Quantum Waves and the Rosetta Stone

by Nicholas Mee on October 20, 2012

Quantum Waves and the Rosetta Stone

Thomas Young was born in 1773 in the small Somerset town of Milverton. He was a remarkable scientist with wide-ranging interests. By the age of 14 he was already fluent in Greek and Latin and over ten other languages both ancient and modern.

The Great Puzzle of the Age

The great scientist and linguist Thomas Young

Much later in life, Young became fascinated by one of the great puzzles of the Age – the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta stone had been discovered in 1799 by a soldier in Napoleon’s army and after the French defeat by the British, the stone was shipped back to England. It was immediately recognised as a possible key to the solution of the age-old puzzle, because the hieroglyphic inscription is repeated in translation in a well understood language – Ancient Greek. In 1814 Young made the first significant breakthroughs in cracking the hieroglyphic code and paved the way for the full decipherment that was made by the French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion in the 1820s.

Waves in a Sea of Light

But Young’s most important achievement was to establish the wave-like nature of light. We take it for granted today that light behaves like a wave, but the great Isaac Newton whose influence dominated the physics of Young’s day had believed that light was composed of particles. Young showed in a number of experiments that light forms interference patterns that are very similar to those formed by water waves in a ripple tank and thereby demonstrated quite conclusively that light is composed of waves.

The Language of Quantum Waves

However, this was not the end of the story. The year 1905 saw one of the most surprising developments in the history of science, when Einstein showed that Young and Newton were both correct. Somehow light simultaneously has the characteristics of waves and particles. (Today the fundamental particles of light are called photons.) This wave-particle duality, as it is known, would eventually lead to the development of quantum theory. Deep down the concrete and familiar world that we all know and love is built on the complex shifting patterns formed by myriads of interfering quantum waves.

Quantum Man by Julian Voss-Andreae

The Crazy World of Quantum Mechanics

The crazy world of quantum mechanics is still under investigation. It lies at the heart of many modern technologies, such as lasers, computer chips and superconducting magnets, and promises to deliver even more exotic technologies, such as quantum computers, in the future. The announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has just been made and it has gone to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland for developing methods to investigate the quantum mechanical nature of individual particles of matter and light, an important step towards quantum computing.

Further Information

The Rosetta Stone

The sculptures of Julian Voss-Andreae

2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

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