The Ascender story: “The Race to Quantum”, November 2013

My first feature story for recently launched digital magazine, The Ascender, looking at the quest to build the world’s first quantum computer. Quantum computers are machines of almost unimaginable power, promising to solve in hours what might take a traditional computer years. This was the hardest feature I’ve worked on in my career thus far, but also the most rewarding. Excerpt below.

R97TZPzKQ0SDKtP1IBtE_ANFF-NSW_spinnerImagine a black box, perfectly sealed. The box has no windows to allow light, no holes or vents through which air can either penetrate or escape. Its interior is cut off from the outside world.

Now imagine that inside the box is a cat. Also inside is a single radioactive atom, attached to a lethal device. The atom’s half-life is one hour. There’s a 50 percent chance that within that hour it will trigger the device, killing the cat.

Looking at the box from the outside, you cannot know whether the cat is alive or dead. Common sense tells you that it is one or the other. And if you opened the box the cat would be one or another. But what if, after that hour but before you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead?

So goes a thought experiment invented by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935. The Austrian physicist’s intention was to illustrate an apparent conflict that existed at the heart of quantum theory regarding the truth about matter at the atomic level and what we observe to be true about matter that’s visible to the human eye.

But whether it’s alive, dead or both, Schrodinger’s Cat would eventually outgrow the physicist’s experiment and become a calling card for the arcane modern world of quantum mechanics.

  Advance Australia Fair

The University of New South Wales campus in Sydney could be shorthand for the city itself. Vertiginous, faceless study blocks dwarf the college’s boulevards and malls, brash, oversized information hoardings directing you to its heart. Students hustle past, chatting and laughing with one another in various languages.

Founded in 1949, The University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia is home to Centre of Quantum Computation and Technology.

In an obscure corner of the grounds, isolated from the foot traffic, sits the Newton Building, home to the university’s physics department.

More importantly, though, it’s the headquarters of the Centre of Quantum Computation and Technology – or CQC2T, as the clunky acronym goes – a multi-institution, multi-million dollar Australian effort to be the first in the world to produce a working quantum computer.

Quantum computers are the Holy Grail of nanotechnology – indescribably powerful machines capable of extending the faltering march ofMoore’s Law well into the future. Unlike a traditional – or classical – computer, which operates on a string of bits represented as either 0 or 1, a quantum computer utilises quantum bits. Qubits can be 0, 1, or any value in-between – a trait known as quantum superposition – hence their extraordinary ability to crunch numbers.

Hence, the cat in the box.

For the full article, visit The Ascender.

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