A Bad Day

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James Smoke trod through the sludge-plastered street. He dragged his feet through Ferguson Avenue as everyone but him took refuge under an umbrella. As the raindrops plummeted down like shells out of a machine-gun, James hurriedly climbed into his car, still soaking wet from the stormy ordeal. “At least I’ll be home in time for a hot bath,” he thought to himself, shivering not just from the cold, but from the heavenly thought of sitting in a toasty, warm hot-tub. “Start! Start!” The key forcibly turned a few more times but to no avail, and the engine was giving off an otherworldly hum. James slammed his head into the steering wheel, repelled by the thought of stepping out again into the path of a million watery arrows. Could this day get any worse?
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” Lieutenant Jhames Richard Smoke awoke to the sound of a private yelling and plasma projectiles hammering against their last barricade. An abrupt hit in the face by a stray steering wheel in the air had given him a concussion. Ever since the alien scum stormed South America and enslaved its people, the Lieutenant and a handful of others had sworn to stop at nothing short of blowing the outsiders to oblivion. “How many we got left?” “Less than twenty! They’ve got Mike imprisoned on the mothership!” The Lieutenant’s scar covered face furrowed into a grimace. The cock of a rifle, followed by a thousand lead rounds jolting through the air with sparks of fire sizzling. Even the wretched alien didn’t see it coming. Its shimmering blue armor gave way, and splotches of neon-green blood fell on the street. The wrinkly behemoth crumbled down with a mighty boom. “Today we make our last stand! Let the generations remember, let your grandkids be proud, of the last stand at Ferguson Highway!” Lead rounds and glowing plasmoids blew through brick and steel. With a shout what was left of the resistance rushed head-first, guns blazing into the aliens’ stronghold. The first wave groaned and fell, but every single one of the men knew they would not make it past this day. A smile formed across Lieutenant Jhames’ face as the first of a volley of plasmoids splattered onto his chest, slowly eating it away. This was the way to go.
James finally got the car to go. His jacket and tie were now so wet he wondered if he still needed to wash them. He glanced at his watch. Shoot! Not only was he going to miss the game, his wife was also going to nag at him again. He looked ahead, and didn’t like what he saw. He hit the steering wheel once more and cursed at the winding traffic jam that had made its way to him. Cars flashed their lights and honks filled the air. Not a car could move an inch. As James slunk back into his chair wondering how the day turned out so badly, a jerk much more violent than usual threw his head forward. The “thump” from behind did not help ease James’ dreadful thoughts either. No! This car was only a year old! Way too early for an accident! “Look, man, it’s kinda your fault for not moving.” The man from the car behind him got out and said. A thousand words came to James’ mind to which he showed much restraint by not spewing out. But deep inside he hollered out loud, “How could this possibly get any worse?!”
Young Jamie Smoke crouched as low as he could to avoid detection. His mother clutched his little sister as they huddled close underneath the vents. The Enforcers tried to detect every sound, down to the very heartbeat, as a thousand computer programs ran through their steel-plated skulls. The V-shaped slit that was their eyes glowed bright-red to trace the slightest disturbance. The genius of Romio Ferguson made these sleek, powerful man-hunters possible. Unfortunately, this genius also made him nothing less than an absolute monarch, who had crazed ideas of him being a god, and his citizens mere specks of dust that did not deserve anything. As the Enforcers whizzed away, having detected nothing, the trio heaved a sigh of relief. It didn’t change anything though. They were still dressed in rags salvaged from the dump, their home was still nothing more than a shambled zinc slum, and their food supply was still running out. Jamie read from the stories of the past that in the future, poverty and suffering would cease to be, and Man would make it past the moon. Ferguson did manage to imprison the nation’s “traitors”, anyone who questioned his way of ruling, to a facility on Mars, but Jamie, though still a teenager knew that conditions were definitely worse than 20 years ago. Silently, he got back to digging for every precious morsel of food and hoping to live another day.
James finally reached his apartment building. He had just spent an hour in the jam and another driving home and now the game was over and his wife was twice as angry. The rain had stopped though. That made one good thing. “Hey you! Your money or your life!” James was shocked at the sight of a disheveled scraggly man staring wide-eyed at him and the knife that was at his throat. “Your money or your life!” he mumbled again, moving the blade closer. “Take it! Just go!” The man took off with the wallet faster than James could recover from the fright. And now he was two-hundred dollars poorer and had three credit cards in danger of being squandered. Curses! The hobo had his keys as well. James threw his suitcase on the ground and shouted out loud the curses he had on his mind since his car broke down. “In what universe! In what realm! Could this possibly be any worse?!”

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Universe

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

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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 ... 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.

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!

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.