The future of physics

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So, if you’re like me and you watched Brian Greene’s TED talk on string theory, you probably wonder how experiments on little strings vibrating in curled-up dimensions will affect our daily lives. In fact, there are plenty of ways, detailed in this list of how physics will change the future.

The first time I heard about the useful application of quantum mechanics was in the field of cryptography. As we store more and more of our personal information online, it’s that much more important for this data to remain well-encrypted. The race between code makers and code breakers has been close through the ages, but the cryptographers may finally win with the help of photons. Once quantum key distribution becomes the norm, it will be impossible for hackers to get into a system without announcing their presence, thereby defeating their purpose.

Quantum dots latched on to cancer cells

Cancer cells might not be able to go undetected anymore, either. Quantum “dots,” tiny semiconductor crystals, glow when exposed to ultraviolet radiation and, when coated with the right substance, latch on to cancer cells. Doctors can then pinpoint exactly which cells to target with treatment while leaving the rest of the healthy cells alone.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, scientists are using quantum physics to replicate turbulence in the lab so that someday we may be able to predict the chaotic swirls in gas and liquids. Flights will become smoother and weather reports more reliable.

But then again, if you want to just skip the security lines altogether you can always invest in transportation research. Scientists have been able to scan molecules and reconstruct them elsewhere…but don’t recycle your 3 oz liquid bottles yet: these aren’t exact copies of the molecules, they are twins. In the process of teleportation the original is destroyed. Sound like a good plot line? It’s already been done; beautifully, in my opinion, in 2006’s The Prestige (it’s a great movie so if you don’t want the ending ruined don’t watch the following clip):

Medical metaphors

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Before my freshman year at Dartmouth, the ’08 class was assigned a book for summer reading to which we were supposed to write a short response paper. As a product of the public school system, I had never had such an assignment. Thus, I thought this project was a) exciting and b) mandatory.

My response paper to the book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, centered around the use of metaphor in breast cancer treatment. Ms. Williams’ female family members had a strikingly high rate of breast cancer diagnoses, a fact she attributed to living near a nuclear testing ground. She writes of the difficulty of healing when the dominant trope of treating cancer is of combat. We fight cancer. We have lines of defense and of attack. Chemotherapy is used to destroy, to kill, to exterminate cancer cells. This language is so ingrained in our understanding of cancer treatment, that it feels impossible to couch treatment in different terms. The danger, though, is that the enemy is the patient’s own body. A civil war necessarily wreaks havoc on the entire expanse of the battleground. Hair loss, nausea, and exhaustion are taken for granted as part of the cancer patient’s recovery.

Now, I’m certainly not going to argue that such an approach is wrong. Cancer is a terrible and complex disease, and Western medicine has made incredible strides in curing the afflicted. I think of all the people dear to me who have been diagnosed with cancer who are now completely healthy and free of cancerous cells; this is nothing short of astounding. Certainly, there are many patients who like to envision the battle they’re staging within and see themselves as the valiant fighter. However, I wonder how many others might yearn for a different understanding of their bodies.

When I first started getting acupuncture, I was struck by the metaphors my practitioner used to illustrate my issues. He compared the digestive system to a pot hanging over a fire. If wood is too damp a fire won’t be able to burn properly, and the contents inside that pot won’t break down. In this understanding, the stomach is the pot, and the kidney is the kindling underneath. The solution, then, would be to rid the kidney of its dampness.

Don't dam me

In Chinese medicine, the main energy of the body is called qi (pronounced “chee”). Most acupuncture treatments consist of manipulating this energy in some way: moving it from places in the body where it is stuck, nourishing it if energy reserves are too low, calming it. I have heard qi compared to the flow of a river. We can easily imagine what this river might look like if dammed (leading to stagnancy), or if it floods, or if it dries up. The river itself, though, is not the problem, just as our energy is not the problem. If the river of our energy is off course, acupuncture is a tool to redirect it, to smooth it out, to nourish it. This vision of the body feels restorative to me. If we compare ourselves to the most natural of the earth’s processes, I believe we will find strength in those metaphors.

That paper I submitted for the First-Year Summer Reading won first prize. My friends joked that I won because I was the only one who submitted a paper, but hey, I won $300 for it and there’s no metaphor that can top that.