What are the limits of manipulating nature?

In Scientific American, Neil Savage writes:

Matt Trusheim flips a switch in the darkened laboratory, and an intense green laser illuminates a tiny diamond locked in place beneath a microscope objective. On a computer screen an image appears, a fuzzy green cloud studded with brighter green dots. The glowing dots are color centers in the diamond—tiny defects where two carbon atoms have been replaced by a single atom of tin, shifting the light passing through from one shade of green to another.

Later, that diamond will be chilled to the temperature of liquid helium. By controlling the crystal structure of the diamond on an atom-by-atom level, bringing it to within a few degrees of absolute zero and applying a magnetic field, researchers at the Quantum Photonics Laboratory run by physicist Dirk Englund at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think they can select the quantum-mechanical properties of photons and electrons with such precision that they can transmit unbreakable secret codes.

Trusheim, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab, is one of many scientists trying to figure out just which atoms embedded in which crystals under what conditions will give them that kind of control. Indeed, scientists around the world are tackling the hard problem of controlling nature at the level of atoms and below, down to electrons or even fractions of electrons. Their aim is to find the knobs that control the fundamental properties of matter and energy and turn those knobs to customize matter and energy, creating ultrapowerful quantum computers or superconductors that work at room temperature.

These scientists face two main challenges. On a technical level, the work is extremely difficult. Some crystals, for instance, must be made to 99.99999999 percent purity in vacuum chambers emptier than space. The more fundamental challenge is that the quantum effects these researchers want to harness—for example, the ability of a particle to be in two states at once, à la Schrödinger’s cat—happen at the level of individual electrons. Up here in the macro world, the magic goes away. Researchers manipulating matter at the smallest scales, therefore, are trying to coax nature into behaving in ways that strain at the limits imposed by fundamental physics. The degree to which they succeed will help determine our scientific understanding and technological capacity in the decades to come. [Continue reading…]

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