Narrow Shred of Light

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Cal Bullitt slammed the gas pedal down because he didn’t know how to use the gun that lay cooling in the passenger seat. If there weren’t six men in three cars speeding after him, if gunfire hadn’t been pinging off the sides of his stolen Mercedes-Benz and blasting pocks into his back-seat window, and if he didn’t have a three-billion dollar secret folded into his coat pocket, he might have taken a moment to consider the irony of his name. He would have reflected that, in a movie, he’d have gotten the evidence in his pocket on purpose, he’d be a crack marksman and leading the men behind him into a CIA ambush, where they’d die just before he drove the car over a cliff, yanked on the ejector seat, and landed perfectly into the side of a Blackhawk helicopter.

Unfortunately, he was a yoga instructor at a community college in Chicago, knew no one at the CIA, and the gun next to him was hot only because he’d doused it in boiling water 76 seconds ago. He’d done this because an Iranian gentleman had been pointing it at him. If he hadn’t done this, he’d be dead, but again, the gunfire wasn’t letting Bullitt think on this too hard. His car didn’t have an ejector seat, he was fairly sure, because an episode of Mythbusters a few years ago had proven them to be unsafe and impractical. He only had the car because, 35 seconds ago, he’d used the gun to bluff a thug driver out of it. If he hadn’t also done this, he’d be dead. The high ring of munitions tinging against his car was an excellent distraction.</p>

And if it hadn’t been, Bullitt would again be dead. He couldn’t know this, because no mortal could, but the entire quantum set of possibilities involving his life in this narrow gun barrel of time had only a single, crooked thread down which he could live. If a butterfly in Taiwan sneezed left instead of right; if a taxi pulled out into the almost-empty night-time streets; if a mixed-race couple in Oklahoma got into a fight about dinner instead of about the husband’s mother, Bullitt would be dead. His life was the narrow shred of light that found its way down the barrel of the gun he couldn’t use.

In six seconds, Bullitt will need to take a right turn instead of going straight. Going straight would have gotten the attention of the police, who would immediately have yanked him into a continuum where his survival no longer depended on the perfect cellular array in his neighbor’s mother’s cat’s lungs. But he took the right turn, got caught behind a train 11 miles later, and was then shot to death by a gang of men paid to keep the world working the way they knew it ought to work.

Bleeding to death on a railroad tie, with cattle and coal chugging past him, he suddenly saw everything that he’d hoped Yoga would one day show him. Saw the cartridge of his life ejected from the chamber of the gun whose barrel down which he’d raced. Saw the butterfly and the mixed-raced couple and the cat all moving together, all making the world work one way instead of another, and he knew instantly his final moments of light would bring on an age of darkness for the world he’d known.

And then he chuckled, and coughed out blood, because, ha ha ha, a man named Bullitt didn’t know how to use a gun.

About the Author: 
Bartholomew Klick also writes for the webcomic Ramen Empire, at http://www.ramen-empire.com

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Quantum Theories

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Computing

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.