Quantum physics can sometimes seem so arcane that even humans don’t need to worry about it, let alone dogs. It’s actually tremendously important to our modern world. In fact, if you’re reading this on a computer (and how else would you be getting it?), you have quantum physics to thank for it.
Computers are based on millions of tiny transistors manufactured on chips of silicon. These transistors are combined together to make “bits” that can be in one of two states, which we call “0” and “1.” Manipulating these bits lets us do mathematical operations, write books about dogs, and watch videos of humiliating things happening to cats. And none of that would be possible without a detailed understanding of how electrons behave in a solid material.
Yesterday’s reason to love quantum was the CCD sensor, which relies on the photoelectric effect to take digital pictures. Sticking with the photoelectric theme, today’s first quantum-enabled technology is the photovoltaic cell, the basis for solar panels.
Photovoltaic cells convert light into electricity, essentially via the same photoelectric effect used in CCD’s. A photon of light comes along, and knocks an electron out of some material (typically something silicon-based), and that electron is used to create a current that can power electrical devices. There’s some tricky business involved in setting things up so those electrons can be made useful, but the essential physics is just the good old photoelectric effect explained by Einstein in 1905.
Typical photovoltaic cells have very low efficiency, and there’s a ton of research going on these days into ways to make higher-efficiency solar cells. Much of this work involves small improvements to the basic silicon structure, but all sorts of exotic things are in play. There’s a group at Union looking at the possibility of using “quantum dots” mixed with long polymers as an alternative photovoltaic material, for example.
Why is this important? Well, solar cells can be used for lots of cool things, from powering satellites to beaming power to a space elevator. The main application, though, is for electricity generation, as a replacement for coal or gas power plants. Solar power is the ultimate in “Green” energy– it produces no carbon dioxide or other pollution, and won’t run out for billions of years, until the Sun stops shining.
Why should a dog care about it, though? Two reasons:
I’ve been writing a bunch of publicity copy for the book the last few weeks, and one of those things is a list of reasons why every dog should know about quantum physics. I’ve been planning to chop that up into a bunch of individual blog posts in the run-up to the book, but the Washington Post beat me to (one of) the punch(es):
Getting a digital camera for Christmas? Before you fire it up to capture Uncle Wally’s fateful fifth trip to the punch bowl, take a moment to picture this: You’ve got a genuine scientific marvel in your mitts. In fact, it took nothing less than two Nobel prizes and a revolution in physics in order for you to point and shoot.
Why? Because to take a filmless picture, your camera or camcorder relies on, um, quantum mechanics. In particular, it exploits the fact — revealed by Albert Einstein himself — that a beam of light, which behaves like a wave in some circumstances, acts like a bunch of separate particles in other circumstances. (If that seems infuriatingly contradictory, suck it up. It’s just how we do things in this cosmos. Or go complain to the management.)
The piece goes on to give a pretty good explanation of how the photoelectric effect (which won Einstein a Nobel in 1921) lies at the heart of the operation of a CCD chip (which won Willard Boyle and George Smith a Nobel just this year). Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect is one of the things that kick-started quantum mechanics, so without quantum physics, humans would not be able to quickly and easily take pictures of dogs. And there’s nothing Emmy likes more than having her picture taken:
I take that back. Actually, she loves whatever possibly-edible thing is just out of the frame to the left more than she loves having her picture taken. But she’s cool with the pictures, too.
So there’s one reason every dog should love quantum physics. Stay tuned for more…
While I’m thrilled to see How to Teach Physics to Your Doglisted on Amazon, I am distressed to see it offered as a pair with something called The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart. I’m not linking to the Amazon page for that book, because it’s a giant pile of crap, and I wouldn’t want anyone to accidentally one-click-order it after following a link from my page.
If you should choose to look it up, you can read bits and pieces of it via the “Look Inside” feature, and it’s true that the opening chapter or so is a reasonable-sounding description of the physics of quantum entanglement, provided you don’t actually know much of anything about the subject. You really don’t even need to reach double-digit pages to know that the book is full of crap, though, because on page 9, we find this:
Most quantum experiments incorporate some test of Bell’s inequality. This famous experiment in quantum physics was carried out by John Bell, who developed a practical means to test how quantum particles really behaved.
Sounds good, right? Here’s the thing: Bell never did the experiment. Bell’s work on quantum foundations was entirely theoretical– he proved the theorem that bears his name, and is the basis for a number of very impressive experiments. The first tests of the inequality were done in the 1970’s by John Clauser and colleagues, and are described in Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement. The experiments that are generally regarded as definitive were done by Alain Aspect in the early 1980’s (Aspect is correctly cited in the previous paragraph by McTaggart).
“Oh, that’s just a minor error,” you might say. No, it’s not. It’s a very fundamental error, indicating that while the author may have read some books on quantum foundations, she hasn’t understood them. Aristotle was not Belgian, and John Bell was not an experimentalist.
It’s exactly one week to the release date for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, and to celebrate, I’m setting off on an expedition to the local mall(s) in search of Christmas presents. May God have mercy on my soul…
Anyway, I wouldn’t want you to be without entertainment while I’m off helping the economy, so here’s another little video to mark the one-week anniversary. This one is the dog dialogue from Chapter 5, on the quantum Zeno effect, and while it doesn’t have puppets, it does feature some happy dog video, before settling down into still pictures and graphics:
We’re at the point, now, where the book may start to be sighted in the wild. I know I’m keeping an eye out for it on today’s shopping trip…
This isn’t quite an “in the wild” shot, as it’s not at a store or a store-bought copy (John wrote a blurb for the book, so he got sent a copy), but we’re getting close. The official release date is just two weeks from today. It may well start showing up in stores before then (it’s not in the Barnes & Noble store in Colonie yet, though I swear I did not go in there just to check that…). You can, of course, order it from Amazon, as several people have obviously done already, since its sales rank is currently in the 33,000 range (I did just go there to check that).
In other news, I have a few appearances scheduled in the next few months:
Back during the DonorsChoose fundraiser, I promised to do a re-enactment of the Bohr-Einstein debates using puppets if you contributed enough to claim $2,000 of the Hewlett-Packard contribution to the Social Media Challenge. I obviously aimed too low, because the final take was $4064.70, more than twice the threshold for a puppet show.
So, I put together a puppet show. It took a little while, because I couldn’t find any Niels Bohr puppets (maybe in Denmark?). I found an acceptable alternative, though, and put together a video of the Bohr-Einstein debates, using puppets. Here’s the whole thing on Vimeo:
Quantum physics can be some heavy stuff, and this book teaches you the basics without dumbing it down or putting you to sleep. Professor Orzel has a gift for funny dialogue and straightforward explanation. In addition to the entertaining conversations with Emmy, there are fascinating explanations of how the theories behind quantum mechanics were developed and how a few have been tested. There are also a few funny science fiction references – what discussion of quantum mechanics would be complete without some Star Trek?
The non-linkable one is behind the paywall at Booklist (I signed up for a 30-day free trial, just to make sure it’s there…). They misidentify my research field, but the rest of it is so good, it’s hard to be mad: