Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.
There exists nothing as negative temperature (in Kelvin scale), at least not in ‘normal’ systems; this is something we learn in physics. This is a scale devised by Lord Kelvin (and hence the name of the unit) and according to this scale, there can be no negative value of temperature. Temperature was thought to be the measure of the energy of the particles in a system. While this isn’t untrue, the modern definition of temperature is broader.
For a system with energy levels, temperature is a measure of the probability of the occupation of an energy level with respect to energy. As we access more and more energetic states, the probability of occupation generally decreases and this leads to a positive temperature state. Now, imagine a system having the reverse configuration, like the higher energy states being more populated than the lower energy states. This kind of system will then have a negative temperature.
Try and note that negative temperature states are extremely rare and do not occur in our day-to-day lives. Particles will always like to occupy the lower energy states first and then go for the higher energy ones. In a room of air, you’ll always find more molecules with very low energies than molecules with very high energies. This is because the energy has a lower limit, viz E=0. The lowest energy possible is if the molecule were completely static. However, there is no upper limit.
But if you did have an upper limit, things would be interesting! Say there is an upper limit of the energy spectrum, meaning that no particle can have any energy beyond this limit (just like no particle could go below the lower limit). Now, under certain conditions, the system would occupy the upper energy levels more than the lower ones! This causes an inversion of the sign of temperature, according to the modern definition. Thus, we have negative temperature!
So what’s the big deal, you ask? Negative temperatures have been known for magnetic systems (which have an upper and a lower limit), but we haven’t known of any system with motional degrees of freedom (like an atom free to move in 3 dimensions) to have such an energy spectrum.
Ulrich Schneider, a physicist at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany and his team created an ultra-cold quantum gas made up of potassium atoms and they confined these atoms to a lattice (i.e. a crystal like arrangement). At positive temperatures, the atoms repelled each other, but the team was able to flip the magnetic field fast enough for the atoms to start attracting each other. This also flips the sign of the temperature. Explains Prof. Schneider:
This suddenly shifts the atoms from their most stable, lowest-energy state to the highest possible energy state, before they can react. It’s like walking through a valley, then instantly finding yourself on the mountain peak.
The temperature measured was a billionths of a degree below absolute zero! Wolfgang Ketterle, Nobel Laureate, called this an ‘experimental Tour de Force’. It truly is!
Another meteor shower is upon us. The Quadrantids are all set to blaze across the night sky. The only problem? The bright Moon!
The full moon day happened only a few days back on the 28th of December and the moon is in its gibbous phase. They start off this year’s journey for meteor hunters and are known for intense and numerous. The maximum is a short intense one which lasts for something like an hour or so. After that you’ll find practically zero meteors. After the incredible Geminids a few days back, you might have trouble believing that meteor shower maxima can be so very short!
The Quadrantids are named after the constellation Quadrans Muralis, which is now an obsolete constellation. So, in terms of the modern constellations, it’s near the head of Draco, the snake or the arm of the Big Dipper, if you prefer
The meteor shower will peak late tonight and continue on till the morning of 3rd January. But being the intense peak, if you’re late – or looking the other way – you’ll miss it.
The chances of missing it are really high, unfortunately. The moon will be bright and it being winter in the northern latitudes, the fog is expected to play major spoilsport. And since, the peak is late at night, when the fog formation is the strongest, you’ll definitely need to be insanely lucky.
In North America, the peak is expected to be at about 2-3 AM at about 30 degrees from the horizon on the east. As you go to the east, the morning comes earlier and the sky grows brighter when the peak actually arrives, making it hard to see the meteors.
No wonder Quadrantids are not as popular as the Geminids or the Perseids.
Science doesn’t stay still and 2012 was no exception. This gives bloggers, like myself, a happy problem of choosing a few from the plenty. Amidst the smoldering mental rubble created by the various disparate pieces of science news, ranging from the best to the worst, there lie those which just cry out for a mention. Yes, a top ten list can never be satisfactory for everyone; neither the included topics, not the order in which they are arranged can cater to all. The following list is thus a work of great mental labor with the expectations of being rebuffed for getting the list ‘wrong’ or not including something important. Thus, this is a personal list; a list of things which I, the author, thought was impactful and will be so in the near future. And like any human being, I can be horribly wrong – or wonderfully correct.
