The Relative Uncertainty of Reality: A true story?

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QUANTUM SHORTS 2015: SHORTLISTED, OPEN CATEGORY
 
“OK, I have your avatar’s age and sex preferences, just a few more questions before I can create your Personal Universe©. Which year would you like to visit?”
 
“Can I go to 2016 please? The summer, you know, just before The Event?”
 
“Of course. Remember, we want to create the perfect experience for you, if we’re going to make you your very own private universe, then we want to make sure it’s just right. Now, what role would you like to have, you can be a film star, a famous athlete, a powerful CEO, the President?”
 
“You said that I can be exactly whoever I want to be? No matter how… unusual?” 
 
“Of course, you can live the life you want. You can be rich, poor, married, single. You can rule the world, save the world, or even destroy it. The only stipulation for the package you’ve chosen is that your avatar must be consistent with the reality of…” she glanced at her display “… the summer of 2016. So you can’t have a Version 2.0 body, or super powers, or anything like that. You’d need to pay extra for such a custom simulation.” She paused and looked questioningly at me, ever the saleswoman.
 
“No thanks, nothing like that. I’d actually like to be a research scientist please. In fact, one of the scientists that was working on the project that caused The Event.”
 
My interviewer’s polished demeanour slipped for a second and she looked briefly incredulous, before her mask of polite professionalism quickly returned. 
 
I continued as she recovered her composure. “You see, I’ve always been fascinated by science. And I heard that in 2016 it was still carried out by actual people, before the A.I.s took over. I want to be one of those human scientists please, and I want to be right there when IT happened.”
 
“Of course, a research scientist you will be. Such an unconventional role may take us a few more days to program though.”
 
“I quite understand. I bet scientist is a pretty unusual request?”
 
“You’re the first actually.” She arched an eyebrow in quiet judgment. 
 
“And you’re sure this will feel real?”
 
“I can assure you of that. The weather, the food you eat, the people you meet, all will feel indistinguishable from reality.”
 
“But the people, they won’t be actual real people will they?”
 
“No. There’s no need. Our procedural algorithms ensure that as the simulation winks into existence each of its inhabitants will be created with a unique consciousness, personality and a set of rich memories that they’ll think are genuine. They’ll believe that they’ve lived for years, they’ll go about their lives, working, eating, falling in love, dying, all without realising that they’re composed of digital code, rather than flesh and blood.”
 
“It sounds very impressive.”
 
“It is, and it isn’t. It feels absolutely real, but you’d be amazed how little memory it takes, how many of these simulations we run at the same time. Not all are set in 2016 of course, we run some modern day simulations, but mostly people want to experience past lives, like you. Many people go much further back though. Maybe after you’ve spent a month in 2016 you’ll travel with us again, maybe further back next time?” The hard sell again.
 
“We’ll see,” I replied politely, but without commitment. “Is this strictly ethical? I mean, you’re creating 7 billion people who think they’re alive, then, after one month you end them all with a flick of a switch.”
 
“Don’t worry, remember, they’re not real people, they’re just code, they’re nothing but a long string of ones and zeroes. And besides, we create and ‘end’ hundreds of billions of them every day across all our various simulations.”
 
“But, don’t any of them ever realise that they’re not real?” 
 
She frowned and looked a little impatient. Was I being rude asking these questions? I was the client though, so I looked at her and waited for a response.
 
“It happens, but very rarely. Usually in individuals on the fringes of the simulated societies, the odd artist, but most often with scientists, coincidentally. In the past it occasionally caused a few problems, but we quickly realised how to deal with it, we invented the Uncertainty Principle.”
 
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that particular principle, is it from quantum physics?” I’d read a fair amount of pre-Event science, but I’d never heard of it. 
 
“That’s because it doesn’t exist in the real world. In our simulations, inquisitive scientists where sometimes able to delve so deeply into their worlds that they discovered the code with which their artificial existences were created. So we’ve introduced an arbitrary limit to the degree of precision by which the simulated particle physicists can measure their world. If they try to measure one aspect of a particle, say, it’s position, then they find that they can't measure another aspect, like it’s momentum. It creates a layer of fuzz that neatly prevents them from digging too deeply and discovering the underlying code.”   
 
It was my turn to look at her incredulously.
 
“Sounds a bit fanciful, I know, its just science fiction though. But it seems to do the trick.”
 
She fixed me with a mock-conspiratorial look. “And remember, if you ever doubt the world in which you live in, just measure the properties of a fundamental particle, if you can measure both momentum and position, then no need to worry, you're in the real world.” She laughed.
About the Author: 
I used to have a proper, sensible job, but I threw it all away to become a scientist and realise my childhood-dream of spying on animals and being financially destitute. I love science fiction.
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Quantum Theories: A to Z

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!

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.

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.

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!

K is for ...
Key

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.

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.

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.

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.

I is for ...
Information

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

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.

R is for ...
Randomness

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

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.

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.

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.

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”.

I is for ...
Interferometer

Some of the strangest characteristics of quantum theory can be demonstrated by firing a photon into an interferometer: the device’s output is a pattern that can only be explained by the photon passing simultaneously through two widely-separated slits.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

R is for ...
Radioactivity

The atoms of a radioactive substance break apart, emitting particles. It is impossible to predict when the next particle will be emitted as it happens at random. All we can do is give the probability that any particular atom will have decayed by a given time.

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.

G is for ...
Gluon

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

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.

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.

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.

A is for ...
Act of observation

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ...
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.

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.

K is for ...
Kaon

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

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.

U is for ...
Universe

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

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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