Oct 18, 2007 16 comments
Do you think “spookytechnology” is a good name for the growing number of technologies – proven or otherwise – that are based on quantum principles such as entanglement? Charles Tahan, a physicist at Cambridge University in the UK, certainly thinks so and he has posted a paper on the preprint server arXiv explaining why ( arXiv:0710.2537v1).
Tahan came up with the name in a nod to Einstein’s famous dismissal of quantum entanglement as "spooky action at a distance". But while Einstein’s words reflected his unease about some implications of quantum theory, Tahan believes that spookytechnology will actually help quell any public fears of quantum computers and other “spookytechnologies”.
At the heart of Tahan’s proposal is his belief that the quantum-technology community must act now to avoid the identity crisis faced by those working in “nanotechnology”, which quickly became a very broad term covering everything from advanced materials to genetic engineering. As a result, physicists working on quantum dots tend to get lumped together with biologists developing new forms of life, even though they have little in common.
According to Tahan, this unfortunate public misperception has arisen because scientists did not provide an authoritative initial definition of nanotechnology – something he has done for spookytechnology.
The first part of his definition says: “Spookytechnology encompasses all functional devices, systems and materials whose utility relies in whole or in part on higher order quantum properties of matter and energy that have no counterpart in the classical world”.
David Deutsch of the UK’s Oxford University who is one of the founding fathers of quantum computing is not keen on the name. It would, he told physicswold.com “exacerbate the mystical connotations that quantum theory has acquired”. According to Deutsch, the mysticism associated with Einstein’s comment “has been seized upon to justify almost every kind of pseudoscientific anthropocentric nonsense”. Instead, he believes that the public should be encouraged to understand entanglement, rather than being told that it is spooky.
Tahan answers such criticism with a question: “If or when we really understand quantum behaviour beyond just being able to describe it mathematically, will it still be spooky?” He believes the answer is yes, because something like entanglement will always be counterintuitive.
He believes that the public need not be shielded from the bizarre results of quantum theory and one reason for his proposal is to make the public more aware of the exciting work going on in the field. In this endeavour, Tahan has the support of Richard Jones of Sheffield University in the UK, who is a polymer physicist and pioneer of nanotechnology. However, Jones also expressed concern about using spooky to describe the “profoundest mysteries of the universe”.
Tahan is also keen to establish spookytechnology as a friendly term with no “direct environmental or toxicological ramifications”. This, he hopes, would prevent applications of quantum mechanics from being given a bad name as nanotechnology did when US scientist Eric Drexler dubbed the possibility of self-replicating nanorobots as the “grey goo scenario”.
About the author
Hamish Johnston is editor of physicsworld.com