Quantum Computers to Model Quantum Mechanical Experiments
A good way to learn about something is to open it up and take a look at all of the parts. Sometimes the thing cannot be opened up with a conventional tool though, so you have to smash it open. So is the case for particle physicists that try to understand the most basic building blocks of the Universe. Using massive accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, particles are given massive amounts of energy before ramming headlong into a target. At the moment of impact the particles are smashed to pieces which are caught by special nets for study.
Building, maintaining, and operating a particle accelerator is not easy though, but the physics involved is far too complicated for the best supercomputer to handle. Researchers at NIST and the California Institute of Technology have looked past the modern supercomputer to the future's quantum computers.
Quantum supercomputers use phenomena like superposition and entanglement to store and process information in ways no classical computer can. Instead of only considering one solution to a problem at a time, a quantum computer can consider multiple or even every solution to a problem in parallel. The researchers are taking advantage of this ability by creating an algorithm that will be ready to run on the first practical quantum computer, no matter the technology behind it.
This could hugely advance our understanding of the Universe by allowing experiments that could take years to complete at an accelerator to be done within a simulation, where energy levels and other variables can be perfectly controlled. Fortunately, increasing the complexity of the simulation this way does not also make the problem so difficult that a quantum computer, and the researchers' algorithm, cannot handle it.
For the time being, the algorithm only addresses a specific kind of particle collision, but with quantum computers potentially decades away, we may see other, more advanced algorithms developed before they can be utilized. Eventually we may see the standard model, which dominates modern particle physics, being tested with this or a similar algorithm.