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The apparatus was impressive. Like a particle accelerator, it was a massive machine employed for the probing of life’s deep mysteries. As the apparatus strained and groaned, a cloud began to form at its center. It took several hours, but finally the first ethereon known to mankind was brought into being, wrenched from god knows what dark abyss of the universe. It floated in its prison, barely perceptible, and yet of definite substance. As the scientists stared at the ghostly visitor in astonishment, it spoke. There were no words, yet the scientists all understood that it had spoken in their heads. And with that, it disappeared.

The scientists had recorded every single detail of the experiment, but none of them could remember what the ethereon had spoken. Decades passed before progress was made. Many more machines were built, many more ethereons were brought into momentary existence. They too spoke and their thoughts also were forgotten. Then finally, by linking up all their minds in a telepathic bond using the latest brainscanning technology, scientists were able to have a somewhat objective conversation with the ethereons. Much effort was put into the precise wording of the transcript that was made from memory afterwards.


Human:    It has been a long time waiting for this moment.

Ethereon:  Yes, it has.

Human:   We have many questions to ask.

Ethereon: We have many answers.

Human:    What are you? Did we make you, or did we discover you?

Ethereon: We began with a thought. You thought that we might exist, and you began searching for us. You built big machines for this purpose. These machines spun us from particles that you presumed to exist.

Human:    Like candy floss.

Ethereon: Something like that.

Human:    But do these particles really exist?

Ethereon: We are made of them.

Human:   Can you exist independently of us?

Ethereon: We no longer need the machines. Our kind is capable of self reproduction. We thank you for bringing us into existence. Good bye.

Human:   Wait.

Ethereon:  For what?

Human:    We need to know. Are you real, or just a figment of our imaginations.

Ethereon:  We are as real as a figment of your imagination.

Human:   That doesn’t explain anything for us.

Ethereon: We cannot give explanations. We can only give answers.

Human:   Are you the same thing as our thoughts? You must answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Ethereon: And if we said yes or no, would that explain anything for you?

Human:    Yes.

Ethereon: We like your answer. It is suitably ambiguous. We will use it. For every question you ask, we will answer yes.


The scientists tried a few more questions after that, but the ethereons, true to their promise, replied yes to every one of them. This was bitterly frustrating for the scientists. In the end, the ethereons disappeared without a trace, leaving no substantive answers. Eventually, the world ceased to be interested in ethereons. They were considered the most esoteric of research subjects. It cost so much to produce even a glimmer of an ethereon, and most people doubted that ethereons would ever amount to anything. The ethereon lab was in shambles. The log book of conversations contained nothing but meaningless snatches of dialogue. A grizzled old scientist was the only person in the room when the ethereons ventured out of the lab. He was having a snooze at the time, so he didn’t notice anything.

The ethereons wandered the world of men, and eventually found themselves in the strangest of environments. They had wandered into World2. This was a complete virtual replica of the world, launched by an enlightened world government, in which citizens could exercise their needs for social reform and political choice, things they were not generally allowed in the real world.

The ethereons noticed a considerable amount of immorality occuring in World2 and felt that they should step in and do something about it. By hijacking several Internet entrepreneur’s minds, they were able to set up an online ethics database for World2. Every deed in World2 was scored according to a broad spectrum of metrics. Everyone’s score was publicly available, and given the near perfect surveillance in World2, no deed would disappear uncategorized. It was all captured in the database, which the ethereons called God, since it was easier that way. People would consult God for everything; who to marry, who to do business with, who should be victims of random vigilante attacks.

Despite this scoring system, there were many individuals in World2 who continued to perform so-called evil acts. Eventually, citizens of World2 campaigned effectively for the collective control of personality. Since more and more humans were identifying themselves with bits of data, it was a simple enough matter to change people simply by changing their data. The primary mechanism for doing this was Wikipedia, which had over the past half-century built the most democratic cross-editing platform on the planet.

People started using Wikipedia to edit each others’ personalities, all guided by a rigorous and completely transparent system that met all Popperian Open Society criteria. Very soon, things started getting better. There was more co-operation among various interest groups. People were friendlier.

So now the ethereons could sit back and enjoy the paradise they had created. But there was one thing they were still dissatisfied with. Their Wikipedia entry. It was too dry, as are most Wikipedia entries. There were strict stylistic guidelines to follow. Everything had to sound as if it came from the same source, spoken by the same voice.

The ethereons saw themselves differently. They were special. Shouldn’t they be entitled to a jazzier story? They hired a science-fiction writer to re-write their Wikipedia entry, and this is the result. It has been the only known violation of the Wikipedia style guide, and yet is tolerated grudgingly by the Central Committee. Some conspiracy theorists argue that there is a secret society, with the ethereons at the helm, pulling all the strings.

About the Author: 
Unsu Lee is a Singaporean filmmaker and writer. He is a founding partner of Hotbed, a film production company. He is passionate about finding new ways of bridging the worlds of art and science.

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Quantum Theories

U is for ... Universe

To many researchers, the universe behaves like a gigantic quantum computer that is busy processing all the information it contains.

O is for ... Objective reality

Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, said there is no such thing as objective reality. All we can talk about, he said, is the results of measurements we make.

S is for ... Schrödinger’s Cat

A hypothetical experiment in which a cat kept in a closed box can be alive and dead at the same time – as long as nobody lifts the lid to take a look.

F is for ... Free Will

Ideas at the heart of quantum theory, to do with randomness and the character of the molecules that make up the physical matter of our brains, lead some researchers to suggest humans can’t have free will.

A is for ... Act of observation

Some people believe this changes everything in the quantum world, even bringing things into existence.

