An international consortium of quantum physicists have made a discovery that is extremely easy to understand.
They’ve published their research, on quantum paper planes, in a one-page paper with 5,155 co-authors in the journal Quantumest Quantum Physics.
“I’m astonished at how easy this idea is to convey,” says lead author Professor Chuck Chortle, a researcher in quantum aeronautics at the University of Eastern Australia.
“I’ve spent 23 years working on this research – and yet, I can explain what I’m doing in a single sentence.”
It wasn’t always this easy to explain Chortle’s experiments. For most of his academic career, when people asked him what he was working on, he’s had trouble conveying it in a short space of time.
“We called it ‘quantum paper planes’ to catch people’s attention, and it worked, but then we couldn’t keep their attention after they realised it had nothing to do with paper planes,” he says.
“Well, actually, it sort of has something to do with paper planes, but we don’t have time to get into that now.
“The real breakthrough was when someone at a party said ‘explain this to me like I’m five’. I thought, well, that’s it. The trick is just to treat everyone like five-year-olds and it’s suddenly simple to make my research explicable to them.”
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Emeritus Professor Maxine Planck, an adjunct at the Institute for Quantum Viticulture and Chortle’s long-time mentor, says she’s proud of helping with the explanation.
“I’m just delighted that we could take this mind-bending research to a broad audience,” she says.
“We’ve even got a couple of photographs, which is really amazing since we’re working on a scale that’s too small for visible light waves.
“It turns out you can just squeeze the light waves really small in one of those vacuum-seal packs, and then – bam, get a picture of the atom with a smartphone.”
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The breakthrough is not without its downsides. Hugh Mer, vice chancellor of the University of Eastern Australia, is considering defunding the quantum physics department.
“I thought you needed to be smarter than average to do quantum physics, but I can understand this research perfectly,” he says.
“I mean, if I get it, it can’t need a whole degree. We might do better channelling the funding into the business school, or possibly the ethics department. I’m never going to understand those.”
When asked for the explanation of their research, Chortle referred Cosmos to the university’s quantum communications team, who both did and didn’t respond.
Originally published by Cosmos as Quantum physicists declare they’ve discovered something easy to understand
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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