A beginner's guide to quantum physics - voodoo, nanodiamonds and absolute zero

Communications so secure you would have to defy the laws of physics to intercept the information. Tools to design pharmaceuticals for diseases that cannot currently be treated. The ability to search databases at speeds inconceivable on today's computers. New materials designed by simulating atoms one by one - to produce the lightest material, the strongest, the best conductor of electricity.

"Quantum physics holds the promise of transforming our lives. These examples are just what we can think of today with the best surely yet to come," said Professor David Reilly, from the ARC Centre for Engineered Quantum Systems in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

"Hundreds of scientists, many using experimental environments a thousand times colder than deep space, are part of an international effort to understand how we can create these future revolutionary applications."

So what is quantum physics, how does it work and how will it change your life?

On 16 October at the University of Sydney, Professor David Reilly will answer those questions in his beginner's guide to quantum physics.

"From a bizarre theory created nearly 100 years ago in the coffee houses of Europe, to the nanoscale devices of the present day, I'll be your tour guide for this mysterious, mind-bending world of quantum physics," said Professor Reilly.

"I like to compare quantum physics to voodoo. If I stick a pin in a voodoo doll's arm then the person I'm targeting, no matter where or how far away they are, is meant to feel it."

"Well be honest I haven't tried it but quantum physics delivers on that voodoo promise in a way we don't yet understand even as we exploit it," said Professor Reilly.

"Electrons, for instance, can be vastly distant from each other in space and time but they still interact. The laws of nature don't care about those distances and we can harness the power of that interaction and do something useful with it."

At the University of Sydney one of the many ways researchers are exploring the possibilities is by taking tiny nanoparticles of diamond, - a few billionths of a meter in size - and attaching them to molecules that target specific diseases.

"We create miniscule beacons to inject in the body and light up on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. A lighthouse that can warn us of the threat or presence of disease," said Professor Reilly.

Much of the quantum research is only possible at temperatures a thousand times colder than deep space.

"We can only do these quantum experiments at minus 273.14 degrees. That is very close to absolute zero - where everything stops, everything is still. We do it by using helium three - a substance that does not occur naturally in nature and is produced from old, decayed nuclear weapons."

Professor David Reilly has recently been appointed the academic director of the Australian Institute for Nanoscience at the University of Sydney, which will open in 2015.

This talk is a Sydney Science Forum presentation.

Major funding support

Australian Research Council

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present.