When was it that he was first taught about quantum mechanics?
He could not remember when but he remembered how. He had been sitting in his grandfather’s workshop, trying to solve an equation he’d been challenged to. Growing up in a family of scientists, equations were his equivalent of games. Frustrated by his continued failed attempts to solve the problem he had gone over to his grandfather to complain.
However when he saw the various tools and pieces spread out along the tabletop he found himself asking what the old man was doing despite himself. Turning around with a sly grin his grandfather said, ‘Why, David! I’m glad you asked! Answer One: I am trying to understand the building blocks of the universe. Answer Two: I am trying to determine if a cat is alive or dead. Which one is correct?’
After several seconds of thought he, David, replied, ‘Answer One.’ What the old man had laid out before him looked more like mechanical pieces then anything organic, like a cat.
‘Incorrect, I’m afraid! I am doing both.’
He remembered pouting; feeling like his grandfather had cheated. Eventually though his curiosity got the better of him and he asked how.
‘Have you ever heard of Quantum Theory? I’d imagine not… but basically Quantum Theory is what I’m working on and it is one possible model to explain how all of this exists,’ his grandfather gestured to everything around them.
‘What does that have to do with a cat though?’
His grandfather laughed, ‘It’s actually a bit of a joke. You see one of the easiest ways to explain Quantum Theory is through the example of a thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat.’
His grandfather explained the experiment to him. That there was a cat that was put inside a sealed box along with a vial of poison and a piece of radioactive material that could at any time trigger the release of the poison. At any time before they actually opened the box, the cat could be considered both alive and dead. Only by opening the box and confirming how the feline faired could you say which of the states it was in.
‘Before you open the lid, the cat exists as a possibility. It is either alive or dead. Neither is true and neither is false. You have an equal chance that you’ll get your pet cat back and an equal chance you’ll need to bury Mittens in the backyard. After you open the lid, one possibility is cancelled out and the result becomes a fixed constant.’
‘The universe operates in a similar system. If something goes unobserved then both possibilities exist, by observing you change the outcome and create a certainty from those possibilities. Do you understand?’
He remembered at the time he had a hard time keeping up but he thought he had nodded anyway.
‘It doesn’t end there though.’
Pulling out a pen and paper he drew a crude circle and split it down the centre. ’Now what could happen to the cat we’ve placed in our box?’
Looking at his grandfather with suspicion, suspecting another trick question he asked, ‘The cat is either alive or dead right?’
‘For the most part, yes, however in the tiniest infinitesimal percentage exists the possibility of everything else you can possibly imagine. You might open the box and find the cat is gone or maybe you open it and there’s a dog inside or perhaps you open it and out spills twelve Cornish hens, four pigeons and a marching band. The chances of it happening are so tiny that to even call it a possibility is absurd, that still doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen.’
‘Where are they on the graph then?’
‘Apart from the two major possibilities, everything else you can possibly manage can be found between the lines.’
David never felt good waking up. He always woke up with a persistent headache and his alarm always felt like it was drilling into his skull. Reaching out beside him he hit the off button for his alarm but the noise didn’t stop.
‘Huh?’ Sitting up he glared at his clock blearily. 7:03 was what the display said, so his alarm shouldn’t go off for about another half hour. In that case what was that sound?
Getting out of bed with a groan he winced as his foot touched the ground and the warmth left his body all at once. It was winter and there was no heating in the flat he was renting, so the floor got so chilled it was like standing barefoot on a polar icecap. Reaching under his bed he pulled out a pair of fluffy slippers.
After putting them on he stood up and began searching for the noise. He eventually discovered the source, a cheap mobile phone sitting on a small folding table, one of the few pieces of furniture in the small flat. Picking up the mobile and squinting at the screen he saw GRAMPS LAB flashing on it.
Hitting the answer button he held it up to his ear and croaked, ‘Hello?’
‘David! It’s me!’
David winced at the lively enthusiastic voice blaring from the phone. ‘What is it?’ he asked sounding rather irritated.
Not in the least bit perturbed at the cold reply to his greeting, Gramps continued unabated. ‘I’m just calling to tell you not to visit the house but to swing by the lab this afternoon. Your father is having tea with some dignitary or something. Probably looking to get more funding for his research. Plus if you come here you could help me with some soldering. Arthritis, you know?’ Despite getting close to eighty years old, David’s grandfather, Doctor Eoin Parker was adamant that no matter hour decrepit his body got, so long as his mind worked he’d continue studying science.
