Today’s guest post is from our friend David Walton. I was lucky enough to meet David through the Codex Writers’ Group, and I have to say, I’m very excited about his new SF novel, Superposition, which digs into some of the exciting physics that he discusses here.
They say that truth can be stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of quantum physics. It’s like you popped into some other universe where all the rules are different, and nothing works like you expect it to. Once you get down to the level of things smaller than an atom, some very, very odd things start happening.
The source of all the weirdness is found right there in the name “quantum.” A quantum is just a piece, a unit, a chunk. It’s like Legos: you can make a Lego house with thousands of pieces, but when you break it down, you can’t break it into any smaller pieces than the single Legos. At a large scale, you can’t even see the individual pieces. Things behave just as if matter were continuous. But at the small scale, the little pieces start making a big difference.
Unlike Legos, however, the smallest building blocks of matter aren’t just defined by size. The “quantum” effect applies to how much energy a particle can have, or even to the rate at which it can spin. For instance, photons can only have a spin rate of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. They *can’t* have a spin of 1.5 or 3.2. If it’s spinning along at a rate of 3, and it slows down, it will have a spin of 2, and then 1, but not any rate in between. Electrons spin at 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, etc. Which means they can’t have a spin of zero! The slowest they can spin is 0.5, and no less.
This quantum nature arises from the fact that particles have wave-like properties (the famous particle-wave duality), and can cause some very weird effects. Like being in multiple places at once. Or passing from A to B without hitting some of the places in between.
Brain hurting? Maybe an analogy would help.
Let’s think of a particle as a tennis ball, bouncing back and forth between two walls. The ball never slows down or falls; it just keeps bouncing back and forth endlessly. Now we turn off the lights, pull out our camera, and take a flash picture. In the picture, we would see a single green dot in the air, somewhere between the walls, right? It would be just as likely to be in any one place along its path as any other. If we took a thousand pictures, or a million, and merged them together, we’d see a solid green line from wall to wall, representing all of the tennis ball’s possible states.
Not so with a particle. If this were an electron instead of a tennis ball, we’d look at our picture and see a pattern where some areas had lots of dots and some areas had no dots at all. No matter how many pictures we took, we’d never catch the ball in those spots, because it would never be in those places at all. In fact, we could hold up a tennis racket in the path of the ball, right in one of those blank spots, and the ball would never hit it. It would just keep bouncing back and forth from wall to wall.
This is the concept of superposition… and it’s a central concept in my quantum physics murder mystery, SUPERPOSITION, just released from Pyr Books! In the novel, as you might have guessed, the fun of quantum physics is not limited to the sub-atomic world. Objects larger than an atom have the chance to behave like waves as well, like tennis balls, bullets, and even people. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high-stakes danger and a race to the finish. I hope you’ll give it a try!
David Walton is the author of the newly released novel Superposition, a quantum physics murder mystery with the same mind-bending, breathless action as films like Inception and Minority Report. His other works include the Philip K. Dick Award-winning Terminal Mind, the historical fantasy Quintessence (Tor, 2013) and its sequel, Quintessence Sky. You can read about his books and life at http://www.davidwaltonfiction.com/.