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Matin Durrani: June 2008 Archives

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By Matin Durrani

I was up in London yesterday at the headquarters of the Institute of Physics to listen to a talk by top quantum-information scientist Anton Zeilinger from the University of Vienna.

Zeilinger was giving the inaugural Isaac Newton lecture after being named the first recipient of the Institute’s Newton medal.

Unlike the Institute’s other medals, the Newton medal is awarded to “any physicist, regardless of subject area, background or nationality”, rather than to a physicist with specific links to the UK.

I’d say there were about 200 physicists in the audience to listen to Zeilinger whizz through topics like entanglement and decoherence — and how these have applications in quantum communication, quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation, some of which are being commercialized.

His basic message is that, thanks to various technological advances, we can now examine some of the fundamental questions in quantum mechanics that the likes of Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Bohr and Einstein posed as mere “thought experiments”, such as whether measurements on one particle can instantly affect an entangled partner a finite distance away. We are in fact living through a “quantum rennaissance”.

Zeilinger and his colleague Markus Aspelmeyer are fleshing out these themes in an article to appear in the next issue of Physics World. I was delighted that he referred several times to the article, even flashing up a couple of figures from the article that our art studio has redrawn from Zeilinger’s hand sketches.

After the lecture, I caught up with Zeilinger over champagne and quizzed him on the fact that he had put his neck firmly on the line when it comes to decoherence — the fact that fragile quantum states can be lost when they interact with the environment.

Having described how molecules as large as buckyballs can demonstrate quantum behaviour, Zeilinger had told the audience that he thinks “there is no limit” to how heavy, complex or warm a molecule can be while still showing quantum phenomena. “Decoherence won’t be a problem for molecules as large as viruses even at room temperature,” he speculated. “The limit is only one of money.”

After the lecture, delegates were treated to a concert by the Abram Wilson Jazz Quartet. Zeilinger is, apparently, something of a jazz buff.