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Vancouver’s Quantum Gravity Society is one step closer to solving the biggest mystery of the universe

Unlocking quantum gravity will transform how societies communicate, grow food, transport people and goods, and produce clean energy.

Vancouver’s Quantum Gravity Society recreates the 1927 Solvay Conference’s “most intelligent photo ever” with speakers at its Quantum Gravity Conference. Photo: supplied.

At first glance, there’s not a huge amount that connects Einstein’s theory of relativity – the concept behind our current understanding of gravity – to technology. Or, for that matter, to Vancouver Tech Journal. But Einstein’s predictions are responsible for the creation of items that pepper our every day, including TVs, cellphones, lasers, computers, and more, meaning it’s central to creating both basic and advanced tech.

Trouble is, there’s another understanding of the rules of the universe: quantum mechanics. And it’s irreconcilable in many ways with Einstein’s theory – even though both are observed to be true.

What does that mean for Vancouver, and for technology? Stay with me here. Quantum mechanics, like the theory of relativity, attempts to describe and account for the properties of molecules and atoms and their constituents, including electrons, protons, neutrons, and others. Quantum states, for example, are at the root of the famous Schrödinger's cat thought-experiment, which illustrates the paradox of quantum superposition. Like subatomic particles – which have been proven to exist in two places at once until one is observed – a cat placed inside a box and blasted with radiation will be either alive or dead, but exists as theoretically both, until the box is open. Einstein’s theory is baffled by this reality. (So is the cat.)

Physicists have been trying to reconcile the theory of relativity with elements of quantum mechanics for years. When a solution is finally found and quantum gravity is understood, scientists believe it could – among other pressing issues – transform how we communicate, grow food, transport people and goods, and produce clean energy.

Despite the difficulty of the task, Vancouver’s newly formed Quantum Gravity Society believes it can help. Created earlier this year by a group of Canadian technology, business, and community leaders, as well as leading physicists, the organization is dedicated to unlocking the solutions to quantum questions. Among its goals are to advance the study of physics and facilitate research on the theory of quantum gravity, using initiatives such as star-powered conferences and assembling archives of published works.

“It is my belief that we will change our world in ways you can't even imagine,” says Frank Giustra, a founding member of the Quantum Gravity Society. “Who knows what sort of things may be possible? The Quantum Gravity Society and our future Quantum Gravity Institute hopes to convene the type of conversations that will hopefully, someday, lead to the discovery of quantum gravity theory that can be proven [...] One of the goals of our Society will be to establish Vancouver as a supportive home base for research and facilitate the scientific collaboration that will be required to unlock this mystery that has eluded some of the world’s most brilliant physicists for so long.”

Last week, the organization brought together some of the most important minds in the field – including three Nobel Laureates – at the Quantum Gravity Conference: a first-of-its kind event in both Vancouver and the world. The goal was to work through the issues facing our understanding of the universe. It’s a high-stakes problem.

“Discovering the theory of quantum gravity could lead to the possibility of time travel, new quantum devices, or even massive new energy resources that produce clean energy and help us address climate change,” said Philip Stamp, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC. “The potential long-term ramifications of this discovery are so incredible that life on earth 100 years from now could look as miraculous to us now as today’s technology would have seemed to people living 100 years ago.”

The conference featured a number of plenaries, discussing topics including the beginning of the universe, the black hole story, theory and experiment in quantum physics, and quantum gravity and time travel. Among the much lauded speakers were Kip Thorne – the physicist who inspired the blockbuster Interstellar – fellow Nobel Laureates Jim Peebles and Sir Roger Penrose, and leaders Birgitta Whaley, Bill Unruh, and Stamp. More than 10 of the world’s top experts on the subject spent a number of days in Vancouver working through their theories, with one of the days open to students, physicists, and the interested public.

“In the world of business – where I come from – just as in daily life, we are all stronger and more effective when we work together,” said Bridgitte Anderson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, in her opening remarks at the conference. “The power of collaboration is just as important in the science world. And this week's conference marks a new era of collaboration between a truly international group of scientific experts. Their presence here in Vancouver is a remarkable achievement in itself.”

The city is well-suited to hosting the Quantum Gravity Conference, given its strong showing of quantum computing companies. Among others, Vancouver is home to businesses including D-Wave Systems, the world’s first business to exploit quantum effects in their operation; 1QBit, which builds the software and tools for quantum computing; and Fujitsu, which based its AI and quantum computing arm in the city.

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