The Beginning of Time

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The restaurant was dark and elegant. Her boyfriend held the wineglass up to let the dim light of the wall sconce shine through it. He nodded as if he had understood something about the wine by squinting at it, took a sip, closed his eyes and nodded again, and put the glass down by his plate. "So," he went on," how could time have a beginning, when the very concept of 'beginning' requires time? And is this even a genuine cosmological conflict, or just something we feel because we confuse words with understanding? Can we expect the universe to be logical, or is logic just something we made up in our heads?"
He looked earnestly into her eyes, almost staring. She suppressed a sigh. Things used to be so simple.... The restaurant seated its patrons on decoratively significant chairs that were actually quite uncomfortable, and her bottom ached. No doubt the chairs were meant to encourage turnover. She stared around the room. The plaster walls were painted a soft sienna between tasteful wood panels; the electric sconces may as well have been candles, they were so dim. Other couples hunched over their tables, trying to read the menu. She was pretty sure the dim lamps and small type were another manipulation, designed to guide the patrons to the ever-so-earnest mercies of the waiters' recommendations. She worked in marketing; she was no fool. Well, fool enough to answer her boyfriend's rhetorical outgassings.
"If logic," she said, "is something we made up in our heads, and our heads are something that developed out of the pattern of the universe, then it logically follows—does it not?—that logic is part of the pattern of the universe." She picked up her own wineglass and took a slow sip, without inspecting it beforehand.  Let him chew on that, she thought. She stared right back into his eyes.
He appeared to be thinking about it. But he was, she knew, attentive to appearances. Well, so was she. Wasn't that what marketing was?  She tried to be honest in her work, but she knew that few people read past the first three lines of copy, and most were swayed by the pictures and layout. Humanity, she thought, was a failing product, kept alive in the market by clever advertising. Religion, patriotism, and her boyfriend's self-important pronouncements—all ways to justify your shelf placement in the universe. Her irritation got the better of her. "What do you know about 'Time' anyway? You're a musician."
He smiled broadly. "Ha! Time is the basis of music. Music is, I'd say," (Yes, she thought, of course he'd say….). "Music is our direct and conscious involvement in time. Elaborated by tonality to, uh, tie it to the spatial dimensions…. Well!" He hung his head in mock humility. "I'm getting a little lost here…."
"Anyway," she said. "I meant 'Time" with a capital T."
"Time is time."
"Didn't Einstein prove that time is elastic?"
"Ye-e-es, but—" His gaze wandered around the ceiling. Maybe the meaning of time was hidden in the mismatched vintage chandeliers
"But what?"
"Well," he said. Now he was staring past her shoulder. "Musical time is elastic too. Maybe consciousness is just a long jam session playing with time." He smiled, feeling either triumphant or drunk. She'd have to drive them home. He was a very good musician, with a faultless sense of rhythm, and earned his bread cutting soundtracks for commercials and TV shows, but he lived for his jazz band that played for tips in a noisy bar.  She sipped her own wine. Alcohol influences time; maybe that's why we drink it. She pontificated to herself: the universe includes chemicals that change consciousness, therefore it understands consciousness…oh my god, if she was going to drive them home, she'd better stop after this glass.
"Relativity," he said.
"Oh, shut up," she said. She said it without inflection, the way you would observe that it was ten o'clock or that there was a new flowerpot by the neighbor's front door. The romance had sagged out of the evening. Of course romance had been her own expectation. Her boyfriend had spent the day negotiating with his agent, hence in constant and often irritating talk, and she knew from experience that such days left his head buzzing with words that he'd have to talk out. Talking nonsense soothed him at times like this, and putting up with it was, she supposed, an act of love itself. How could it be that such a tiny corner of the universe was so full of intricate complications? She raised her glass as the waiter came by and nodded towards her boyfriend. The waiter understood and topped them both off. Since she was going to drive home anyway, she may as well push him past the talkative stage and into drowsy desire with one more glass. She took a token sip of her own, then set it to off to the side
Chemicals born out of dying stars swirled into the tangle of nerve cells that held her boyfriend's soul, and calmed him down. He talked less, his smile became gentler. Soon, older patterns of living, evolved before words, would take over. His eyes glinted. By the time they got home, and she would drive slowly, he should be just sobered up enough for her own purposes. Time spoke through her nerves as well. He was a good sort, but by god he could be tedious sometimes.
They left the restaurant. The car was parked on a tree-lined side street, and as they walked towards it, arm in arm, away from the lamps and signs of the main road, she glanced up at the sky. Between the silhouetted branches, she noticed, now and then, the paltry glimmer of stars. The stars, the very stars they had evolved from. She squeezed his arm, and he smiled without looking back at her as they walked.

About the Author: 
Richard Risemberg was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has lived there since, writing poetry, essays, and fiction, while making a nuisance of himself. He's nowe either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, and is still at it. It hasn't been easy for any of us.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

T is for ...

The arrow of time is “irreversible”—time goes forward. This doesn’t seem to follow the laws of physics which work the same going forward or backward in time. Some physicists argue that there is a more fundamental quantum source for the arrow of time.

C is for ...

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

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.

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.

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!

K is for ...

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

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

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.

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 ...

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

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.

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

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.

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!

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.

R is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

U is for ...

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

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”.

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.

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.

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 ...

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

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.

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

G is for ...

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

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