The World Forever Changes Eighty ago today, J. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed to lead the Manhattan Project, the massive American effort to build the atomic bomb. The movie Oppenheimer, and book it is based on, talk about the lasting ramifications of his work. But his success also had a major impact to the world of quantum physics - the role of government funding, and their push away from theory towards practical research and development. Quantum mechanics began with theorists and mathematicians over a century ago in Europe. The first quantum revolution began in earnest with Einstein's suggestion of a "quanta of light" in 1905, and rapidly led to the foundations of quantum mechanics: the wave function and the Schrödinger equation, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the EPR paradox and “spooky action at a distance”, were all developed in papers and thought experiments that were hotly debated by some of the greatest scientists in history. But the rise of the Nazis fractured this vigorous community and scattered these scientists to the four winds, some of whom (including Einstein) settled in America. After the success of the Manhattan Project, the US government realized the value of encouraging these previously ignored scientists and researchers (see below). Thus began the second quantum revolution. The laser, transistor, MRI, and atomic clock, were all developed with government funding before becoming commercial products with massive benefits for all of society. Today we are in the third quantum revolution where we have moved beyond just harnessing quantum properties, but actively creating and manipulating quantum properties of particles. These breakthroughs are leading to quantum computers, quantum sensors, and quantum communications (including our technology) that have the capability to fundamentally transform society. But these developments needed (and many still need) the generosity of government funding. This is also the legacy of Oppenheimer. Last Week's Theme: What is Old is New Again
The US Space Force chief of space operations expressed concern about advancing anti-satellite missile capabilities: “The destruction of a satellite may not have that same public effect as a missile attack into a civilian population, but from a military standpoint, you’ve still definitely created an act of war.”
GPS jammers are illegal in the US but still pretty easy and cheap to find. France uses their National Spectrum Authority (ANFR) to locate active jammers, noting recent GPS disruptions “near Merville airport in March 2023… affecting planes and air ambulance helicopters,” that led their agents to seize a "sophisticated, multi-band jammer purchased online.”
The first of a planned Chinese “constellation of 13,000 satellites code-named Guo Wang” meant to compete with StarLink was recently launched.
A pair of US bills to address technology areas are in consideration. Concerns about the ease of satellite hacking led to a suggested bill to fund a Satellite Task Force, but it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. And the Quantum Sandbox for Near-Term Applications Act was introduced “to take a leap of action by expanding our quantum technology program to include the development and deployment of near-term applications that promote U.S. innovation for solving critical real-world problems impacting American society.”
The More You Know...
The Manhattan Project and the resulting Atomic Age left an indelible impact on the world.
But its success also left a legacy for the scientific community and their ability to aid society.
Realizing the need to keep an advantage led to setting up US national laboratories, including the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (1931), Los Alamos National Laboratory (1943), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1943), and Argonne National Laboratory (1946), Brookhaven National Laboratory (1947), and the Sandia National Laboratories (1949), to name a few.
But it also started a partnership between the US government and universities dedicated to science and engineering, including MIT's Draper Laboratory (1932) and Lincoln Labs (1951) and Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (1951), that "would be in the vanguard of the kind of large-scale research that Alvin Weinberg, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, would call Big Science."
But the biggest beneficiaries would be the companies, supported by government projects, that set up R&D centers that were once famous for their innovation: Bell Labs (inventor of the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell, the CCD, and information theory), Xerox PARC (laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, GUI, and the computer mouse), Lockheed's Skunk Works (the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird) are some famous examples.
But alas, US federal R&D funding has dropped over the years, while other countries are accelerating theirs.