The Escape Plan

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“Maybe what?”
“Maybe we can still escape.”
“How?” Trevor asked.  “How could we possibly escape from this?  We’ve already passed through the event horizon.  There’s no escape velocity that doesn’t, you know, break the laws of physics.”
The corners of Susan’s mouth quirked between frown and smile; a nervous tick she displayed right before she had to give somebody bad news.  “Actually, I’m pretty sure we’ve already disappeared into the singularity.”
Trevor started playing with the holographics, pulling up external readings and status reports.  “The ship definitely doesn’t seem to know where we are anymore, but I was under the impression that getting sucked into a black hole was basically fatal.  I mean, the ship’s internal gravitation systems can only withstand so much.”  He waved the holograms away so he could see Susan clearly.  “How are we still alive?”
Susan did the mouth thing again.  “I don’t think we are.”
“Ok-ay,” Trevor said slowly, drawing out the word.  “So what is this?  The afterlife?  And if so, why is the ship here?  Are they building them with souls now?”
“I think that the Susan Vance and Trevor Albright who are talking to each other right now are not the same Susan Vance and Trevor Albright who just got squished to death inside a singularity.”  Susan’s fingers danced through the air as she navigated the menus of the ship’s encyclopaedia, then spread open so that she could hold a holographic singularity in her palm and show it to Trevor.  “When we passed through the event horizon, we left a two dimensional image of ourselves imprinted on its surface.  It’s how the universe preserves information that falls into a black hole.”  The phenomena played out in the hologram.  “That’s us.  We’re not ourselves.  We’re an image of ourselves that was left behind while our real selves were being spaghettified.  The ship too.”
Trevor lifted up his hand and waggled his fingers.  “I don’t feel two dimensional.”
“That’s because you’re perceiving the world with sensory apparatus that are also two dimensional.  It’s an optical illusion.  And tactile and aural and all the rest as well.”
Trevor let his hand drop and looked around the ship’s bridge, more than a little disturbed.  “So we’re basically just a photograph in the universe’s album now?”
“If it’s any consolation,” Susan said, in what she hoped was a soothing tone, “the whole universe is probably two dimensional anyway, so it’s not like anything’s changed, really.”
“Except that we’re dead.”
“Except that, yes.”
Trevor leaned back in his chair and sighed.  He started playing with the holographics.  Not really doing anything.  Just swiping his finger so that the images, icons and tooltips spun through the air.
“But I think we can still escape,” Susan prompted.
Trevor sat up, scattering the holograms and snapping his fingers.  “Yes!  You said that.  How?”
“Hawking radiation.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Trevor said, growing more excited.  “Isn’t that, like, just subatomic particles, though?”
“Usually,” Susan said, and got out of her chair.  “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” Trevor asked, following her from the bridge towards the bowels of the ship.
“Engine room,” Susan said, “I think we can repurpose the VPE.  Maybe.”
They stepped into the massive space that made up most of the ship’s bulk.  Inside, the giant automated factory that powered the ship towered over them.  The Virtual Particle Engine.
“The VPE creates trillions of particle-antiparticle pairs every nanosecond,” Susan said.  “Hawking radiation requires just such a pair of particles.  One falls into the singularity.  The other escapes the event horizon.”
“And how does this help us?”  Trevor held up a hand.  “I’m not asking sceptically.  You’re the expert here, captain.  I’m just the suit.  But I’d like to have some idea of what you’re planning before I sign off.”
“You’d rather stay a photograph in the universe’s album?”
“Well, right now, I can still think.  Therefore I still am, you know?”
Susan smiled.  Having a company bigwig along for the ride hadn’t been as bad as she’d thought it would be.  Trevor had turned out to be good company, mostly.
“If we can force the VPE to create a glob of particles and a glob of antiparticles that are both the exact mass of the ship, the payload, and us, then there’s a chance that those globs will just happen to have the exact same composition as the ship, the payload, and us.  One will fall into the singularity, the other will escape.”
Trevor looked at the VPE, then at Susan, then back at the VPE.  “A chance?” he asked.  “You mean, just randomly?  Like how there’s a chance a cloud might coincidentally take the exact shape of my face?”
“The odds would be one in…whatever the highest possible number is.  Infinity?  One in infinity.”
“So long as it’s not zero.”
“You’re saying this plan gives us the tiniest possible chance of escaping...but we should take it anyway?”
Susan shook her head.  “So long as the VPE can do what I want it to do, our escape is guaranteed.”
Trevor threw up his hands.  “How?”
“Quantum immortality.”
“Quantum what?”
“So long as there’s a chance – even an infinitesimal one – that we could escape, we will.  In one of the many universes that we’ll create when we overload the VPE.”
“Overload!”  Trevor gaped.  “Overload?  That’ll atomise the ship!”
“No great loss,” Susan shrugged, “it isn’t the real ship, anyway.  It’s just a picture.”
“And how do we survive that, again?”
“So long as there’s a potential universe where we do survive, we will.  In all the other universes, we won’t be around to care.”  She grinned.  “I think, therefore I’m in a universe where I am.”
“This is insane.”
“It’s quantum physics.  It’s supposed to be insane.”
“It’ll work?”
“In one possible universe.  Maybe two.”
Trevor waggled his fingers in front of his face again, sighed.
“Do it.”

About the Author: 
In another universe, Sam Curtis has all sorts of impressive titles and academic abbreviations after his name. In this one, he studied computer science, graduated, and then joined the workforce, where he quickly forgot everything he’d ever learned.

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Quantum Theories

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’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.

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.

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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Gluon

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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.