18 Times Quantum Particles Blew Our Minds in 2018
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Mind-blowing scienceThe small world got up to some pretty big things this year. From strange Schrödinger’s-cat situations to mysteries of water to impossible-seeming particles flying up from the Antarctic ice, particle physics proved that there are many unknowns in the universe for us to explore. Here are the 18 most stunning quantum mechanics and high-energy particle physics stories of 2018.
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Quantum data got denser than ever
To build quantum computers, scientists will have to first figure out how to manipulate and effectively store information with quantum objects. In 2018, researchers hit a milestone in that effort, packing 18 qubits of quantum information into just six photons, a new record.
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The thermometer went Schrödinger
In our world, temperature is just one thing. If a freezer is cold enough to make ice, any water you put inside it should freeze. But quantum mechanics allows for objects to exist in uncertainty between multiple states, in a sense to be more than one thing at the same time — just like Schrödinger's cat is both alive and dead in his thought experiment. And in 2018, we learned that this applies to temperature as well. Quantum objects can, from a certain point of view, be both hot and cold at the same time.
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Light lost track of time
Time is supposed to flow in one direction, following the path set for it by causality. A bowling ball rolls down a lane and smacks into a pin, so the pin falls. The pin falling doesn't cause the bowling ball to roll down the lane and smack into it. But in the quantum realm, things are fuzzier. A team of scientists in 2018 sent a photon on a journey, one that should have taken it down path A and then path B, or path B and then path A. But thanks to the loosey-goosey way quantum objects function, that photon didn't follow one path before the other. It followed both of them, without bothering to pick an order.
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Quantum physics forced us to re-evaluate life
In theory, quantum physics should work for objects of any size. But many researchers believe that life might be too complicated for any sort of meaningful quantum effects to emerge. But an experiment conducted in 2016 did seem to show bacteria interacting quantum mechanically with light in a very limited, subtle way. In 2018, another group of researchers went back and looked at that experiment and found that something much deeper and stranger might have been going on, forcing us to re-evaluate life and the quantum world.
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A tiny dumbbell spun really, really fast
Sometimes, when you've got a new toy, you've got to take it out for a spin. That’s what scientists did with joint spheres of silica this year, "nanodumbbells" just 0.000012 inches (320 nanometers) long and approximately 0.000007 inches wide (170 nm). Using lasers, they blasted those dumbbells up to rotational speeds of 60 billion whirls per minute.
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Water revealed its Jekyll and Hyde
There isn't really just one kind of water molecule, a quantum-physics experiment revealed this year. Instead, there are two. Both are made up of two hydrogen atoms sticking up from one big oxygen atom, H2O. But in one kind of water, called "ortho-water," those hydrogen atoms have quantum "spins" pointing in the same direction. In another kind of water, called "para-water," those spins point in opposite directions.
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Einstein was proved right yet again
A team of Swiss scientists has performed a massive test of one of the strangest paradoxes in quantum mechanics, a huge example of the sort of behavior Albert Einstein skeptically called "spooky action at a distance." Using a super-cooled clump of nearly 600 atoms, they showed that entanglement still works even at very large (quantum-mechanically-speaking) scales.
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20 qubits got entangled
Qubits are the fundamental unit of information in quantum computers, and making quantum computers work will involve entangling them with each other. In 2018, an experiment managed to entangle 20 of qubits together and make them talk to one another, then read back the information they contained. The result was a sort of prototype of short-term memory for a quantum-computer system.
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Quantum radar got closer to becoming a reality
Military radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects flying through the sky. But in regions near Earth's magnetic north pole, those signals can get scrambled. And there are stealth planes designed to avoid bouncing radar waves back at their source. In 2018, Canada made progress on a quantum radar that would bounce light photons off incoming planes, after entangling those photons with other photons far away, at the radar base. The quantum radar system would study photons at the base to see if their entangled partners were being tampered with by quantum technologies.
