Yesterday Aaron O’Connell stunned TED audiences with his description of an experiment three years in the making that for the first time showed quantum delocalization taking place at the level of a physical, visible object. In other words, for his PhD thesis, he got a very small piece of aluminum to be in two places at once.
He did this by first building the world’s most sensitive motion detector under John Martinis, who does research into quantum computing at UC Santa Barbara. (His other thesis advisor was theoretical physicist Andrew Cleland). It was capable of detecting motion at the scale of a single nucleus of an atom. Then he built a device that resembles a band pass filter found in every cell phone. It’s like a tiny diving board, suspended at one end so it can easily vibrate, made out of two thin sheets of aluminum surrounding a specially grown crystal of aluminum nitride. “Aluminum is one of the best superconductors we know,” O’Connell told Fast Company. “If you want to make a superconductor you can put a Pepsi can in a refrigerator—except the refrigerator we built cools things down to just above absolute zero.”
Once the special device was assembled, they performed the experiment millions of times, each time lasting just a fraction of a second. In conditions of dark, vacuum, and extremely cold temperatures, they were able to show that the tiny object both vibrated and did not vibrate at the same time. A quantum effect in the real world.
When I caught up with the young, spiky-haired O’Connell I congratulated him on this achievement, but he surprised me by sounding pretty dejected. “My nametag says ‘freelance,’” he pointed out. “That’s what you say when you’re unemployed.” O’Connell revealed that he’s considering starting a tech company, maybe to build iPhone apps. “I just want to be around people,” he said, a funny statement for someone who had just shared his discovery with a potential audience of millions. “If you go into any physics lab everybody is depressed and feels isolated. We don’t get any feedback that anybody cares about what we’re doing.”