Rare Earths

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I am a Professor of Materials Engineering and a specialist in the electromagnetic properties of the rare earth minerals. What makes my case unique, apart from the weird and wholly inexplicable symptom I wish to describe, is that I am probably the only human, the only mammal or terrestrial organism, to ever come into such intimate contact with this specific alloy of the rarest of rare metals. My mind was on certain personal issues, rather than safety, when I arrived at the laboratory that day, and so I neglected the usual precautions, accidentally inhaling some of the strangely toxic fumes from the vacuum deposition oven. Nobody is to blame for my current condition but me.

            I am told by the neurologists and bio-chemists that the compound seems to have a morbid affinity for a protein which sheaths the neurons of my brain. One must recall that the human animal is first and foremost a large set of self-replicating molecules that manufacture proteins. The part of us which one might call the “mind” is, in fact, more of an electrical phenomenon that occurs atop this chemical substrate. How exactly the tiny atoms and molecules of the unique substance interact with the electro-chemical signals of the human brain is unknown to me, but they seem now to act as what I call “Probabilistic Receivers.”

            None of the people I see are really coherent any longer, and instead they exist in a fuzzy state of forever coming and going, of always being both here and there. They all have become outlandish fogs and smears around my bed, and I am never quite sure if I am speaking with an actual person or some quantum fragment of one.

            Our standard Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics gives the macroscopic observer, by its necessary participation in processes at that scale, a decided agency over the unfolding of the Universe. As a so-called probability wave propagates through space-time as a superposition of possibilities according to Schrödinger’s famous equation, it is the unavoidable interaction of the observation which collapses the wave, interfering with parts of itself by carrying on in all manners available to it, down to just one. You might say that the observer thus “chooses” reality.

            When the nurse comes to give me my medications, I can see a strange conglomeration of hairstyles, long and short, big and sleek, flips and bobs. One doctor seems to simultaneously sport a moustache, a beard, and a five o’clock shadow, all while being entirely clean shaven. My friend brings me chocolates, and flowers, and a teddy bear, and a magazine, when he arrives also empty handed. The words on the sympathy cards dance and morph as the phrasing of the sentiments expressed takes on all possible forms.

            A less held view is the “Many Worlds” interpretation, whereby the entire Universe bifurcates at every quantum decision that occurs, such that the potential worlds which exist within the probability wave are not entirely lost, but rather continue on through their own timelines, normally mutually exclusive of, and oblivious to, each other. This best describes my current condition, for I have seemingly gained the power of sight and experience of Probability Space, that nebulous totality some theorists call the 5th Dimension. I am perceptive of a sort of “quantum bleed,” as I call it, between timelines, perhaps based on some sort of tunnelling phenomenon between what otherwise might have been and what is.

            I know that I am a married man of fifty-nine with three children, and it is often that I have gone to embrace and kiss my wife only to find out that while we are still friends, this bit of her quantum wave has been divorced from me for twelve years. She was my high school sweetheart. We met in grad school. She lived across the street. She committed suicide shortly after the affair. At times my lab assistant rebuked my advances and it seems that my current personal issues evaporate in the cloud of the probable.

            Thus, my personal reality has become defocused. Actually, widened is possibly a better term for it now that I think of it. Whether it is due to my perception of something actual or QBism’s muddling of internal notions about reality seems to me a matter of splitting hairs. While this phenomenon seems to affect the world around me it has not affected my actual person, securely interned in the hospital, to quite the same degree. I am absolutely certain that I remain who I have always been.

            The most difficult part is seeing my loved ones from here. My son is studying chemistry, just as I had hoped. At the same time he is a garbage man in a far-off city. My daughters are happy, with one married and busy as an accountant and mother, the other returned from post-grad work at Princeton to be with me. I have no daughters. My only daughter cries. I think that my other daughter suffers from domestic abuse, as she seems to have a hint of blackened eyes, bruising, and a fat lip underlying her kind face. There sometimes appear at my bedside total strangers who call me “Dad.” I have asked these ersatz children of mine how their mother is doing, only to find out that she died of brain cancer seven years ago. My heart breaks from the grief in their eyes as they observe me struggle with the reality of unrealities.

            But one thing is certain amidst all of these shadow worlds, and it is that I am dying. Perhaps my ultimate moment will continue for months, years, decades even, as the blackbody container of a slowly fading being. My influence on what is around me diminishes along an exponential decay curve until that unfathomable and unidentifiable moment arrives; when I will reach the final quantum of awareness and cease entirely, thereby leaving the worlds of what could have been forever.

About the Author: 
C D Hill studied Engineering Physics at McMaster University. He produces techno, writes speculative fiction and erotica, rescues greyhounds, and is currently serving a 12 year sentence in Collins Bay penitentiary.

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Quantum Theories

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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

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 ... 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!

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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 ... 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!

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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 ... 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!

K is for ... Kaon

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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.