The Zeno Paradox

The Zeno Paradox

Average: 4.1 (26 votes)
Your rating: None

A side street in Tokyo. Neon lights in heavy rain. A shady bar with a barman who never speaks unless you don't pay for your booze. A lonely guy sits in the darkest corner of the bar with a half empty bottle of Yamazaki. Cigarette smoke slithers around his unshaven face, eyes focus on some memories swirling in the dark behind the window. This is the place where men come to absolve their sins before disappearing into the night. 

The bar door swings open. A man in a trench coat steps in, pauses to look around. His long shadow stretches towards the lonely guy as if trying to tighten its icy fingers around his throat. The barman gives the newcomer a quick glance only to get back to his world of endless nights when time stands still like the rows of bottles behind him. 

"I hate rain", he mutters to himself.


The newcomer sits in front of the lonely guy. 

"William?". The guy takes a long drag of his cigarette, savours the smoke for awhile, turns his head towards the newcomer and exhales straight into his face. 

"Who's asking?", he says. 

"Wilson. Do you have it?" 

William doesn't reply immediately. He pours himself a glass of whiskey, double shot, looks through it at Wilson, puts it on the table, adds more and then gulps it down like it is his last. 

"Yeah," says William, inhaling the cigarette. "I have it," he adds, exhaling a thin streak of smoke. 

"Give it to me." Wilson's voice sounds greedy. William looks straight into his eyes and says almost caringly, 

"I'll give it to you but you must listen to my story first." 

"Keep it short, pal," replies Wilson. 

"I loved Gail more than anything, more than myself. I first saw her in a small dancing studio at night. It was raining like today." William's voice becomes shaky. He takes another shot of whiskey. 

"She was practicing some moves in front of a big mirror. She looked so beautiful, like out of this world. Her body moved across the dance floor with a grace I'd never seen before. I was standing there, glued to that big window and I knew that Gail was the woman I wanted to be with." He grabs Wilson by the arm and says feverishly "Can you understand that? Can you?!". Wilson shakes off the hand. 

"Take it easy, man" he says dryly. 

"We were like Bonnie and Clyde. Lovers, friends. It was a blast but nothing good lasts for long in this twisted universe. Gail fell terminally ill." William stops, lights another cigarette. Smoke seems to make it easier for him. 

"I couldn't watch her body wasting away", he pauses, eyes fixated on the swirling cigarette smoke. "Have you heard about the Zeno paradox?" 

"No" replies Wilson.


"Zeno claimed that nothing moves because to get from A to B you need to cover half the distance, then the half of the half and so on. Every half requires a finite time to travel but there are infinitely many of them so you won't cover the distance in a finite time." 

"Nonsense" says Wilson. 

"Yeah.... Infinitely many pieces can give you a finite thing", William pauses, "Not in the quantum world." 

"What do you mean?" William gets Wilson's attention.


"In the quantum world there is no reality. Observation creates it and this means you can manipulate reality by simply looking at physical systems" William puts out the cigarette. "If you observe them frequently enough you can freeze them forever."

"That's how the machine works?" interrupts Wilson.

"Yeah, something like that."

"Where are the blueprints?" Wilson's eyes flicker with greed.

"I haven't finished yet." William lights another cigarette. "I thought I could keep Gail in a state of suspension until they found a cure."


"I asked her to dance for me one more time and..." he swallows tears. 

"What?" asks Wilson impatiently, pouring William another drink. William ignores it.

"Then I set this... machine... in motion." William's voice quivers again. He gulps down the glass of whiskey and goes motionless like a mechanical toy with a discharged battery.

"And?" Wilson prompts him.

"At first it worked beautifully. Gail's body froze in time... She looked so beautiful." 

"And?!" asks Wilson's impatiently.

"A few days later I noticed some small changes in her face. Blemishes." He pauses. "The blemishes started to become fuzzy and larger, slowly transforming Gail's body into... into..." William swallows hard, his Adam's apple forcing its way up and down like a piston of a worn out engine, "into something undefined, smeared in space." William's hand wipes some invisible grease off his face.

"Couldn't you stop the machine?" interrupts Wilson.

"It was too late. I would have had to reverse the whole time evolution but I didn't have enough computational power." William takes out a notebook. “Here’s the blueprint for the machine.” He throws it on the table. "Can I go now?"

"Where is she now? I mean Gail" asks Wilson ignoring William's question.

"I'd like to believe that she's become entangled with the rest of the universe" he pauses, looks into the night behind the window. "And that one day I'll be able to bring her back, see her dancing again..."

Wilson picks up the blueprint and puts it into an internal pocket of his trench coat. "You know I can't let you go. We need your expertise. Without you it would take us too long to build the machine." Wilson wraps his fingers around William's arm. "Just don't do anything stupid."   

William looks at Wilson and smiles, his eyes hidden in the shadow.  

A side street in Tokyo. Neon lights in heavy rain. A shady bar with a barman who never speaks unless you don't pay for your booze. A lonely guy sits in the darkest corner of the bar with a half empty bottle of Yamazaki. Cigarette smoke slithers around his unshaven face. A fuzzy, slowly expanding blemish appears at the corner of his eye. 

About the Author: 
Dagomir Kaszlikowski is a Principal Investigator and Associate Professor at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore. His research concerns the foundations of quantum physics, particularly the nature of quantum correlations. He also makes short films that take inspiration from science.

Newsletter Signup

Submit your email address so we can send you occasional competition updates and tell you who wins!

Quantum Theories

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

A is for ... Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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!

G is for ... Gluon

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

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

U is for ... Universe

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ... Information

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