By Rosalyn Brady
September 22, 2022
UPDATED 12:00 PM EST
[Photo Credit: LiveScience.com]
Quantum physics is a complex discipline defined as the study of the most fundamental particles and their interactions. One of the earliest discoveries in this field, made in the early 1900s, was that matter and energy exist in distinct particles containing a fixed amount of energy, which are the smallest possible units of energy and cannot be broken down any further. For example, the distinct bundle for light is a photon, and the distinct bundle for electricity is an electron. Therefore, a photon contains a fixed amount of light and cannot be divided, and an electron contains a fixed amount of electricity and cannot be divided. These bundles are called quanta - singular, quantum - a name derived from the Latin word for ‘how much’, and it is these quanta, and how they interact, that quantum physics seeks to understand.
However, quantum physics is not only important to those who study it. It is a complex, multifaceted discipline with much importance in everyday modern life. For example, electrons are used in atomic clocks, which keep time at a margin of error as precise as 1 second every hundred million years by monitoring the microwave signals electrons emit when they move between energy levels in an atom. Atomic clocks send data to GPS satellites which use it to calculate your location and velocity in order to aid navigation by telling you where you are, when you will reach your destination, and by extension, how to get there.
Similarly, MRI machines exploit another of electrons’ properties: their innate momentum, or ‘spin’, which endows atoms with magnetism. When radio waves energise the magnets, the atomic magnetic fields in a body are aligned. By aligning and disaligning them repeatedly, it is possible to map objects three-dimensionally from the exterior, which allows MRI machines to scan patients to diagnose things such as cancers or brain damage.
Quantum physics is also the foundation of some of the technology people might use in the household. Anyone who uses solar power to light their home can thank quantum physics for it, as solar cells use many quantum properties to harness the Sun’s energy. For example, the particle-wave duality principle states that things such as light and electricity can behave as both a particle and a wave; quanta use their wavelike properties to pass through barriers in a phenomenon known as quantum tunnelling. Photons pass into solar cells, where they are trapped, and they then collide with electrons, freeing them to create an electric current.
Even those without solar panels still owe their homes’ illumination to quantum physics, as it allows LED light bulbs, the most commonly used lightbulb, to function. LED light bulbs work when electrons pass through a semiconductor, a material with conductivity between that of a conductor and of an insulator, which uses the electricity to generate photons that emit light.
It is clear that although we think of quantum physics as something obscure and unknown, it in fact is the catalyst behind much of our modern technology.
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