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The Amazing Story Of Quantum Mechanics!

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The World of Tomorrow loomed large in 1926. Hugo Gernsbeck began publication in April 1926 of "Amazing Stories," the first pulp magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction (or "scientifiction," as Gernsbeck termed it), that would go on to feature the adventures of Buck Rogers and the Space Marines. Also publishing that year was Erwin Schrodinger, whose paper "Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem" in Annalen der Physik introduced described what would come to be known as the Schrodinger equation, and would lay the foundation for modern quantum mechanics. Schrodinger and his colleagues developing quantum mechanics knew that they were changing physics, but they almost certainly did not realize that they were also changing the future.

In Gernsbeck's future, there were jet packs, flying cars and disintegration rays, while quantum mechanics has brought us cell phones, laptop computers and magnetic resonance imaging devices. The first assumed that we would enjoy a revolution in Energy (necessary for jet packs to provide lift for more than a few minutes) while the other ushered in a true revolution in Information. This Information Revolution followed the development of Solid State physics, which in turn was made possible by the discoveries of quantum mechanics.

Quantum Mechanics involves the study of the properties of atoms, and how they interact with light. Armed with the understanding of nature provided by quantum physics in the 1920's, scientists a generation later would invent the transistor and the laser. A generation later still, we have iPods, DVDs, personal computers, mobile phones, and television remote controls - pretty much everything, without which, life is not worth living. Schrodinger and his colleagues were not trying to invent a CD player, but without the efforts of a handful of scientists, motivated to elucidate these new laws of nature purely by the challenge of deciphering perplexing experimental results, the world we live in would be profoundly different.

There were computers before the transistor, but they were large, expensive behemoths that employed bulky and fragile vacuum tubes and mechanical relays. Without the transistor, and the subsequent development of the integrated circuit and microcomputer, only large corporations and the government could afford and house these vacuum tube computers, and there would thus be little need to connect them together into a world wide web. So, no quantum mechanics, no Huffington Post!

The distinct worlds of science fiction and modern physics have collided many times over the years. The Atomic Age began thanks, in part, to a 1914 science fiction novel "The World Set Free" by H. G. Wells. This story described a future atomic world war, and the horrific destruction of Europe through the use of atomic bombs, dropped from silent atomic planes. This novel made a strong impression on physicist Leo Szilard in 1932. Szilard would conceive of (and patent) the concept of a nuclear chain reaction (years before uranium nuclei were split in a fission experiment) and wrote the letter that was signed by Albert Einstein, urging President Franklin Roosevelt to begin a secret, crash program to develop an actual atomic bomb. Wells' novel, in turn, was likely inspired by a popular science text written in 1909 by Frederick Soddy, a colleague of Ernest Rutherford, credited as the discoverer of the atomic nucleus. So, a popular science book leads to a science fiction novel, that eventually inspires the creation of the very atomic weapon the novel describes.

Such collisions between science fiction and science continue today. Wi-Fi enabled paper using electronic ink, and interactive e-books described in Neal Stephenson's 1995 novel "The Diamond Age," are strikingly similar to e-book readers now available for sale at most major booksellers, devices that could not exist without an understanding of semiconductor physics. Scientists and engineers developing novel devices using nanotechnology today continue to dine off the efforts of quantum physicists of the 1920s.

Hugo Gernsbeck, the father of science fiction magazines, seems strikingly prescient when in 1926 he chose for the motto of his "Amazing Stories" magazine: "Extravagant Fiction Today... Cold Fact Tomorrow!"

James Kakalios's book, "The Amazing Story Of Quantum Mechanics," can be ordered here.

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