Early in life, we start to learn the rules of this world. We memorize simple lessons — like “what goes up, must come down” — that help us begin to make sense of our world. In time, we’re no longer surprised that rain is wet, food can spoil or the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
But more than a century ago, scientists started to learn that all of those rules, patterns and lessons lie on a foundation that, to us, might seem filled with contradictions, confusion and chance. That foundation is quantum mechanics. It describes how all of the material in the universe, from stars and galaxies to blades of grass and Belgian waffles, behaves at the subatomic level.
At that scale, matter has its own rules, which are so complex that they might appear divorced from the larger reality that we experience. For instance, particles can act like waves. That potential disconnect, between how we experience matter at a bulky, human scale and how matter behaves at a miniscule, subatomic scale, has kept quantum mechanics largely out of the public eye. That must change, argues Miguel Morales, a University of Washington professor of physics, because we have entered an era where quantum mechanics plays an ever-greater role in our lives.
Morales has authored a seven-part series for Ars Technica on quantum mechanics for a general audience. He sat down with UW News to talk about the series, quantum mechanics and what he hopes the public can learn about this seemingly odd and possibly intimidating realm of science.