Jim Al-Khalili: Quantum - Still Crazy After All These Years

I gave up studying all forms of science at the age of 15, so on the surface, I would not be the natural choice for Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum – Still Crazy After All These Years.However, I am reassured by Al-Khalili’s opening gambit: he doesn’t promise that we will leave any less perplexed by quantum mechanics, but we’ll at least understand why we are so perplexed. And, after Al-Khalili’s entertaining and enlightening lecture, I’ve decided it’s probably right that we should be perplexed.

Al-Khalili is more interested in the mysteriousness of quantum mechanics, the things that are yet to be solved, than in what we already know to be true.

The lecture is presented in association with the University of Surrey and part of the Assembly Rooms’ ‘Entertaining Ideas’ series offering a brief look at arguably one of the most important, and notoriously difficult, areas of science. Quantum physics, Al-Khalili tells us, is essentially what changed our world from the ‘clockwork’ universe of the 19th century, to the modern technological world we know today.

One of my biggest gripes with school science, and in particular, physics, was that I found it dull and ‘lacking in stories.’ I could never understand how it was possible to be interested in inanimate, mechanical objects or processes. One of the best aspects of Al-Khalili’s lecture, therefore, was the way that he was able to make the science and experiments he was describing come to life – suddenly atoms seemed to have characters and motivations.

Al-Khalili is more interested in the mysteriousness of quantum mechanics, the things that are yet to be solved, than in what we already know to be true. It was this focus on mystery and possibilities that kept me interested. The lecture mostly focused on the ‘Two-Slit Experiment’, a phenomenon whereby atoms seem to act like both waves and particles in different situations. 90 years after it was first recognised, this inconsistency is still not properly understood. Possible explanations include things like parallel universes and the potential of time travel (at least for light), which had my fanciful, humanities-obsessed brain doing cartwheels of delight.

I still can’t describe what quantum physics is exactly (besides perplexing) and I still don’t know what the Higgs boson or the Hadron Collider actually do. But, as a quick glimpse at a difficult subject, Al-Khalili’s lecture gave me hope that I might one day come to understand, and even enjoy, the science of the world around me. 

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A whirlwind tour of the quantum world, highlighting just why it is so strange and how physicists have come to terms with what it all means.

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