When you finally understand the universe, it will not only be stranger than you imagine, it will be stranger than you can imagine. -- Arthur C. Clarke
The last hundred years has been a unique time in human history. The scientific advances of the twentieth century have been nothing short of breathtaking and have transformed much of the world in the process. But even the scientists that have created this new vision of the world have trouble understanding it intuitively.
When Einstein first introduced Special Relativity in 1905, the scientific community was dumfounded that someone could propose a theory in which different observers in uniform relative motion would be subject to time passing at different rates. Einstein was not talking about an illusion; he was describing a universe in which twins, depending on where they had been and how they had gotten there, would actually age differently. Most rational people found such a proposal to be ridiculous on its face.
But even Einstein found it hard to reconcile his intuition with another theory he helped create. Einstein held fast to a geometric vision of the universe that quantum mechanics violated by construction. As brilliant as he was, Einstein, with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, came up with the famous EPR Paradox in order to show that quantum mechanics couldn't possibly be right. In this scenario, two objects, quantum mechanically linked, somehow communicate the result of a measurement of one of them with the other, even though they are separated so as to prohibit any cause and effect relationship between them. The fact that quantum mechanics seems to supersede our common notions of cause and effect is the paradox part of EPR. The EPR Paradox was airtight and cleverly constructed to be both consistent with quantum mechanics, and inconsistent with common sense. Einstein felt confident that, in time, experiments would prove him right and that common sense would prevail.
When experiments were finally done, quantum mechanics was proven correct. To this day, most scientists will admit that they don't really understand the picture of the world that quantum mechanics paints.
Now we have string theory, with its pronouncements of a Multiverse (many universes that coexist simultaneously) and some seven new dimensions to our universe, which, to all appearances, seems three-dimensional. Though string theory is not an experimentally proven theory, like relativity and quantum mechanics, which are proven, it is nevertheless taken seriously by some of the world's greatest scientists.
So what are we to make of this new vision of the universe? I have personally gotten a sense of wonder and relevance actually seeing particles and anti-particles being spontaneously created and annihilated in high-energy particle detectors. Or, as in the work of my thesis, observing particles of light traveling through space and continuously changing into other particles of matter just long enough to escape the measurement of their masses. The reality of these things presents a unique portal into the true nature of our existence and the bizarre possibilities they would present if we were ever to come face to face with such truths. This, to me, is the essence of science fiction.
Worlds in Translation is a set of three stories that explore the human aspect of the mysteries of the new science. The book The Fabric of Reality, in part, inspired the first story, The End of the World. The author of The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch, is one of the original proponents of quantum computers and is a well-known physicist and mathematician. The second story, Parallax, was born of a fascination with the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was introduced in the late 1950's by Hugh Everett to try to explain quantum interference. In my opinion, the double slit interference pattern of single photons is a much more convincing argument for a Multiverse than is string theory. And finally, the third story, One Way Ticket, pays homage to string theory and relativity, which is, at this time, not well adapted to string theory--a problem that will inevitably force a reformulation of the theory.
So at a time in history when competing beliefs centered on mystical, scientific, and spiritual views of the world clash as strongly as ever, it is up to you, dear reader, to determine whether I've succeeded in bringing to you my own personal sense of wonder at our new understanding of reality.
Peter Dingus, Dec 2006
The End of the World
I watched the coarse crimson sand seeping through the fingers of my gloved hands like the sand in an hourglass. Sparkles shone from small pieces of silicon crystals as they caught errant reflections from my helmet lights. There wasn't much else to do as I waited for the inevitable.
Off in the distance, over a fork shaped spire in the Kepler Range, I saw the odd object moving upward against the stationary field of similar bright points in the night sky. The Com, chirping in my ear, broke a thick silence.
"We've got the Comsat, come on in."
"Yeah, I see it," I said, unable to take my eyes off the orbiting star. I climbed to my feet from my rocky perch and started for the trailer. It was no more than a couple of hundred yards beyond the craggy rise in front of me, but I couldn't see it, didn't want to. I'd found this spot precisely for that reason. I wanted to be alone, but not so far away that I'd miss Mars-Geo when the Comsat was finally overhead again.
I gripped the rocks on either side of the cramped meandering path over the ridge as I climbed toward the ledge overlooking the trailer. I never took my eyes from the moving point of light slowly arcing across the sky. Once on top, I surveyed the mesa beyond the mountains on whose foothills I stood. The trailer was barely discernable from the dark ground around it. In the distance, I saw the golden suggestion of dawn, still an hour away behind the mountaintops to the east.
A short time later, I entered the main cabin airlock, removed my environment suit, and entered the cabin. Sanderson and Laird were focused on the large flat screen at the far end of the room, but Teresa turned as I clicked the airlock door shut.
"Liam," she said in a rushed whisper.
"Have I missed anything?"
"No, not really." She lowered her eyes. "The Comsat was unable to raise Pasadena; we just got a connection to Mission Control on SS Freedom."
"That bad?" I said carelessly, then regretted the slip.