So here goes…
Choice 10: SpaceX goes to space
Last year we had NASA retiring the entire fleet of space shuttles, making the routine visits to space, and especially to the International Space Station, a thing of not such daily trivialities. NASA now has to depend on the Russians and their unpredictable space program in order to ferry man, machine and supplies to the ISS. However, NASA played what they believed was an ace up their sleeve – they let private companies enter space! SpaceX is being nurtured in the NASA equivalent of the marsupial pouch with both money and technology. And finally, SpaceX took the giant leap – sending their own capsule into space.
Yes, there were a few glitches and the delays drew critics! But not a thing should go wrong. The first launch was scheduled for the 19th of May. Technical glitches delayed it, but it was eventually accomplished. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, who is also co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, dreams big! The Red Planet is his goal!
Choice 9: Venus goes in front of the Sun
It was a celestial event to be repeated again only after 105 years. Venus would make its journey across the face of the Sun, and we would watch the block dot moving across! What’s so fascinating about that you ask? Well, the transits of Venus are important for many older calendars. The cycles of Venus are deliciously intricate and who doesn’t like a miniature Solar Eclipse?
We gave you the all you need to know guide about the Venus Transit here. If the weather played spoilsport, like it did in many parts of India, NASA was always streaming it live and Youtube is always there for later reference.
Choice 8: The Large Hadron Collider: The Hot and the Anomalous
It’s hot and really really hot! The ALICE experiment at the LHC, specializing in the collision of heavy ions achieved the hottest temperature ever recorded when they created quark-gluon plasma at a whopping 4 trillion degrees! Yes, 4 trillion, which you write down by writing 12 zeros after the initial ‘4’. Impressive? You bet! Story here.
In another detector of the LHC, the LHCb, specializing in the physics of the heavy ‘bottom quark’, there was a surprise! It turns out that the rare decay of a rare particle, called the ‘Bs-meson’, to two muons is at the exact expected rate! What’s bad about that? Well, it rules out the possibility of any physics beyond which we already know. Specifically, it seems that supersymmetry – that old cherished theory – is in deep trouble. However, things, especially things in particle physics, are not as simple as that. Supersymmetry still lives, though it appears that it is living on borrowed time. Story here.
Choice 7: The American Bald Eagle lives on, and so does faith in humanity
Science is cold, science is just rational, science doesn’t have a heart! Right?
Well, it can give back a beak to a bird, after people without any heart shoot it off! Here is the heart-warming story of Beauty, an American Bald Eagle, who had a prosthetic beak surgery, allowing her to survive. She won’t be able to live in the wild, granted, but at least she can lead a life! Cold heartless rationality called science can produce heart-warming stories. My colleague Darrin Jenkins reports: Beauty and the Beast
Taking advantage of the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, which is basically using matter as a lens for light coming from a long distance, scientists can definitively say that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. And make more specific observations, leading to answers about dark energy! Einstein’s theory easily accommodates an expanding universe mathematically, but what is dark energy really? We still don’t know and that’s why these kinds of measurements are so very important!
We’re at the half way mark. The top five stories coming up!
Choice 5: Infamy: Neutrinos break light barrier. Then do not!
In a stunning claim, the OPERA group announced that their experiments had revealed that neutrinos travel faster than light. This superluminal claim immediately created intense controversy as expected. Statements such as ‘I will eat my hat if this is true’ did the rounds. Credit to the experimentalists for doing a very thorough experiment and then NOT claiming that this violates special relativity.
Spirit and Opportunity had lived way past their age. They have done a lot more than what was expected of them. It was time for something new! Curiosity, the most sophisticated machinery ever to roam another planet, was launched. It landed safely on Mars, being completely blind when doing so.
