The Consequence of Unlikely Things

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Martín and I were inseparable as kids. We acted like we’d make it big and leave the barrio. He always said he’d become famous, that they’d make a statue of him one day. Then he picked up and left. 
It hit me bad, to lose somebody who was like a brother, but I realized I had to change my act if I was to get anywhere. So I made an effort, got new friends, discovered an aptitude for mathematics, and came out with a PhD. I took a job far away from home, and seldom through of Martín.
Now he’s at my door, looking as surprised to see me as I am to see him.
 

 
After the shock wears off, we talk. I sense he’s reviewing the actions that brought him here and wondering whether he should stay at all.
“So you work with nuclear reactors now?” he says after learning I’m a physicist.
“Not exactly. Quantum physics. Quantum tunnelling, to be precise.” 
I explain the basics: at small scales everything exists as fuzzy clouds of probability, giving matter leeway to occasionally act in ways contrary to classical physics. I use the examples of atoms possessing a small possibility to ‘tunnel’ through solid barriers, or of marbles rolling uphill.
“Nothing esoteric. Radiation and electronics utilize such principles.”
He’s deep in thought for a moment.
“So…you work on figuring out how likely things are?”
“Something like that.”
 I sense something giving way, of barriers being broken.
 “I need your help.”
Here it comes, I think to myself. Get your chequebook.
Instead, he pulls off his oversized hoodie.
 

 
The best way I can describe them is as bluish-grey splotches, warm to the touch, covering his entire body. And his body hair? Stiff, like steel bristles. I snip some off and analyse them under a microscope.
Around the base, I recognize the regular crystalline structure of iron. Higher up, where metal meets follicle, the keratin is giving way, becoming iron.
I lean back baffled.
Martín’s transmuting before my eyes.
“What the hell’s happened to you?”
 

 
It’s the typical story of a hustler’s life: years of violence, poverty, and aimless schemes.
Then, just recently, unlikely acts begin happening. Small things, at first: nights of driving through unbroken green lights, or cartons of double-yolk eggs. “Not exactly luck. Just the unbelievable,” as he puts it. Matters escalate, including the appearance of the rash. For whatever reason – he refuses to elucidate – he decides to head back east.
At some point, passing through a random city, his car battery dies and he goes looking for a boost.
 

 
“And…?”
“And here I am.”
It’s a bit hard to take in. My city? The probabilities of ending up outside my door, even with the correct neighbourhood, are slim.
“Martín, these things don’t happen….” my voice trails off. A lot that shouldn’t happen has happened today.
I could check the car, but I know he’s telling the truth.
I’ve had enough surprises for one night. “Okay. Let’s figure this out.”
All I need is a deck of cards and a calculator.
 

 
I have him pick four cards from a randomly shuffled deck, keeping track of the combinations. My logic goes something like this: Go to a parking lot. Note the cars. What were the chances of that exact sequence? Extremely low – yet they happened. By itself, it proves nothing: the singular occurrence of the unlikely can’t prove a thing. But patterns themselves, by their very nature, cannot be random. So picking four identical cards from a deck is possible but improbable: the odds are one in two hundred and fifty thousand. Getting them again and again? Mathematically impossible, assuming randomness. But that’s just what he’s doing. The man’s become a magnet for the astronomically improbable.
 
I’m a scientist and must assume the rational explanation. The man’s turning into a bar of iron, for Christ’s sake, so how does this relate to double yolks and a terrific edge at poker?
That’s when a most unlikely idea pops into my head.
 

The iron star theory goes like this:
Picture the periodic table as a tilted seesaw wishing to be balanced. Heavy elements, large and unstable, break apart by radioactive decay into slightly lighter constituents, themselves unstable. Lighter elements find greater stability by fusion, working their way up. Both fission and fusion, carried out by the probabilistic nature of quantum tunnelling which says that, given enough samples and/or will inevitably progress until both ends converge in the middle, the most stable end-point: the twenty-sixth element. Iron.
 
The proposed timescale needed for this ferrification of the cosmos is orders of magnitude larger than the current age of the universe. Stated another way, the chances of such a thing occurring now is very, very low.
But who better to beat the odds than Martín?
 
● 
 
Martín is quantum tunnelling. That's a form of how, but I can't answer the why. Maybe he was just the unlikeliest man, that one astronomical outlier.
I do what I can and advise him to drive towards parts uninhabited. He’s burning up now, a result of the radioactive alchemy coursing through him, hardening his veins and stiffened his joints. To stay here would be to irradiate everyone.
For somebody close to the end, he’s assuredly calm.
“Why do the things that happen to us happen to us at all?” Those are his last words, and with that he drives off.
 
●  
Every day, I scan the local papers, knowing that eventually somebody will find him. Maybe he’ll still be in his car, or huddled knees-to-chest in some forest like those Incan mummies. Perhaps then I’ll break my silence and come forward, though I doubt anyone will believe my story.
 
I think about Martín a lot more now. He always said he’d be famous, that they’d make a statue of him. But to become a statue? I won’t bother trying to calculate the odds of that one.
 

About the Author: 
Hailing from Montreal, Milos has always held a deep respect and awe for the universe, and for science in general. He's a journalist and writer and does one mean Velociraptor impression.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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!

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 ... Randomness

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... 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 ... Universe

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

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.

A is for ... Alice and Bob

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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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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!

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.

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”.

I is for ... Information

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

O is for ... Objective reality

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H is for ... Hawking Radiation

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L is for ... Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

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I is for ... Interferometer

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J is for ... Josephson Junction

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H is for ... Hidden Variables

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X is for ... X-ray

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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.

V is for ... Virtual particles

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D is for ... Decoherence

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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 ... Radioactivity

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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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.

Q is for ... Quantum biology

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