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If quantum mechanics is right, then what is real?
Is the universe fundamentally random, and if so, what does that mean?
Can we describe all of reality with mathematics,
or must we find a better way to make sense of the world?
Quantum mechanics is more than 100 years old, but physicists still struggle to make sense of it.
One the one hand, they have a theory that is remarkably successful.
Quantum mechanics underlies all modern electronic devices and there is no doubt that it works.
On the other hand, with quantum mechanics, physicists have a theory so different from
all other known scientific theories, that they are still not sure just what it means.
Last week I visited the center for contemporary culture in Barcelona, or CCCB for short.
The CCCB currently has an exhibition about quantum mechanics that I want to tell you about.
I will admit that I don’t love mixing art with science.
I often find the results to be a compromise that has both, poor artistic value and poor scientific value.
But the quantum exhibition at CCCB sidesteps this issue by leaving the art to artists and
the science to scientists.
So rather than forcing a scientific message on the artistic installations, which usually
works badly, they have here complemented the artworks with educational material from scientists.
In this way, the visitor learns something about the history, theory, and applications
of quantum mechanics, while the artworks make the abstract tangible, and invite the visitor
to reflect on the mysteries of the quantum world.
I particularly liked this installation by the Korean artist Yunchul Kim.
The flashing lights here are collections of muon detectors that capture cosmic rays which
pass through.
This signal triggers pumps that keep a transparent liquid going around the tubes.
I find this a lovely visualization of how microscopic quantum events can grow and have
macroscopic consequences.
How much of our life is really just due to random chance?
If you could find out, would you want to find out?
This video installation from the artist duo Jack Jelfs and Haroon Mirza is somewhat more
on the bizarre side.
The phrases you see here have been generated by predictive text techniques and been translated
back and forth between Spanish and English repeatedly.
It’s supposed to make you think about how the languages we use limit what we can know.
According to the booklet, the installation “depicts fictional entities from the distant
future, attempting to communicate across the barriers of time and matter.”
Oh, well, wow.
This is another video installation.
Or rather, according to the booklet it’s an “audiovisual manifesto”.
The artist’s name is Diann Bauer.
Her intention here is to illustrate the difference between the reality of the subatomic world
and its appearance to us, especially the difficulty of making sense of time, and the relation
of cause and effect, on the fundamental level.
A piece I find somewhat easier to interpret is this collection of number displays by James Bridle.
Each of these numbers is generated by evaluating some local input, like the temperature, sound,
humidity, light, and so on.
The artist wants you to think about what is random and what not
and if we really know the difference.
Most random generators we use today are not truly random, which is why they are often
called “pseudorandom generators”.
The typical pseudorandom generator will take a seed for example from your computer’s
clock and use this to extract a sequence of numbers from, say, the digits of pi.
Quantum mechanics, however, makes it possible to generate true random numbers.
An example of such a device is also on display at the exhibition.
Quantum theory may be a century old, but the research is far from done.
Particle physicists continue to study the structure of matter on shortest scales with
particle colliders, and they try to understand the role of quantum effect in the early universe.
The current best theory has it that quantum fluctuations created the first clumps that
later grew to be galaxies.
And also on the side of applications, research is today more active than ever before.
All over the world, researchers are now trying to build a quantum computer that, if it ever
works, would vastly increase the number of computational problems that we can solve.
In total, the exhibition contains ten artworks which were created by artists in residence at CERN.
The quantum exhibition at CCCB will run until September 24th, 2019.
So, if you are in Barcelona, go check it out.