June 2018    
         
         
 
     
     
  A course of spooky action  
     
     
  Quantum entanglement looms large.  
     
     
   
 
     
  Scientists entangled the vibrations of tiny drumheads, each the diameter of a human hair. (Illustration courtesy Aalto University/Petja Hyttinen and Olli Hanhirova, ARKH Architects)  
     
 
     
     
  In the world of quantum physics--the laws that govern the universe on the smallest scales--things get weird. Objects can occupy different locations at the same time, go through walls, and become entangled--connected in such a way that actions on one affect the other, even when separated by light-years.  
     
     
  A half century ago, scientists proposed using these strange laws for computation, but for years quantum computers were confined to science fiction and the daydreams of physicists.  
     
     
  Yet in the past decade, quantum information science has grown "beyond fundamental research toward real-world applications," says Liew Family Professor David Awschalom, a condensed-matter experimental physicist in the Institute for Molecular Engineering.  
     
     
  Quantum computers should solve certain problems much faster than current computers. Because they process multiple possibilities in parallel, they could speed up searches for new pharmaceuticals, improve batteries, and find greener ways to make chemicals.  
     
     
  But computing isn't the only way to tap quantum quirks. Quantum research could also lead to innately secure communication and precise navigation systems. Quantum sensors might find hidden underground oil pockets, improve earthquake monitoring, unravel the structure of single molecules, or peek at the busy dance of proteins inside a cell.  
     
     
  The applications will only come once scientists understand the underlying principles of how to control quantum systems.  
     
     
   
 
     
  Scientists at the Institute for Molecular Engineering are exploring a vast new field made possible by the ability to manipulate quantum systems.  
     
 
     
     
  Of quantum mechanics' mind-bending properties, entanglement is particularly difficult to comprehend and equally difficult to achieve in the lab. Scientists have had trouble entangling even single atoms. But a group of researchers, including IME's Aashish Clerk, has managed to achieve entanglement with perhaps the largest objects yet, at a whopping 20 microns across--about the diameter of a single human hair.  
     
     
  Harnessing the mysterious property that Albert Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" in 1935 is a crucial step toward exploiting quantum mechanics for technology. But entangled states are extremely fragile, especially when they involve large objects.  
     
     
  The researchers' novel approach involved coupling objects to a circuit made of a superconducting metal--a material that conducts electricity perfectly. When objects are disturbed and threaten to fall out of alignment, the circuit nudges them back into the entangled state.  
     
     
  Normally entanglement is measured in microseconds or shorter. In this experiment, the vibrations of two aluminum plates were successfully entangled and remained so for nearly an hour.  
     
     
  As these breakthroughs grow into full-fledged technology, the world will need a new generation of quantum engineers, says Awschalom.  
     
     
  To help guide that process, Awschalom, along with Harvard's Evelyn Hu, will oversee the Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network, a National Science Foundation-funded program that pairs graduate students with mentors from both academia and industry to address pressing questions in quantum research.--Louise Lerner  
     
 
     
 
         
         
    Spotlight    
         
         
 
     
     
  Wave runner  
     
     
   
     
     
  Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."  
     
     
  The branch of physics that deals with the actions and interactions between energy and matter on an extremely small scale is indeed difficult to imagine and even harder to see. But an experiment involving a silicone oil drop bouncing on a vibrating bath might help you visualize quantum's concept of wave-particle duality.  
     
 
 
     
  Five more quantum leaps  
     
     
 
     
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UChicago physicist Cheng Chin cooled bosons to near absolute zero and saw fireworks--and a new form of quantum behavior.
 
     
     
 
     
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NASA created a cooler-sized quantum lab colder than anywhere in the known universe.
 
     
     
 
     
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UChicago physicist Jonathan Simon's team builds a trap to make light "collide" for quantum engineering.
 
     
     
 
     
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IME physicist Andrew Cleland explores acoustics and vibrations to "talk" to quantum computers.
 
     
     
 
     
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Is photosynthesis "quantum-ish"? Scientists disagree.
 
     
 
 
 
 
         
         
    Your Turn    
         
         
 
 
     
  In May the Physical Sciences Division hosted a book discussion on A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel that introduced generations of kids to quantum concepts. So we want to know: What books got you interested in science?  
     
     
  Let us know, and we'll enter you in the monthly mug giveaway.  
     
     
 
     
  Email sciencestories@uchicago.edu.  
     
 
     
     
     
     
  In case you missed it  
     
 
 
Secret sea worlds: A marine biologist's art imitates microscopic life.
 
 
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