I’m building a machine that breaks the rules of reality
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NEW SCIENTIST
A few years ago, I had an idea that may sound a little crazy: I thought I could see a way to build an engine that works harder than the laws of physics allow.
You would be within your rights to baulk at this proposition. After all, the efficiency of engines is governed by thermodynamics, the most solid pillar of physics. This is one set of natural laws you don’t mess with.
Yet if I leave my office at the University of Oxford and stroll down the corridor, I can now see an engine that pays no heed to these laws. It is a machine of considerable power and intricacy, with green lasers and ions instead of oil and pistons. There is a long road ahead, but I believe contraptions like this one will shape the future of technology.
Better, more efficient computers would be just the start. The engine is also a harbinger of a new era in science. To build it, we have had to uncover a field called quantum thermodynamics, one set to retune our ideas about why life, the universe – everything, in fact – are the way they are.
Thermodynamics is the theory that describes the interplay between temperature, heat, energy and work. As such, it touches on pretty much everything, from your brain to your muscles, car engines to kitchen blenders, stars to quasars. It provides a base from which we can work out what sorts of things do and don’t happen in the universe. If you eat a burger, you must burn off the calories – or get fatter. Coffee never spontaneously warms …
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