The Quantum Conundrum

Placeholder ImageQuantum mechanics kicked my tuchis. And yet I’m completely fascinated by it.

Sounds a lot like Stockholm Syndrome, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it’s the allure of the unknown that pulls physicists, chemists, and all those other freaks towards it. Quantum Mechanics is based heavily on probability, and the best friend of probability is uncertainty. Not being able to predict how a system will behave is like the first stage in a relationship: every new thing you learn about the person you’re seeing is magical and exciting. It’s when you’ve been together forever (or for a year, whichever comes first) that the magical becomes the boring.

However, the unpredictability of quantum mechanics seems to outlast the number of years of all failed marriages put together. What could be more magical than that?

I had taken a physical chemistry course as an undergrad that was an introduction to quantum mechanics. My first semester in grad school I had to take an advanced thermodynamics course which was half classical, half quantum. Both parts involved statistical mechanics, and I found the whole thing fascinating to no end.

Then the next semester came. And I finally came to understand the meaning of the phrase, “Ah, to be young and foolish.”

See, in addition to my kinetics course, I had to pick another class that would be related to my research. Well, wouldn’t you believe it, but most courses remotely related to the topics of my group’s research were only offered in the fall! There was ONE CLASS offered for the spring term that I could take. You would think a place like Cornell would have more to offer.

The problem was that this class was the second in a two-course sequence, and Cornell allowed students to register for courses even if they hadn’t satisfied the pre-requisites. I guess they figured that if you were stupid enough to do that, the class would just flush you out anyway. Well, I figured that I’d already had experience in quantum mechanics and was prepared to face Part II.

Definitely not.

I was in the Chemical Engineering department, but the course was offered through the department of Applied and Engineering Physics. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but Cornell has the top AEP program in the country. Their students are the best the country has to offer, and the curriculum essentially turns them into double math and physics majors.

Have you ever spent time around either math or physics majors? Physics majors are definitely nerds, but math majors are the creme de la creme of the uber-nerds. These are people who are so brilliant but so strange that you wonder how they’re able to find their way home everyday. Now put the two together and what do you get? A collision of forces so great that Earth itself would start spinning backwards on its axis.

THAT was my quantum mechanics course. I was an engineering graduate student in an UNDERGRADUATE course begging all that is holy to just let me pass. There’s a situation I never thought I’d find myself in. From day one, I had no idea what was going on. It seemed the harder I tried, the worse I did.

I was even criticized for not knowing the math as well as the other students who had been taught all the tricks to solving the complicated integrals that kept popping up. When I was so condescendingly asked, “Don’t they teach this math in chemical engineering?” it was all I could do to not retort, “You mean wave math? Sorry, lady, that’s electrical engineering.” (While chemical engineers do learn wave mechanics and some quantum mechanics, our approach is strictly for application, not theory. Huge, huge, huge difference.) Plus, the other students had all just taken linear algebra, a course that’s extremely essential to understanding quantum mechanics. I had taken the course five years prior.

I took off time from my lab and spent five days straight just studying for my midterm. ALL DAY FOR FIVE DAYS STRAIGHT. I had even been going to a tutor on a weekly basis to try to make some sense of the gibberish in front of me.

I got a 38. Out of 100.

I panicked right before going in to take the exam, and for the next two hours, my mind was a complete blank. I was ready to throw in the towel.

Fortunately, my adviser was able to talk me out of making any rash decisions, and I made it through the rest of the semester with a passing grade. Two years later, after finishing my research, I got my master’s. The class nearly broke me, but I got through it and achieved my goals.

Maybe it was the experience of having my backside handed to me that makes me even more interested in this subject. Perhaps I just need to prove to myself that I have the ability to master the material. Or maybe it is just that feeling of always being caught off guard by unpredictability, that exciting and almost magical experience of constantly learning something new.

But what is the fascination with quantum mechanics? I just described it the same way you would a torture device. The whole field is Sisyphean in nature.

Because it’s so amazing! The more hidden something is, the more you aim to discover the answer. There’s always an answer; we just have to learn (or discover) the method to getting to it.

Here’s one example of the elusiveness of quantum mechanics. There is a principle called superposition, which means that any quantum states can be added together to create another quantum state. If we have 2 quantum states, before taking a measurement, the system is in both states (state 1 AND state 2, not OR). It’s only after a measurement is taken that the system “collapses” into one of the original states.

Confused yet? I sure was when I first learned about this.

Want to hear something even more strange? Ever heard of Schrodinger’s cat?

Erwin Schrodinger was one of the “founders” of quantum mechanics. As such, he was quite a brilliant man but also, in my opinion, somewhat disturbed, as evidenced by his infamous thought experiment.

To explain the principle of superposition, Schrodinger described a system that included a cat in a box with some sort of radioactive element. If the element decayed, the cat would die; otherwise, it would live.

Sounds crazy, right? Just wait.

Schrodinger explained that until we open the box, we have no idea what the cat’s situation is. But according to quantum mechanics, two possible states exist: dead and alive. There is an equal probability that the system exists in either state; however, since we have not observed the system, the combination of the two states results in the cat being both dead and alive. When the box is opened, the system collapses into one of the possibilities: dead or alive.

How can something be both fascinating and disturbing at the same time? Well, according to quantum mechanics, both of those states can exist. 🙂 So you really can have your cake AND eat it, too!

Fortunately, scientists and engineers have been able to unlock some of the mysteries of quantum mechanics and manipulate it in a way that brings us technology such as the microchips, MRI machines, and quantum computers. It’s still one of science’so best-kept secrets and is proof that no matter how much we know, there’s always more to discover.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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