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Blog

Torino peers into the quantum world

By James Dacey in Torino, Italy

It’s home to the Italian football giants Juventus and of course the famous shroud with the stain that looks like Jesus, but apart from that I must confess to knowing very little about Torino before I arrived here late last night.

I’m in town for the Euroscience Open Forum – a biannual international meeting celebrating science, technology and culture, with an obvious leaning towards all things European.

With such a broad scope, I was a bit concerned that the events might be a bit lightweight and sanitized. But fortunately my fears were allayed by the first session this morning, which dived in by looking at some of the fundamental concepts of quantum mechanics and their philosophical implications. Okay, so there was a little bit of naval-gazing, but there were also some really fascinating discussions.

One of the speakers was physics Nobel laureate, Gerard ‘t Hooft, who was looking at local determinism. He was comparing the theory of quantum mechanics with the manner in which Maxwell formulated his celebrated equations of electromagnetism. His conclusion being (as far as I understood!) that critics of quantum mechanics cannot make such a clear distinction between the accuracy of ‘deterministic’ approaches like electromagnetism and the “non-deterministic” theory of quantum mechanics.

‘t Hooft described how Maxwell had visualized space as being filled at all points with gears and switches, which all had an effect on each other. The laureate’s argument was that, while this approach worked for electromagnetism, quantum mechanics is a far more encompassing theory. He believes this approach is simply not feasible in the search for equations of the entire physical universe – there is too much going on that we will always have to break things down into estimates and probabilities.

In a (slightly) lighter talk, logician Marisa Dalla Chiara of Italy’s University of Firenze made the argument that quantum computing is much closer to human reasoning than classical computing is. She compared the supposition of quantum states with personality traits, declaring that people are neither “fully generous” nor fully “not generous”. We are always a supposition of the two.

Chiara believes that if we can develop practical quantum computers we could start to address some of the areas beyond the capability of classical computers. This might include the formal analysis of music to work out how it can create different moods within different contexts.

To bring her argument to life, Chiara even treated us to a quick rendition of Monteverdi’s Lamento di Arianna. Very eccentric but a nice touch.

Quantum mechanics and its applications is one of the 10 main themes of the conference and it will also include a keynote speech from Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian physicist famous for teleporting information over increasingly large distances. I’m hoping to catch up Zeilinger for a chat on Monday so I’ll let you know how that goes.

Right, I’m off to grab a slice from one of the city’s many takeaway pizza outlets before rushing back for the afternoon’s sessions.

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