In a major breakthrough in computational biology, scientists created a complete model of the Mycoplasmia genitalia. Yes, the whole deal, everything about the organism. The model has predictive power! If you tell it the genotype, it will tell you the phenotype! And more than 1900 parameters went into this model.
So there it is: the first computer simulation having all genetic and molecular components, able to predict an organism! Beat that.
Choice 2: Stem Cells, Nobel Prize and All the Promises
This one’s just too big for one year, but 2012 has clearly been a great year for results in stem cell research. It even got a Nobel prize!
A number of related pieces of news have come in this field. We told you about AIDS cure possibilities using Stem Cells, which has been tested successfully on mice. We also reported the wonderful story of a 10 year old girl’s life being saved due to stem cells. Stem cells helped her get a new vein – a vein taken from a dead man was stripped of all genetic information and grafted with stem cells grown from the girl’s bone marrow. This was replaced in place of the blocked vein near her liver!
And this is probably the biggest news of the decade! A particle, predicted by physical theories in the 60’s, was finally announced to have been discovered by the Large Hadron Collider, putting the biggest feather yet in the already bulging cap of CERN. The media frenzy surrounding the Higgs Boson was huge, the excitement palpable and the interest heartening. Here is what it really means.
A massive particle, decaying within a tiny fraction of a second, forming only very rarely tells us that there exists a Higgs field, which endows all massive particles in the universe with mass! What beauteous mystery Nature provides and how wonderful the answers!
There you have it. Some stories have been heart-warming, some informative, some exhilarating and some infamous. It is indeed heartening to see two of the top three stories going to medicine, a field destined to dominate scientific endeavours in this century.
Agree or disagree, send in your feedback in the comments; we’ll love to hear what your choices might have been. As the year dusks away, we look forward to a glorious new year, where science and technology will take man to heights justified by his intelligence.
From me and the entire Techie-Buzz team, we wish you a magnificent New Year.
He is the perfect example of the hero ideal you seek in the stories, someone who rises from the poorest of the poor families, fights against institutionalized rigours of society, is exceptionally gifted, but only in a specific field and then goes abroad, on the basis of just his merit, and astounds the world. In the end, he dies a death, which is sad, painful and alone. That in a nutshell is the real-life story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan!
Today is his birthday and Google celebrates it with nice little doodle.
The doodle depicts a young kid writing a whole lot of formulae on the playground, with a few other kids standing there, ready with their footballs, skipping ropes and even books. This prodigious kid is just amazing as he intuitively comes up with mathematical concepts that seem alien to everyone else in the world. The mathematical symbols in the doodle, spell out, as always, ‘Google’ and the story is really that of Ramanujan and how he held the entire mathematics community in thrall!
Ramanujan had this personal affinity with numbers and infinite series! As a college dropout from a very poor family, it would have taken a miracle for young Ramanujan to gain any sort of footing. That miracle came in the form of G.H. Hardy, who became his mentor and his collaborator. Ramanujan’s immense brilliance was offset by Hardy’s insistence of mathematical rigour and his solid mathematical training and the two formed a very productive collaboration for five years.
Ramanujan arrived at Cambridge, the shy village boy in the big big world! But then, there was Hardy, always his protector; Hardy described him as simply thus: “I have never met his equal, and can compare with only Euler and Jacobi”.
But England and its weather weren’t kind to him. He contracted a fever and even upon returning to India, he continued suffering. He died in 1920, with the world only waking up to the brilliance of this Indian genius.
It’s not worth it to even say ‘No, it won’t happen’. Of course it won’t happen. 21st December, 2012 Apocalypse is a myth and it will be proven to be so in two days. Sorry to disappoint, but the world is not going to end. We are going to be looking at the different claims of the Apocalypse and see how silly they really are!! Then, we might just as well look at what’s going on in the world of the internet and view the most gullible (or supremely manipulative) people on the planet.
