In the Garden of Uncertainty, and What Alice Found There

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In amidst the forget-me-nots, undeciduous trees and fuchsias unknown, Alice found herself lost among the nevergreens, each casting its shadow of doubt on her path.

 

"Erwin! Erwin, where are you?"

 

"Who?" came the reply, startling Alice.

 

"Who's there?" she called.

 

"If you were to open your eyes you would see," came the reply. She could hear a gentle pitter-patter of something falling on wood.

 

"I'm afraid if I open them I shall observe Erwin and he might vanish to somewhere else, so I'm keeping my eyes closed to be sure."

 

"If it helps, I can assure you that it's only you, me and an overgrown garden. I cannot see anything that might be called Erwin... unless, of course, you have taken to calling flowers by that name, but Erwin does not sound like a good name for a flower, and they are so very particular about that kind of thing."

 

"What?" Alice said, now more confused than she had been before, just looking without looking.

 

"What?" came the emphatic echo, followed by a pitter-patter against wood.

 

"What?"

 

"What?"

 

"What?" she replied, sensing that one of them must break the symmetry soon or the word would lose its meaning, perhaps taking with it any chance of conversation. If one word were to lose its meaning, what would happen to the rest?

 

"I imagine you meant to say 'Pardon, I do not think I quite understood your meaning, could you please repeat what you were saying, thank you' rather than 'What?', which is not the kind of thing a well brought up young lady would say. But perhaps I assume too much."

 

"Oh!" But thinking better of it, and recovering quickly, Alice said, "I am so very sorry, but I did not understand what you were telling me. I was looking for Erwin. He is a cat. A Cheshire Cat. If you please."

 

"A Cheshire Cat? And what, pray tell, is one of those? Without knowing what one is, I cannot rightly tell whether it pleases me or not."

 

Alice decided that seeing might be better than not. Carrying out a conversation with a stranger was difficult enough, but with a stranger one could not see was both difficult and strange. And if observing Erwin might cause him to be somewhere else, perhaps observing where he was not might cause him to be there. She opened her eyes.

 

Alice had certainly seen caterpillars before, but the kind of caterpillar she knew would fit on a leaf and be more likely to eat them than smoke them, dried, through a large hookah. Caterpillars were not normally taller than girls her age or, indeed, girls of any age. She had never seen caterpillars play dice, let alone with any kind of skill, casting them idly and without a second glance upon a plank. A cloud of smoke and probability surrounded the caterpillar. And she was quite sure caterpillars did not talk.

 

But alas, much of what she had been certain about had, on closer inspection, become less so. Before she had opened her eyes she had had a very good idea of where she was going, but little clue as to where she was. Now she could see where she was — the nevergreens were quite consistent and forget-me-nots quite memorable — she was less sure of her heading and concerned she might become entangled in the imaginary roots.

 

"And now you can see," said the caterpillar, "are you able to answer the question? What manner of cat is Erwin that you seek him here and there?"

 

"He is a light cat with dark stripes. Or a dark cat with light stripes. I'm not sure which. He's neither here nor there, though sometimes both, and he often vanishes. Except for his smile. Except when that also goes. And he says he is not fond of boxes. I do not know him well, but I am worried for him. He said something about 'wave functions', which made little sense to me as I have seen him appear and disappear but never wave, and 'collapsing', which caused me the greatest of concern."

 

"Why, that is quite the most decoherent description of any kind of cat I have ever heard! Although I do agree about the boxes."

 

"He said many other things, but I'm afraid cannot remember them."

 

"Information should never be lost, although cats often are," said the caterpillar, somewhat gruntled. "All of which leads me to the disappointing conclusion that your quandary and quarry is both unusual and not. A lost cat in a garden..." Another puff on the hookah. "Have you tried a saucer of milk to draw him out?"

 

"He is no ordinary cat, so I am not sure a classical solution would work. But thank you."

 

"There are indeed many hidden variables at play. Perhaps one filled with secrets rather than milk?"

 

"I am not sure I know enough secrets to fill a saucer."

 

"In that case, young lady, I'm afraid you have exhausted both me and my suggestions. But I have one remaining suggestion: the rabbit. He's into this sort of thing. He's always rushing around, so you will find him eventually. Can't miss him. He's blue or red, depending on whether he's coming or going — white if you can keep up with him. Sometimes he can be found — and lost — tunnelling, jumping from one excited state to another. Keeps complaining that his pocket watch keeps stopping. It's all that rushing around, I suspect."

 

"Thank you," said Alice, curtsying. "How do I leave here to find him?"

 

"Why, the same way you came in."

 

Alice closed her eyes. "Oh yes, I know." And with that she was on her way.

 

About the Author: 
Kevlin Henney writes shorts and flashes and drabbles of fiction and books and articles on software development. His fiction has been published online and on-tree, including Physics World and New Scientist, and in anthologies, including The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013. Somewhere in his past is a physics degree.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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”.