Final Theory (excerpt)

Final Theory (excerpt)

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David awoke in the low-slung passenger seat of Monique’s Corvette. Groggy and disoriented, he gazed out the windshield. The car was traveling on an interstate through a lush, hilly landscape, vivid green in the morning light. A herd of brown cows stood in a wide sloping meadow next to a big red barn and a newly plowed field.

He shifted in the uncomfortable bucket seat. Monique was looking at the road ahead, one hand on the steering wheel and the other rummaging inside a box of vanilla crème Snackwells. Before she’d left her house she’d changed into a white peasant blouse and khaki shorts, and now she also wore a pair of earphones for her iPod, which rested in her lap. Her head bounced in time with the music. At first she didn’t notice that David was awake, and for a few seconds he watched her from the corner of his eye, staring at her gorgeous neck and long, cocoa-colored thighs. Then he yawned to get her attention, stretching his arms as far as he could in the Corvette’s cramped interior.

Monique turned to him, pulling off her earphones. “Finally! You’ve been out for three hours.” She offered him the box of Snackwells. “Want some breakfast?”

“Sure, thanks.” David was ravenous. He stuffed two of the cookies into his mouth. “Where are we?”

“Beautiful western Pennsylvania. We’re less than an hour from Pittsburgh.”

He saw the readout on the dashboard clock: 8:47. “You’re making good time.”

“Are you crazy? If I were driving like usual we’d be there already. I’m staying below 70 just in case there’s any state troopers around.”

David nodded. “Good idea. They probably have my picture by now.” He pulled two more Snackwells out of the box. Then he looked at Monique again and belatedly noticed the bags under her eyes. “Hey, you must be exhausted. Want me to drive for a while?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said quickly. “I’m not tired.” She gripped the steering wheel with both hands now, as if to solidify her claim on it. She clearly didn’t like the idea of him driving her car. Well, it was understandable, he thought. Her Corvette was a real beauty. “You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I like long drives. I do some of my best thinking when I’m on the road.”

“What were you thinking about just now? Before I woke up, I mean?”

“Hidden variables. Something you’re probably familiar with.”

David put down the Snackwell box. Hidden variables were an important part of Einstein’s quest to find a unified theory. In the 1930s he became convinced that there was an underlying order to the strange quantum behavior of subatomic particles. The microscopic world looked chaotic, but that was only because no one could see the hidden variables, the detailed blueprints of the universe. “So you’re trying to figure out how Einstein did it?”

She frowned. “I still can’t picture it. Quantum theory just won’t fit into a classical framework. It’s like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. The mathematics of the two systems are totally different.”

David tried to recall what he’d written about hidden variables in On the Shoulders of Giants. “Well, I can’t help you with the mathematics. But Einstein felt strongly that quantum mechanics was incomplete. He always compared it to a game of dice. The theory couldn’t tell you exactly when a radioactive atom would decay, or exactly where the ejected particles would end up. Quantum mechanics could only give you probabilities, and Einstein found that unacceptable.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe.’ ” She rolled her eyes. “It’s a pretty arrogant statement, if you ask me. What made Einstein think he could tell God what to do?”

“But the analogy goes deeper than that.” David had just remembered a paragraph from his book. “When you throw a pair of dice, the numbers look random, but they really aren’t. If you had perfect control over all the hidden variables -- how hard you throw the dice, the angle of their trajectory, the air pressure in the room -- you could throw sevens every time. There are no surprises if you understand the system perfectly. And Einstein thought the same was true of elementary particles. You could understand them perfectly if you found the hidden variables connecting quantum mechanics to a classical theory.”

Monique shook her head. “It sounds good in principle, but it’s not so simple.” She took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed at the countryside in front of them. “You see all this nice scenery here? That’s a good picture of a classical field theory like relativity. Beautifully smooth hills and valleys outlining the curvature of spacetime. If you spot a cow walking across the field, you can calculate precisely where he’ll be in half an hour. But quantum theory? That’s like the nastiest, funkiest part of the South Bronx. All kinds of weird, unpredictable things are popping out of thin air and tunneling through the walls.” She moved her hand in rapid zigzags to convey a sense of quantum craziness. “That’s the problem in a nutshell. You can’t make the South Bronx magically appear out of a cornfield.”

Monique reached for the box of Snackwells and pulled out another cookie. She stared at the road ahead as she bit into the thing, and even though she’d just declared that the whole endeavor was futile, David could tell she was still thinking over the problem. It occurred to him that she might have more than one reason for going to Pittsburgh. Until that moment he’d assumed that her chief motivation was anger, her visceral hatred of the FBI agents who’d invaded her home, but now he began to suspect that something else was driving her. She wanted to know the Theory of Everything. Even if she couldn’t publish it, even if she couldn’t tell another living soul about the theory, she wanted to know.

About the Author: 
Mark Alpert is the author of three novels, a contributing editor to Scientific American and a judge for the open international category of the Quantum Shorts competition. This story is excerpted from his first novel, Final Theory (Touchstone Press, 2008), and is reproduced with permission.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.