Quantum Hold 'Em

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Ben’s thighs burned as he wove through the casino. With his mother watching his eight-month-old in Pasadena, and his wife decompressing in the spa, a siren song pulled him to the Texas hold ‘em tables. He had one hour during this first escape from parenthood, and the dinging slot machines and murmuring crowd felt like perfect peace.

He flicked the corners of the ATM-crisp money in his pocket and ignored whispers of his wife’s voice before offering $500 to the first dealer he found. His wife wouldn’t mind because he planned to clean out this table and take her to dinner at one of Las Vegas’s best restaurants.

Two players remained at the table, a white-bearded man to his right and a small woman to his left. The man looked like set decoration for the casino with a Hawaiian shirt, darkened glasses, and a fedora. The woman had short-cropped brown hair, and with circular glasses, she needed only a red and white striped shirt to pass for 'Where’s Waldo'. The dealer spun two cards with practiced accuracy, and Ben lifted the corners to find a jack and a 10 with a jack showing in the dealer’s flop.

"Where we would be if Schrödinger were a dog person?" the woman asked, gesturing towards Ben’s shirt. He glanced down, acknowledging his ‘Schrödinger’s zombie cat’ t-shirt. She tossed two $10 chips to the pot, "A dog would eat the poison before you could close the box."

“Well,” Ben explained, matching her bet, “Schrödinger really only extended Einstein’s idea, so it’s merely context.”

"Maybe in another universe, Schrödinger loved dogs, and we’d be using stones as tools," she smiled.

The bearded man slid his cards to the dealer to fold his hand and opened a book in his lap.

Ben scoffed, “Multiverses are for comic book philosophers.”

The dealer showed a 10 as the final card, and Ben raised $50. He noticed the woman’s bare ring finger as she surrendered her cards. He collected $80 dollars in chips, and garlic-buttered steak tickled his nose.

The woman interrupted him as he checked the cards of his next hand, "Have you ever played quantum roulette?"

Ben was unsure whether she was referring to a casino game or was making a joke. “I don’t think so.”

"Sure you have,” she said. “You've been playing it your whole life.”

“Sorry, not following.”

“Everyone wins,” she said. “Until you observe the wheel, anyway.” Ben ignored her, keeping count of the pot. “My husband and I went for an ultrasound to find out whether we’d have a boy or a girl. I wanted a girl, of course. The dresses, the Mary Jane shoes with butterfly buckles.” The woman raised $50 dollars so casually, it was a reflex. “I’m in a gown on the table, holding my husband’s hand, a noticeable belly by then. Very Lifetime television moment. My mind was racing – I was having a boy, then for sure a girl.”

Ben double-checked his cards, feeling good about his king and jack. “Like this last card,” the woman said, noticing Ben’s review of his hand, “boy or girl?”

He met her $50 bet and corrected her, “Not really. This card could be any of thirteen, and it’s not a stochastic system.”

The dealer revealed a queen.

“I prefer reshuffled decks,” the woman said, “less probability.” She raised again, and Ben knew she had a queen in her hand. He and the bearded man folded.

The dealer showed a jack in the flop of the next hand, and with one already in his hand, Ben raised $40.

The woman raised another $20. “I guess that’s why I’m partial to a multiverse: a universe for every possibility.” By the time the dealer showed a king on the final card, Ben was already in another $100.

Ben called and lost to her two pairs. “So every choice you make,” he snapped, “blinking, marriage, lunch, creates distinct, infinite universes?”

She pursed her lips, and the dealer gave Ben an ace and a ten. "Do you really understand Schrödinger?"

Ben choked on his words.

“You’ve got superposition of the decaying and not decaying nucleus. The same for the broken and not broken acid flask. The cat is in superposition, being dead and not dead.” Ben knew these fundamentals and tried to focus on the overturned cards. Only an ace was useful so far, but he absentmindedly met the woman’s raises until he invested $120. “You observe the cat, but who observes you observing the superpositioned dead-and-alive cats?” 

The woman pushed a small stack of chips to the pot. “$200,” she said. Ben had $90 left. “I get the infinite universes. I didn’t when things used to be so simple, but I live in them all now. Some universes I have a son. He drives his first car too fast, has a loud stereo, and holds it all together with funny bumper stickers. Sometimes he’s a degenerate. Sometimes he’s cum laude at Stanford. I see a daughter: she’s a teacher, a race car driver, she’s defending her thesis.”

The bearded man looked down his nose at Ben and pushed up his glasses. The dealer leaned impatiently on outstretched hands.

“In our universe," she said, "our ultrasound technician ‘Didn’t know how to handle this sort of thing’ and had to call the doctor to tell us they couldn’t find a heartbeat.”

Ben felt his t-shirt stick to the sweat on his body. He slid his cards to the dealer and took his remaining chips. A bitter taste in his throat replaced the remaining hints of steak. Thinking of dinner with his wife left him feeling like a dead-but-not-dead cat.

He saw the dealer smirk as he stood. The bearded man chuckled as he picked up his book. Ben’s face burned as a notion rose like a boiling water in the bottom of his mind. “Your kid – was that true?”

The woman added his chips to her stack with click-clack noises and shrugged, “Probably.”


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Quantum Theories: A to Z

R is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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!

C is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
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.

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.

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.

I is for ...

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

G is for ...

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

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.

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.

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

U is for ...

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

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.

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!

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 ...

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.

K is for ...

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

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.

I is for ...

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

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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