1. The Mayan Calendar
Most people know that the Apocalypse is because the Mayan Calendar is going to end on the 21st of December. Hence, they predicted the End of the World! Wrong!! Firstly, the Mayans were not good prophets – they didn’t even see their own doom coming and that came way before this 2012 End of World. Secondly, just like any calendar hanging onto any of your walls, which doesn’t expire on the 31st of December and ‘predicts’ the end of the world, so doesn’t the Mayan. The Mayan cycle of dates and time-keeping starts off for the next period right after that.
The Mayan Calendar consists of many complicated cycles, most notably the Long Count Cycle taken from the MesoAmerican Long Count Calendar. 21st December just represents the end of a cycle called the Baktun and the start of a new Baktun! That’s it!!
Meanwhile, the real Mayans are planning to have a grand carnival in Belize, informs my trusted Techie-buzz colleague Pallab De.
From Mayan prophecies to pinpoint alignments! The next theory takes into account a lot of alignments, which all lead to the Earth is tugged away from its orbit!
All the planets are supposed to align in one straight line and their combined gravitational pull will force the Earth out of its orbit and lo, and behold, a Disaster!! Two things are wrong with this – one, the planets will not align and, two, even if they do, they’ll never be able to force Earth out of its stable orbit! The Earth’s orbit is way too stable for such things to happen. Please don’t lose sleep!
The Earth and the Sun will align with the supermassive black hole at the galactic center! Now this is actually true! The three bodies will align on the 21st! Like Every Year! And since you’ve survived your entire life with these three celestial bodies aligning, you should’ve no problem whatsoever!!
3. Planet Nibiru
Next comes in a planetary collision. Apparently on 21st December is the day when the planet Nibiru will crash into the Earth and our planet will be blown to smithereens! Except that this planet should’ve been seen by now and that too by the naked eye. Be rest assured that this is a hopeless internet hoax. Not only is Nibiru not coming for us, it doesn’t even exist! And neither does Planet X! There is another hoax about another planet called Eris, which people often confuse or club with Planet X. Eris actually exists, but it is a dwarf planet along with Pluto, much smaller than it and orbiting at roughly the same distance. It poses no danger whatsoever!
Here is Neil deGrasse Tyson debunking the alignment and the Nibiru myth:
4. Polar shifts
Whoever came up with the next hoax is a genius! It says that there is going to be a ‘polar shift’ and we’ll all perish. When this happens, the magnetic poles of the Earth are going to flip and there is going to be catastrophe! Of course, all of this blatantly ignores the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field reversal is not scheduled to happen for another few millennia! And even then, the reversal is not known to affect life on Earth. When is the last time you used the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field for anything anyway?
5. NASA said so!
The easiest way to attach credibility to these claims is to attach the name of some credible organization and the most darling organization known is NASA! Just claim that NASA has issued a report saying so and so will happen and this is enough to spread panic far and wide. In this case, NASA has apparently predicted a huge blackout on 21st or on the days following it! Versions vary – some say only on the 21st and some say on 22nd, 23rd and 24th! NASA officially refutes every version. No blackouts then! Well…
Onto the Internet chit-chat
A Viral Message
This one is my favorite – a viral message that has been posted on Facebook and in other places. I will not even try to decipher what it means, because it means nothing at all! It’s all pseudo-scientific gibberish non-sense. Here’s the message:
US scientists predict total darkness on planet earth for 3 days from Dec 22 2012. It is NOT the end of the world; it is just an alignment of the Universe, where the Sun and the earth will align for the first time. All planets are expected to align in a straight line as a result of which there could be some natural calamities on Earth. The earth will shift from the current third dimension to zero dimension, then shift to the 4th dimension. During this transition, the entire Universe will face a big change, and we will see an entire brand new world. The 3 days blackout is predicted to happen on Dec 22, 23, 24, 2012…. So do good be good live for the present enjoy life.
So this is not about the end of the world, but about a new awakening! Shifting from “current third dimension to zero dimension” has as much of sense as the possibility of seeing a Unicorn in front of the Eiffel Tower on a fine Sunday afternoon. The same can be said of the “shift of the 4th dimension” – make it a Unicorn drinking coffee in front of the Eiffel Tower.
