Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
Last night, April Fool’s night, I attended a talk by 2012 physics Nobel Prize winner, Dr. David Wineland. The talk was titled, “Quantum Computers and Schrödinger’s Cat”. Though I won’t pretend to you readers that I understood what he was talking about, and the audience included two other physics Nobel Prize winners, so I was clearly out of my league, I’d gone to hear what he had to say about cats, since I have three at home.
And he did have quite a lot to say about cats, so I was not disappointed. He said that he didn’t think Schrödinger liked cats very much, since he put them in theoretical boxes only to wonder whether they were dead or alive.
The simple take-away from the evening, however, I thought was worth reporting.
Dr. Wineland is on one of the relatively few teams around the world that is working on developing quantum computers, and, his Nobel Prize was awarded for “ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.” His job has been with NIST, (National Institute of Standards and Technology), here in Boulder since 1975.
He began his talk by showing us the cover of the February 17, 2014 issue of TIME magazine, titled “The Infinity Machine”. He used it as an example that there is a lot of “hype” in the media about quantum computing, gently, but clearly implying that he wasn’t smitten with TIME’s article.
In reality, the teams working on quantum computers have some major obstacles to overcome and there is no big optimism on the near term horizon that they’ll overcome them. To date, what they’ve created can’t do as much as your hand held device can do.
And, that, readers, is the big highly simplified take-away of the evening.