The Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics’ Charges

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** QUANTUM SHORTS 2019/2020: HONOURABLE MENTION
 
Face and overalls covered in fluorescent gunk, Mike the Quantum Mechanic popped the hovercar’s hood to take a look at its quantum-powered engine. A cloud of silver smoke billowed out as it flipped open, neon coolant sputtering as the engine groaned and flickered in and out of existence.  
 
Crammed into the garage bubble together, Mike, his assistant Bert, and the put-out customer stepped back and waited for the smoke to clear.
 
Mike winced as he took a closer look and rubbed his jaw. “Never seen anything as bad as this in my time. How about you, Bert?”
 
“Me neither, Boss,” Bert said, wearing his usual hangdog expression. “Ain’t seen nuffin’ like it.”
 
The customer leaned in, chrome cufflinks catching the work-light, silk tie askew. “What? What is it?” he asked, voice straining as much as the quantum engine.
 
“Well, for starters, it looks like what you got here is a classic qubit malfunction, sir. Your photons are misfiring, across who knows how many multiple dimensions.” Mike took off his worn denim cap and scratched his head. “Plus, your gluons have gummed up the quarks. It’s lucky you called us when you did really.”
 
The customer puffed. “Photons are doing what? I-I’ve no idea what that means!”
 
“Don’t worry, sir, that part ain’t quiet as bad as it sounds. A bit of disentanglement and Bob’s your uncle.”
 
“And Alice is your aunt,” Bert finished with a gap-toothed grin.
 
Mike flashed a device at the engine; it beeped sporadically. “However, my interferometer is throwing out all sorts of odd readings here. Sorry to say it ain’t lookin’ good, sir. Kaons are off the scale. Always an element of randomness to these things. Hard to tell what caused it with this setup. We won’t know what else is kaput until we open it all up, either. Possible the gearbox is working fine, or it ain’t – until it’s CAT tested, no-one can say for sure, sir...”
 
Mike’s brow furrowed. “Oh no. Can you hear that, Bert?”
 
“Sure can, Boss. Sounds nasty.”
 
“What?” The customer pulled at his pinstripe shirt collar. “What is it?”
 
“Your universal alternator sounds like it’s on its way out too. Not to mention your severed Josephson Junction that’s causing Bose-Einstein Condensate to build up. Decoherence will be leaking all over the shop if we don’t patch it up soon for you. Bert, you’d better pass me a draining pan and a size four collapspanner.”
 
The customer blustered. “But how? I only bought it from the showroom last month! How can so many things be going wrong already?”
 
“I hear you, sir, I do,” Mike said as he took the items from Bert. “Me and Bert often say the same thing, don’t we, Bert?”
 
Bert nodded slowly. “We do, Boss.”
 
“They just don’t make ’em like they used to. Things used to be so simple. Not anymore, sir. Not with your qubit emission restrictions and multiverse compatibility issues.” Mike sighed. “So much easier when we only used analogue models. These digital and hybrid types cause all sorts of extra hassle. You wouldn’t want to hear how much, sir.”
 
“No, I wouldn’t. I’ve heard enough. Just tell me you can fix it.”
 
“Sure, we can fix it. But it’s gonna cost I’m afraid.” Mike had a pained look on his face, as if he’d told his little girl she’d be getting fewer presents this Christmas. “Sorry to have to break it to you, sir.”
 
“A tough break,” Bert added.
 
“But your insurance will cover most of it,” Mike said. “That’s the good news. I’m sure your policy is up to scratch.”
 
“Yes, yes, of course,” the customer said, face flush with colour.
 
“Does it include multiverse protection? Many of ’em don’t.”
 
The customer’s face drained of all previous colour. “Erm, well. I think. I. I don’t know!”
 
“Look, I’ll do you a favour. I’ll charge what I can to the insurance company, and only bill you half for anything over and above that. Can get you a deal on a replacement qubit converter, but my hands are tied with the hourly labour charges.” Mike paused. “Feel free to ask another quantum mechanic, but they’ll say the same.” He let that hang in the air. The quantum engine buzzed like an old fridge.
 
The customer sucked air through gritted teeth. “I have to get it fixed. I’ve an important meeting tomorrow. Do whatever it takes.”
 
“Don’t worry, sir, we’ll sort it out. Ain’t anything Bert and me haven’t been able to fix yet.”
 
“Okay. I’m already running late. I’ll have to take the airbus. Please, just do it!” he screeched, vein throbbing in his forehead. “It has to be fixed by the end of the day.”
 
“Of course. Leave it with us, sir. Everything’ll be spick-and-span before you know it!”
 
Swearing under his breath, the customer strode off, leaving Mike and Bert alone. Without a customer observing them, quantum mechanics could get up to all sorts of mischief.
 
“So what’s the real problem then, Boss?”
 
“Well, Bert…”
 
“Yeah, Boss?”
 
“I’ve no idea. Could be anything. No telling what we’ll find until we open it all up. And even then… You know the saying, Bert.”
 
“Sure, Boss. If you understand how you fixed it, you’re no quantum mechanic.”
 
“Exactly.”
 
“Well, Quick Quantum Fit Direct won’t be putting us out of business today, eh, Boss?”
 
Mike grimaced at the mention of the name, remembering the times he had to tell his daughter they couldn’t afford things, the hurt look on her dimpled face that broke him up. In this universe, small businesses like Mike’s could never compete with such large chains.
 
“We can charge whatever we want this time!” Bert said, Cheshire cat grin stretching his face.
 
“Yeah...” Mike spotted a small plush unicorn on the backseat of the hovercraft. He rubbed his jaw again. Logically he knew that in at least one reality, quantum mechanics’ charges were clear and reasonable – affordable even. Maybe he’d try it himself for a change.
 
 
END

About the Author: 
L. P. Melling currently writes from the UK and is no mechanic. His short fiction has appeared in such places as ASM, DreamForge, and Thrilling Words. When not writing, he works for a London-based legal charity that advises and supports victims of crime. He is 90% coffee drinker, 100% recyclable.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

L is for ...
Light

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!

R is for ...
Randomness

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

E is for ...
Entanglement

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.

K is for ...
Key

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

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 ...
Gravity

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 ...
Teleportation

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 ...
Computing

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

C is for ...
Clocks

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.

M is for ...
Maths

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

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.

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.

K is for ...
Kaon

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

I is for ...
Information

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

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.

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!

W is for ...
Wavefunction

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.

D is for ...
Dice

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.

T is for ...
Time

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.

M is for ...
Multiverse

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.

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.

S is for ...
Sensors

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 ...
Probability

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.

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.

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 ...
Interferometer

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

R is for ...
Reality

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!

A is for ...
Atom

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

X is for ...
X-ray

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.

N is for ...
Nonlocality

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.

S is for ...
Superposition

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.

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 ...
Act of observation

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

Q is for ...
Qubit

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.

T is for ...
Tunnelling

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.

U is for ...
Universe

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

D is for ...
Decoherence

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

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.

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.

C is for ...
Cryptography

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

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.

G is for ...
Gluon

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

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