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What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done For Us?

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Science

14,840

What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done


For Us?

In a different corner of the


social media universe, someone
left comments on a link to
Tuesday's post about quantum
randomness declaring that they
weren't aware of any practical
applications of quantum
physics. There's a kind of Life of
Brian absurdity to posting this
on the Internet, which is a giant
world-spanning, life-changing
practical application of quantum
mechanics. But just to make
things a little clearer, here's a
quick look at some of the myriad
everyday things that depend on
quantum physics for their
operation.
Computers and
Smartphones

2016-12-25 15:21

What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done For Us?

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Intel Corp. CEO Paul Otellini show off chips on a


wafer built on so-called 22-nanometer technology
at the Intel Developers' Forum in San Francisco,
Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. Those chips are still being
developed in Intel's factories and won't go into
production until 2011. Each chip on the silicon
"wafer" Otellini showed off has 2.9 billion
transistors. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

At bottom, the entire computer


industry is built on quantum
mechanics. Modern
semiconductor-based
electronics rely on the band
structure of solid objects. This is
fundamentally a quantum
phenomenon, depending on the
wave nature of electrons, and
because we understand that
wave nature, we can manipulate
the electrical properties of
silicon. Mixing in just a tiny
fraction of the right other
elements changes the band
structure and thus the
conductivity; we know exactly
what to add and how much to
use thanks to our detailed
understanding of the quantum
nature of matter.

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Stacking up layers of silicon


doped with different elements
allows us to make transistors on
the nanometer scale. Millions of
these packed together in a single
block of material make the
computer chips that power all
the technological gadgets that
are so central to modern life.
Desktops, laptops, tablets,
smartphones, even small
household appliances and kids'
toys are driven by computer
chips that simply would not be
possible to make without our
modern understanding of
quantum physics.
Lasers and
Telecommunications

Green LED lights and rows of fibre optic cables are


seen feeding into a computer server inside a
comms room at an office in London, U.K., on
Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Vodafone Group Plc will
ask telecommunications regulator Ofcom to
guarantee that U.K. wireless carriers, which rely
on BT's fiber network to transmit voice and data
traffic across the country, are treated fairly when
BT sets prices and connects their broadcasting
towers. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Unless my grumpy
correspondent was posting from
the exact server hosting the
comment files (which would be
really creepy), odds are very
good that comment took a path
to me that also relies on
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quantum physics, specifically


fiber optic telecommunications.
The fibers themselves are pretty
classical, but the light sources
used to send messages down the
fiber optic cables are lasers,
which are quantum devices.

The key physics of the laser is


contained in a 1917 paper
Einstein wrote on the statistics
of photons (though the term
"photon" was coined later) and
their interaction with atoms.
This introduces the idea of
stimulated emission, where an
atom in a high-energy state
encountering a photon of the
right wavelength is induced to
emit a second photon identical
to the first. This process is
responsible for two of the letters
in the word "laser," originally an
acronym for "Light
Amplification by Stimulated
Emission of Radiation."
Any time you use a laser,
whether indirectly by making a
phone call, directly by scanning
2016-12-25 15:21

What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done For Us?

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a UPC label on your groceries,


or frivolously to torment a cat,
you're making practical use of
quantum physics.
Atomic Clocks and GPS

TO GO WITH AN AFP STORY BY ISABELLE


TOUSSAINT A woman holds her smartphone next
to her dog wearing a GPS system on its collar in La
Celle-Saint-Cloud on July 1, 2015. The Global
Positioning System (GPS) collar help owners to
track their pets remotely. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL
MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL
MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most common uses of


Internet-connected smart
phones is to find directions to
unfamiliar places, another
application that is critically
dependent on quantum physics.
Smartphone navigation is
enabled by the Global
Positioning System, a network
of satellites each broadcasting
the time. The GPS receiver in
your phone picks up the signal
from multiple clocks, and uses
the different arrival times from
different satellites to determine
your distance from each of those
satellites. The computer inside
the receiver then does a bit of
math to figure out the single
point on the surface of the Earth
that is that distance from those
satellites, and locates you to

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within a few meters.


This trilateration relies on the
constant speed of light to
convert time to distance. Light
moves at about a foot per
nanosecond, so the timing
accuracy of the satellite signals
needs to be really good, so each
satellite in the GPS constellation
contains an ensemble of atomic
clocks. These rely on quantum
mechanics-- the "ticking" of the
clock is the oscillation of
microwaves driving a transition
between two particular quantum
states in a cesium atom (or
rubidium, in some of the
clocks).
Any time you use your phone to
get you from point A to point B,
the trip is made possible by
quantum physics.
Magnetic Resonance
Imaging

Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon


University in Pittsburgh, talks about an
experiment that used brain scans made in this
brain-scanning MRI machine on campus,
Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. Volunteers where
scanned as each word of a chapter of "Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was flashed for
half a second onto a screen inside the machine.
Images showing combinations of data and
graphics were collected. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The transition used for atomic


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clocks is a "hyperfine"
transition, which comes from a
small energy shift depending on
how the spin of an electron is
oriented relative to the spin of
the nucleus of the atom. Those
spins are an intrinsically
quantum phenomenon
(actually, it comes in only when
you include special relativity
with quantum mechanics),
causing the electrons, protons,
and neutrons making up
ordinary matter behave like tiny
magnets.
This spin is responsible for the
fourth and final practical
application of quantum physics
that I'll talk about today, namely
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
(MRI). The central process in an
MRI machine is called Nuclear
Magnetic Resonance (but
"nuclear" is a scary word, so it's
avoided for a consumer medical
process), and works by flipping
the spins in the nuclei of
hydrogen atoms. A clever
arrangement of magnetic fields
lets doctors measure the
concentration of hydrogen
appearing in different parts of
the body, which in turn
distinguishes between a lot of
softer tissues that don't show up
well in traditional x-rays.
So any time you, a loved one, or
your favorite professional
athlete undergoes an MRI scan,
you have quantum physics to
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What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done For Us?

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thank for their diagnosis and


hopefully successful recovery.
So, while it may sometimes
seem like quantum physics is
arcane and remote from
everyday experience (a
self-inflicted problem for
physicists, to some degree, as we
often over-emphasize the
weirder aspects when talking
about quantum mechanics), in
fact it is absolutely essential to
modern life. Semiconductor
electronics, lasers, atomic
clocks, and magnetic resonance
scanners all fundamentally
depend on our understanding of
the quantum nature of light and
matter.
But, you know, other than
computers, smartphones, the
Internet, GPS, and MRI, what
has quantum physics ever done
for us?

Gallery

Six
Things
Everyone
Should
Know
About
Quantum
Physics

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Launch
Gallery
6 images

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