Rated "E" for Everything

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The audience—press, academics, assorted dignitaries—hushed as Professor Icarus Waxman took the dais. He was brief. "For decades we’ve sought a so-called Theory of Everything to explain, well, everything— from the infinitesimal to the colossal. Many candidates have been offered." He paused.  Inhaled, exhaled. "At last, we know the answer.  Our universe is, in reality, a magnificently complex computer simulation, not unlike games some of us enjoy, but enormously more sophisticated."
The world had known of this theory, known of such research, but from the audience’s gasp, it was plain few had seriously contemplated the notion. Waxman imagined the collective astonishment of the millions watching on television. He went on: "The simulation we’re part of is doubtless a splendid experiment, conceived by vastly superior beings, to discover the nature of some real universe." The crowd nodded and murmured, perhaps comforted by the thought that its virtual existence served a noble purpose. And if the next part bore Waxman out, the Nobel was as good as his. "Now," he intoned, "we shall witness the most staggering revelation of this or any other age, as we pierce the simulation and unveil the face of our creator."
With a flourish Waxman whipped the scarf off the computer monitor, and glanced at his post-doc, who gave the thumbs-up.  "Hello?" Waxman enunciated, fancying himself a loftier Bell speaking into the first telephone.
After a short lag, during which Waxman began to perspire, everyone heard, "Hello, Professor." Oddly, the sound came not from the computer, but seemed to emanate from inside the listeners’ own skulls. The voice lacked the sonorous confidence Waxman had expected. Instead it was . . . reedy? Shy? Waxman involuntarily recalled himself at 13, stammering through his offer to help Tammy Knowlton with trig.
"Hello, sir," said Waxman. "May we see you?"
Another moment later there appeared a face, surprisingly human— though more complicated, less beautiful, and undeniably immature. The carbuncular skin had a slight down of peach fuzz across the upper lip and cheeks. Panic sunk through Waxman as the onlookers gasped again. This wasn’t shaping up at all to be the summit meeting between colleagues he’d anticipated. He soldiered on. "Uh, sir," he said, "Tell us, if you would, what is this experiment that we’re part of?"
"Experiment?" said the boy.
"Or whatever it may be. . . ." said Waxman.
"Oh. . . . OK," said the boy. "Um, I’m Meko. And um, you’re in my game. . . . It’s called U-Eleven."
Good God, thought Waxman. A game?
"My dad got it for Rendi, that’s my older sister. She gave it to me." Meko’s voice wobbled, and he could be seen to blush. "Me and my friend Seimon, we set up your universe, he’s my best friend, we’re in middle school. . . . Um. What else do you want to know?"
Middle-school boys, thought Waxman. Oh lord. "Anything," he said.
"That’s probably about it. Oh, yeah. There’s a new version out now, U-Twelve, it goes to 12 dimensions. Yours only goes to 11. Um . . . ." And Meko, now very red, trailed off and dissolved.
Over the millenia humankind had been taken down several pegs. The sun did not orbit the Earth. Divine creation was a myth. The Earth itself was nothing special, astronomically speaking. But this humiliation—this insult—was too much. Being part of a grand experiment was one thing. But merely a toy come to life? No. It was a knowledge to be repulsed with tremendous vigor.
*          *         *
As the bringer of unwelcome tidings, Waxman bore the world’s wrath. Believer and atheist, sophisticate and naif, sage and fool— all vilified him. Meko’s appearance became a taboo subject as people tried to forget what they had seen and heard, what they knew and could not wholly unlearn. In the way humans do, they found detours around the truth, blamed their scapegoat, and waited for the quotidiana of life to close around the wound. And once the world had vented its collective spleen, Waxman found himself elbowed off the precipice of obscurity. There was no Nobel Prize. No one thanked him for baring the truth.
One day a voice spoke to him. It had deepened, but he knew it instantly. "Hello, Professor," it said. "It’s me. Meko."
"What do you want?" said Waxman. "Can’t you see you’ve ruined me?"
Meko said, "But you’re the only world ever to contact me."
"Fat lot of good it did," said Waxman. "Why don’t you just turn the damn thing off?"
"You don’t really want that."
"Why not?" protested Waxman. "Nothing’s real."
"That doesn’t seem to bother anyone else in your world," said Meko, then added, "Besides, unreality’s not so bad. I could make someplace new for you."
Waxman, momentarily tempted, visualized a lush garden of contemplation and solitude, with no age and no nostalgia for the old world. "Hmm," he said.
 
*          *          *
Meko returned to Waxman often. Despite himself, Waxman came to like him, and, eventually, made his peace with the nature of things. "So it goes," he told himself.
One day Meko was distraught. Fumbling for words, he finally said, "We have something in common, you and I— an announcement. You know. . . ." Meko’s eyes reddened, and Waxman understood. Nothing was real in Meko’s world either. It was all just another simulation.
"For what it’s worth," Waxman said, "I’ve learned it doesn’t have to mean anything."
"What doesn’t?"
"Nothing. Nothing has to mean anything. Anything. Anything has to mean nothing."
"But who's in charge?" demanded Meko, his voice breaking. "Where’s the beginning?"
No answer was expected, but Waxman tried.  "That’s unknowable, unless whoever it is shows us. But one thing I think fairly certain: it’s not another middle-school kid playing a hand-me-down game."
They looked at each other, knowing Waxman’s speculation had no particular probability of being true.
And then, they smiled. "I sort of hope it is," said Meko.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

I is for ... Information

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

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.