Your rating: None
No votes yet



In a week my eighteen-year-old daughter will have left home.


‘Tell me about quantum physics,’ I say, and tumble onto her beanbag.

She swivels from her screen. ‘Really?’

This is what she’s going to be spending her days researching, writing, talking about and I know absolutely nothing about any of it. Will this unknowable part of her expand to the point we’re strangers?

‘It’s the physics of quanta,’ she says, wriggling her toes in her rainbow socks.

‘Right. The physics of quanta. So. What’s quanta?’ I ask.

‘What’s quanta?’ She inhales. ‘Small things.’

‘Okay.’ Outside a mizzle so fine you wouldn’t know it’s there but for my drenched neighbour pulling towels from her rotary line. ‘Then what’s the physics of small things?’ I recall my daughter’s fingers as a baby, so tiny they were, impatient to lift flaps in books, always curious.

‘How small things interact with each other. Not small things like children. Like electrons.’

That tiny hand in mine or pushing strawberries into her mouth – her tongue figuring out the seeds.

‘And what are electrons?’

‘What are electrons?’ She rolls her eyes.

Will her vowels lengthen down south? I stretch my legs and inhale. Will a new voice speak her mother tongue?

‘Electrons are the smallest leptons,’ she says. Then, ‘You’re going to ask me what leptons are, aren’t you?’

I nod. ‘Particles that don’t interact via the strong nuclear force,’ she says.

The neighbour has disappeared and the rotary line spins in the wind. My daughter would happily sit with equations for hours, figuring out forces and the speed of the line in the wind. Me? I’d be looking up Scandinavian words for ‘wind’, searching for the right phrase that captures its ability to knock you off your feet.

‘Strong nuclear force,’ I repeat. I don’t even know how to come back with a question. Since when did she get this smart? A tornado of knowledge. As a kid, she never wanted the talking to stop at night. We’d read together on this very beanbag and then it was question after question after question. Ten! I used to tell her. I’m counting to ten and you’d better be up and in bed. Then one day she told me she figured nothing happened after ten. She was going to try it out. She stayed until I counted to ten, then ten point one, ten point two, ten point three her grin widening as her hypothesis was proven right.

She walks me through hadrons and protons with a patience I never knew she had but I guess we know less and less about the inner workings of our kids as they grow.

‘…when photons with sufficient energy are incident on the surface of a metal,’ she’s saying.

‘Why do we need to know this stuff?’ I ask. She pushes her hair behind her ears. Is that another new piercing?

‘Just learning a bit about the universe, Mum. You know, not living in ignorance. Like why do we know about gravity? Even though we don’t actually know about gravity. It’s the fundamental force we know least about.’

How lightly she holds the unknown. I hate dealing with the unknowable.

She flicks through a pile of index cards from her summer revision. I remember hugging her the night before her final exam as she sobbed physics was just too hard. It wasn’t for people like her. ‘Nobody said this was going to be easy,’ I’d said, stroking her hair, adrift with my failure to help. Not having any of the answers.

‘Okay, so with the metal thing, you’re saying light is made up of stuff.’

‘Mum, this isn’t even quantum physics. The duality of wave particles is. But. Superposition! Maybe you can get behind this more easily?’

She’s right. I can feel the heat of a metaphor excite in my chest.

‘You can be in two states at the same time.’

I look at her posters of Green Day, The Smiths, the Periodic table, the stuffed toys, books, the backpack she’s already started to fill. It’s not even a week. Only six days from now.

‘Like happy-sad?’

‘Mum. We’re talking about particles not people.’

I watch her plait a strand of her fringe and let it flop onto her face. ‘Look, if I were a particle, I could be here and I could be there.’

‘You know about drink spiking, right?’

‘I’m going to be fine.’

‘In the story I’m working on, I could have my fictional mother telling the fictional daughter who’s moved away, how she wishes they were particles, not people.’

‘That fictional mother in your story,’ she says, tipping her flashcards into the bin. ‘That mother?’ She leans across and gives me a bear hug. ‘She just needs to calm down a bit.’



About the Author: 
Kathryn Aldridge-Morris is a writer from Bristol, UK, whose fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies. Her writing has won several prizes including The Forge Literary Magazine’s award for Creative Nonfiction, and Manchester Writing School’s 'QuietManDave' prize for flash fiction.
Share this fiction

Quantum Theories: A to Z

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.

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 ...

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 


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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

T is for ...
Time travel

Is time travel really possible? This article looks at what relativity and quantum mechanics has to say.

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

I is for ...

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

S is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

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.

U is for ...

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

K is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Copyright © 2024 Centre for Quantum Technologies. All rights reserved.