The Quantum Disco: Episode 2

Last time, physicist Ted head out to find himself a date, by chatting to girls in a bar, handily illustrating something about probability… Essentially any one event has an unpredictable outcome, but quantum events, ruled by probability, become predictable when enough are taken into account. Quantum physics, like trying to get a date, is non-deterministic!

In spite of his best efforts, Ted returned home alone that evening, reeking of booze and cigarette smoke from dense atmosphere of the bar. He does, however, have a phone number scrawled on a piece of bar mat, which now feels like it’s burning a hole in his pocket.

He starts to think ahead, what will he say when he calls? He doesn’t want to appear too keen, but at the same time has to make some kind of approach to have any kind of a shot. Although he tells himself that failure doesn’t matter, his mind starts to race ahead to the endless possibilities.

The next day, feeling optimistic but looking slightly worse for wear, he takes a look around his apartment. He has to be prepared in case he manages to persuade someone to come over.

First he cleaned the bathroom meticulously, then worked his way through each room, gradually removing anything with potential for embarrassment. The pile of coffee cups, including one whose primordial contents showed the first signs of life, went early on, followed by the crumbs and curly hairs in under the sofa.

By the time he gets to the bedroom, Ted has worked himself up into a perfectionist paranoia. It’s tidy, it’s clean, but what is he missing? The lighting… the lighting has to be right.

He buys himself a dimmer switch to get the light level just right, and fits it in place of the standard one on the wall. No matter how much he adjusts it, he can’t quite get it right, so he takes the whole thing apart and plays with the components to make it more precise. Even though he’s yet to even get a date, he starts on a compulsive process of fine tuning the level of light, a bit too much one moment, not quiet enough the next.

To start with, the adjustments are smooth, but as he tunes ever more carefully, he reaches a point where the level of light starts changing in tiny steps, and no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t tune any finer, it’ll jump from one level to the next.

Ted has somehow made himself a lightswitch so finely adjustable that he can tune down to individual lumps of light. The quantum- the indivisible quantity. Poor Ted has reached such a level of obsession that he’s borrowed a photon detector from the lab to measure the level of light. If he turns the switch all the way down, then up just a little, the light doesn’t increase gradually and smoothly, but the detector starts to click, click, click. Light, it turns out, comes in lumps. As he turns up the switch, the clicks get closer together until they overlap and become a constant, gradually increasing tone.

Like a flowing river, we don’t notice the tiny particles making up the whole, we just see the overall effect. Water is smooth, but made up of distinct molecules, lumps of matter.

Ted knows that each photon is a lump of energy, which acts in strange ways- much stranger than the molecules making up water. Ways which caused a revolution in physics in the first half of the 20th century, as a generation of scientists tried to figure out how light and atoms worked together. Fortunately, as Ted got distracted by the physics of his quantum lightswitch, he stopped tinkering with the light levels, and realised he was putting off what he really needed to do. Tidying away the tools, he reached for his phone.

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