Please note – the title is nonsense
Okay, so it looks like maybe I will be writing about science more than just that one time like I thought, and no, writing about Fringe didn’t count. Maybe this needs to be a somewhat regular thing. I love reading about science, and I love thinking about what it might mean for my life. Why not write about it more often?
Today’s hot science news is a double feature, and it involves two topics I find fascinating: space travel and quantum physics. So grab your headache reliever of choice — you might need it after reading this — and hold on to your butts!
First, we have an update on a story from awhile ago you might have missed. Last August, NASA scientists reported that they had tested an insane new drive concept that required no traditional fuels. Instead of “traditional,” what I should say is that this drive requires nothing we would think of as fuel at all. Instead, the Cannae Drive relied only on the movement of microwaves to generate thrust.
You know who else doesn’t need any traditional fuels to get thrusting? These guys.
Moving on. To be clear, the amount of thrust generated was tiny, but it should not have worked in the first place. Part of what was so surprising about it was that one of the drives that worked was designed to fail. It was not expected to work at all because its very design would appear to violate the conservation of momentum. Rocket engines work, in part, by expelling propellant (fuel) to push the ship. It goes up by pressing down. The momentum is “conserved” in the sense that it is distributed outward to enable the ship to move. The “Newton’s Cradle” at the right demonstrates how momentum is conserved.
What does this mean in practical terms? Not much, yet, because they’re still trying to figure out if the result they discovered was due to some error or some new, not yet understood phenomena that they can eventually explain. If the results are legit and if they can be scaled, it could enable much, much faster space travel. For example, according to this PBS article, travel to Mars could be reduced from months to weeks.
Pretty cool! So that was all stuff from last August. What’s this update I talked about?
The seemingly impossible result did exactly what it should do: it generated new hypotheses and tests. Most scientists remain highly skeptical — and for good reason — but a new result ruled out a key possible explanation. It was thought that the drive might be generating heat outside itself (through convection) rather than internally and that was what generated thrust. This latest test was conducted in a “hard vacuum” and the drive still worked. For an explanation that is more technical explanation but still readable for us laypeople, head here.
In a way this still doesn’t mean much, but it’s an interesting line of inquiry that would not have seemed to merit much attention at all less than a year ago. This drive is generating thrust, and scientists cannot explain how. The most recent result gives them reason to dive deeper, and that’s what’s exciting about it. Part of what I love about science is learning how much we don’t know, not just what we do.
Quantum Leap Forward
In our next article we learn that IBM appears to have solved a major problem with quantum computing. I’ll be glazing over the science A LOT so I encourage reading more elsewhere, but here’s why you should care, at least kinda, even though this too does not have immediate applications to your life.
The power of computers has increased in ways we can barely comprehend over the last, well, let’s say forty-ish years. It’s more than that, but I think that’s a reasonable timeframe in terms of popular consciousness. Your smartphone can do more than the best government or industrial computer could way back when.
Quantum computing, in terms of the ability to solve computational problems, will be much, much faster than even today’s supercomputers. I started trying to write a brief explainer on the difference between data stored as “bits” used in classical computing (what we have today) and the qubits of quantum computing. That necessitated I start explaining quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
You know what? That was hard to do. This article does it plenty well enough for what I’m getting at without ending up in the weeds as I am wont to do. I’m not knowledgeable enough to take stuff quite that deep effectively.
From the article, here’s what we can look forward to with quantum computing.
What this does: exponentially reduces the number of steps between a computational question and an answer.
What this doesn’t do: help your Netflix downloads finish faster.
The problem IBM solved has to do with measuring error. Quantum qubit data is more error prone than classic computing bit data. In order for quantum computing to be useful, we need to figure out how to correct for these errors, of which there are two types. They are called “bit flip” and “phase flip” and until now, we could only detect one type of error at a time. Problem was, it’s possible for both types of errors to be present simultaneously. IBM’s advancement allows detection of both at the same time.
Being able to detect both types of errors simultaneously should allow advancements in error correction, which will make quantum computing more practical. As the quotation from Fast Company above suggests, it’s not going to help much with our everyday computing needs, at least not for some time. But being able solve computational problems much faster could help other types of advancements occur more quickly as well by reducing the time needed to analyze them. One potential big downside? Because they could perform calculations so quickly, most of our current methods of information security and data encryption would be rendered largely useless.
You’ll never guess who’s super stoked about that.
A Couple Small Steps for Man
There’s a nice bit of symmetry to these two stories. They’re both about potential, not immediate application. It’s likely that quantum computing will someday dramatically change how quickly we’re able to process data, but right now we cannot build one that is practical in the real world. The rocket drive that NASA is analyzing may well turn out to be a simple measurement error, but it could also lead to technology that makes travel to Mars and beyond much more feasible.
Both of these stories are exciting in small ways, but they’re not likely to headline the evening news. They’re not quite big enough for that. But these are the sorts of stories that will get referenced when a truly major breakthrough does come. Those huge advancements sometimes feel like they came out of nowhere, but they are almost always built on the backs of smaller ones that began to chip away at the edifice of our existing knowledge and then rebuild it. Here’s to the scientists doing that knowledge excavation little by little every day that we’ll one day all be reading and talking about.