H is for ... Hidden Variables

One school of thought says that the strangeness of quantum theory can be put down to a lack of information; if we could find the “hidden variables” the mysteries would all go away.

S is for ... Schrödinger Equation

This is the central equation of quantum theory, and describes how any quantum system will behave, and how its observable qualities are likely to manifest in an experiment.

K is for ... Kaon

These are particles that carry a quantum property called strangeness. Some fundamental particles have the property known as charm!

I is for ... Information

Many researchers working in quantum theory believe that information is the most fundamental building block of reality.

B is for ... Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)

At extremely low temperatures, quantum rules mean that atoms can come together and behave as if they are one giant super-atom.

G is for ... Gravity

Our best theory of gravity no longer belongs to Isaac Newton. It’s Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. There’s just one problem: it is incompatible with quantum theory. The effort to tie the two together provides the greatest challenge to physics in the 21st century.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.

N is for ... Nonlocality

When two quantum particles are entangled, it can also be said they are “nonlocal”: their physical proximity does not affect the way their quantum states are linked.

C is for ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

T is for ... Tunnelling

This happens when quantum objects “borrow” energy in order to bypass an obstacle such as a gap in an electrical circuit. It is possible thanks to the uncertainty principle, and enables quantum particles to do things other particles can’t.

R is for ... Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

I is for ... Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

X is for ... X-ray

In 1923 Arthur Compton shone X-rays onto a block of graphite and found that they bounced off with their energy reduced exactly as would be expected if they were composed of particles colliding with electrons in the graphite. This was the first indication of radiation’s particle-like nature.

D is for ... Dice

Albert Einstein decided quantum theory couldn’t be right because its reliance on probability means everything is a result of chance. “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” he said.

M is for ... Many Worlds Theory

Some researchers think the best way to explain the strange characteristics of the quantum world is to allow that each quantum event creates a new universe.

G is for ... Gluon

These elementary particles hold together the quarks that lie at the heart of matter.

H is for ... Hawking Radiation

In 1975, Stephen Hawking showed that the principles of quantum mechanics would mean that a black hole emits a slow stream of particles and would eventually evaporate.

V is for ... Virtual particles

Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.

C is for ... Computing

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

L is for ... Light

We used to believe light was a wave, then we discovered it had the properties of a particle that we call a photon. Now we know it, like all elementary quantum objects, is both a wave and a particle!

R is for ... Randomness

Unpredictability lies at the heart of quantum mechanics. It bothered Einstein, but it also bothers the Dalai Lama.

P is for ... Probability

Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory: it does not give definite answers, but only the probability that an experiment will come up with a particular answer. This was the source of Einstein’s objection that God “does not play dice” with the universe.

S is for ... Superposition

Quantum objects can exist in two or more states at once: an electron in superposition, for example, can simultaneously move clockwise and anticlockwise around a ring-shaped conductor.

T is for ... Teleportation

Quantum tricks allow a particle to be transported from one location to another without passing through the intervening space – or that’s how it appears. The reality is that the process is more like faxing, where the information held by one particle is written onto a distant particle.

A is for ... Atom

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

E is for ... Entanglement

When two quantum objects interact, the information they contain becomes shared. This can result in a kind of link between them, where an action performed on one will affect the outcome of an action performed on the other. This “entanglement” applies even if the two particles are half a universe apart.

J is for ... Josephson Junction

This is a narrow constriction in a ring of superconductor. Current can only move around the ring because of quantum laws; the apparatus provides a neat way to investigate the properties of quantum mechanics.

M is for ... Multiverse

Our most successful theories of cosmology suggest that our universe is one of many universes that bubble off from one another. It’s not clear whether it will ever be possible to detect these other universes.

R is for ... Reality

Since the predictions of quantum theory have been right in every experiment ever done, many researchers think it is the best guide we have to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, that still leaves room for plenty of ideas about what reality really is!

U is for ... Uncertainty Principle

One of the most famous ideas in science, this declares that it is impossible to know all the physical attributes of a quantum particle or system simultaneously.

P is for ... Planck's Constant

This is one of the universal constants of nature, and relates the energy of a single quantum of radiation to its frequency. It is central to quantum theory and appears in many important formulae, including the Schrödinger Equation.

Z is for ... Zero-point energy

Even at absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, nothing has zero energy. In these conditions, particles and fields are in their lowest energy state, with an energy proportional to Planck’s constant.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

In quantum experiments, these are the names traditionally given to the people transmitting and receiving information. In quantum cryptography, an eavesdropper called Eve tries to intercept the information.

L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

At CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, this machine is smashing apart particles in order to discover their constituent parts and the quantum laws that govern their behaviour.

Q is for ... Qubit

One quantum bit of information is known as a qubit (pronounced Q-bit). The ability of quantum particles to exist in many different states at once means a single quantum object can represent multiple qubits at once, opening up the possibility of extremely fast information processing.

W is for ... Wavefunction

The mathematics of quantum theory associates each quantum object with a wavefunction that appears in the Schrödinger equation and gives the probability of finding it in any given state.

B is for ... Bell's Theorem

In 1964, John Bell came up with a way of testing whether quantum theory was a true reflection of reality. In 1982, the results came in – and the world has never been the same since!

Y is for ... Young's Double Slit Experiment

In 1801, Thomas Young proved light was a wave, and overthrew Newton’s idea that light was a “corpuscle”.

D is for ... Decoherence

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

W is for ... Wave-particle duality

It is possible to describe an atom, an electron, or a photon as either a wave or a particle. In reality, they are both: a wave and a particle.