Backstory: Acceptable Loss

A Q&A with Przemysław Zańko, winner of the First Prize in the Open Category

Read the story first: Acceptable Loss




What is your background in science?


I've always been interested in science, even if it quickly turned out that I'm not that good at it. As a child I devoured any science book I could get my hands on. Then I discovered Stanisław Lem's science fiction works and I fell in love with them. As for the quantum physics, as soon as I learned about it I became fascinated with its weirdness and its thought-provoking philosophical implications. It never ceases to amaze me that our reality is so strange and wonderful. And there are so many great stories that quantum physics can inspire.


How did you develop the idea for this story?


The vaguest outline of this idea has been living in my head for a few years, waiting for its time. Originally I wanted to tell a story about a general who one day thinks about destroying all the parallel universes - and then realizes that if he doesn't, his alter egos will. At the very end, the destruction would've been stopped by a group of his alter egos. But this version of the story never really worked for me, it was all sci-fi ideas and no human emotions. It wasn't until the 2017 Quantum Shorts contest that I finally found a way to make it work. The answer was simple: find a reason why someone would want to destroy the Multiverse.


Additionally, I like to think of this story as a possible sequel to my 2015 Quantum Shorts entry, "Time Management". Both include parallel worlds and a character named Beckett...


If you could move to another universe, would you? What would you look for?


If I could come back home - yes, I would! I would probably mostly look for parallel versions of my favourite artworks, books and TV shows - just to see how much different they would be. Maybe some of the TV shows that got cancelled prematurely in our world got a second chance in a parallel one? I'd love to watch those.


Do you believe in the multiverse, and why?


I don't, actually. I think it's just a handy metaphor that allows us to better understand quantum physics. The Copenhagen interpretation always seemed more believable to me. But what do I know!


What can you tell us about how you wrote the story?


The story took me a couple of days to write. I was unsure at first whether to even participate in the competition as I was quite busy at the time - luckily my girlfriend persuaded me to try! I always write on my laptop in Microsoft Word so I just sat down at my desk at home, drank some black tea and started typing. I found the voice for my main character pretty early on but then it took me a few tries to find the best way to express all of his conflicted emotions. At first I just wrote the story without counting the words and then I edited it down. I had to delete some funny lines about Oppenheimer but overall I didn't have to cut much - the story was already pretty concise. Then I sent it to some friends, asking them to check my English!


What other projects do you have on the go, or coming up?


In December I finished a novella in Polish about a dying WWII soldier who makes a deal with the devil and then tries desperately to wriggle out of it. It took me a very long time to write but I'm quite proud of it - and it's getting published this year! In January I started writing a short horror story about a small town frozen in time that I'm very excited about. It will probably take me a few months to finish. After that? Who knows...


Can you name one or two science-inspired books you've read in the past year that you would recommend to others? What did you like about them?


I don't think I've read any in the past year but I can recommend two books I've read in the past. The first is Michio Kaku's "Hyperspace" - it's a fascinating exploration of several scientific concepts such as parallel worlds and spacetime. You also don't need to know a lot about science to give it a try and it's fun to read. I enjoyed it immensely. The second book is much harder, but also much more rewarding - "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. It taught me a lot about mathematics, music and logic - and it was beautifully written. I probably only understood half of it but it was a great half.


What appealed to you about the Quantum Shorts flash fiction competition?


I've never really tried writing in English before so I saw the competition as a fun challenge. I've always enjoyed finding creative ways to overcome limitations so the strict word count gave my brain a good puzzle to solve. It also ensured that I won't try to turn this story into an epic seven-book saga, in which case I would probably never finish it... The possibility of winning a prize was also pretty motivating!


Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

R is for ...

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!

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.

G is for ...

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.

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.

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 and is a technology to build qubits for quantum computers.

C is for ...

The rules of the quantum world mean that we can process information much faster than is possible using the computers we use now.

E is for ...

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.

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”.

T is for ...

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.

G is for ...

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

P is for ...

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

U is for ...

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

A is for ...

This is the basic building block of matter that creates the world of chemical elements – although it is made up of more fundamental particles.

I is for ...

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

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 ...
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.

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!

S is for ...

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.

W is for ...

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.

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.

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.

R is for ...

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

Q is for ...

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.

L is for ...

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.

C is for ...

People have been hiding information in messages for millennia, but the quantum world provides a whole new way to do it.

K is for ...

Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is a way to create secure cryptographic keys, allowing for more secure communication.

M is for ...

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.

N is for ...

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.

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 ...

Unless it is carefully isolated, a quantum system will “leak” information into its surroundings. This can destroy delicate states such as superposition and entanglement.

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 ...

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.

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.

I is for ...

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.

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.

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.

T is for ...

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.

D is for ...

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.

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

X is for ...

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 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.

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