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"Where the hell is the coffee machine?" are Stig's first words at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning.

He has left home in a hurry without his usual shot of caffeine. It is a big day in the lab. He and his team of experimental physicists are about to teleport a cockroach, a delicate operation requiring the highest degree of mental focus. Focus that can be achieved only with an elevated dose of coffee.

"I've been asking myself the same question" says a voice behind Stig; he turns around spooked.

"Vlad? You scared the hell out of me. I didn't know you were here," says Stig.

Vlad, a big guy with an air of Dirty Harry, stands in the shadowy corner of the room holding an empty cup. He is a notorious theoretical physicist. "I guess no coffee today," says Vlad. Indeed, the situation isn't funny at all and Stig knows it. He is facing coffee starvation for who-knows-how-long. That means only one thing. No more good ideas until the machine is back. If it is back at all...

"That's really bad." Stig breaks the silence. His forehead is now covered with small beads of sweat, hands starting to shake. The symptoms are already there.

"Yeah... It reminds me of a story I heard some time ago in Sicily." Vlad pauses waiting for Stig's reaction.

"What story?" asks Stig. Now, when the coffee is gone, he has all the time in the world. The cockroach will have to wait.

"So apparently there was this conference on quantum thermodynamics in Hawaii. Some guys decided to have it on a big boat that sails into the middle of nowhere in the Pacific. You know, one of those sexy conferences where everybody wants to be invited."

"I wouldn't mind being invited for one of those," Stig interrupts.

Vlad ignores him and goes on. "So they got all the bozos in the field and sailed into the sunset. Blue skies, calm seas and all that."

"Sounds nice." Stig tries to imagine the big blue stretching into infinity until it becomes... a big pot of hot, black coffee. "Bloody machine!" he curses silently and clings to Vlad's voice spinning the yarn.

"All went well at the beginning. Talks were good, people socialized over coffee, new ideas were rife. A dream conference." Vlad takes out a cigar from his chest pocket, puts it into his mouth and then back into his pocket. "Damn campus rules!" he curses. "Where was I?"

"You mentioned talks over coffee" answers Stig.

"Oh yes, coffee... Anyway, after a few days all the coffee supplies disappeared. Well, not all. One capsule was left."

"How come?" Stig's curiosity picks up.

"Nobody knows," continues Vlad. "One day there was coffee, the next day it was gone. So now there were thirty thirsty men on the boat and one capsule of the finest espresso whose market value grew by the minute if you know what I mean."

"I do..." says Stig, his mind and body in tatters. "I need to cut down on coffee," he thinks.

Vlad takes out the cigar again and asks Stig "Do you think those damn smoke detectors work?"

"I think so. So what happened on the boat?" asks Stig.

Vlad scowls at the sprinklers and continues his story, playing with the cigar. "They kept their cool, you know. Talks as scheduled but it wasn't difficult to feel the growing tension. The damn capsule was on everybody's mind. People started to talk." Vlad moves closer to Stig. He now almost whispers to his ear. "You know, the sea always makes you see things... So they started to talk about some physicist from Bosnia known as Keyser Soze. They said the guy chooses the best of the best in every field in physics and then messes with their minds" - he makes a dramatic pause - "Then leaves them in their madness until they are locked in asylums or kill themselves..."

"Why would he do that?" asks Stig almost hysterically. Vlad is now very close to him; he feels uneasy.

"Nobody knows. Maybe the guy is jealous, maybe his own ideas were rejected or maybe because he is..."

"He is what?" interrupts Stig.

"Maybe because he is simply mad. Don't ask me. Anyway, once Keyser Soze's name was brought up things went downhill very quickly. Somebody drank the last espresso. The captain of the boat had a heart attack. Somebody sabotaged the engine and communication tools. They were stranded somewhere in the Pacific. Thirty eggheads without coffee. Then all hell broke loose."

"What do you mean?" Stig wants to know the end of the story but at the same time he feels he has to run. Something has changed in Vlad's eyes. They are now very close to Stig's. Steel cold eyes...

"You know, all of them were the best in the field. This means they disagreed with each other on many things..."

"Oh my..." gasps Stig. Vlad grabs Stig's shoulder. "Yeah... When they found the boat all of them were dead. Coastguard said they had never seen such a massacre before..." Stig has had enough. The whole situation fills him with primordial fear. The rational part of his brain tells him that he is just having a panic attack caused by the shortage of caffeine in his bloodstream. This adds to the anxiety before the teleportation experiment that will surely get him the Nobel prize. Yes, he is the best of the best in the field. But those steely eyes... Stig's train of thought is interrupted by Arthur, another physicist working in the institute who enters the coffee room.

"How are you guys?" asks Arthur.

"Couldn't be better. How are you? Long time no see" replies Vlad. He lets go of Stig's shoulder.

"Same old, same old." says Arthur. "Oh, by the way Vlad. How was Hawaii?"


About the Author: 
An unemployed physicist who has all the time in the world to write short stories and browse the web.

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Quantum Theories

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 ... 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.

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.

R is for ... Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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.

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 ... 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.

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.

U is for ... Universe

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

K is for ... Kaon

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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 ... 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ... 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 ... 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.

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.

G is for ... Gluon

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

A is for ... Act of observation

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