Quantum Lottery

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Dr. Alberta Rosenbridge was, and always had been, a very smart cookie. Like many smart cookies, she could occasionally be a little crazy, but no one paid her occasional kookiness much mind.
Although, she pondered while grading the last of her students' exams, it was supremely unlikely that her latest eccentricity would go unnoticed for much longer.
“Dr. Rosenbridge,” began Paul, “If you have a moment...” Paul faltered after seeing her.
“Do you like it?” she grinned, gesturing to the device around her neck. “I calculate ten-to-the-three-hundred to one odds that it will kill me upon detecting a single particle of radiation.”
Rosenbridge grinned even more widely at the flustered sputtering this effected from Paul.
“This is where this month's lab budget went? A suicide device that doesn't work?”
“On the contrary, a quantum suicide device, which works perfectly well.” Her grin became positively Cheshire.
“Are you mad?!” She could hear the strain in Paul's voice. “Is there not enough radiation to trigger it?”
“On the contrary,” she paused to relish the collision this caused between Paul's hand and Paul's forehead, “I've placed a small piece of cesium in its detector.”
“You haven't, or you'd be dead.”
She smiled knowingly and removed the device from her neck carefully. As soon as the device came away from her neck, it began to tick rapidly, and with each tick, extended a series of sharp blades into the space where her neck had been.
“Each one is also tipped with a cocktail of cyanide and neurotoxins,” she said in response to the look of shock on Paul's face. As she replaced it around her neck, despite Paul's exclamation of horror, she was satisfied to find the ticking stopped and the blades withdrew.
After turning her attention back to the exam in front of her, she heard Paul sit down on the floor with a thump. It was a full thirty seconds before any sound came out of Paul, enough to finish grading the exam and begin packing up.
“Building something like that is a bit far to go for a joke, Professor.”
“No joke. I've been wearing it every day this week with increasingly larger radiation sources.”
“Then how-!”
Rosenbridge held up a finger to interrupt. “I'll explain. You are familiar with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, yes?”
“Yes. Every time an event has two possible random outcomes, it is as if there are two universes, one in which the first outcome occurs, and one in which the second occurs.”
“Precisely. Now there are two possible universes here. In the first, the cesium randomly emits a particle, which the detector detects, and I die. In the second, the cesium does not emit a particle, and I live. But I can't observe the first universe, because I would be dead. From my perspective, I will always live in a universe where the cesium emitted no radiation.”
“That can't possibly work!”
            Rosenbridge simply grinned and repeated the exercise of removing and replacing the device around her neck. This time, she observed, Paul simply looked thoughtful.
“Professor, if what you're saying is true, then you've spawned millions of universes where I've watched you kill yourself in front of me.”
Rosenbridge frowned as she finished packing up. “Bully for you. Anyway, I'm confident enough now to use this to win the lottery. I've programmed another quantum suicide device to kill me unless it receives the exact numbers on my ticket when they are broadcast online.”
She stepped out the door and heard Paul's hesitant footsteps behind her.
“This is wrong, Dr. Rosenbridge, you can't have considered everything.”
But she paid no heed and stepped out the door.
The next day, she wore her device, and just as she predicted, she saw the exact numbers on her ticket announced to the public. The jackpot was hers. She resigned from professorship and simply followed her desire to tinker and invent. This lasted almost two full weeks before she became bored. After all, having found a way to con the universe into giving her whatever she wanted, why settle for anything less than everything?
And thus she found herself ready to jump out of an airplane with a sabotaged parachute, and a high-explosive vest under her jacket. She figured the only way she would survive this is by either spontaneously becoming invulnerable or developing the ability to fly. The details of how didn't matter, she knew anything needed for her to survive would automatically happen.
Alberta Rosenbridge woke to a steady beeping noise. “I did it!” she thought. “I'm still alive!” Then she noticed that there was someone saying something beside her. She tried to open her eyes to see who it was, but found she could not.
“They're going to take you off life support now. They say given the damage to your spine and brain, it's impossible for you to come out of that coma.”
“Paul! No no! I succeeded! I'm still alive!” she tried to say, but found she could not.
She heard someone else walk in beside her, briefly talk to Paul, and then press something beside her with a click. Then a pause. Then another click.
“Is something wrong?” she heard Paul ask.
“The machine won't turn off.”
“Have you tried simply unplugging it?” she heard Paul suggest.
“The plug is fused to the socket!”
Slowly, with a grim horror, Alberta Rosenbridge understood what was happening to her.
They tried for hours, then days, to turn off the machine, and each time she would hear something fantastically unlikely keep it on, from euthanasia protesters to bolts of lightning from the clear blue sky. After a week, she heard curious scientists come in around her to examine the phenomenon. After a few months, she simply became a tourist attraction and she began to lose track of the days. Her last sane thought was a year later: “If this happens to everyone, the multiverse must be full of corpses gone mad.”

About the Author: 
Amos Axiom is a man who studied physics for his undergraduate degree, and for some inexplicable reason thinks this qualifies him to comment on the metaphysical implications of quantum theory. He hopes you enjoy this work, as it is his first public one, and apologizes for speaking in third person.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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 ... Cryptography

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Information

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

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.

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 ... 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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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!