Thursday, 4 June 2015

Quantum Age Comes of Age

I spent a nervous few minutes this morning in the BBC's Swindon NCA studio, connected down the ISDN line (remember ISDN) to London to appear on the UK's flagship current affairs radio programme, Today, being grilled by the inestimable John Humphrys. Thankfully he didn't want to ask me about David Cameron's performance so far, or the antics of Sepp Blatter and friends, but instead we talked about my book The Quantum Age, which is out in paperback today.

It has quickly become a favourite of my output, both because I love the weirdness of quantum physics - and I have fun exploring that - but also because few of us really think about the impact that quantum physics makes on our everyday life.

At a trivial level, pretty well everything is down to quantum physics, as matter, light and electricity (to name but three essentials) are all quantum based. But there is a more significant reason for calling this the Quantum Age, just as the nineteenth century was the Steam Age. Because are remarkable 35% (or thereabouts - no one seems to be able to trace the source of this figure) of GDP in developed countries would not exist without making explicit use of quantum physics.

So, for instance all electronics - computers, mobile phones, TV, radio, plus all the places electronics has reached into from washing machines to cars - required an understanding of quantum physics in the original design of the electronics. And some - flash memory, for instance, that enables your phone to remember stuff when the battery is dead - makes use of really weird quantum behaviour: in this case, quantum tunnelling, where a quantum particle jumps straight from being on one side of a barrier to the other without passing through the space in between.

What's more, electronics is just the beginning. Lasers and superconductors, for instance, both make use of particular quantum effects. Lasers are already well embedded in our lives. (I reckon I've at least 10 in my house.) At the moment superconductors, which lack any electrical resistance and so can support massive currents and magnetic fields, are mostly used in specialist applications like the LHC, MRI scanners and magnetic levitation trains - but the closer we get to room temperature superconductors, the more applications there are likely to be. And other quantum weirdos, like SQUIDs and quantum computers are waiting on the horizon.

The fact is that quantum physics has had a huge impact on our lives, and that impact is only like to grow. Something I hope that The Quantum Age really celebrates and explains.

Since this is, in part, a celebration of the BBC's quantum revolution, I'll just finish off with another chance to see my little adventure with the BBC's Robert Peston, attempting to explain why quantum physics is so remarkable:


  1. I like the idea of levitating trains in Japan......why arent we going to get MAGLEV trains for HS2 rather then the wheelie things they're planning?

    1. Because we’re not bold enough? I suppose also it would be good for HS2 to be same stock as Eurostar, then can do through trains from, say, Manchester to Paris.