Salt of the Earth

Average: 3 (11 votes)
Your rating: None

The Salt of the Earth
Madona Skaff
            Dorian trudged into the lab, head bowed, and stood before the test chamber. The mid year review should have been a simple demonstration. Creating a quantum tunnel for the sodium chloride should have been effortless. He entered the chamber and examined the sender and receiver vessels. After several subsequent attempts his only success was smoldering ash.
            Preliminary tests had been successful. It had to be a calibration error. He had double checked everything, but with the stress of the demontration...
            His cell phone beeped and he reluctantly answered. 
            “I thought I’d drop by the lab today,” his wife said.
            “Now is not a good time.” When he’d married her three years ago, he was already in his sixties, with an exemplary reputation.  She was a beautiful, twenty-six year old just finishing up her PhD in quantum field theory. Despite the age difference, they’d been so compatible, the world of qubits and everything quantum had strengthened their lives together. She never complained about his single-mindedness, because she too worked long hours.
            Now, he simply wanted to wallow in self-pity. He’d earned the right after decades of foresaking the macro world around him for the quantum universe within his intruments.
            “It’ll only be for a minute, before the review tomorrow,” she said.
            “It was this morning.” His voice was flat, but inside he felt like he was screaming.
            “Oh, no. Dorian, I need to tell you...”
            He dropped the phone on the floor and left the chamber.  He just couldn’t listen anymore. Returning to the computer console, he called up the calculations. It had to be a math mistake. Labs around the world had been successfully sending particle information across hundreds of kilometers after that Canary Island experiment. And for years the particles had been getting larger and more complex. He’d built on past experiments with tranfers between gas clouds and formulated a theory to teleport information between liquids.  It was no accident that he’d chosen sea water with the same salt concentration as the human body.
            “Dorian,” his wife called from the door, “we were cut off.”
            Distantly her voice registered somewhere on his subconscious.
            “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize the test was this morning... Oh, you dropped your phone.” She entered the chamber.
            He made a few mental calculations, then inputted the results into the equations.
            She picked up the cell. “Dorian, “I need to tell you...”
            With a smile, he found and corrected the error.  He activated the system. The door slid down.  The lock clicked.
            He hit, Activate. He couldn’t identify that strange sound. A thumping sound mixed with a high pitched tone. The system should be silent. Could the calibration be off as well, he wondered as he glanced over his shoulder? His mind couldn’t make sense of what he saw.
            Alice inside the chamber. Pounding on the door. Her muffled screams piercing through the shielding. He hit cancel. Too late.
            She faded away.
            What? He’d killed his wife? 
            He collapsed against the counter, sobbing in silent agony.  He’d killed the only person that understood him yet loved him despite it. How could he bear the loss? All that time he’d wasted away from her, sequestered in his lab. Yes, wasted. He now realized that he loved her. More than his work. He hadn’t realized till now. And now it was too late. 
            He staggered to the chamber, and slapped the door with both hands in anger and frustration. That’s when he saw the phone on the floor. It should have been vapourised as well. Also, where was all the residual ash that his failed experiments had always produced. The floor was spotless.
            The crucible that contained the salt water was empty. Not even ash.          
            With his theories, there was no need for a receiving station. She might have left the chamber alive, but had probably arrived – not.
            He continued to work, sure he’d be able to track down where the signal had gone. He jumped at the hand on his shoulder and spun to stare into a vaguely familiar face.
            “Dorian?”  The man said.
            “Yes?” Now he remembered. This was the young man Alice had introduced him to. Bob something, from the university. She kept insisting that they collaborate. That each was approaching the same theory from different directions. Dorian had politely listened to Alice but in the end knew that no young Post Doc could truly understand the intricacies of his work.
            “I was supposed to meet Alice here.”
            “She’s...” Tears choked the rest of his words.
            “Well, she was supposed to be here for moral support,” Bob said, looking at the floor. “It was all my fault, don’t be mad at her. I had to test my theory, and since you were set up for the demo tomorrow, I made a few adjustments...”
            “You made system changes?” Dorian was livid. “The review was this morning. And...” he broke off thinking.
            “I’m sorry, I just wanted to show you my theory. I would have put everything back.”
            “Show me,” Dorian snapped.
            Studying the formulae, Dorian realized that Alice had been right about them collaborating. Not realizing the program had been changed, his “fix” had done little except change the destination.
            But why was the phone still here? He opened the chamber to get it.
            “Because it doesn’t contain salt solution.” He smiled at Bob, who stared dumbfounded.
            Whenever Alice visited, she put her things in the locker. He ran down the hall. As they rounded the corner, he heard shouts and banging coming from one of the lockers. Inside, Dorian found Alice, alive and soaked with sea water.
            “You were right,” he said, “Bob and I should collaborate.” 

Newsletter Signup

Submit your email address so we can send you occasional competition updates and tell you who wins!

Quantum Theories

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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”.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.