Why Don't You Just

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How has it come to this? Tom asks himself. It's not the first time, and he hopes it won’t be the last. How has he ascended so quickly from amateurish free-running Glass clips to this: perched on the frame of an open window four miles up the tallest building in Greater Singapore, surrounded by hovering fly-eyes and potentiation engines, entrusting his life to millions of viewers who might on a whim let him fall instead of fly?

At one level, the answer is obvious. Fame, sex and money – probably in that order, if he’s honest with himself. Quanting has made him a household name. It’s ensured that he’s never cold in bed. And it’s made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams – or, if he were to be honest for an uncharacteristic second time, beyond some of his wildest dreams. Because he’d never have got here in the first place if it wasn’t for his unbridled ambition.

A potentiation engine drifts up towards his face. Tom can't shake the feeling it’s looking at him, even though it has no eyes. No senses of any sort, in fact. Its only function, when the moment comes, will be to translate the audience's mass sentiment about his fate into a wave function collapse. The entangled control circuit in the hover-pack on his back will cut in or out accordingly.

Fly or fall.

There are cameras, of course, stationed much too far away for him to make out with his unaided vision. The unseen observers who will decide his fate. He gives them a cocky grin, hoping they’re picking up his good side. Then he lets the mask crack a bit, shows a bit of nervousness. The punters can tell more directly how he's feeling if they want, of course; fans can tap into the wetlink from his brain whenever they like. But theatrics are still important. The physics is predictable; the audience is not. He needs the casuals and channel surfers to vote him up, as well as his base.

The nervousness is right there below the surface, to his surprise: he generally trades off unassailable confidence. Maybe he’s scared of heights in a way that he hadn’t been of sharks. Or getting shot. Or being buried alive.

Or maybe he’s becoming scared of the audience.

His base will look after him. Won't they? The tabloids have been dishing it more than usual recently. Enough to turn his fans against him? He doesn't think so. But for the hundredth time in his career, he strains pointlessly to assess the flux of all those viewers’ attentions, refined and focused on him, deciding his fate. Their quantum mechanical warp and weft.

Fly? Or fall?

Or fail. As ever, there’s nothing to stop him just walking away. But no-one does that when they’re at the top. It's rumoured that some of the first wave of quanters switched in clones late in their careers, and Tom has seen enough to think there’s some truth to that. But you can’t chance that kind of fakery when you've got the rep Tom has. Just need to keep your spirits up. Make sure your assurance doesn’t crack, but you don’t get over-confident either. It’s a fine balance.

A tricky balance to maintain, when the network, the viewers and the agents are all crying out for you to outdo yourself. Last sweeps season, Tom had gone for a near straight Schrödinger: the box, the poison, the decaying atom. He’d drawn critical flak for playing it safe, but at least he’d lived to play another day. Unlike some of his rivals, who'd failed in their daring bids to snatch ratings. Failed to get mindshare, failed to raise potential.

Or to put it another way, who'd burned when an indolent audience failed to snuff out a human torch.

Beheaded when too many inattentive viewers skipped sides, rather than jamming the guillotine.

Drowned when they decided they couldn't wait for the unpicking of the lock.

Tom shakes his head. Best not to think about it. Best to just put it out of his mind. Assume the crowd's on your side, that they don’t want to see you fail. Everyone loves a winner, and Tom has been winning for a long time.

Too long?

Well, he’ll find out soon enough.

The wind is strengthening, and he shudders briefly. It’s not really cold - he’s wearing thermals and there's warm air blowing out of the deserted building - a whole skyscraper emptied just for him - but he feels chilled anyway.

Perhaps it really is time to give up, he thinks. Perhaps this really should be the last time.

But then he always thinks that, and yet here he is again.

It’s time to unclip his harness. He takes a deep breath, looks ahead, to the horizon. He knows there will be a camera directly ahead, somewhere at the vanishing point, but doesn’t try to pin-point it. It’ll find him.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he says. “In just a moment, I’m going to unclip the harness holding me to this building. When I do, I will either float gently to Earth – or plummet like a stone.”

As usual, he tries to sound disinterested, while subtly placing greater stress on the former possibility. Audiences don’t like being told what to think. But it's his final opportunity to influence the outcome.

“It’s up to you,” he says. He waits, imagining the tension rising in the unseen audience, waiting for it to peak.

“My life is in your hands. In your minds.”

Time to make his exit.

“Fly?” he says. "Or fall?"

And jumps.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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 ... Randomness

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

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”.

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 ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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 ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.