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The Beginning of the Universe? Quantum Computer Could Simulate Particle Physics

Jun 28, 2016 07:19 AM EDT

For the first time, scientists were able to simulate the beginnings of the universe through a quantum computer.

According to the researchers, this is the first full simulation of a high-energy physics experiment and could shed light on many hidden aspects of the universe, from how quarks bind together into protons and neutrons to how the universe came to be after the Big Bang.

"Our work is a first step towards developing dedicated tools that can help us to gain a better understanding of the fundamental interactions between the elementary constituents in nature," Christine Muschik, theoretical physicist at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and co-author of the study, told Live Science.

Quantum computers are said to revolutionize computing in the future, as they are not limited to the binary code bits used in computers today. Quantum computers make use of quantum bits or qubits, which can essentially each take the state of 0, 1 or a "superposition" of both.

This means that quantum computers can perform complex calculations simultaneously and provide unprecedented processing power. An example is Google's D-Wave 2 quantum computer, which, according to Science Alert, is 100 million times faster than the average laptop.

For the study, the scientists built a quantum computer using four electromagnetically trapped calcium ions. These four qubits were manipulated with laser pulses.

The quantum computer was used to simulate the appearance and disappearance of virtual particles in a vacuum - the electrons and their positively-charged antimatter counterparts called positrons. According to the scientists, the laser pulses manipulated the ions' spins, making the ions perform logic operations.

The team's quantum calculations confirmed the predictions of a simplified version of quantum electrodynamics, which is the theory of the electromagnetic force: the stronger the field, the faster the creation of particles and antiparticles.

"This is one of the most complex experiments that has ever been carried out in a trapped-ion quantum computer," Rainer Blatt, co-author of the study, said in a press release.

The work demonstrates how particles might behave at high energy levels, which cannot easily be generated on Earth.

"The field of experimental quantum computing is growing very fast, and many people ask the question, What is a small-scale quantum computer good for?" Esteban Martinez, co-author of the study and an experimental physicist at the University of Innsbruck, told Live Science.

However, the problem was simple enough for a quantum computer and can be handled by classical computers, the researchers said. If anything, the "proof-of-principle" experiment is only the first step toward the long-term goal of developing future generations of quantum simulators that can address questions that the average computer cannot.

The researchers aim to scale up the technique to simulate the strong nuclear force or understand the high-speed collision of two atomic nuclei.

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