Every time I hear some new discovery in quantum physics, I think, "Okay, it can't get any weirder than this."
Each time, I turn out to be wrong.
A few of the concepts I thought had blown my mind as much as possible:
- Quantum superposition -- a particle being in two states at once until you observe it, at which point it apparently decides on one of them (the "collapse of the wave function")
- The double-slit experiment -- if you pass light through a closely-spaced pair of slits, it creates a distinct interference pattern -- an alternating series of parallel bright and dark bands. The same interference pattern occurs if you shoot the photons through one of the slits, one photon at a time. If you close the other slit, the pattern disappears. It's as if the photons passing through the left-hand slit "know" if the right-hand slit is open or closed.
- Quantum entanglement -- two particles that somehow are "in communication," in the sense that altering one of them instantaneously alters the other, even if it would require superluminal information transfer to do so (what Einstein called "spooky action-at-a-distance")
- The pigeonhole paradox -- you'd think that if you passed three photons through polarizing filters that align their vibration plane either horizontally or vertically, there'd be two of them polarized the same way, right? It's a fundamental idea from set theory; if you have three gloves, it has to be the case that either two are right-handed or two are left-handed. Not so with photons. Experiments showed that you can polarize three photons in such a way that no two of them match.
"What is the most important for us is not a potential application – though that is definitely something to look for – but what it teaches us about nature," said study co-author Sandu Popescu. "Quantum mechanics is very strange, and almost a hundred years after its discovery it continues to puzzle us. We believe that unveiling even more puzzling phenomena and looking deeper into them is the way to finally understand it."
Indeed. I keep coming back to the fact that everything you look at -- all the ordinary stuff we interact with on a daily basis -- is made of particles and energy that defy our common sense at every turn. As the eminent biologist J. B. S. Haldane famously put it, "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine -- it is queerer than we can imagine."
Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.
One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished. In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.
This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick. Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41. It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities. If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.
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