Physicists Use Ytterbium Ions to Make March Madness Picks

Even knowledgable fans aren’t great at making predictions, so quantum physics may be the surest way to cash in on the madness

smithsonian.com

In offices around the country, hopeful sports fans are wagering on who will win of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Physicists are no exception. In a lab at the University of Maryland, five groups of physicists filled in the brackets to make their predictions, NBC News reports. Except instead of sports knowledge, they used quantum physics to make their bets.

This isn’t the first time the lab has engaged in such scientific tomfoolery. Last year, a graduate student in the lab sparked upon the idea and nearly won the money pot.

Normally, the team investigates quantum interactions between submicroscopic objects, using ions from the metallic element ytterbium. NBC explains how that has anything to do with making sports predictions:

When used to assist in picking basketball games, the team uses a phenomenon called superposition. They coax the ytterbium ion to act a bit like a coin. In the same way that flipping a fair coin yields a random result of heads or tails, superposition allows the physicists to prepare the ion to have a 50-50 chance of ending up in state A or state B. It’s possible that, based on the way a coin is flipped, the result isn’t always truly random. But by using quantum phenomena, in which the location or state of an object is based on probability, the result is truly random.

But there’s one problem with this method, NBC points out. Unlike coins or ion states, basketball teams are not equally likely to win a game. Quantum physics is just as likely to suggest picking a team suffering from a losing streak this season as one predicted to dominate.

The physicists might be able to simulate this. Clark said they could weight the ion’s choice by creating an “unequal superposition,” which would allow them to create a probability unequal to 50-50. In this way, they might be able to account for the type of basketball knowledge Bergen referred to, and reduce the odds of the ion producing a perfect bracket.

Of course, even knowledgable basketball fans aren’t great at predicting the results of March Madness, so wagering bets on a weighted ion’s predictions may be the surest way to cash in on the tradition.

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