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Superposition by David Walton

Pyr, 2015, 302 p.

 Superposition cover

Told in alternating chapters headed Up-Spin and Down-Spin – until the text’s narration merges in Chapter 40 – Superposition is an exploration of quantum theory and how it might manifest in the macroscopic world if its effects were to apply there. At the same time it is a crime story with a murder at its heart. The victim, Brian Vanderhall, was a physicist who has managed to find a way to interact with creatures from the quantum world, using their knowledge to build a Higgs projector, which can locally alter the Higgs field, thus allowing bullets, for example, to be fired at an object and pass around it, plus various other might-as-well-be-magic occurrences.

The Up-Spin chapters see Jacob Kelley relating the events surrounding the crime and its aftermath, the Down-Spin ones depict Kelley’s trial for the murder. At first the chapters are set at different times but they eventually become contemporaneous. Irruptions from the quantum world have meant that two sets of Kelley – and some other characters – can exist at one time, their probability functions supposedly spread out (superposed) in the manner of sub-atomic particles. Quite how this squares with there only being two – or at most three – versions of each is left unexplained, or, more charitably, a form of artistic licence.

As might be imagined there is a plethora of information dumping and explanation. For this, handy non-Physics-knowledgeable characters provide useful sounding boards. While necessary, these explanations do tend to the obtrusive and there are occasional other narrative infelicities.

The back-cover blurb from William Hertling, “Walton’s captivating writing will draw you in, the murder mystery will keep you reading and you’ll finish with a better understanding of quantum physics,” is wrong on all three counts. Walton’s writing is up to the task but rarely more than workmanlike, the murder mystery is the least of the attractions and the last will only apply if you didn’t know anything about it already. (Arguably even if you do. As Niels Bohr said, anyone who isn’t profoundly shocked by quantum physics hasn’t understood it.) The text also betrays some unreconstructed ideas about both the triggering of female sexual arousal and maternal instinct. The plot depends for its continuation on the lack of collapse of the probability functions of both Kelley and his daughter Alex/Alessandra yet other characters not so necessary to it revert to the one form relatively quickly.

In addition Walton represents the “split” characters as mirror images of each other. Down-Spin Kelley – and one version of daughter Alex – have been active throughout. They will require to have eaten during this time. Like most other biological molecules carbohydrates, fats and proteins are compounds which are chiral (ie exhibit handedness – all in the same sense.) A mirror image body would not be able to metabolise food molecules inverse to it (the only ones available) since its relevant processing enzymes work only with the correct handedness, and hence it would starve. This is not a problem Roger Zelazny avoided in his novel Doorways in the Sand: he addressed it straight on. Walton doesn’t even seem to be aware of it.

Superposition is an entertaining enough tale – the courtroom scenes are well realised, if familiar from countless screen dramas. And it does fulfil the function of the detective novel. If you want a primer on quantum Physics dressed up as crime fiction this is the book for you.

Pedant’s corner:- “firmly established liver mortis” (liver mortis? Not rigor mortis?) “It wasn’t until I walked around one of the card tables that I saw him.” (saw the body, rather than “him” would have had more impact,) “‘What it doing?’” (What’s,) “the stream was still projecting, a show about the real-life exploits of…” (no comma,) “like an auctioneer valuating items for sale” (USian can be so ugly at times; the word is valuing,) “and a hanging model of the super collider hanging above our heads” (well, a hanging model can only hang, can’t it?) imposter (impostor,) “each of them wavered between themselves and their double” (their doubles.) “But hadn’t Elena and Claire and Sean had already resolved…?” (omit “had”.)

EM-Drive?

This peer reviewed paper seems to be experimental proof of an electromagnetic space drive capable of getting to Mars in 70 days.

At least according to the Daily Galaxy.

It may not turn out that way though (on the face of it it breaks the laws of Physics which of course “You cannae change, Captain,”)* but it still makes me feel like I’m living in the future.

*From this clip Scotty actually said “can’t” rather than “cannae”:-

The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey

Dedalus, 2013, 234 p.

The Secret Knowledge cover

In The Secret Knowledge Andrew Crumey has done something out of the ordinary. He has illustrated a corollary of the Schrödinger’s cat scenario – the possibility of multiple worlds – in a piece of fiction written in realistic terms. His characters discuss the possibilities but in the text it is never really spelled out that different scenes take place in different worlds. We must infer it from the narrative. Utilising the concepts of quantum physics in a literary form has always been one of Crumey’s concerns, though, and here he also returns to another of his familiar themes, music.

