Sweet William

Sweet William

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Mrs Deakin looks up from the book. It takes her a long moment to pull her focus back onto the flowers. “I suppose it was all his body,” she says. Her brow is furrowed, making her pencilled-in eyebrows collapse towards one another. “So what grew in one part of the ashes was bound to affect the other.”

“No, that’s not –” Robert raises a finger in protest, but Mrs Deakin is unperturbed.

“I should have expected it, really,” she says. “Sweet Williams were his favourites, after all.” There is a little smile on her pale, thin lips. “It’s what his old mam used to call him. ‘You take care of my Bill,’ she’d say when we were courting. ‘You take care of my sweet William’.” She looks down at the pink frills of the petals, and lets a tiny, melancholy sigh escape into the warm June air. “Sweet William,” she whispers.

Time passes. A blackbird watches them from the fence.

“It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?” Mrs Deakin says, still smiling at the flowers. Her watery eyes beam happiness. “It’s lovely how this entanglement thingy works.”

“I don’t think it’s entanglement, Mrs Deakin.”

She turns her head and frowns at him. “But that’s exactly where I put the ashes,” she says. “And those are exactly the same colour as the ones that came up through Bill’s ashes in our garden.” She hesitates for a moment, and the light goes out of her eyes. “My garden, I mean.”

Robert doesn’t know what to say. The blackbird hops from the fence to the crabapple tree, leaning in for a better view.

“Dennis did enjoy his chats with you,” Mrs Deakin says eventually. “I did too, of course – but just to listen. It was all a bit over my head, all that laboratory what-not. I was only ever an office girl and…” Her voice trails away. The blackbird fills the silence with a snatch of song.

She wants to believe it, he knows that. And where’s the harm?

“So you didn’t plant anything?” he says.

“Not here, no.”

“You just sprinkled his ashes in my garden?” He doesn’t mean to sound accusing, but she turns ever so slightly away.

“ Only half. I didn’t see what harm it would do, dear. Anyway, it used to all be ours, before we had the bungalow built. Bill used to tend the whole thing, you know. And this part – your part – well, that was his favourite bit of the whole place.” Her voice turns dreamy and wan. “I thought he’d like to be over here on this side of the fence too.”

She turns back towards him, and he can see the corners of her mouth have dropped. “The children made us sell off half the land. Bill didn’t want to, but they said it was too much for him.”

Robert surveys the garden. Just for a moment, he meets the blackbird’s stare, then drops his gaze to the flowers. He hadn’t noticed any ash in the border, but he was rarely home in daylight these days, what with the grants to write and the lasers to calibrate and the students to sort out. This morning’s view from the kitchen window, that rash of reckless pink, had stunned him. He was overwhelmed: suddenly he had to know what the flowers were. Bill will have a book, he told himself, rushing out of the door, Bill will know. And then, just after he had knocked, he remembered Bill was no longer home.

He feels the prick of a tear in the corner of one eye. He knows what happened – it seems so obvious now. They had stood here, he and Bill, at the edge of the patio. It must be two years ago now. Bill had shaken his head at the view. “You might know a lot about the universe,” he said, “but you’ve plenty to learn about looking after a garden.”

“Do you still want the book, dear?” Mrs Deakin shows him the page. “They’re definitely Sweet William.”

Robert looks at the open page in the widow’s trembling hand. Sweet William: biennial, it says.

Mrs Deakin’s eyes are fixed on the pink bloom again. “I really didn’t know that was possible,” she says. Her eyes are shining. “It’s so wonderful. It’s like magic, isn’t it?”

Robert takes the book from her, then, ever so gently, takes her hand in his own. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, it’s like magic.”

About the Author: 
Michael Brooks, PhD in quantum physics, is a consultant at New Scientist and writes for the New Statesman and the Huffington Post UK. He’s the author of Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science and 13 Things That Don't Make Sense. He advises the Centre for Quantum Technologies on outreach.

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Quantum Theories

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!

U is for ... Universe

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

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

I is for ... Information

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

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.

K is for ... Kaon

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

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.