Overcurious George

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George was always a bit of an inventor.  He loved to tinker with gadgets both mechanical and electrical.  As a kid growing up in northern Michigan, his father took him hunting, but George was more interested in the hardware design and the firing mechanisms than in the hunting.  He became an avid amateur radio enthusiast, boosting his transceiver power and sensitivity with his own designs.  After he married Judy, a fellow engineering student at Cornell, he preferred spending time as a ham operator to spending time with Judy, but they raised two children and Judy tolerated his eccentricities begrudgingly.  George had also long nurtured a keen side interest in the mysteries of fundamental physics: whether the Standard Model was the last word; whether the Universe was 11-dimensional; the first moments of the Big Bang; the meaning of quantum mechanics.  His job at Scygem, a weapons manufacturer in Maryland, gave him an opportunity to apply his inventive skills but also to satisfy his curiosity in physics by attending public lectures at the nearby University of Maryland.  He was awarded a patent at Scygem for an innovative electronic trigger mechanism for automatic weapons, but it was never put into practical use for concerns of its intrinsic safety and reliability. 
 
Now, in his 70s, George was retired and could devote more of his time to his passions.  By chance, he attended a lecture on coincidences in nature: the amazing way the Universe seems to be fine-tuned for life, the values of the constants of physics, the improbable origin of life on Earth.  George was enthralled.  Judy didn't quite get the point.  She was pleased to see his excitement, but it all sounded a bit crackpot to her and she paid little attention to all he told her.  Something about the triple alpha process and the Cosmological Constant.  But George's inquisitive mind was churning away.  "If the Universe was fine-tuned for life on Earth, maybe it was fine-tuned for me," thought George, "because, after all, it's my consciousness that defines the outcome of every observable event!"  George was familiar with Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an idea not particularly popular among physicists.  But George reasoned that the many-worlds hypothesis provided a neat explanation for the fine-tuning coincidences in nature.  "It's perfect!" he told Judy; "it's the most self-consistent interpretation of quantum mechanics!"  Judy started blankly into her eccentric husband's animated eyes.  She belonged to the school who felt, as Richard Feynman had once said, "Nobody understands quantum mechanics!"  Although she had a bachelor's degree in chemistry, Judy hadn't even tried.
 
George decided to consult with Joseph Fedorov, a physicist friend, also retired from Scygem, who knew a lot more about physics than George.  Joseph was dismissive.  "The many-worlds idea is unpopular because it's totally non-testable, " said Joseph.  And it has other problems with observables.  It offers nothing that the more conventional interpretations have.  You won't find much serious discussion of it in the literature!"
 
But George wasn't convinced.  It seemed to him too elegant not to be true.  It had a nice symmetry.  His own consciousness defined his own track through the multi-branching universe; he was sure of it.  Maybe John Wheeler's idea about consciousness shaping the universe was another version of the same thought.  "Not testable?" thought George.  "If my own consciousness is controlling my time-line, then there has to be a way to test the hypothesis!  If I were to die," thought George," then my consciousness would cease.  But in some other branch, my death might not occur and so that would be the only branch that I'd be aware of!"  A wild idea began to gel in George's mind.  Life on the planet Earth had survived amazing catastrophes - but why not?  All the branches leading to the extinction of life are not observed, of course, because only the successful branches survive in our conscious memory.  "My own survival is simply a product of chance, in a Universe where a gazillion branchings occur every picosecond!" reasoned George.  "I'm 75; my kids are grown and gone; I could take a chance and create an undeniable experimental test!  But I can't tell Judy; she would think I'm crazy and send me to a shrink."
 
And so George embarked on a bizarre experimental quest.  Recalling his patent on digital electronic weapon triggering, George retreated to his basement work room.  He wired a device to his still-working but partially disassembled hunting rifle and programmed his laptop to feed a random number generator to the logic circuit controlling the rifle firing.  If even, the gun would fire; if odd, no fire.  George reasoned that surviving 10 million to one odds would convince anyone of the correctness of many-worlds.  That meant 24 throws of the binary dice.
 
He recorded his notes and his plans carefully; tested his equipment thoroughly.  When he felt the moment for his grand experiment was right, he positioned himself, laptop in lap, in a chair with the rifle barrel next to his head, and pressed Enter.  Cycle 1 and 2 came and went.  George was undeniably nervous.  What if his whole scheme had some awful flaw?  Cycle 9 and 10 came and went.  George was beginning to feel confident, but his heart was still racing and his shirt was wet from perspiration.  Cycle 23 and 24 passed without a firing.  George was jubilant.  Many-worlds was indeed proven!  He had already prepared his manuscript for the journal Foundations of Physics.
 
However, George's triumph in fundamental physics did not quite yield the respect he expected.  The journal quickly rejected his paper as the work of a daredevil and possibly dangerous crank.  His friend Joseph heard the incredible story from a hysterical Judy and shied from talking to George.  Judy was horrified, angered, grief-stricken that George would attempt such a selfish, illogical, and dreadful experiment with his life and hers.
 
Meanwhile, in some 16,770,000 parallel universes, sad funerals memorialized the creative but tragic life of George and his misguided passion to prove the impossible.
 

About the Author: 
Alan Bunner received his B.A. in mathematics and physics from the University of Toronto in 1960 and his PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1967. Until he retired in 2001, Dr. Alan Bunner was a Science Program Director in Astrophysics, Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.

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R is for ... Randomness

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X is for ... X-ray

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I is for ... Interferometer

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H is for ... Hidden Variables

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L is for ... Light

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S is for ... Superposition

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Q is for ... Quantum biology

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