The Wager

2
Average: 2 (2 votes)
Your rating: None

“Is the bomb ready?” asked Roger.  “Yeah, and the timer is set … right … now” replied Steve.  “Let’s get out of here.” They peeked out the door of the shed Steve had discovered and selected for their experiment.  Nobody was looking.  No rush; they had 24 hours.  Or maybe minutes.   That was part of the experiment.
Not just any bomb, I might add.  A 200 megaton hydrogen bomb in the middle of Central Park.  With a very ingenious timer.  “Now you’ll see”, asserted Steve.  “We know there’s a future, but what will it look like?”
“It has to follow the laws!” insisted Roger, a philosophy major, as their plane reached altitude and he had collected his thoughts.  “It’s been known since the Enlightenment.  Every event is the result of prior events.  Nobody can change what happens in the future, because that depends on what happened in the past.  Or do you claim you can change the past?”
“Don’t have to”, was the retort.  “The future is not determined, as I’ve been saying all along.”  “But if I drop a stone, it will hit the ground.  Isn’t that determined?” pleaded Roger.
“It’s an illusion.  Nobody can predict with certainty whether New York City will exist in 24 hours.  Never mind your stone.  I could rig that up too so it just might not hit the ground, if I really wanted to,” chuckled Steve, a physics major with a streak of the renegade in him.  “It’s well known that atomic decay is totally random.  A particle may decay in a minute or in a day.  There’s no way to predict when.  Even Nature doesn’t know.  That was proved by the Bell inequality.  Totally random.  Knowledge of the event does not exist, past, present, or future.  It’s only a matter of probability.  You don’t realize how fundamental the Uncertainty Principle is.”
“I don’t care about your particles.  They don’t have any effect on real things, things you can pick up and drop on your foot.”  Roger’s face darkened and he seemed uncomfortable.  “How can that uncertainty, if it’s real, have any effect on you and me?”
“The trick is to couple it to the rest of reality.  That timer I set.  Took me a while to get the parts together – but this is important so I kept going.  There’s a tiny amount of a radioactive material in it, with Geiger tubes all around.  I calculated the probability so many times I almost went mad.  An atom might decay and it might not.  But the probability of a decay in the next 24 hours is close to 50%.  If it decays, New York City ceases to exist.  And you own me $1000.  If it doesn’t decay, the timer shuts off and we remove the bomb and I owe you instead.  That’s fair.  We agreed it’s fair.”
Roger was beginning to wonder if anything was fair anymore.  To regret he had made the bet.  Why did he have to be friends with a maniac who was so cerebral he thought a point of philosophical speculation was important enough to kill people for?  People kill people for theological reasons, of course, and they think themselves virtuous.  But scientists have long countered that bloody history with the coolness of reason and have claimed that nobody was ever killed for the sake of a physical law.  Now Steve was about to break that taboo.
“I think your weird law is a kind of religion to you!”  Roger blurted out, jerking his face away from the plane window.  A fantasy was gliding by; clouds in layers, some higher, some lower, lit by the afternoon sun or shadowed by others, delicate pastel shades creeping towards bluish or grey with hints of still more color where one did not expect it.  All in slow motion, fog banks, towers, delicate wisps with central openings that made him blush.  He couldn’t help anticipating as more clouds and colors floated by minute by minute as he watched open mouthed.  “I’ve never seen clouds like those!”
“Wait ‘till you see the one over Central Park!”  Laughed Steve, part chuckle and part snort.  “That will prove the point, once and for all.  The future is not predetermined.”
“It is! … I hope to God it is” lamented Roger with a whine he had not used since he was a toddler.  Then he sat up abruptly.  “It can’t happen!  God won’t let it!”
“Nice try, but that was discredited by the Enlightenment too.  It may, or it may not, happen,” sneered Steve with an air of superiority. “If the future were completely determined, then why execute the guy?”
That interjection brought Roger back to the event that had prompted the bet in the first place.  An execution had been reported in Texas.  Roger approved; Steve was aghast.  The two had found the issues of predetermination and free will delightful targets for debate and sometimes rancor many times during their long friendship – but never found common ground.  The execution focused them once again: it had to be debated.  It was too important not to.
So far, Roger had been losing those debates.  “If the future is determined, as you say, then the guy could not have done anything different,” Steve had asserted.  “And then it’s not his fault, and they shouldn’t execute him.”  Roger had never found a convincing repost.  “Yes, I approve of killing murderers.  Society depends on enforcing fair rules.  But Steve!  You’re about to kill maybe 15 million.  What’s the point?  Kill one bad guy, all right; there’s a reason and we’re better off.  But this is criminal!”  He desperately wanted out.  He looked out the window again.  Clear skies.  “Which way is New York?” he asked, looking at Steve, his eyes growing wider.  Steve judged the direction of the sun and replied, “I think it’s pretty close to behind us.  But don’t worry.  If it goes off, you’ll know it.  They’ll see the glow as far away as Connecticut.”

About the Author: 
Majored in physics at MIT. Doing optical engineering for 50 years.

Newsletter Signup

Submit your email address so we can send you occasional competition updates and tell you who wins!

Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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”.

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.

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 ... 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.

I is for ... Information

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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 ... 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 ... Computing

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

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.