All I want for Christmas is some cool new physics

I’m a bit of a physics geek.  Not that I can do the math.  But I’ve always wanted to know how the world works, and physics is the very coolest science for that.  The foundation.  So I decided to find three bits of news in physics to put forward as a little gift for my fellow science geeks – a bit of how the world might work for the holiday season.

In space, it’s good to talk to your friends  – even when they’re far away.

So, let’s start with quantum entanglement.  No, I don’t really get it either.  But in short form, I understand it as something I do in one place also happens in another place.  So I talk into one end of a quantum computing device and my voice can be heard on the other end, the whole thing moving faster than the speed of sound, or more accurately happening in two places at once.  This is also an underlying technology that could contribute to teleportation.  Glen Hiemstra, a professional futurist mentor of mine, sent me this cool article from Physorg titled “Physicists demonstrate teleportation-based optical quantum entangling gate” with a note in the email that I should use it in a story.  Actually, this is one of the technologies we’ve been using in stories for a long time, since plots often seem to want communications with no lag (who wants to read about the long wait between two sides of an argument among interstellar starships with today’s technology?  Not me!).  At any rate, the key word in this article is the “demonstrate” as opposed to theorize.  Meaning we’re a big step closer to understanding quantum entanglement than we were before.

We all know we can’t make matter – we can only change its state.  Or can we?

An article in Science Daily called Theoretical Breakthrough: Generating Matter and Antimatter from Nothing suggests that a vacuum can be ripped apart into its constituent parts (matter and antimatter) and that this might cause new particles to be created.  All you might need is a high energy electron beam and an intense laser pulse.  Oh, and a two-mile long particle accelerator.  Not that I have those in my back pocket.  Still, this seems to me like one of those theories designed to turn some things we thought we knew inside out.

Oh – and a stray thought –  this isn’t making something from nothing with no real effort. It’s making matter and antimatter through the application of light and force, and it even sounds a bit violent.  But then, birth is like that.

Seeing Lightning like Superman

I have a story called “Cracking the Sky” coming out in an anthology called No Man’s Land in 2011. The story is about capturing the power of lightning (an idea I heard about at a military conference last year where I as an invited futurist).  I love thunderstorms.  Lightning looks like an X-ray to me.  But recently, scientists have been seeing X-rays generated by lightening itself. This is not as “big” a discovery as the other two I mentioned, but it tickled my happiness bones.  Lightening is sense-of-wonder level weather, and I like the idea of learning more about it.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures with the article, but simply references to it being low resolution. There is, however a picture of the experimental lightning, which is rocket-generated, over at Scientific Computing.

Yes, my head hurts after I read this kind of stuff, and I feel vaguely fuzzy and like I should understand it completely, but that might just take a few more years of math.  Like ten.  But no one ever promised me a comprehensible universe.

If you want to explore more:

Thanks, and happy holidays.


Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

5 thoughts on “All I want for Christmas is some cool new physics”

  1. Nice post!
    One of the things science fiction does for me (#237 in a series): Reminds me that the Universe is a dynamic place, largely hidden behind our ignorance and full of surprises.
    Entanglement makes my jaw drop.

  2. 1. As Michio Kaku explains (in the link you provided) you won’t be able to use quantum entanglement to “talk to your friends” via faster-than-light communications. Sorry about that. But despair not, for the science of quantum entanglement has plenty of astounding implications even without that.

    2. “Making” matter is actually the conversion of energy to matter. This occurs in a process called “pair production,” which is actually not a recent discovery. See for more info, for example. Of course, *new methods* to more efficiently generate particle/anti-particle pairs are interesting, and one potential example is mentioned in the article you found/cited.


  3. Hi Robert,
    While I was writing this article I did find an article mentioning that quantum entanglement could lead to instantaneous communication regardless of distance. After I looked at your comment and I went out and looked on the internet, and I found a number of articles that said what you did – that QE won’t work for communication. But I also found one posted yesterday that talked about some research at Raytheon into QE based communication. – perhaps it one of those many things we don’t really know yet.

  4. Brenda,

    There are some strong theoretic reasons for believing that entanglement can’t be used for sending signals faster than light; quantum teleportation for instance requires a slower than light connection to actually send the information, and what makes it special is that it allows sending a quantum state without measuring it (which would collapse it to a classical state). But just about every SF writer I know would like entanglement to be a way to send FTL messages, and I hate to disappoint them, so I usually say that maybe someone will discover a new theory that will allow it.

    Pair production is a basic mechanism for creating matter from energy, but there are many ways that it can happen in nature, and only a few that we’ve been able to use in captivity, mostly because the energy density required is fairly large. One of the most interesting ways it happens in nature is the creation of Hawking radiation at the event horizon of a black hole: a pair of particles can be created in such a way that one of them is emitted away from the horizon, and the other into it, so the black hole loses the mass of one of the particles. This happens at a rate that increases as the mass of the hole gets smaller, and that’s why all black holes eventually evaporate (though for any stellar or larger mass black hole the time involved is far longer than the current age of the universe).

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