such a computer can do more calculations simultaneously than there are particles in the Universe, it stands to reason that the Universe has insufficient computing resources to carry them out.

One extraordinary possibility, which provides a way out of the conundrum, is that a quantum computer does its calculations in parallel realities or universes. The idea goes back to a Princeton graduate student named Hugh Everett III, who, in 1957, wondered why quantum theory is such a brilliant description of the microscopic world of atoms but we never actually see superpositions. Everett’s extraordinary answer was that each state of the superposition exists in a totally separate reality. In other words, there exists a multiplicity of realities—a multiverse—where all possible quantum events occur.

Although Everett proposed his “Many Worlds” idea long before the advent of quantum computers, it can shed some helpful light on them. According to the Many Worlds idea, when a quantum computer is given a problem, it splits into multiple versions of itself, each living in a separate reality. This is why the boy’s quantum personal computer at the start of this chapter split into so many copies. Each version of the computer works on a strand of the problem, and the strands are brought together by interference. In Everett’s picture, therefore, interference has a very special significance. It is the all-important bridge between separate universes, the means by which they interact and influence each other.

Everett had no idea where all the parallel universes were located. And, frankly, nor do the modern-day proponents of the Many Worlds idea. As Douglas Adams wryly observed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “There are two things you should remember when dealing with parallel universes. One, they’re not really parallel, and two, they’re not really universes!”

Despite such puzzles, half a century after Everett proposed the Many Worlds idea, it is undergoing an upsurge in popularity. An increasing number of physicists, most notably David Deutsch of the University of Oxford, are taking it seriously. “The quantum theory of parallel universes is not some troublesome, optional interpretation emerging from arcane theoretical considerations,” says Deutsch in his book, The Fabric of Reality. “It is the explanation—the only one that is tenable—of a remarkable and counterintuitive reality.”

If you go along with Deutsch—and the Many Worlds idea predicts exactly the same outcome for every conceivable experiment as more conventional interpretations of quantum theory—then quantum computers are something radically new under the Sun. They are the very first machines humans have ever built that exploit the resources of multiple realities. Even if you do not believe the Many Worlds idea, it still provides a simple and intuitive way of imagining what is going on in the mysterious quantum world. For instance, in the double slit experiment, it is not necessary to imagine a single photon going through both slits simultaneously and interfering with itself. Instead, a photon going through one slit interferes with another photon going through the other slit. What other photon, you may ask? A photon in a neighbouring universe, of course!


Quantum computers are extremely difficult to build. The reason is that the ability of the individual states of a quantum superposition to interfere with each other is destroyed, or severely degraded, by the environment. This destruction can be vividly seen in the double slit experiment.

If some kind of particle detector is used to spot a particle going through one of the slits, the interference stripes on the screen immediately vanish, to be replaced by more or less uniform illumination. The act of observing which slit the particle goes through is all that is needed to destroy the superposition in which it goes through both slits simultaneously. And a particle going through one slit only is as likely to exhibit interference as you are to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

What has really happened here is that an attempt has been made to locate, or measure, the particle by the outside world. Knowledge of the superposition by the outside world is all that is needed to destroy it. It is almost as if quantum superpositions are a secret. Of course, once the world knows about the secret, the secret no longer exists!

Superpositions are continually being measured by their environment. And it takes only a single photon to bounce off a superposition and take information about it to the rest of the world to destroy the superposition. This process of natural measurement is called decoherence. It is the ultimate reason we do not see weird quantum behaviour in the everyday world.2 Although naively we may think of quantum behaviour as a property of small things like atoms but not of big things like people and trees, this is not necessarily so. Quantum behaviour is actually a property of isolated things. The reason we see it in the microscopic world but not in the everyday world is simply because it is easier to isolate a small thing from its surroundings than a big thing.

The price of quantum schizophrenia is therefore isolation. As long as a microscopic particle like an atom can remain isolated from the outside world, it can do many different things at once. This is not difficult in the microscopic world, where quantum schizophrenia is an everyday phenomenon. However, in the large-scale world in which we live, it is nearly impossible, with countless quadrillions of photons bouncing off every object every second.

Keeping a quantum computer isolated from its surroundings is the main obstacle facing physicists in trying to construct such a machine. So far, the biggest quantum computer they have managed to build has been composed of only 10 atoms, storing 10 qubits. Keeping 10 atoms isolated from their surroundings for any length of time takes all their ingenuity. If a single photon bounces off the computer, 10 schizophrenic atoms instantly become 10 ordinary atoms.

Decoherence illustrates a limitation of quantum computers not often publicised amid the hype surrounding such devices. To extract an answer, someone from the outside world—you—must interact with it, and this necessarily destroys the superposition. The quantum computer reverts to being an ordinary computer in a single state. A 10-qubit machine, instead of spitting out the answers to 1,024 separate calculations, spits out just one.

Quantum computers are therefore restricted to parallel calculations that output only a single answer. Consequently, only a limited number of problems are suited to solution by quantum computer, and much ingenuity is required to find them. They are not, as is often claimed, the greatest thing since sliced bread. Nevertheless, when a problem is found that plays to the strengths of a quantum computer, it can massively outperform a conventional computer, calculating in seconds what otherwise might take longer than the lifetime of the Universe.

On the other hand, decoherence, which is the greatest enemy of those struggling to build quantum computers, is also their greatest friend. It is because of decoherence, after all, that the giant superposition of a quantum computer with all its mutually interfering strands is finally destroyed; it is only by being destroyed—reduced to a single state representing a single answer—that anything useful comes out of such a machine. The world of the quantum is indeed a paradoxical one!

1 Binary was invented by the 17th-century mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. It is a way of representing numbers as a strings of zeros and ones. Usually, we use decimal, or base 10. The right-hand digit represents the ones, the next digit the tens, the next the 10 × 10s, and so on. So, for instance, 9,217 means 7 + 1 × 10 + 2 × (10 × 10) + 9 × (10 × 10 × 10). In binary, or base 2, the right-hand digit represents the ones, the next digit the twos, the next the 2 × 2s, and so on. So for instance, 1101 means 1 + 0 × 2 + 1 × (2 × 2) + 1 × (2 × 2 × 2), which in decimal is 13.

2 I am totally aware that all this talk of quantumness being a “secret” that is destroyed if the rest of the world learns about it is a complete fudge. But it is sufficient for our discussion here. Decoherence, the means by which the quantum world, with its schizophrenic superpositions, becomes the everyday world where trees and people are never in two places at once, is a can of worms with which the experts are still wrestling. For a real explanation, see Chapter 5, “The Telepathic Universe.”