Story's End

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     Mark Little watched the paramedics try to resuscitate the driver of the four-seater sedan.  Minutes ago, her vehicle had ploughed straight into him while he was riding to work; a victim of a heart attack, it seemed likely that she would survive.  Mark's own inert body, however, continued to draw little attention from the blue-shirted men and women, whose movements seemed a lot less urgent than when they had first arrived.  For a long time, the wheels on his bike wouldn’t stop spinning.

     'Yeeash.  What an awful way to die.'


     'Better get a move on.'  Mark considered his bike, then changed his mind; instead, he would walk.  He wasn't in a hurry. 

     The Interstate curved ahead of him like some golden path, and from an open skyline Mark picked out fantastic colours that he had never noticed in all the days he had ridden to work; colours he didn't have names for, but remembered like a warm memory, long lost. 

     Soon, others began to arrive. 

     Someone started to sing.  Mark Little turned to the person closest to him.  'Hey, who's that in the back there?'

     'That would be the lounge singer we grew up to be, after the talent market dried up and we couldn't get a record out,' said the man, who was also Mark, only with glasses.


     'Ah, right,' Mark nodded in return.  'And who are you?'

     'I'm the one who became a scientist.  I got a physics set for my ninth birthday,' said Mark in the glasses.

     'Really?  I got an Etch-A-Sketch for mine.  Man, was I happy.'

     'Well-' said Mark in the glasses, tilting his head to one side '-he sure wasn't.' 

     Mark followed his lead, and picked out an extravagantly dressed individual, whose collection of studs and piercings stood out against the black leather outfit he wore.  He walked apart from the rest, and appeared displeased.  To his right a very overweight Mark Little struggled to keep up with the group; beside them both, a Mark less Mark and more Martha carried on all by herself.

     'Wonder what he got.'


     'So, what do you make of all this?'  Mark waved to indicate the skyline, and the colours he could never recreate on his photoshop palette.  The other Mark stared for a while, and didn't answer at first.

     'I have a theory,' he sounded glad for the question, 'I think that when we die, so do all our potential selves.  Now we make our peace with all of the other people we could have been.'


     'What happens when we reach the end?' Being the same person, Mark knew that Mark had already caught on.

     'Don't know... surely they can't let all of us in?'

     'No.  Shouldn't think so.'

     'Just one of us, then.'

     They kept walking.

     Overhead the sky had turned an uncertain shade of white, and all the while disembodied voices screamed at each other.  Soon, those gathered began to slow in their step, the imminent end of their journey provoking unspoken emotions within the group.  No one said anything about the voices.

     The road tailed off into a tall iron gate, ornately carved and reaching high into the heavens, so that its top could not be seen for the gathering clouds.  At the bottom in a little square desk there sat an old man in a fine suit with a strong nose and even stronger character.  In his hand he held a grey fountain pen over an open ledger. 

     'Hey,' said Mark with the glasses, 'doesn't he look just like Hugh Everett III?'

     But the Mark closest to him couldn't answer.  He had never thought of meeting Ralph Waldo Emerson before, face-to-face.

     'Well, gentlemen?  Have you decided who amongst you is best fit to enter?'  There was no hiding the tone of command in the man's words; efforts to soften his delivery by lowering his voice only made the situation more urgent.

     The men cast empty glances from one Mark to another.  At last, someone took a step forward to speak.  Overhead, the sky started to dissolve.

     'My name is Mark Li-' Mark stopped.  Was that an echo?  He looked around, and saw what was happening.

     They were all talking.  And they were all saying the same thing.

     'I have a son...  name's Aidan.  We-we had an argument this morning, and...  I ah, I said some things I shouldn't have, things about his music...  he’s in a band... we don't... talk...'

     Seven hundred pairs of pupils began to dilate, and Marks’ next words came closer to a whisper.

     'I-I have to see him again.  I have to go back.'

     'Not possible.'  The man by the desk drew his hands over his chest.  'For you see: you are dead.'

     Mark looked around himself, then turned to address the man.  'Doesn’t look that way to me.'

     'You misunderstand me, Mark.  There are certain rules that govern the world of matter, certain tracks by which information flows.  Your way lies ahead of you.'


     Mark stood there quietly for a moment, his thoughts to himself.  Slowly, he started to turn around.    

     'You would no longer be a man, going back; like the pages of a book the words have already been written -there is no more space for you.'

     'Then I'll fill in the places between the lines,' said Mark.  With that, every Mark broke off with his own answer.

     '-be a colour in his palette-'

     '-a guitar riff-'

     '-a word of caution-'

     One by one they turned around and went back down the road, leaving only the one with the leather jacket and multiple piercings to face the man by the desk.

     'A happy thought.'  He said, baring his teeth against the light of the sky, before he too turned and left.

     And they never came back.

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Quantum Theories

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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!

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”.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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’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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

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 ... 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.

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!

I is for ... Information

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.