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