There is a more religious version of this. And this is something I absolutely hate – using this kind of bad religious hoaxes to propagate faith!
The 3 days blackout is predicted to happen on Dec 23, 24, 25….during this time, staying calm is most important, hug each other, pray pray pray, sleep for 3 nights…and those who survive will face a brand new world….for those not prepared, many will die because of fear. Be happy, enjoy every moment now. Don’t worry, pray to God everyday. There is a lot of talk about what will happen in 2012, but many people don’t believe it, and don’t want to talk about it for fear of creating fear and panic.
We don’t know what will happen, but it is worth listening to USA’s NASA talk about preparation. Whether it’s true or not, better be prepared. No panic, stay calm, just prays. Remember to smile more, love more and forgive more…every day. Better avoid traveling during December.
A NASA warning
There has also been a hoax being circulated that NASA has circulated a video preparing for the cataclysmic 21st December. However, that is only a generic preparatory video, meant for any sort of emergencies during natural disasters.
Now a bit of seriousness before closing. All of this is nice and dandy and even a bit funny. But let us not lose sight of the extremely eschatological nature of these hoaxes and claims. There are people, mostly religious, cannot wait to have death cast upon them. They want to be judged! They want the taste of heaven and also want the infidels to perish. While this may not be a sentiment shared by most people, the preachers fervently preaching from the pulpits just cannot wait for the Judgement to occur.
My point is at least partially supported by the contents of this site: http://carm.org/world-end-dec-12-2012
They make some brilliant leaps of logic to say that the Bible hasn’t predicted this date and thus 21st December is not really the date for the Apocalypse. But the Apocalypse will happen. Hmphh…
With the splendor of the Geminids, there may be an additional bonus this time around! NASA news reports that along with the debris of the 3200 Phaethon, which causes the Geminids meteor shower, there may be another comet – Comet Wirtanen – which can make a significant contribution to the already divine cosmic spectacle.
Comet Wirtanen is a relatively recent discovery, discovered only in 1948. It orbits the sun in 5.4 years in a tight enough orbit. The Earth has just not run into the debris left in the wake of the comet passage. Yet!
NASA predicts that 2012 may be different. Remember, maybe! The Earth may be crossing the stream of debris any time between 10th to the 14th of December, coinciding brilliantly with the Geminids meteor shower.
If it happens…
The Wirtanen meteor shower will start early evening, right after sunset. So early evening, you can rendezvous with the Wirtanen, while the Geminids switch on later on! The radiant – or the point in the sky where the meteor shower is supposed to radiate from – will be in the Pisces constellation. That is if the Wirtanen shower happens at all!
If this happens – and this will happen only for the first time – the meteor shower may be christened ‘Piscids’, since it will originate from the Pisces constellation. The Pisces lie just south of the Pegasus constellation, which is easy enough to identify. The Pegasus comprises of four bright stars, arranged in a roughly squarish fashion. Though it may be easy to identify, the Pisces might be difficult to spot from a not-so-dark location, as the stars are pretty dim.
The to-be Piscids are expected to be moving slowly. We have no idea about the frequency as this will be the first time we’ll be seeing them. The same can be said about the brightness.
This weekend is a treat for all sky watching enthusiasts. Even if the Piscids prove to be a no-show, there will always be the Geminids to fall back on.
The Geminids are all set to make up for the disappointment of the Leonids. The Geminids peak on the night of 13th December and are expected to come to their full glory at about 2 AM on the 14th of December. All of this should fire you up to consider a trip away from the city lights and into the wilderness for a night of pristine sky watching.
The Geminids also luckily coincide with the New Moon this time, meaning that the absence of the moon will render these streaks of light the brightest object in the night sky. The Geminids are known for slow, bright and graceful meteors and a pretty high frequency. This time the expected frequency is one of the all-time highs of 120 – 140 meteors per hour – that’s more than 2 per minute!
