James called me from his lab, late on a Friday afternoon. He knew my weakness for zany research methods, and we had been friendly ever since his “grand triumph” when he impressed us pure mathematicians with his SAT-solving quantum bubble experiment. So he knew I wouldn’t be able to help myself when he explained his new game. His “certainty game”, he called it. How could I know a silly thing like this would be so important? Neither of us guessed at the ramifications. We stumbled on blindly, like humans do. We’re good at that.
So instead of going home to start dinner for the kids, I strolled through the lazy green hills of research, largely deserted, and took the stairs up to his lab. Sidling around the corner door into his workspace, I saw it was the usual chaos: piled high with PVC and tiny struts, lasers and precision mirrors, all wired up to some system. He didn’t even look up from the screen, which flashed away like some kind of video game, and he had an Xbox controller in hand, waggling the sticks with maniacal glee. “Oh hey, Quinn, yeah, grab a chair,” he said, turning back to the flickering, snaking wireframes cast from reds and blues and oranges.
“See, I’ve got a hydrogen atom suspended. And this,” he waved dismissively at the screen, “visualizes various metrics rolling off the sensors, like the probability density of where our little friend’s electron is at, spin, so on… there’s a lot of noise still, and I still haven’t quite got the calculations for the Compton shift right.”
It was pretty late in the day, and prety close to the weekend to be thinking hard about yet another crazy new project I didn’t understand at all yet, so I just mumbled something largely incoherent about multiple magnetic Compton profiles and kept staring at the hypnotic screen. I could intuit what he was trying to do, aligning the shapes, and it did look an awful lot like a game.
“Here, gimme,” I said with my usual eloquence, and James frowned and flung me the controller.
“You’re right, you might be right… I forgot to think about how the complex field would affect it when… ha!” And he suddenly ran off into the nest of toys to tweak something.
Gradually, my thumbs got comfortable with how their tiny motions translated into pattern changes. It was hypnotic to watch, but even more mesmerising to be in control of. I would have been obsessed with it for a while even if it was just a visualizer. I thought guiltily of Lauren and the kids, and looked away from the screen for a minute. Then I grabbed my phone, sent a quick apologetic text: “Something interesting at work. Home late.” And then, because I am a fool when it comes to these things, I went right back to tweaking the analog sticks on the game.
“Well, I’ve got it in the box over here.” He gestured to an unassuming vacuum chamber right next to the screen. “We’re playing a game against God here, Quinn.” He chuckled. “I want to see how accurately we can measure the momentum and the position of our little electron friend in its field. We’ve got an awful lot of toys here, and I’m just trying to understand the bounds of what they can tell us.”
“Mmhmm,” I replied, still focused on the screen. “So that’s why the two interferometers and that whole tangle over there.” I waggled an elbow, unable to take my hands off the controller. We drifted into silence, me with my attention on the screen, and him scratching his chin while staring at the experimental setup.
“Ponderomotive energy from the array, could be…” James trailed off, or at least, I stopped paying attention to him. My world was reduced to a tunnel formed from lines and dust trails, readings from the interferometer, readings about an atom I couldn’t see or touch, but interact with in this strange way. In shades of unreal blues and oranges, it was visceral; after spending my life thinking theoretically about atoms, never touching their miniscule cores, this gave me a feeling of cradling one in a gentle caress.
The probability densities danced with me; I could not tell which color was which, but my thumbs coaxed them in an intricate two-step.
James was at my shoulder. “Did that help?” he asked. I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t speak. I was down in the shell with that electron.
“Wow, you’re getting them really close, Quinn! You’re some kind of videogame savant, huh?” Green dots began to cluster around the corners of the lattice, some sort of indicator that James understood but was just a sensory hint for me.
And then, I could feel it in the back of my skull, in the hairs on my knuckles, I knew I could get the system to twirl in just such a way, and –
There was no dance, because everything ended.
How was I to know that breaking the law was possible? Reducing something to certainty should have been untenable, unreachable, infinitely out of our grasp. But I must have done it, accidentally. I didn’t expect everything to end. We didn’t even have time to –