Grimalkin's Saurian Tale

Average: 3 (2 votes)
Your rating: None

Mr. Hester Pincer the Third was my grade twelve philosophy and mathematics professor. He wore a dark, plaid jacket with patches on the elbows, and round thin-framed glasses that were too small for his large head. Out in the schoolyard, he would march through crowds of students while swinging a cherry-red walking stick to clear the way, hoping to accidentally strike one of us.
I did my best to avoid his daily, biting, verbal barrages, which he shot at us like tracers, scouting the room for his next victim, but I realize now there was no escaping his harassment forever.
My turn came one day when he distributed our marked essays on 'Why, according to Immanuel Kant, we do not exist'.  My paper was titled, 'Pseudo Reality', and I was unable to hide my joy. It was the first passing grade I had received from Mr. Pincer, and this, he had explained with disgust, was simply a result of bell-curving our marks to allow some students to pass.
He whacked his stick on the desktop and we all sat still.  The top of his head was flattened from wearing his hat, except for a bang of red hair that stood proudly on his forehead.  The bottom half of his face was covered by a curly, crimson fuzz, and he licked his mustache as if scenting the room with his tongue.  He scanned the room from wall to wall, his head motionless, eyes darting around undersized glasses, but then they fixed on me.
"Mr. Grimalkin," he said, smacking his lips with his tongue, "Please, do tell us what amuses you."
I had believed this to be a rhetorical question, yet he stared at the ceiling for what seemed an eternity.
"Mr. Grimalkin," he said as he rose and leaned toward me, "what is your interpretation of Schrodinger's Cat Paradox?"  He knew we wouldn't be studying Schrodinger until the following semester, and I knew I was about to spend a sleepless night preparing a paper for the next day.  Following an uncomfortable silence, he indeed instructed me to prepare something for the next class.
Erwin Schrodinger was a physicist. He had proposed, tongue in cheek no doubt, to illustrate some bizarre theory regarding particles on a quantum mechanical level. His illustration was to put a cat in a box, as well as a radioactive atom with a half-life of one hour, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a smidgen of poison. His reasoning was that, as the atom decayed, the Geiger counter would tick, which would activate the hammer and break the poison bottle, thus killing the cat, unless...  What Schrodinger had postulated was that when the poison was released, the cat was both dead and alive. This quasi netherworld fascinated him. Schrodinger was playing with this wild theory, but it seems that Mr. Pincer was somewhat more serious.
The next day I read my paper aloud. My conclusion was something to the effect that Schrodinger was toying with his audience, and that the experiment was meant as philosophical food for thought, a probabilistic rather than empirical observation. Besides, no one would be so cruel to a cat.
Mr. Pincer slammed his walking stick on the desk and tasted the air. He obviously did not agree with my position. I had not slept and my nerves were strained.
"Chill out, Mon!"  A voice sang out from behind.  I turned and watched a black student smiling, his unwavering eyes fixed on Mr. Pincer. 
He was an exchange student from Haiti who mostly kept to himself.  He smiled wider, exposing white teeth that illuminated a jovial face.
"Take a pill, Mon!" he continued, "I done dat experiment, and I will show dee answer!”
Mr. Pincer straightened, puffed his chest, his eyes challenging the boy from the top of his glasses.  As he was about to speak, a cloud crossed the room's only window and the classroom darkened. He stepped backward as if mesmerized, or frightened, as the boy's dark visage disappeared in the darkness, his fluorescent eyes and teeth seemingly floating in the back of the room.
The boy picked up his leather satchel and walked to the front of the class where he extended an open hand, inviting Mr. Pincer back to his seat. He reached into his bag and withdrew a thin rod, lit it with a match, then placed it on Pincer’s desk.  A sweet yet pungent odour permeated the room as he sprinkled dust onto the flame. Puffs of orange smoke mushroomed to the ceiling, where it rolled then broke apart forming strange images. The images took the form of bizarre animals, which morphed into trees, then faces, then a myriad of cats that were then engulfed by other puffs of clouds that floated toward them.
The boy raised his arms, and in a low, droning voice, began chanting unknown, eerie words. "Vodun, Baka, Sango. Vodun, Baka, Sango..."
What happened next I may have imagined due to fatigue and stress, but I have strong memories of a ring of students clasping hands, swaying to and fro, all chanting the boy's mantra in unison. My mind wandered to a distant land, to a place that surely does not exist in this reality. A place where trees are purple and birds are pink. Where the ground spews out orange smoke from crevices that mark the land like a vast minefield.
These memories are always difficult to recount. And to this day, I am haunted by visions of a strange world, a place that calls for me in my sleep. As for Mr. Pincer, the last I heard, he was still at the sanitarium where he spends most of his days in the arboretum. He appears healthy, but does not speak or communicate in any way. His mind is elsewhere, they say, in a faraway land.  He simply sits on a bench near the shrubbery and flicks his tongue at passing flies.

About the Author: 
Denis's work has appeared in various print and online literary journals. He is pleased to be writing again. In fact, he was last spotted hunched over his keyboard, coffee in hand and cat in lap, as they planned his next Quantum Short.

Newsletter Signup

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

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Information

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

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 ... 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 ... 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.

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 ... 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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.