The chapters alternate between the historical and the present day starting in Paris in 1913 where composer Pierre Klauer has just completed a piano piece (entitled Le Savoir Secret, hence – in part – our novel’s title,) has also just proposed to his girlfriend Yvette but kills himself (off-stage) moments later. In our time, Paige, a student of piano, has just been assigned the tutelage of part-time concert performer David Conroy after giving up a course in English because she loves music more. Conroy gives to her to play a manuscript that has just come into his possession. A manuscript written by an unknown French composer and entitled The Secret Knowledge.

We then go back to 1919 just prior to the “Battle of George Square” in Glasgow where a newly arrived young French man befriends socialist John Quinn outside an Engineering Works. The Frenchman stirs up a meeting and is of course named Pierre Klauer. So. Did Klauer actually die in 1913, or not? (According to one Schrödinger outcome it can be both – or neither.) There follows a narrative which skips between the doings of Conroy and Paige, Yvette (who marries Klauer’s friend Louis Carreau) – to 1924 where Theodor Adorno meets a man who introduces himself as Klauer, Spain in 1940 where Carreau – who had stolen Klauer’s manuscript for Yvette has an encounter with the philosopher Walter Benjamin who then kills himself in the belief he will be returned to France and the Nazis, 1941 where Adorno meets Hannah Arendt. During these the same scene may be returned to but is shown to be subtly different.

But as Conroy says, “Art is always inconsistent,” and, “Truth is not something we discover consciously; it discovers us.” He also muses on his disappeared wife, “It’s only when they surprise you that you find out your ignorance. We expect continuity, not paradox.” About a part of Le Savoir Secret he feels, “this section is the dream of how things might otherwise have been, a path denied.”

In a passage which could be all about the writer’s art we have, “‘A performer knows all about the tricks of persuasion. Yes, the game was rigged, you were always meant to lose, but go on, take a card, see what you get.’” One of the characters conceives a future project, “a book of fragments, epigrammatic, or even surreal in character, apparent irrelevancies serving to create new, unintended meaning,” a book which, presumably, Crumey intended us to be reading in The Secret Knowledge.

Other notable pieces of dialogue include, “Lenin has” (succeeded) “in Russia. Make everyone think it’s a popular revolution when really it’s a coup: that’s genius.” Mention is made too of Louis Auguste Blanqui and the Mechanical Turk – which has seemed to crop up a lot recently in the books I have read.

Not the simplest of narratives then but immensely readable just the same. The actual secret of Klauer’s manuscript is not quite the tremendous revelation we might have hoped for though. Crumey here hasn’t quite achieved the heights he did in previous novels but The Secret Knowledge is still a remarkable rendering of quantum physics in the form of an accessible piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “he no longer tours, or records” (nor records,) Louis’ (Louis’s,) “the roll of a dice” (one of them is a die.) “The family she saw are gliding over the top” (the family is gliding.) Crumey is a serial offender here – “the family were” (the family was,) “around its upper balcony stand a crowd” (stands a crowd,) “a young couple huddle in one corner” (a couple huddles.)

The Higgs Boson Explained (Well, Almost)

From vimeo.com via Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Oxford

On our last day away we visited Oxford.

You can overdose on mediævality there but you can’t go to Oxford and not photograph this if you see it. (The van does kind of ruin it though.)

Bridge of Sighs, Oxford, Oxfordshire

On a wall in High Street, Oxford, I noticed this plaque.

Boyle & Hooke Plaque, Oxford, Oxfordshire

It commemorates Robert Hooke, he of the eponymous law on elasticity, and Robert Boyle who formulated the Gas Law and was the first to use the word cell in connection with living things.

I didn’t stumble on Oxford’s War Memorial but there was some stunning Art Deco (to come in a later post.)

The Higgs Field

I’m not a physicist so I can’t pretend to understand subatomic particles in any but a superficial way but now that some evidence from the Large Hadron Collider has been adduced for the Higgs boson I must confess it seems a bit weird.

Now, all subatomic physics is weird – solid objects are >99.99% empty space, they can behave like waves and like particles simultaneously, they seem to be in instantaneous communcation with each other all over the universe – but the action of the Higgs boson seems to be dependent on a field dragging on certain kinds of particles. Well such fields are fine, I can conceptualise magnetic, electrical and gravitational fields easily enough, but when I first heard it explained to me the Higgs field did seem to me to sound a bit like the 19th century concept of the luminiferous aether, long since discarded in favour of relativity and quantum theory.

If the Higgs is found to exist, fine, there’s another field to add to the list.

If it doesn’t, though, that’s a whole potentially more exciting new ball game.

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