"Uh-huh," she said, and turned back to the screen.
I didn't recall ever seeing the face on the monitor before, although by the distraught disheveled look of the man, even if I had known him, I might not have recognized him. His face filled the entire screen. The lighting was so bad that the resulting shadows made his drawn features look especially haggard. The skin under his red eyes was puffy and dark, making it look as if he'd been crying.
"At 6:15 A.M., Eastern Standard time, planetary defense targeting satellites identified several unidentified sub-orbital missiles coming over the North Pole from Kazakhstan," the man said. "Orbital defense platforms were unable to fire before offensive missiles deployed thousands of decoys. Roughly five missiles got through and destroyed large parts of Washington and New York."
He seemed to choke as if he were out of breath, then stared into the cabin for a few moments.
"Come on, come on," implored Sanderson, hoping as I did that it had all stopped there. Unfortunately, due to the hundred million miles that separated us from Space Station Freedom orbiting the Earth, a two-way conversation was not possible, and we had to wait for the man to regain his composure on his own. When he started talking again, we learned it hadn't ended there, not by a long shot. With zombie-like persistence, the man continued to describe the fantastic events that, to the few of us left alive, signaled the end of our run on earth as a species. After the first strike there must have been total confusion and chaos, but the man seemed to acknowledge none of it. He continued to relate the facts concerning the end of the world as if he were reading from a well-vetted documentary script, like something that had happened to some lost race in the dim past, to which we had little emotional attachment. As he continued to speak, I heard low murmurs from Teresa, whom I stood behind.
"Oh no, oh no," she said with the repetitive riff of a church choir.
I could smell the shampoo in her dark hair, a floral something that evoked memories of long walks along flower-strewn paths in the Hawaiian mountains. Flowers I might only see again in video images on my Palm. I had no idea whether vegetation could survive the human desecration of the Earth--whether some prolonged nuclear winter could forever erase those beautiful flowers I loved so much from the list of things created by more benevolent powers.
"After our space-base platforms failed to stop the attack, we retaliated against targets in Southern Russian in kind, but large EM emissions knocked out global Com networks," the man said. He mopped his brow, then looked behind him as if someone were talking. He nodded a couple of times, then looked into the camera once more. There were excited ramblings and flashes of people running behind him.
"I'm told by our communications center that we're being painted by ground base targeting radar." A sardonic smile crept across his face. "Probably automated," he remarked. "There's no one left down there who'd be pushing buttons at this point."
The man disappeared from sight, and the image changed to one of the Earth from twenty-two thousand miles up, but the narration continued in his voice. "This is what the world looks like now."
"Oh my lord," Laird said, his British accent more pronounced than usual.
The once blue marble, as it had been affectionately called since the day of that famous Earth-rise picture taken by Buzz Aldrin on the moon, was now a dirty bright white. Accumulations of dust and ash high in the atmosphere were reflecting the sun's light back into space, denying its life-giving warmth to the Earth's surface.
I heard Teresa's mournful sobs, but couldn't see her face, which was turned away from me and hidden in her hands. The man from the space station continued. "Well, there you have it. We're all orphans now. There's nowhere else for us to go, even if there weren't a couple of missiles headed our way as I speak."
The image of the unfamiliar Earth faded and his face reappeared. He seemed more composed, the bust of a man who had accepted his fate and decided that his last few moments of life would best be spent in sober lucidity.
"Good luck to you, Mars-Geo, may God be with you."
As he uttered those words, an increasingly bright light slowly washed out his features, and he disappeared in a field of white, a beatific smile the last discernable evidence of his face to vanish. Presently, the monitor showed a black and white static raster, as the speakers conveying the audio transmission emitted a shrill whine. Then total silence.
"That's the sound of the microphone melting," Sanderson said. "They're gone." He turned and scanned the room, pausing a moment on each of us, then said, "We're all that's left." Looking at me, he exhaled and said, "I guess you're in charge of what's left of the American military now, General."
"There are probably governments left on Earth," I said. "Although they must have hit Colorado pretty hard, I'll bet a substantial part of Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain survived, as well as the deep government bunkers in Pennsylvania and Montana."
I glanced at Teresa for support.
"I don't know, Liam. There are bunker busting tactical nuclear devices that burrow pretty deep. Even if those bunkers weren't completely destroyed, the people who survived wouldn't live long if power or air scrubbers were damaged. They'd have to stay down there for at least twenty years before surface conditions would marginally support life again, and that's probably an optimistic estimate."
She turned and addressed the others in that factual impersonal tone that most scientists use. "It'll be very hot on most of the surface for the first five years due to Cobalt 60--even in suits. It'll be hard to go to the surface to make repairs, and that's assuming the exit shafts weren't damaged."
Sanderson grinned, then turned my way. I could see the familiar glint in his eyes. He'd shifted gears, from morose refugee of a waning civilization, to a competitive debater unshakably locked on making his point.
"Well General, there you have it, from our resident physicist--the optimistic scenario."
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