The Quitter

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We all heard the creature’s howl before we saw it, a terrible cry of confusion and pain.  And anger.

It was mid-afternoon, but the artillery had been firing since dawn, so visibility across no-man’s-land was down to fifty yards.  The screaming howl started just after we ate our midday meal (bread with the mold scraped off if you were fussy, left on if you were hungry - and we were all hungry), and by the point that we saw the beast we had heard it for at least two hours, so our nerves were a bit on edge.

Plus, we all knew what the prolonged artillery strike foretold.

The Meat had been at the trench’s periscope all day, studying the swirling dust.  He had already called out two false positives, so we didn’t stir when he yelled out he “had contact”.  Not until he pulled out his Quitter and made for the sniper’s perch on the trench wall.

“No!” a couple of us cried out, and, being near, I kicked out the Meat's legs from underneath him and snatched away his Quitter.  “Never,” I said, calmly stepping on the Meat’s chest, “EVER shoot this thing at an abom.”

“What do you mean?” the Meat wheezed.  “The Quantum Transmission Rifle is supposed to be our primary weapon!”  We all laughed, as Chipper and Bones popped off a couple of honest-to-god lead and powder shots.

“Abom is down.  Another wolfie.  Poor guy.”  Chipper called down from the perch.

“Listen, Meat.”

“My name is Gordon.”

“Your name is New Meat, Meat, until you stop doing stupid shit that will get the rest of us killed!” yelled Psycho.  Not the most original name we could give him, but it fit.

I let my foot off Gordon’s chest.  I’m a soft touch.  “What did they tell you about aboms at home?”

“Nothing,” grunted Gordon, as he got up and grabbed at his Quitter.  I held it out of reach.

“Thing is, Gordon, the Quitter changes reality, right?  Shoot someone with a Quitter, send them away from our timeline.  The multiverse is all of these weird timelines.  An atom decides to split, or not, a king’s messenger’s horse loses a shoe, or not, dinosaurs die out, or not.  And the thing is, the Quitter sends a guy to one of these, and the neat thing is, there are billions and billions and billions of them.  And they’re all not here.

“But,” I continued, ”the aboms are already not from here.  You shoot one of them with an Quitter, you swap strange for something else.  Something stranger.  We’ve all seen it.  Ask Psycho about tentacles sometime.  Or don’t, if you like sleep.”

Bones whistled out, two notes.  Leftenant coming down the trench.

I handed the Quitter back to Gordon, and patted him on the shoulder.  “Got a girl at home?  Maybe write her a letter.  Lay off the periscope.”

The leftenant walked up, discombobulated as usual.  College boy, never fully adapted to life in the trenches.  “We’re going over the top,” he said, without preamble.  Silence greeted his pronouncement, silence from all around, except, of course, for Gordon.

“What does that mean?” he asked.  We all glared at him.  Finally Psycho spoke up.

“Exactly what you think it does.”

***

The artillery rose to a fusillade, then stopped, the thunderous noise swallowed by the dust-choked air.  We crouched against the near wall of the trench, and then the leftenant chopped his sword down.  “Charge!” he yelled, and that was the last I heard from him.

I vaulted the trench wall, and rolled out into the first few feet of no-man’s-land.  Clutching my Quitter in two hands, I stumbled to my feet and began the rush to the enemy’s trenches.

The distance separating our trenches varied, but tended to a quarter mile, about the maximum operating distance of the Quitter.  A healthy man on even ground can run a quarter mile in just over a minute.

After five I was still in the middle of no-man’s-land.  There had been an incident with barbed wire, followed by a tumble into an arty shell crater, and after that, as I had lost my squad, my momentum and my lunch, I felt the best thing to do was to crawl back to my trench.  Claim I had got turned around in the dust, maybe escape the coward’s bullet.

Except I really had got turned around in the dust, and was now crawling in a direction that I was rapidly losing faith in.

Things were getting... strange.  The ground, inches from my nose, commanded my attention.  Sometimes the formerly red clay seemed blue.  Once I saw a hoofprint in it, bigger than my arm.  There was another patch that glowed in the dimness of the dust-shrouded world, a sickly green.

As I crawled further, I saw stranger things yet.  Mushrooms that crawled away from me.  A man, all dressed in furs, that yelled out “Foriru, estaĵo!”.  A place where the dust was thinner, and the light brighter - because there were two gibbous moons in the sky.

At last, crawling through a patch of ferns, ferns taller than trees, ferns in purple, green and gold, I stood up and howled.  And then I ran.  I ran toward where the dust seemed thinner, where the air shown with hazy light.

Out of the dust a trench materialized.  It was our trench, I was sure of it.  There was the flag, there was our regiment’s banner.  I yelled out a welcome, both arms skyward.

And that’s when I heard the “No!” from the trench, and saw a Quitter beam go just wide of me, yanked away at the last moment.  I heard my own voice from the trench, saying “Listen, Meat, that thing is an abom.  And this is what we do with aboms.”  And I looked over the barrel of the gun pointed at me, and into my own eyes, and he knew what was happening.  And then he pulled the trigger.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.