11:18 04 September 2006 by Maggie McKee
(Reproduced here by kind permission of New Scientist magazine)
If successful scientific theories can be thought of as cures for stubborn problems, quantum physics was the wonder drug of the 20th century. It successfully explained phenomena such as radioactivity and antimatter, and no other theory can match its description of how light and particles behave on small scales.
But it can also be mind-bending. Quantum objects can exist in multiple states and places at the same time, requiring a mastery of statistics to describe them. Rife with uncertainty and riddled with paradoxes, the theory has been criticised for casting doubt on the notion of an objective reality – a concept many physicists, including Albert Einstein, have found hard to swallow.
Today, scientists are grappling with these philosophical conundrums, trying to harness quantum’s bizarre properties to advance technology, and struggling to weave quantum physics and general relativity into a seamless theory of quantum gravity.
The birth of an idea
Quantum theory began to take shape in the early 20th century, when classical ideas failed to explain some observations. Previous theories allowed atoms to vibrate at any frequency, leading to incorrect predictions that they could radiate infinite amounts of energy – a problem known as the ultraviolet catastrophe.
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