It’s not often that my mind is blown, but the week started off with quantum mechanics and then I was in recovery mode for the week! but I’ll get to that in a second. During the normal working-week I’ve been gliding to the office on the dulcet tones of the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, some of the most effusive, happy descriptions of nature I’ve ever heard in my life. What a wonderful, wonderful book, and a lovely narration from libravox (and free too!). To get the cognitive juices flowing (because quantum mechanics isn’t enough), I’ve picked up Edward DeBono’s Lateral Thinking which is, as you can imagine, a different approach: in modern terms it’s generating as many ideas as possible, something in the corporate world they refer to as ‘ideation’ – idea generation. As opposed to vertical thinking where one reasons a good idea, and methodically and systematically improves on said idea, lateral thinking doesn’t mind going down blind alleys, as that wrong turn could generate a better outcome than purely singular thinking. I’m only halfway through but enjoying it.
With my reading time a little limited as work has ramped up on the last week to Christmas – holy monkeys, it’s Christmas! – I listened to the excellent TED Talk on quantum computing by Craig Costello, a researcher in cryptography for Microsoft. And then things got complicated. The fundamentals I think are this: codebreaking at the moment basically tries every combination possible to find the one successful to allow access. It’s a problem of concurrency i.e. we need to tackle one problem at a time. This is the example that I’ve come up with that helps me: if you knew that knocking on a door required anything between one and a million knocks to gain access, you’d start with knocking once. No answer. Knock twice. No Answer. Knock three times . . . you get the picture. You’d be there for some time, but you’d get the right answer eventually along with some sore knuckles and annoyed neighbours.
And then quantum mechanics ‘arrived’, and things don’t quite work at the same level as the rest of the physical universe – The Avengers were right! Well, to a degree, anyway. In the quantum realm, two objects can influence each other instantaneously despite being apart, which is called quantum entanglement. Then there’s the idea of quantum superposition, where a particle can exist in two places at the same time. As Craig Costello pointed out, protons can spin clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same time. To explain further, there is an excellent article from the New Scientist from 2015. But the basics is the idea of instantaneous and multiple existences.
Apart from being odd, why does this matter? Well, it means that instead of tackling one problem at a time, you can tackle all problems at the same time. Take the knocking on the door analogy again. If you knew that one combination of that one to a million knocks would let you in, at the quantum level you could just knock with million hands super-fast. So, when you relate this back to code-breaking, all the things that currently protect your email accounts, bank details, companies and governments, could receive a battering ram of hackers trying to access information. You know in movies where the bad guys access personal accounts and it slowly disintegrates down to zero as the money is wired to Zurich? Yeah, think that. In the words of Russel Crowe in Gladiator, ‘are you not entertained?!
Writing and writing...