|Sketch of FLASH device in Scientific American|
If you live long enough, some of your old deeds may come back to haunt you.
In this month's Scientific American (June 2012), science historians David Kaiser (How the Hippies Saved Physics) and Angela Creager (The Life of a Virus) describe two scientific proposals that were totally wrong but led to new and unexpected discoveries. In "The Right Way to Get It Wrong", AC describes biologist Max Delbrück's failed attempt to develop techniques for deciphering the genetic mechanism of viruses--techniques that were successfully applied by other biologists to understand the reproduction not of viruses but bacteria. DK describes my own failed attempt to develop a superluminal communication device I called FLASH (First Laser-Amplified Superluminal Hookup).
Irish physicist John Bell had proved a famous theorem in the 60s about reality--that reality must be "non-local."--that is, connected together faster-than-light--in order to explain the results of a simple quantum optical experiment of the EPR (Einstein-Poldolsky-Rosen) type. But despite Bell's discovery that Quantum Reality must be FTL, other theorems existed (e. g. Eberhard's Proof) that Quantum Facts must always be local. In other words, Nature must use FTL connections to accomplish her quantum miracles but these underground FTL channels were off limits to human beings.
But certain physicists with time on their hands could not resist the temptation to attempt to design devices that used Nature's forbidden FTL channels for human superluminal signaling. I and a few others devised such devices but all of them were easily refuted. Except one--the FLASH device.
The key to superluminal signaling rests in the ability to distinguish a beam of random plane-polarized photons (Horizontal and Vertical) from a random beam of circularly-polarized photons (Right- and Left- circular). Simply put, any device that can determine the polarization of a single photon is all you need to signal FTL.
FLASH attempts to measure the polarization of a single photon by sending that photon thru a Laser Gain Tube which (presumably) operates like a xerox machine. Having many copies of the same polarization, it is easy to determine whether a photon is H, V, R or L. If you can xerox photons you can signal FTL--and also build a time machine.
To prevent chronological disaster, the FLASH device had to be wrong. But where was the error? After some debate behind the scenes, a number of theoreticians discovered the flaw which was first revealed in a paper in Nature by Wooters & Zurek entitled "A Single Quantum Cannot Be Cloned". Thus was born the now-famous "quantum no-cloning rule" which guarantees the security of quantum cryptography and makes it impossible in the field of quantum computing to copy a quantum data set--quantum data is intrinsically copy protected by Nature herself.
As a little-known sequel to the FLASH drama, I recently concocted another FTL signaling device whose refutation leads to another brand-new law of Nature "A Pair of Quanta Cannot Be Wed". At present my "quantum no-wedding rule" has found absolutely no practical application anywhere.
There are probably many more examples where a wrong turn led to an unexpected new discovery. Almost certainly the biggest mistake in history must be Christopher Columbus's exploratory voyage to discover a new route to India--and his massively inept misnaming of the inhabitants of that newly discovered land.