The Failure of Serendipity

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Harrold stared intently at the velociraptor.  The glistening eyes of the dinosaur returned his gaze without blinking.  Sweat trickled down Harrold’s forehead to be absorbed by his eyebrows.  This prevented the liquid from getting into his eyes and forcing him to blink and lose sight of the predator.  Evolution is handy that way, thought Harrold.
“Intriguing,” spoke an authoritative voice.
Harrold broke eye contact and tracked downwards.  A large man sat confidently behind a wooden desk.  It was well known that the Director had built the desk himself.  Some of the company’s more botanically minded employees had been unable to identify the exact variant of tree involved, although one paleobotanist insisted it matched a species that had been extinct for millions of years.
This was of course nonsense.  The research and development team was full of eccentric individuals who routinely poked at the boundaries of science, but the idea of the Director possessing a time machine he used for his woodworking hobby was absurd.  Although it would explain the dinosaur.
“Did anything strike you as odd when they asked you to find their missing equipment?”
“No,” said Harrold.  “People ask me to find stuff every day.  That is my job.  It was interesting that the missing item was a quantum anti-gravity generator.  If they could get it to work, maybe we could finally get those flying cars we’ve all been waiting for.”
The Director stared intently at Harrold, like he was a student who had missed an important point when answering a question.  Harrold shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he considered the implications of what he had meant as a light hearted aside.
“Of course,” said Harrold with a flash of inspiration, “as they explained it to me, the quantum nature of the device meant that they couldn’t predict how much anti-gravity they would generate.  One time it might be just right to levitate your car, but the next time the car might not get off the ground.  They thought maybe it would even create negative anti-gravity…or anti-anti-gravity.  Um, I guess that would just be gravity.  Anyway, it would sometimes make things heavier.
“But, anyway, it didn’t work.
“They called me in after the first test failed.  When they took the machine apart to debug the problem, the anti-gravity core was missing.  It was a marble-sized chunk of some exotic metamaterial.  They’d installed it, but after the test it was missing from inside the machine.”
“You did find it.”
“Eventually.  They actually ended up losing three cores.”
“You were there for the second test?” prompted the Director.
“That’s right.  They said they were going to use a higher voltage, because they thought it might increase the magnitude of the anti-gravity effect.  It was still going to be a random amount, they told me, but statistically it would be larger.
“It seemed premature to increase the power, but I’m not a physicist, so I kept my mouth shut.  Anyway, they spent five minutes charging up the capacitor banks.  Then they flipped the switch and nothing happened.”
“Nothing?”
“Nothing.”
The Director stared at Harrold.  Desperately, Harrold rooted around in his memories.
“It got quieter, actually.”
“Go on.”
“Well, all those capacitors were humming like crazy.  You didn’t have to be an electrical engineer to understand that there was a huge amount of power being stored.  But when they flipped the switch the hum just stopped.  I mean, you would have thought there would have been a huge crack or something.”
“The power obviously went somewhere.”
“That seems obvious now.  It was really a huge amount of power.  It had to go somewhere, and it didn’t short out.  When there was an explosion during their third attempt, I thought they had overcharged the capacitors.”
“Instead…”
“Instead the capacitors were completely intact.  There was no obvious source for the explosion.  No scorch marks.  I eventually figured out it was a compressed gas explosion.
“Afterwards I found the pieces of the core from the second try.  They had somehow gotten into my pocket when I watched the experiment.  I didn’t know what they were at first, but the computer was able to reconstruct their original shape: a golf-ball sized sphere with the anti-gravity core at the center.
“That’s when I had my hunch.  I went back to the lab and shook all the compressed gas cylinders they had in there for cooling the capacitors.  One of them rattled.  I had some people depressurize it and bring me the scraps inside.  Again, the computer was able to reassemble the pieces into a sphere.  This one was about the size of a baseball with a metamaterial core.
“After that, I went back to the lab with a deep radar unit.  I found a tiny marble-sized core six feet below the foundation.”
Harrold had left his conclusion out of the report.  He sat back in his chair and gave the Director his best attempt at an inquisitive stare.
The Director sighed.  “They accidentally built a teleporter.”
Harrold deflated.  “Quantum teleporter.  The more energy they put in, the larger the teleported volume.”
The Director pondered for a few tenths of seconds.  “It’s probably the most dangerous thing mankind has ever built.”
“Uh…it is?”
“Just think, Harrold.  If you built a strong enough power supply, the entire thing would be self-contained.  The teleporter would not break itself when activated.  It would carry itself and the power supply somewhere else, randomly swapping its volume with some other volume.”
“But you couldn’t predict where it would go.  It would be useless.  If you turned it on, it might take a chunk out of a building.”
“Or a dam.  Or power plant.  Or crowd of pedestrians.  Anything.  When the device recharged, it would do it over and over again.  It would be devastating.”
Harrold was lost in horrified silence as his imagination worked through all the implications.
The Director sighed resignedly. 
“If nothing else,” he said, “we’d better get the patent lawyers in here.”

About the Author: 
Scott Janus is an engineer who has authored entertaining fiction and informative non-fiction books. If you've enjoyed his story, you can learn more about his other works at www.scottjanus.com.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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’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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.