There Was a Sun

There Was a Sun

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“You wanted it to fail.”

“I did not.”

“Yes, you did. You wanted your own experiment to fail. Why?”

Juana looked at Phil moodily over her coffee and took a scalding sip. It was the cheap stuff from the supermarket and there hadn’t been much creamer left, but she needed the caffeine. Without it she would simply lie on her bed, and stare at the ceiling, and know she was empty. That all humanity was empty.

“I didn’t want it to fail,” she said, more out of a principle of stubbornness than because she thought Phil would believe her.

“Juana, look at you. You’re the front page of every newspaper in the world, you’ve solved air pollution and let a hundred million more kids go to school or to the doctor, every last equation you slaved over worked out exactly as you dreamed it- or didn’t you dream it? We’ve known each other, what, nine years? You think I can’t tell when you’re not happy?”

“It worked,” she said bleakly. “The three tanks of particles, and the measurements, and getting around uncertainty- a man stepped into our teleporter here and came out in Korea. Exactly as he was.”

“And that’s wonderful.”

She was silent.

“Okay,” he said, in his what’s-up-with-her-now tone. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing.”

“Juana-”

“No. That’s it. Nothing. Nothingness. That’s what’s wrong.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’re a neuroscientist. Your life has been spent working against what I’ve just disproved in one awful sweep.”

“Honey, please…”

He didn’t see it. None of them saw it. Juana stood with her cheap coffee and moved out onto the back porch even though it was freezing. She buried her face into the steam from the drink. The sky was a mass of blank white. She could not see the sun.

And suddenly in one violent motion she hurled the coffee mug as far as she could out into the yard. It shattered- one large piece and a lot of little chips- and she turned away.

“I don’t have a soul,” she said, to the faceless sky and the running coffee and all the swirling chemicals and electrons in her brain. “There is no such thing as a soul. No one ever living has ever had a soul, or seen a soul, or known what a soul is. The experiment worked and I don’t have a soul.”

The sky and the coffee did not answer. The chemicals did. But it didn’t matter. They could wreak what havoc they liked with her. None of it was real. Just all little evolutionary tips and tricks- reward Juana with happiness and she’ll work for what she wants. Let her love, and she’ll reproduce. Let her grieve, and she’ll protect. And if she wants to believe there’s some kind of meaning behind it all, some reason for her existence more than a collection of molecules starting to make more of itself an eternity ago in some ancient sea, well, that’s okay. She can’t help it. It’s the reactions in her brain.

“Honey.”

Phil came outside, with little Amy perched on a shoulder wearing flip-flops. She was walking a plastic dinosaur through her father’s graying curls, and at the sight of her Juana was filled with such dizzying love that she had to clutch at the railing. And none of it was real. Nothing she felt for Amy meant anything.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Phil. “It’s not you. My experiment means…”

Phil set Amy down; she attached herself to her mother’s leg.

“Tell me.”

“I’ve explained to you, of course, how teleportation works. You’re not sending one person to a different place. You’re using entanglement to copy all her particles- it’s complicated- and making a new version of her step out somewhere where different particles already were. The original copy is destroyed in the process. It’s like- like building a person where you want her.”

“I understand that. Well, the basics.”

“And- it worked. Yesterday. We sent a man through and it worked. We copied just his particles. And he could act, and think, and remember, and feel, exactly like the first version of himself.”

“So? That’s good, isn’t it?”

“It means that everything we are is particles,” said Juana slowly. “There’s nothing me out there, no purpose to my existence, no meaning of life except that this is the way it turned out… All I am, all any of us can say he is, is a hunk of gray-pink meat on a stomach and a couple of sticks.”

“Oh,” said Amy briefly, and went back to playing.

Phil laughed, and for a second she really was going to slap him. Then she remembered that her anger was nothing but particles, and his condescension was too. There was no point.

“That’s what’s been bothering you?”

She could still derive some chemical satisfaction from putting venom into the word Yes.

“Juana. I’m a neuroscientist. I have to think about that every single day. And guess what?”

She glared. His grin was the widest she’d ever seen.

“You can choose to deny it,” he said. “Just because there’s nothing intangible floating around inside you doesn’t mean there’s no you. No one else’s chemicals are like yours. No one else’s brain is like yours. You may be only a hunk of gray-pink meat, and I may be too, but mine loves yours and yours loves mine. These feelings exist. Does it matter how they’re created?”

“Phil-” she began, and stopped. His shadow stretched off towards the house. So there was a sun somewhere to cast it. She cocked her head. “…I broke a coffee mug.”

In one hand he held Amy’s. The other held Juana’s. His finger was over a collection of gold and carbon atoms that was exactly that, and more.

They went and found all the pieces.

About the Author: 
I am a quirky, opinionated high school student in California who enjoys reading, soccer, and confusing her class with presentations on uncertainty and the delayed-choice experiment. Writing and physics are my passions, so this contest was perfect for me.

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Quantum Theories

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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