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Autumn 1997

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Quantum Technology -- Cor blimey!
Quantum Technology
Quantum Technology, Gerard Milburn , Allen & Unwin, pb, RRP $A16.95
With this title, Allen & Unwin launched it's Frontiers of Science series. The editor of the series is Paul Davies, and his name alone recommended the volume to me. The author, Gerard Milburn is currently Professor in Theoretical Physics at the University of Queensland, so let's take it as read that the people who put this book together know what they are talking about.

The next question is - will you, if you read this?

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Quantum technology and studies is not a new thing, although if you watch SF and Fantasy shows, you probably hear the term a lot more nowadays. The term has moved into the mainstream, we make quantum leaps in understanding, probably without understanding the term.

So what is this quantum stuff? According to Davies, "quantum physics amounts to much more than a theory of atomic and subatomic processes. It represents nothing less than a complete transformation of our world view."

Quantum physics is the domain of theoretical physicists who develop their ideas using 'thought experiments' - logically possible imaginary situations. Davies believes that the 21st century (beginning soon now on Jan 1, 2001) will be the quantum age.

So hadn't we all better get on our bikes, and find out just what this quantum stuff is?

Well, one hopes that this is the purpose of this series, science for the plain person. And it begins relatively gently, statements like 'The quantum theory indicates that the universe is irreducibly random' are pretty easy to understand. Perhaps a little distressing for control freaks and those who need life carefully defined and spelled out. Because according to quantum theory, the universe has not lived up to the dreams of the Age of Reason, the universe cannot be accurately measured and understood. Therefore, it cannot be absolutely controlled.

The universe, the physicists tell us, is not mechanical, it is random and to study it requires statistics - probability.

And so it goes. It sounds fascinating. The book is filled with diagrams, but don't expect to sit down on Saturday night and suddenly all will be made clear. For a start you have to deal with this type of statement (from page 6):

"the energy of an oscillating particle is restricted to be an integer multiple of its frequency of oscillation times",
which is Planck's constant.

When you learn Newtonian physics you can conduct simple little experiments to demonstrate concepts. But with quantum physics, many experiments cannot be performed. So it is very difficult to relate the contents of this book to things that you see.

We think in terms of positive, rather than negative, it's easier to imagine how likely something is to happen than how unlikely it is to happen. (This is how our brain works and why affirmations, hypnotic suggestions and all sorts of things work, but I digress.)

I don't know if this book could be made more easily understood. As a technical writer I am used to reading complicated documentation written by 'experts', but this stuff choked my brain. One problem is that I like to ask questions, and you can't do that with a book. With a book, if the reader doesn't understand an idea, the author may never get another chance to communicate the message.

So there you have it, written by an eminent scientist (it says so on the cover), this book describes quantum technology then various examples of present and future technologies including quantum computers. Although the cover blurb says that in every case simple non-mathematical arguments are used, be wary. My hobby is parsing logic statements, and I got lost in some of the explanations.

Maybe the subject is impossible to simplify, maybe the author wasn't quite up to the task of making quantum technology accessible to the more general reader; it would take long conversations with experts for me to decide this, and if that's required, what's the point?

I leave you with the final sentence of the book, you decide if you need to understand what this quantum stuff is.

The world of the quantum may be bizarre, but it is our world and our future. Gerard Milburn.

by Ali Kayn

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