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Lauren Admire | 21 Sep 2009 21:00
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Schrõdinger's Virus

Like a feeble-legged fawn just learning to walk, Science! is taking its first precarious foray into killing two birds with one stone. That's right: Pretty soon (and by pretty soon, I mean likely never, but hey, we can dream), you won't have to decide between putting the lotion on your skin or getting the hose again. You'll be able to do both.

Bear with me. Quantum mechanics completely blows my mind anytime I so much as type it into Google search. Have we all heard of Schrõdinger's cat? It's a thought experiment which suggests that something can exist in two states at once. Put a cat in a box, with nothing but a vial of hydrocyanic acid and a small quantity of a radioactive substance (Schrõdinger may have had some issues). If even a single bit of the Chernobyl jelly decays, a wire will be tripped, breaking the vial, and instantly killing the cat. However, the box is completely sealed and you can't look into it. Since you cannot know whether the cat is alive, you must assume that the cat is simultaneously dead and alive (Write a song about that, Bon Jovi).

Schrõdinger's Cat demonstrates the concept of superposition. In quantum theory, an object in superposition exists in a delicate state in which it is simultaneously in two mutually exclusive states. It's like dribbling a basketball while at the same time spinning it on your finger. In the world as we know it, this could never happen. The ball would have to be in two places at once. But in the subatomic world, they laugh in the face of things like 'rules' and 'reality.'

The state of superposition is so fragile that it has only been reproduced in subatomic particles (See: Double-Slit Experiment). Trying to achieve superposition with anything larger than an electron would fail instantaneously, what with all those pesky photons and air molecules bouncing around, ruining everyone's fun. But scientist Oriol Romero-Isart and his colleagues believe they can reproduce this state using a live flu virus. Right, because giving a superpower to the virus responsible for some of the most rampant pandemics of our time is a great idea.

The proposed experiment would trap a flu virus in a vacuum containing two laser beams. The frequencies of the lasers are then altered to lower the vibrational energy of the flu virus, putting it in a ground state. In other words, the flu virus normally exists in a more excited state of energy and the lasers change this by moving the virus's electrons into a different formation. The virus is now ready to be Superposition-ized.

A photon is then sent at the unsuspecting flu virus and forces - 'infects,' if you will (how's it feel now, FLU?) - the flu virus into a state of superposition. Since a photon is both a particle and a wave, it already easily exists in a state of superposition. It's used to doing two things at once. When it meets the flu virus, they exchange friendly greetings, talk about their day, and then the photon teaches his new friend a little trick. The flu virus is elevated into an excited state, while still retaining its ground state - thus, doing two things at once.

Well, my mind's been blown. Good thing this issue of SCIENCE! is over. Here, have a comic.

Source: New Scientist

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A sharp eyed reader pointed out that the article on the North Pacific Garbage patch could use some clarification. The description of "size of Texas" may evoke images of a gigantic floating patch of trash large enough to land several Boeing 757's. This isn't the case. The bulk of the debris is actually teeny tiny, degraded bits of plastic that covers a large area. Thanks, tribkin!

Lauren Admire is playing Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.

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