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Letter from the editor | 202

The world altered by quantum physics

At a certain point in the chapter on Einstein in a book released in Brasília and Rio de Janeiro during the first half of October, Homens que nos ensinaram a concepção do mundo (Men who taught us the conception of the world), eminent Brazilian physician Roberto Salmeron explains that “in quantum mechanics we cannot make the categorical assertion that we can make in classical mechanics; we can only know the probability of an effect ocurring. It is, therefore, a type of abstraction” (page 182). He goes on to tell us that Bohr understood this, used this understanding to give a major boost to quantum mechanics, and ended up disagreeing with Einstein. This famous scientist, “paradoxically, in spite of his intelligence and scientific culture, did not take the necessary step to assimilate this abstraction of quantum mechanics.”

Let’s say, supported by this comment from Professor Salmeron, that Einstein did remain closed to this abstraction, many decades later quantum physics appeared as practically impenetrable to laymen; that is, the overwhelming majority of those who study physics only in high school, and who are well anchored in the foundation that Newton established. It is precisely this impenetrability that transforms the need and desire to report on advances in knowledge on quantum physics, in a clear and consistent manner, into a formidable challenge for scientific journalists. On the one hand are the insufficiencies in the journalist’s own background to enter and move around in this quantum universe. On the other, admitting that if this insufficiency was not overcome, then it was at least temporarily sidestepped or crossed, there are the gigantic difficulties involved in constructing a narrative that is accessible to non-specialists based on experiences in which the idea of concreteness of the data or the direct relationship between cause and effect seems so thin, if not outright absent.

How, while reporting and explaining scientific experiences, and not transcendental or religious experiences, does one talk about a field in which an entity can be simultaneously imagined to be dead and alive, a superimposition that doesn’t make any sense, or being in more than one place at the same time? This is not a simple task, and this only adds to the merit of our science editor Ricardo Zorzetto, in preparing the cover story of this month’s edition of Pesquisa FAPESP (page 18), which examines studies that have led to advances in quantum physics. The story focuses especially on an experiment with light particles that was conducted months ago by a group of physicists from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). This study was presented in the  October 12, 2012 issue of Physical Review Letters, and it managed to demonstrate that quantum information that reaches the environment is not always lost forever. Physicists understand that in daily life, the  strange properties of atomic particles (like being in more than one place at the same time) are not noted because the very complex environment in which they are immersed absorbs these characteristics (quantum) and dissipates them; thus the most elementary components of matter begin to behave in a conventional manner. But according to Zorzetto, the group from Rio is saying that the loss is not complete. And this could be interesting for both quantum computers and for understanding the frontiers between quantum mechanics and classical, Newtonian mechanics; in other words, for both the practical world and for basic science. It is certainly worth reading the story to enjoy the strange side of the quantum world.

I would also like to emphasize here the first report in the humanities section, by Editor Carlos Haag (page 68). Examining some recently released works, such as the book José Bonifácio by Miriam Dolhnikoff, and other older works, he presents the image of an energetic man of science and avant la lettre ecologist that traditional historiography hid behind the celebrated Patriarch of Independence. Haag tells us that Bonifácio viewed the sciences as essential for the development of Brazil, and it was based on this viewpoint that he “planned the establishment of universities, mining schools, scientific expeditions and economic and scientific societies.” According to Dolhnikoff, Bonifácio was “first and foremost, a scientist, formed by the Enlightenment.” He believed in “a science of a propositional and practical bent.” Strictly speaking, the way the Brazilian nation thought would have been “a product of the training of its scientists.” Of course, this proposition may be somewhat controversial, but this is good for the process of knowledge creation. Enjoy your reading!