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