Page 11 - 2012-01-20

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In physics, a small idea can have big consequences.
At the end of the nineteenth century, scientists
were hard at work trying to understand the way
things glow when heated, a phenomenon called
black body radiation. Light was known to move as
a wave – as Maxwell had discovered – and it was
thought that a light wave, of any wavelength, could
carry an arbitrary amount of energy. Unfortunately,
this theory totally failed to explain the observed
black body radiation.
Finally, in 1900, German physicist Max Planck
successfully matched theory to experiment by
proposing that light does not come in a smooth
wave; instead, it is absorbed and emitted in little
packets of energy. Light waves were seen to be
made up of “quanta” (derived from the Latin word
“quantum,” meaning “how much”), each carrying a
fixed energy which depends on their wavelength.
Within five years, Einstein and others had taken
Planck’s notion much farther – reimagining the
quantum of light as a particle called a photon.
It was the beginning of a new field: quantum
mechanics, the fundamental science behind
everything from transistors to lasers to modern
microscopes. Quantum mechanics catalyzed
breakthroughs in virtually every other science, from
genetics to modern chemistry. It is still opening
doors to discovery, from quantum computing to
quantum biology.
Max Planck
Albert Einstein
A consistent theme running through the research highlights of the
past year is the interrelationship between theories about the largest
structures in the universe and the smallest. A system with microscopic
quantum entanglement may become a platform for quantum computing.
Techniques developed by quantum information scientists may help
produce telescopes that see farther and deeper into the cosmos.
Mathematical models of multidimensional black holes reveal striking
parallels to classical fluid dynamics. New cosmological observations
can help test theories about the Big Bang itself, when the physics of
the highest conceivable energies and the tiniest distances were probed.
A second theme in our past year’s research is contact with experiment.
Powerful new experimental tools are meeting new theories and ideas.
Theory is helping to guide experiment and experimental data is
challenging theory. The synergy has put the world of physics on the
brink of major advances, with Perimeter researchers among those at
the forefront.
These cross-pollinations – between fields, between theory and
experiment − are no coincidence. Discoveries often result from
collisions and Perimeter is explicitly structured to foster the interplay of
ideas between different fields. As the highlights on the following pages
demonstrate, this collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach is paying off.