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Real World Physics Problems Newsletter - Scary Physics, Issue #12
October 28, 2014

Scary Physics

There's some physics that I find downright scary! The physics that most comes to mind in this regard is quantum physics. I'm reminded of this one episode from the X-Files many years ago in which a physicist, by some weird experiment, developed a shadow that could swallow people if the light was strong enough. It was one of the standout episodes for me needless to say. Although such occurrences fall well under the realm of science fiction, there are still certain real-world quantum phenomenon that can really get the imagination going, and fear-filled thoughts will naturally follow from that.

The quantum world, as it turns out, is a world of fuzzy reality, and experiments have shown that it is indeed the case. Take for instance the results of Schrödinger's equation. For the physics enthusiasts among you, this will bring to mind Schrödinger's cat, which is used in a popular quantum thought experiment. The idea is that this cat (a black cat, no less) can simultaneously be alive and dead, in two parallel universes. In one universe it is alive and in the other universe it is dead.

The splitting of reality into these two universes happens at the instant a particular event occurs, or does not occur. It's this event that kills the cat and the probability of this event happening is random. Makes sense so far, but as it turns out, in theory, the universe accounts for all possible outcomes and it does this by creating two parallel universes, one in which the cat is killed and the other in which the cat is alive. The way the universe accommodates for both possible outcomes is by splitting in two. But both universes are separate and cannot interact with each other. So how exactly is this scary? It's scary because it sounds so incredible and leaves the door wide open for other things like having twins somewhere out there in another parallel universe. Kind of like a doppelganger. Imagine that you have an evil twin in another universe which, due to some probabilistic-based outcome, is different from you. Some life-changing event which happened in that universe, but not this one, caused this other version of you to spring into existence. It's a fascinating thought to imagine that there might be other such universes equivalent to ours except in some small detail. Imagine a universe where JFK wasn't killed, or where some virus wiped out humanity and modern civilization is in ruins.

In fact some physicists believe that there are multiple universes, or at least that the theory has reasonable credibility. The multi-universe theory actually comes from thinking very deeply about the implications of certain aspects of quantum physics.

Another scary part of quantum physics is the teleportation possibility. Physicists speculate that some day it may be possible to teleport people from one place to another, like in Star Trek. Physicists have had some success doing this with quantum particles, such as photons and certain atoms. But apparently, to teleport life-size objects such as us, you have to destroy the original teleportee. Something about how the teleportation process works requires that the original subject entering the teleporter be destroyed in order for the subject to emerge on the destination end. But some suggest that the teleportee that shows up on the destination end is only a copy, an exact copy, but a copy nonetheless. But since it doesn't know it's a copy, and for all intents and purposes it acts, feels, and behaves the exact same way, including having the same memories of everything leading up to the teleportation, then it is essentially the same person. It's a philosophical question for sure, but like one physicist has already said, "I'm not stepping into that thing!"

Imagine if something went wrong with the teleportation. If you've seen the 1986 remake of The Fly you will know what I mean. It's scary stuff. I once read a short story by Stephen King that involved teleportation and the premise was that you had to be unconscious before the teleportation, otherwise very bad things would happen. What would happen is that during the limbo stage, in which your atom stream is in between the teleporters, your consciousness experiences a very, very long span of time, approaching infinity. It could be as much as a thousand years, a million years, or a million million years. It would be unbelievably tortuous. And yet it would be experienced during the few seconds of normal time that pass in between teleports. And once the teleportees emerge on the other end they go immediately mad. Their hair turns white and they start raving uncontrollably. I remember one character in the story that held his breath so as not to breathe the knockout gas which would make him unconscious. When he emerged on the other end he said something like, "It's a very, very long time! You have no idea how long! Longer than you can possibly imagine!" And then his hair turned white and he collapsed. So the moral of this story is don't hold your breath, especially in a teleportation chamber. If you do the result might be pure hell!

And on that note, Happy Halloween!

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