While the Leonids are known for fast bright streaks, the Geminids will be much more relaxed! They travel at about half the speed of the Leonids, but have a higher percentage of faint meteors. But fret not, the Geminids have a high shower rate so that shouldn’t be a problem.
The Geminids, as the name suggests, stream out from the Gemini constellation, the so-called ‘radiant’. The Geminids are nearby the distinct Orion constellation. So it shouldn’t be difficult to spot. The Royal Astronomical Society predicts that the peak will occur at about 8 PM EST on the 13th. That means that in India, you are going to have the peak at about 11:30 PM IST. That is great news as you might be able to catch the extravagantly high 120+ meteors per hour shower rate. If you miss out on this peak, don’t worry – slightly reduced rates of about 60 meteors per hour are going to continue for about 8 hours even after the peak!
If you’re indeed going to leave the comfort of the city and venture into dark wilderness to watch the spectacle, I suggest you do take proper precautions. Make sure you have warm clothes, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. You’ll be surprised to find out how fast the temperature drops as you drive out of the pollution cover of the city. Remember, you cannot light any camp fires, since you won’t want to spoil your night vision.
Japan got hit by yet another earthquake early today morning at about 8:31 UTC. The magnitude of the quake is 7.4 on the Richter scale and a tsunami warning has been issued.
The USGS reported the magnitude of the quake as 7.4 on the Richter Scale band also reported an aftershock measuring a massive 6.2 following the quake. The depth of the epicenter is 33 km and the epicenter lies 333 km from Sendai.
Even Tokyo felt the tremors, but there has been no reports of any damage of death. The 1-m high tsunami warning is still on for the Miyagi prefecture, which was badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami. The devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered no further damages. The quake wasn’t strong enough to create a pacific wide tsunami.
Japan lies near the fault of four massive plates – the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate and the Phillipine Sea plate. This makes it particularly susceptible to the strike-slip earthquakes, in which the plates just slip against one another. Massive tectonic forces operating at these faults can cause huge earthquakes.
It’s a pincer attack on new physics. The sister project to the CMS and ATLAS collaborations at the LHC CERN, LHCb has just released new data which spells a death knell for supersymmetry. Okay, that might be a hasty statement, but if the results are really what they are, it’s very unlikely that any ‘reasonable’ model of supersymmetry will be able to survive.
Why the LHCb?
The LHC collaborations CMS and ATLAS have been the mainstay of the group and recently enjoyed huge success in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Less publicized and more specialist in their study is the LHCb detector and its collaboration. This detector is specialized for measuring certain exotic particles – those made up of at least one bottom quark. Since the bottom quark is very heavy, and heavy particles tend to decay very fast, all particles with the bottom quark are very short-lived making their study very difficult. And this is where LHCb specializes in.
Now the result
LHCb announced a new observation today and it knocks the wind out of supersymmetry. Let me tell you the observation and then tell you what it implies. They observed the decay of a certain particle called the Bs meson (B=Bottom and s=strange). The decay rate of this particle hadn’t been measured before with much accuracy, but today the LHCb collaboration announced that they have measured it and found that it decays into two muons about 3-4 times per billion decays. The ‘bingo’ moment for non-supersymmetric particle physics is that this is exactly what the Standard Model predicts. Right on the dot!
There is another storm brewing. It turns out that the Higgs Boson discovered earlier isn’t behaving as well as it should! Notably, it is not decaying into two tau leptons as often as it should. In fact, it seems that it is not decaying into tau leptons at all. There is a problem!
And the bad news
These two problems are pulling in opposite direction squeezing the super-symmetric space that lies between them. If the Bs decaying into two muons is exactly like what the Standard Model says, then supersymmetry, which predicts a higher decay rate, must obviously be constrained. And very heavily so!
So there it is! Supersymmetry is teetering on the edge of oblivion. But it may yet survive…
Yeah, it makes everyone a scientist and also provides good headline fodder for journalists. Plus, it’s great for many ‘spiritual leaders’ as they see it as a vindication of their position; something that they have been asserting all along just got some scientific backing. Unfortunately for them, it’s not all that clear cut. Dr. Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus and the Director of the Center of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, and the world renowned physicist and mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, join forces to forward a new theory – the theory of quantum consciousness.