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Quantum randomness became a bit more democratic
Randomness is extremely important to cybersecurity. But true randomness, which is physically impossible to predict, is surprisingly hard to come by. One of the few sources of randomness in the world is the quantum realm, which is inaccessible to most of us. But that changed in 2018, when scientists created an online randomness "beacon" — a public source of random strings of numbers that anyone can access. They've since made that source more complex and useful, and there are more sources of public randomness coming soon.
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Einstein was also proved wrong
Einstein believed in an idea called "local realism," meaning that objects have specific properties whether or not those traits are observed, and that information about those traits can't travel faster than the speed of light. A huge test conducted in 2018, though, showed once again that Einstein was wrong about this. In the experiment, entangled particles seemed to "choose" matching states faster than light could have transferred information between them. This introduces two mind-bending scenarios: Either our observations of the world actually change it, or particles are communicating with each other in some manner that we can't see or influence. "Or possibly both," one researcher previously told Live Science.
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The skyrmion finally explained ball lightning
For centuries, credible reports have described "ball lightning," a strange phenomenon where lighting seems to persist as a sphere flying through space. But physicists have never been able to study this phenomenon, or to explain it. New research suggests the effect could be the result of "skyrmions," tightly clustered groups of magnetic fields held together like interlocking rings. For the first time in 2018, scientists reported generating a true skyrmion in a lab, and its magnetic profile matched predictions for the magnetic system necessary to contain ball lightning.
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A fifth state of matter in space
You've probably heard of at least three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. Plasma is the other bigger one. But there's at least one more: the Bose-Einstein condensate, a state in which super-cooled atoms clump together and exhibit quantum activity on unusually large scales. Researchers have made Bose-Einstein condensates on Earth before, but for the first time in 2018, NASA did it in outer space, in an orbital lab aboard the International Space Station.
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A superfast "clock" measured an electron in action
Electrons move so fast that under normal circumstances researchers can't find them at a specific spot in space. But in 2018, researchers switched on a device called the "attoclock" that blasts electrons with extraordinarily fast bursts of laser light, knocking them off their host atoms. The attoclock knows precisely when it fires its bursts of laser light, and measures precisely where the atoms land after they fly off into space. Using that information, they can figure out where the electron was in its orbit around the nucleus at the moment it was struck.
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Researchers hunted the leptoquark
Scientists haven't found it yet, but they think there's a kind of particle out there called the "leptoquark" that binds with two fundamental types of particle, the lepton and the quark. They didn't find it in 2018, but they did publish results this year that narrow down its nature further than ever before, bringing the actual discovery (if it's out there) much closer.
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Cosmic rays fired upward out of Antarctica's ice
Under normal circumstances, cosmic rays crash into Earth from outer space. But in 2018, researchers showed that at least a few seemed to be bursting out of the ground as well in Antarctica. Scientists don't know what’s causing this upward cosmic shower, but the best explanation is that there's some previously unknown high-energy particle out there, and it's penetrating all the way through the Earth and coming out the other side [CK].
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A high-energy neutrino finally told us where it came from
Under normal circumstances, high-energy neutrinos are cosmic mysteries. They're ghostly particles, detectable under only limited circumstances, and we know very little about their ultimate source. But in 2018, a 4-billion-year-old neutrino crashed into an atom in a block of ice in Antarctica and gave up the goods. Researchers pointed telescopes all over the planet back in the direction from which the neutrino came, and revealed its source. It turned out that a flaring blazar, a black hole with a galaxy wrapped around it, was firing gamma-rays at Earth at the same time and from the same direction as that neutrino emerged. It was the first-ever such successful hunt for a neutrino's home.
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We may have glimpsed a new kind of neutrino
There's something happening in the universe that's making some of humanity's most advanced physics experiments contradict each other. Some seem to be detecting a fourth "flavor" of neutrino, while others can't see it at all. Right now, there's no firm explanation for the discrepancy, but in 2018, a lot more data emerged and scientists are suggesting that it could be something amazing: a never-before-detected "sterile" neutrino, which could fill in some of the gaps in modern physics.