July 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Havana Ide, the winner of the first I, Write Competition, explores how the world around us is governed by quantum physics.

Quantum physics is perhaps the most alienating subject area in the scientific world, puzzling an elite group of thinkers for decades. It is the fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at atomic and subatomic scales.

Understandably, most people tend to shy away from this area; if even the most renowned scientists like Einstein can’t fully crack the quantum code, why should the average person even bother with quantum physics?

This disconnect is perhaps less common in other areas of physics. For example, most people are to some extent aware of the impacts of Newton’s Laws; drivers apply their breaks to slow down their car (an application of Newton’s first law) and footballers kick balls with a greater force to enable a greater acceleration (an application of Newton’s second law).

But what most people aren’t aware of is their intrinsic connection to the quantum realm, thinking the theory is very remote and unconnected to their everyday lives. You might well ask yourself, what does a particle accelerator have to do with my existence? Why does it matter that Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive? As a result, many of us realise very little about the applications and tend not to think where quantum mechanics has taken us beyond the physics lab.

Let’s imagine a day in your life where the rules of quantum mechanics go awry. This will illustrate that quantum physics isn’t remote and unconnected to your everyday life after all; it is your everyday life.

Maybe you use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Normally, you could snooze this clock with a tap of a button, wake up to the sound of birds or even the morning news (if the alarm clock is a particularly fancy one). But, despite setting your alarm before you went to bed, you wake up to light pouring into your room, indicating that you have overslept.

‘Why didn’t my alarm go off?’

Your alarm clock plugs into your wall socket, which gives off an electric current that oscillates exactly 60 times per second, normally keeping time well and waking you up.

‘The plug is faulty’ you assume, getting out of bed to make your way downstairs.

Habitually, you switch on your flat screen TV and sit down to watch your favourite breakfast TV programme. As expected, the screen flashes on and you sit back, ready to start your slightly delayed morning. A headline catches your eye:

‘Early data suggests break down of quantum realm, experts in disarray’

The image flickers away suddenly and you are left staring at a black screen. You check the power, try to switch the TV on and off again, and even hit the remote on the table. No luck.

‘First the alarm clock… now the TV’

The image on your TV screen is formed by thousands of illuminated LEDs, a semiconductor material that functions due to the basic principles of energy levels within an atom.

‘Well, I’ll have to catch up on the news tonight. It didn’t seem that important’.

With that thought, you get up to make your breakfast. As usual, you pop two slices of bread into your toaster and let it toast for about 3 minutes. Inside the toaster, the heating filament turns from black, to orange and finally to a glowing red colour, nicely heating up your breakfast. You check to see how toasted the bread is…

‘The heating filament has stopped glowing. Hm.’

The glowing of a hot object is a universal phenomenon: you heat something up, and it will first glow red, then yellow, then white at hotter temperatures. The heating filament in a toaster produces infrared radiation, a form of light on the electromagnetic spectrum, to heat this slice of bread.

You push the handle up and down again

‘It was working just a moment ago, the bread has started to toast. Why did it stop?’

Fed up, you decide to head out. Your mind is made up that today just isn’t your day. It’s ghostly quiet outside, not a soul to be seen.

‘Strange…’

You get into your car and turn on the built-in GPS, where you type in the postcode of where you need to get to.

‘No location found? Why isn’t it picking up my location?’

GPS or Global Positioning System is a network of satellites that normally makes finding locations and directions quite easy. 24 satellites orbit the Earth, with four being used for each location needing to be found. Every satellite in the GPS constellation includes an ensemble of atomic clocks, an amazing invention that keeps time to such precision that they only lose about a second over 108 million years! An error as small as a millisecond could leave you 300km from where you want to be.

You try once more.

‘No location found’

Frustrated, you sit back, confused as to what is going on today. Racking your brain, you try to work out what is happening.

‘But nothing has happened… apart from the quantum thing on the news this morning’

You pause for a moment, thinking about everything that has gone wrong today.

‘The alarm clock, the TV, the toaster, the GPS… are they all related to quantum physics?’

Everything that you have tried to do today has failed, due the disappearance of the phenomenon that is quantum physics. Power stations couldn’t produce rhythmic oscillations to keep time in your alarm clock, nor can LEDs shine brightly. The heating filament in your toaster was unable to radiate enough heat to toast your bread, and atomic clocks were unfit for purpose.

‘So will we just be living tech-free until the quantum realm fixes itself?’

Actually, you won’t be living at all. Without quantum physics, a necessity for life on Earth is unable to exist: water. The odd properties of water that make life possible are facilitated by hydrogen bonding, a type of bonding between water molecules, holding them together. Quantum water is a relatively new theory which suggests that without the quantum uncertainties in these bonds, water, as we know it, couldn’t exist.

‘No water…no life?’

You glance into your wing mirror.
No one is staring back at you. You aren’t there. Nothing is there.


Havana Ide is from Howell’s School, Llandaff, GDST (Girls Day School Trust) in Cardiff, UK.