Science at the End of the
A hundred years ago, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists around the world were satisfied that they had arrived at an accurate picture of the physical world. As physicist Alastair Rae put it, “By the end of the nineteenth century it seemed that the basic fundamental principles governing the behavior of the physical universe were known.”* Indeed, many scientists said that the study of physics was nearly completed: no big discoveries remained to be made, only details and finishing touches.
But late in the final decade, a few curiosities came to light. Roentgen discovered rays that passed through flesh; because they were unexplained, he called them X rays. Two months later, Henri Becquerel accidentally found that a piece of uranium ore emitted something that fogged photographic plates. And the electron, the carrier of electricity, was discovered in 1897.
Yet on the whole, physicists remained calm, expecting that these oddities would eventually be explained by existing theory. No one would have predicted that within five years their complacent view of the world would be shockingly upended, producing an entirely new conception of the universe and entirely new technologies that would transform daily life in the twentieth century in unimaginable ways.
If you were to say to a physicist in 1899 that in 1999, a hundred years later, moving images would be transmitted into homes all over the world from satellites in the sky; that bombs of unimaginable power would threaten the species; that antibiotics would abolish infectious disease but that disease would fight back; that women would have the vote, and pills to control reproduction; that millions of people would take to the air every hour in aircraft capable of taking off and landing without human touch; that you could cross the Atlantic at two thousand miles an hour; that humankind would travel to the moon, and then lose interest; that microscopes would be able to see individual atoms; that people would carry telephones weighing a few ounces, and speak anywhere in the world without wires; or that most of these miracles depended on devices the size of a postage stamp, which utilized a new theory called quantum mechanics — if you said all this, the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad.
Most of these developments could not have been predicted in 1899, because prevailing scientific theory said they were impossible. And for the few developments that were not impossible, such as airplanes, the sheer scale of their eventual use would have defied comprehension. One might have imagined an airplane — but ten thousand airplanes in the air at the same time would have been beyond imagining.
So it is fair to say that even the most informed scientists, standing on the threshold of the twentieth century, had no idea what was to come.
Now that we stand on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the situation is oddly similar. Once again, physicists believe the physical world has been explained, and that no further revolutions lie ahead. Because of prior history, they no longer express this view publicly, but they think it just the same. Some observers have even gone so far as to argue that science as a discipline has finished its work; that there is nothing important left for science to discover.*
But just as the late nineteenth century gave hints of what was to come, so the late twentieth century also provides some clues to the future. One of the most important is the interest in so-called quantum technology. This is an effort on many fronts to create a new technology that utilizes the fundamental nature of subatomic reality, and it promises to revolutionize our ideas of what is possible.
Quantum technology flatly contradicts our common sense ideas of how the world works. It posits a world where computers operate without being turned on and objects are found without looking for them. An unimaginably powerful computer can be built from a single molecule. Information moves instantly between two points, without wires or networks. Distant objects are examined without any contact. Computers do their calculations in other universes. And teleportation — “Beam me up, Scotty” — is ordinary and used in many different ways.
In the 1990s, research in quantum technology began to show results. In 1995, quantum ultrasecure messages were sent over a distance of eight miles, suggesting that a quantum Internet would be built in the coming century. In Los Alamos, physicists measured the thickness of a human hair using laser light that was never actually shone on the hair, but only might have been. This bizarre, “counterfactual” result initiated a new field of interaction-free detection: what has been called “finding something without looking.”
And in 1998, quantum teleportation was demonstrated in three laboratories around the world — in Innsbruck, in Rome and at Cal Tech.* Physicist Jeff Kimble, leader of the Cal Tech team, said that quantum teleportation could be applied to solid objects: “The quantum state of one entity could be transported to another entity. . . . We think we know how to do that.”† Kimble stopped well short of suggesting they could teleport a human being, but he imagined that someone might try with a bacterium.
These quantum curiosities, defying logic and common sense, have received little attention from the public, but they will. According to some estimates, by the first decades of the new century, the majority of physicists around the world will work in some aspect of quantum technology.‡
It is therefore not surprising that during the mid-1990s, several corporations undertook quantum research. Fujitsu Quantum Devices was established in 1991. IBM formed a quantum research team in 1993, under pioneer Charles Bennett.§ ATT and other companies soon followed, as did universities such as Cal Tech, and government facilities like Los Alamos. And so did a New Mexico research company called ITC. Located only an hour’s drive from Los Alamos, ITC made remarkable strides very early in the decade. Indeed, it is now clear that ITC was the first company to have a practical, working application employing advanced quantum technology, in 1998.
In retrospect, it was a combination of peculiar circumstances — and considerable luck — that gave ITC the lead in a dramatic new technology. Although the company took the position that their discoveries were entirely benign, their so-called recovery expedition showed the dangers only too clearly. Two people died, one vanished, and another suffered serious injuries. Certainly, for the young graduate students who undertook the expedition, this new quantum technology, harbinger of the twenty-first century, proved anything but benign.
* * *
A typical episode of private warfare occurred in 1357. Sir Oliver de Vannes, an English knight of nobility and character, had taken over the towns of Castelgard and La Roque, along the Dordogne River. By all accounts, this “borrowed lord” ruled with honest dignity, and was beloved by the people. In April, Sir Oliver’s lands were invaded by a rampaging company of two thousand brigandes, renegade knights under the command of Arnaut de Cervole, a defrocked monk known as “the Archpriest.” After burning Castelgard to the ground, Cervole razed the nearby Monastery of Sainte-Mère, murdering monks and destroying the famed water mill on the Dordogne. Cervole then pursued Sir Oliver to the fortress of La Roque, where a terrible battle followed.
Oliver defended his castle with skill and daring. Contemporary accounts credit Oliver’s efforts to his military adviser, Edwardus de Johnes. Little is known of this man, around whom a Merlin-like mythology grew up: it was said he could vanish in a flash of light. The chronicler Audreim says Johnes came from Oxford, but other accounts say he was Milanese. Since he traveled with a team of young assistants, he was most likely an itinerant expert, hiring himself out to whoever paid for his services. He was schooled in the use of gunpowder and artillery, a technology new at that time. . . .
Ultimately, Oliver lost his impregnable castle when a spy opened an inside passage, allowing the Archpriest’s soldiers to enter. Such betrayals were typical of the complex intrigues of that time.
From The Hundred Years War in France
by M. D. Backes, 1996
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.”
NEILS BOHR, 1927
“Nobody understands quantum theory.”
RICHARD FEYNMAN, 1967
* * *
He should never have taken that shortcut.
Dan Baker winced as his new Mercedes S500 sedan bounced down the dirt road, heading deeper into the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Around them, the landscape was increasingly desolate: distant red mesas to the east, flat desert stretching away in the west. They had passed a village half an hour earlier — dusty houses, a church and a small school, huddled against a cliff — but since then, they’d seen nothing at all, not even a fence. Just empty red desert. They hadn’t seen another car for an hour. Now it was noon, the sun glaring down at them. Baker, a forty-year-old building contractor in Phoenix, was beginning to feel uneasy. Especially since his wife, an architect, was one of those artistic people who wasn’t practical about things like gas and water. His tank was half-empty. And the car was starting to run hot.