You might have already heard of that term, but not yet grasped its meaning. Leave aside all the terrible jargon that is thrown around when ‘spiritual teachers’ like Deepak Chopra speak on this subject, ‘quantum consciousness’ refers to the idea that the brain is a quantum computer and that our consciousness is related to the state of quantum information in our brains. Okay, that might be too much ‘quantum’ for you, so let’s break that up.
Okay… Quantum Mechanics (and Quantum Computers)
Quantum theory, as physicists understand it, has weird elements. It says that particles can be in a superposition of energies, rather than have one fixed energy, can have a ‘spread out’ position, rather than one pinpoint location and that two systems, spatially separated from one another, might still be able to ‘communicate’ with each other, if they were linked to begin with. It’s the last phenomenon that we shall discuss.
The idea is one of ‘coherence’. When two systems are quantum mechanically linked, or ‘entangled’, then measuring one affects the other instantaneously, violating the intuitive concepts of Einstein’s relativity. So if a system A is entangled to system B, measuring A will affect B, no matter how far B is from A, be it half the universe away. This instantaneous change of state has been hypothesized to be useful in making quantum computers.
In a quantum computer, information is stored in energy levels, and since there are more than two energy levels, the two-bit limitation of a normal computer is washed away. We can store much more information. Now, we can perturb a part of the system and, immediately, some other part of the system will be affected. This will help in fast computation, as series computations will take much lesser time.
Of course, for a machine to behave as a quantum computer, the two systems mentioned, say A and B, must remain ‘coherent’. If they disentangle, then they no longer form a quantum computer. Typically, there is a ‘decoherence time’, the typical time required for two entangled systems to disentangle.
And now… Quantum Consciousness!
Now, on to what Penrose and Hameroff are claiming. They claim that inside the neurons, there are tiny structures called microtubules. Information in these microtubules is what constitutes the ‘soul’ or our ‘consciousness’. They go further. Say the body dies. The microtubules lose their quantum state, but retain the quantum information (and information cannot be lost). Thus, the soul remains and is dissipated in the universe at large. This conforms to the eastern position of spirituality which says that the body is mortal, but the soul isn’t and there is a cycle of births.
Penrose and Hameroff dodge the cycle of births and cater to another popular public fascination – near death experiences. They say that the information can be restored into a microtubule if a dying patient is resuscitated and this is what they might feel as a ‘near death experience’.
The theory has gained worldwide popularity owing to a documentary ‘Through a Wormhole’ narrated by Morgan Freeman, aired in the US on the Science Channel.
Quantum… sorry, plain rubbish – the damning rebuttal
At first glance, all of this sounds like hogwash and it probably will sound like that even when you hear it for the 42nd time. The problems are manifold and the scientific community overwhelmingly lines up against this quantum soul theory. Leave alone the fact that microtubules have not been found or that the quantum information dissipation can never be demonstrated or falsified. (Remember that these two are the major tenets of the theory and I am chucking these away!) Max Tegmark, in this paper, deals a severe blow to the quantum soul theory citing the fact that neurons and neural networks behave like classical systems. They aren’t quantum to begin with.
Shall we say that one more time? Yes, neurons and neural networks behave like bouncing tennis balls or moving buses, i.e. they obey laws of classical mechanics and quantum mechanics needn’t be invoked to explain them! Forget about being a quantum computer, these neurons are not even quantum mechanical! Just for fun, Tegmark quotes the typical ‘decoherence time’ (definition above) for these neurons. He notes that these are of the order of 10-13 s to 10-20 s, much much smaller than what’s needed for a quantum computer (~ 10-3 s). Okay, so even if the neurons were quantum objects, they would never form a quantum computer!
So much for the soul. There is still no evidence that it exists. May it rest in a quantum of peace!