Mason Physicists Investigate the Science of Tomorrow

Posted: February 18, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

warped clock
“The work we do is often described as being weird because the phenomena we study are filled with paradoxes,” says Mason physicist Yakir Aharonov.

By Tara Laskowski

Yakir Aharonov believes in destiny. More specifically, he believes that you are your own destiny — not in a cliché, poetic way, but rather in a very literal sense. A future you out there in time is actually affecting the present you.

Aharonov is one of the most highly regarded scientists alive today studying quantum mechanics — the science that even scientists say is impossible to understand. Constructing theories that make even the strangest science fiction seem like child’s play, Aharonov has dedicated his life to understanding how the quantum world works on a deeper level.

The Weirdness behind Everyday Phenomena

While scientists are usually in the business of finding a logical solution to strange phenomena, quantum physicists such as Aharonov seem to be in the business of finding the weirdness behind everyday phenomena. From many worlds interpretations where an outdoor bike chooses to rust in one world and chooses not to rust in another world to trying to prove that a particle can exist in two places at once, the theories of quantum physics are at once exciting and strange.

Yakir Aharonov
Yakir Aharonov
Creative Services photo

“The work we do is often described as being weird because the phenomena we study are filled with paradoxes,” says Aharonov. “One of our theories, for example, is the Cheshire Cat theory where a particle can be separated from its properties in a way that was thought to be impossible. People might wonder how, like the cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that leaves its smile behind, a particle can abandon things that were before considered to be a part of it. Yet we have interesting, consistent experiments that suggest this is what happens.”

And yet, for all the weirdness in quantum physics, scientists say these theories will transform the world and change the way everything from computing to medicine is done. Congress determined that this field has the potential to expand and strengthen the U.S. economy and security in the 21st century, just as transistors and lasers did in the past century. As a consequence, the Washington, D.C., area has become the principal center in the world for this field with the recent formation of several institutes, including the Joint Quantum Institute.

The Aharonov-Bohm Effect

Aharonov joined Mason’s faculty in 2006 as a distinguished professor in the Center for Quantum Studies. The winner of the Wolf Prize in 1998 for the discovery of the Aharonov-Bohm Effect, Aharonov has been called “one of the deep thinkers in physics today” by grant referees at the National Science Foundation.

During his doctoral studies at the University of Bristol in 1959, Aharonov and his advisor, David Bohm, found that particles were affected by electromagnetic fields that were not in the same region as the particle. Later coined the Aharonov-Bohm Effect, this phenomenon is one of a few cornerstones of modern physics. Some of the practical ramifications for the Aharonov-Bohm Effect include improving the technology in electron microscope holography (which is used in modern medical scanners) and quantum computing.

Aharonov and his team, which includes Jeff Tollaksen, the director of Mason’s Center for Quantum Studies, recently received a grant nearing $1 million from the National Institute of Science and Technology to further quantum research at Mason and continue the lecture series that has attracted Nobel laureates and best-selling science authors to campus.

Aharonov is working with Tollaksen on weak measurement theories — a new way to measure something without disturbing it, a feat formerly thought to be impossible. Traditionally, the act of conducting an experiment causes a disturbance on the system being observed (for example, measuring the temperature of bath water with a cold thermometer will change the temperature of the bath water).

Using this theory, Aharonov and Tollaksen have shown that particles act in surprising ways, and that in some cases the way a particle moves now depends on what it’s going to do in the future.

“Weak measurement experiments suggest that something that happens now is affected by something that happens in the future,” says Tollaksen. “The universe may even have a destiny — a destiny that is out there and coming back to us from the future.”

Today’s Research Builds toward the Future

What sounds like science fiction, however, is being taken seriously by the government. Aharonov and Tollaksen are currently working with the Naval Surface Warfare Division (NSWD) to conduct experiments that will further research into supercomputers, speeding up information processing.

And while the future may affect the present, Mason’s quantum physicists are doing their part today to have an impact on the future. Although quantum computing may still be years away, the theories and experiments going on today are building toward a new, exciting future.

“What we do is theoretical, so it can take many, many years before our work can be technically applied to everyday life,” says Aharonov. “However, we are discovering new things almost every day, and there is great hope.”

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