by Donna Riordan
Every day when we look around us we see the physical world. We all know this world works according to established physical laws, thankfully. It would be a bit difficult, if when we dropped something, we weren’t sure in which direction it would travel. Also we know the Sun is going to come up each morning, and when we waste time, we know we can’t get it back again.
But what if you were an electron? The world we see is underpinned by the quantum world. It operates on the scale of atoms, and smaller. Every atom is made up of a nucleus, where protons and neutrons are squashed together into a very small space. Around the nucleus is a ‘cloud’ of electrons. We call it this because they are travelling so fast, they appear to be everywhere at once, and make up what we might say is the ‘outside’ of the atom.
But the rules of the quantum world are not the same as the rules of the macro world. If I were an electron I could do a lot of things I can’t do in the macro world. If I were an electron, I could travel in time. Time goes equally forward and backward in the quantum world. But I couldn’t choose which way to go. It depends on probabilities. I wouldn’t know when I was going to go back in time, I would just have to wait and see.
Also, if I were an electron, I could be everywhere inside a room at once. At least until someone else came in and looked at me. Then I would be forced to merge into one position. This is called the observer effect, which operates at the quantum level. Electrons generally travel very fast. The faster they go, the more mass they have. This is due to the most famous equation in the world: E=mc2. This basically says that energy and mass are the same thing. Therefore, if I travel faster, I have more energy and if I were an electron, it would also mean I had more mass. This actually works for us as well, but the catch is, it only works if you are travelling at a large fraction of the speed of light, which electrons do all the time.
Another great trick that electrons can do is to walk through walls. Now this might be handy at home, saving us the time of finding a door! However, like travelling in time, it won’t work just because you want it to, but only sometimes. You might get through every 100th time you try! The amazing thing is that, even though the quantum world is strange, without it we wouldn’t have the world we live in. Nothing physical would exist. Somehow this strange probabilistic world translates into the world of dependable, repeatable laws in which we live.
Scientists have long been trying to bridge this gap mathematically and come up with new laws that join them all together. These are called String Theories, and up to now, they are still theories. This is because currently, they are unprovable by any possible experiment or observation. But, you never know, one day they might be.
Until then, we can appreciate the wonder of the creation just a little bit more, and have a go at walking through walls from time to time! (just joking!!)