A Multiple Choice

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Gerald Nilson sat on tree trunk with a revolver in his left hand. His head was lowered as he stared at his swollen ankles. Beside him sat another man, an American, with his hands tied behind his back and blood trickling from a swollen face.

Gerald gazed up beyond the three figures before him, and onto the fluorescent green foliage that surrounded their hideaway. He admired the peculiar clumps of brush and the tall cacti that stood behind his captors.

"Do it!" Their leader yelled, as he slapped Gerald with the back of his hand. He wore a white bandana across his forehead and pointed a rifle at Gerald's face.

Gerald watched a red salamander scurry across his bloody left foot then disappear in the underbrush. He remembered the discussion he had with is wife two weeks prior regarding their travel destination. She had said Mexico was not a safe place--especially the southern state of Oaxaca. The Mexican terrorists camped right next door in the Chiapas--let's go to Cuba, she had pleaded. But the Mexico trip was paid for by his research company. He was to attend a physics symposium that same morning. He was eager to discuss and mingle with like-minded, kindred spirits. Gerald could never understand why most people didn't appreciate the wonders of physics. Who could not be fascinated with the idea of cloning, and teleportation? Or parallel universes? Or when one observes the behaviour of a particle, that very same particle will also behave in a totally different manner, unseen by the observer, on a different plane. A multiverse world where particles can never be destroyed. Au contraire, they multiply! He realizes these ideas are very hard to conceive, but easy to understand, if one understands mathematics.
No, he was not going to miss that conference. Gerald had said to his wife that Mexico was safe and that she was paranoid. He had reminded her the Guerillas were not terrorists, but rather, freedom fighters, and they had no quarrel with Canadians. She seemed unconvinced.

"Shoot or die. It is your choice," the Mexican said as he cocked his rifle. The kidnapper turned to his two colleagues and showed a toothless smile, pink gums gnawing a cactus needle.

When Gerald looked at the American captive, he saw contempt in his eyes. The American had not said a word. He had not said, 'I am Canadian, not the enemy.' He had not said, 'I have money and I will give you some.' He had not pleaded for his life, like Gerald had. And now, the Mexicans said they would take only one prisoner from here on. They said if Gerald wanted to live, he had to shoot the American captive.

Gerald did not know if the revolver was loaded. He did not know if the kidnappers were toying with him, nor what game they were playing. Perhaps his own fate would be decided upon his next choice. He could never shoot the American, but if the gun wasn't loaded, perhaps they'd just laugh it off when he fired the empty chamber.

"Shoot!" This time the toothless Mexican struck Gerald in the gut with the butt of his rifle.

Gerald was shaken hard. He felt as if a part of himself leapt from his body, and like a staid observer, he watched the encounter from elsewhere. He saw himself fall to his knees. His vision was blurred as the forest and the three Mexicans spiraled into a distorted animation, each taking turns at center stage. He tried to focus on a tall cactus, then the toothless Mexican, and then to the scornful eyes of the American hostage, and back to the forest. The images danced before him and that is when he finally decided. He raised his gun and shot the leader in the forehead. He was up and running before the body hit the ground. When he looked back, he saw the American charge at the Mexican who was aiming a rifle in his direction. As he ran through the bushes, leafy branches scratched his face and arms, but this did not deter his pace. His thoughts were of hiding then coming back for his fellow captive. But when he heard shots, he winced, and panic stiffened his body. He zigzagged between clumps of shrubs and raced from his captors. When he reached a steep cliff he peered down and regained his breath. In his estimation, the river that lay below was a good 100 feet. His decision to jump was instantaneous as he heard running footsteps from behind. When he surfaced from his dive, Gerald swam a few kilometers and headed for shore. When he discovered a dirt road, a passing truck stopped to pick him up and after a couple hours he was back at his four-star hotel and walking toward its entrance. He was confused and still in shock, but he felt lucky to be alive.

"Do it!"

When the Mexican slapped him with the back of his hand, Gerald aimed the revolver at his aggressor's forehead. The Mexican fired a few rounds then Gerald's dead body fell to the ground.
Gerald continued watching the incident until deciding nothing could be done then he moved on.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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.

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’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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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 ... 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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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!