Backstory: Two Words

A Q&A with Nick Maslov, winner of the Youth Category


Read the story first: Two Words




Is there anything you would like readers to know about you, beyond the bio in your story?


I guess my bio was a bit brief… I’m a school student currently basking in the calm preceding the storm of GCSE exams. I love physics, and want to study it in the future, specialising in either astrophysics or cosmology. I have a small telescope with which I view deep-sky objects and battle light pollution whenever the weather permits it (usually about once per month). I’m also an avid science fiction reader.


Are you studying science? What makes you interested in quantum physics?


Of course! Although I’ll have to bid farewell to chemistry and biology next year due to the narrowing down of subjects here in the UK, I intend to persist with physics and study it at university. As for quantum physics, I suppose I love it because despite being counterintuitive, it has really far-reaching implications, from quantum electrodynamics explaining all those pretty, colourful patterns on a CD, to the formation of structure in the universe, fusion in via quantum tunnelling, and a plethora of other exciting phenomena. Plus, being a rather big field, there’s always more to learn. I took my first step into this weird world with How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog, and I was hooked!


How did you get the idea for this story?


It was rather spontaneous: I was walking home amidst terrible weather, and my thoughts began to stray. I began to consider the really far future; science fiction rarely ventures beyond several thousand years from now (with the notable exception of Asimov’s The Last Question, which I can’t recommend enough), so the story began as a sort of thought experiment for the theoretical maximum time I could survive in the universe. The stars will die in about 100 trillion years, and some consider that the endpoint, but maybe one could survive around a white dwarf, or (eventually) a black hole, and perhaps somehow maintain existence even further into the future. I also found there’s something romantic about timescales so great that individual orders of magnitude become almost meaningless when we try to comprehend them. Having already found out about Quantum Shorts a few days prior, I contemplated the quantum-related elements of a potential narrative; the energy radiated from black holes being a result of virtual particles, for example, or proton decay being a prediction of some theories unifying quantum forces. I didn’t spend long constructing a plot; the story is largely a series of observations of the universe’s far future, and my desire for a somewhat enigmatic protagonist simplified the writing as well.


What kind of research did you do to inform your writing?


Most of my research actually took place before I got the idea for the story, just to satisfy curiosity. Several popular science books, Wikipedia articles on cosmology, and all sorts of YouTube videos were the main sources. When writing the story, I worked alongside a very handy Wikipedia page featuring a timeline of an expanding universe.


What do you think of the idea of uploading brains into some kind of computer? Would you do it?


I think it’s an amzing concept. And yes, provided that I can’t survive in my current body, I would absolutely do it. I just hope that a way of doing so will be devised that would not involve my own death and the creation of a replica with my thoughts and memories. I want to survive to the degenerate era and beyond as my own self!


What other plans are you making for surviving the degenerate era?


Well, I have a relatively extensive survival strategy. After spending the stelliferous era touring the cosmos in wonder at the beauty of myriad stars (and hoping that the universe doesn’t end in a big rip or big crunch scenario), I intend to find some way to gather hydrogen, most likely from gas giants (I haven’t got around to how exactly I would do that yet). If I were to get 0.08 solar masses of the stuff, I could ignite my own star and live happily for another 10 trillion years or so. When that option is exhausted, I’ll find a white dwarf, hopefully with a planet in a stable orbit, and gather some energy from that. Perhaps there will be the possibility of leaving this universe entirely through hyperspace, but I can’t count on that. (If I have been using the first person slightly excessively, please note that all this intends to be done together with other friendly creatures, including those of my own species). I could also occasionally stockpile some extra energy from Type IA supernovae and other high-energy events that could happen in this era. Then, white dwarfs will get a bit too cold eventually, and I will transition to being a computer around a black hole, fuelling it by dropping any remaining matter in. This phase will last for a long while, so perhaps I’ll simulate myself in another age; maybe I am already living around a black hole right now, and my reality is a simulation of an era of lavish energy supply… Anyway, I proceed to hope that protons don’t decay, and then… I store energy from the last black hole evaporating, and I dilate perceived time even more and gather energy from matter very slowly fusing into iron-56 due to quantum tunnelling. After that, I take one long look back at all my memories, and shut down forever.


Do you have other writing projects you'd like to tell us about - or writing you hope to do? 


Someday I hope to write about physics, as well as science fiction. For the latter, my dream would be to produce an epic similar to Foundation or Dune in scale (but with more science!), although I recognise that the chances of that happening are slim to say the least. I’ve tried writing stories before; when I was seven, I think, I wrote a story about going to the centre of the galaxy IN A SPACE SHUTTLE (don’t judge me – the past is a different kind of country :-)) Further attempts at writing have ended up either deleted or unfinished, so my submission to Quantum Shorts is, so far, the only lasting bit of fiction I have yet produced. Eventually, though, I hope to write more. The summer holidays look promising! As for science, I’ve started answering the occasional question on Quora (in fact, I used the research I did for this story to answer a question about survival in the degenerate era!)


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?


There are so many! I don’t know where to start… From the science fiction side of things, I really loved Alistair Reynolds’ short stories, the best of which are compiled in Beyond the Aquila Rift, and his Revelation Space novel was excellent as well. He was an astrophysicist, I believe, so the science in them is excellent, and the plots are incredible as well. As for science books, I adored Feynman’s QED, Hawking’s Brief History of Time (RIP to one of the greatest scientists the world has seen), Chad Orzel’s Teach Relativity to your Dog (I read the quantum physics equivalent over a year ago so it can’t make this list), Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s Quantum Universe, and many of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions (I found the astrophysics one particularly excellent). That’s more than one or two books, but all of them make incredible concepts rather comprehensible.


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


I love writing, but I  never really produced anything conclusive. So finding a free-to-enter competition that combined my love for physics with an opportunity to write was immediately enticing. Plus, Chad Orzel, one of my favourite science writers, was a judge! And the prizes on offer were rather lucrative as well.


Do you have any feedback for us to make improvements to the contest?


The only problem I had was the word limit! Cutting down on words was the hardest part for me, but this is a flash fiction contest, so I absolutely understand. The contest was perfect. Keep it going!


Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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.

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 ...
Act of observation

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

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.

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 and is a technology to build qubits for quantum computers.

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

S is for ...

The feature of a quantum system whereby it exists in several separate quantum states at the same time.

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”.

I is for ...

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

C is for ...

The most precise clocks we have are atomic clocks which are powered by quantum mechanics. Besides keeping time, they can also let your smartphone know where you are.

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. This column from Quanta Magazine ​delves into the fundamental physics behind quantum computing.

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

R is for ...

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

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.

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.

C is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

Q is for ...
Quantum States

Quantum states, which represent the state of affairs of a quantum system, change by a different set of rules than classical states.

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.

T is for ...

The arrow of time is “irreversible”—time goes forward. On microscopic quantum scales, this seems less certain. A recent experiment shows that the forward pointing of the arrow of time remains a fundamental rule for quantum measurements.

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.

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 ...

Researchers are harnessing the intricacies of quantum mechanics to develop powerful quantum sensors. These sensors could open up a wide range of applications.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

G is for ...

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

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.

M is for ...

Quantum physics is the study of nature at the very small. Mathematics is one language used to formalise or describe quantum phenomena.

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.

U is for ...

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

E is for ...

As the world makes more advances in quantum science and technologies, it is time to think about how it will impact lives and how society should respond. This mini-documentary by the Quantum Daily is a good starting point to think about these ethical issues. 

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!

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.

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.

I is for ...

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer

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.

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.

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