‘Sure,’ David said, clearing his throat. ‘I’ve got a morning lecture but I’m free after, so I can probably swing by around one.’
‘Fantastic! I’ll pop the kettle on… Once I remember what I did with it… Actually I might have removed the coil from it to use as a conductor… I’ll get a new kettle and we can have some of the scones from the corner shop. See you then.’
Hanging up the phone he let out a sigh, ‘Guess I should start getting ready, huh?’
Letting out another slight sigh he headed towards the bathroom to refresh himself.
Splashing his face with water he looked at himself in the mirror. His black hair was lacklustre and curtained his face making his skin look sickly. His eyes were a washed out grey colour and despite his relatively young age, he had dark bags under his eyes.
He was built like a stick; while he was about 182cm tall he only weighed 56 kilos. Looking at him the word malnourished came to mind. Although it wasn’t as though he was starving himself, but for whatever reason no matter how much he ate he never seemed to gain weight.
Letting another sigh slip through his lips he decided to get ready for the day. He just had to make it through this morning’s lecture…
A couple of hours later the headache pressing against his skull had been replaced with a deep fatigue. Lifting up the round glasses sitting on the bridge of his nose he rubbed his eyes. ‘There is nothing more counterproductive then boredom. Yet I am forced to subject myself to it for a piece of paper…’
Was he growing cynical already?
Talking to his grandfather should refresh him, so he headed towards the laboratory his grandfather had set up on Victoria Road. It was a large modern complex; there had been a lot of negative public opinion when it was being built, something about it sullying the homely atmosphere. However Eoin Parker had wanted a lab in walking distance from his home though and he was going to get it no matter what the general populace said.
The building was large, and shaped like an L with a small car park in the empty space for visitors or some of the other scientists that worked there. Rather than walking up to the driveway to enter, David vaulted the low brick fence that separated the car park from the road.
Walking towards the entrance to the lab David tripped over something on the ground. Falling to his hands and knees, he swore as the skin on his palm was torn away. Getting back to his feet he dusted himself off before turning to face the offending object that had tripped him.
Reserved for Doctor Michael Blunt, that was what a small plaque sitting on the ground said. The plaque was clearly new; it was shiny and bright, not having been subjected to the weather. That was probably why he had tripped over it, because it had never been there in all his previous visits, but what concerned David was the message on it. ‘Why does that man have a parking space here?’
David used his mother’s maiden name his father was Michael Blunt though. Like his grandfather, David’s father was a scientist. Though if Eoin Parker was infamous, then Michael Blunt was a famous. If there was a list of famous scientists Michael Blunt would be somewhere in the top five. He worked in various fields, making discoveries and innovations. He had been called the Edison of the 21st Century.
Michael Blunt had already been awarded the Nobel Prize in both Medicine and Physics and he was only 52. He was also a doting father who cared for his twelve years old daughter after his wife’s unfortunate passing.
No one knew he had a son that was sixteen though, because to Michael Blunt, David might as well not exist. That was why David lived by himself now; he had been unable to bear living in a home where he was ignored. The only reason he’d stayed as long as his did was because of his grandfather and sister. When he had, had enough and needed to leave though, they had both understood and helped him.
Spitting on the empty parking space, David continued towards the entrance to the lab. His mind was in turmoil, thinking about his father always made him feel ill. Even just seeing his name brought to mind a hundred or so different times when his father had ignored his existence. He was so deep in thought, mired in loathing and self-pity, that he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him. So when someone grabbed his arm he let out a piercing shriek in surprise and jumped out of his skin.
‘Wha-?’ his heart was beating hard enough to hammer out a rhythm on his ribs.
Grabbing his arm was a girl; she was probably about his age, maybe a couple of years older. She was tall, for a girl but she was still a head shorter than him. She was wearing a heavy dark blue jacket that looked too big for her, a bright orange skirt peeked out underneath the fur lined hem of the jacket and knee-high boots encased her lower legs. A grey cabbie hat sat upon her head, her brown hair underneath fell down to her shoulders. Unlike David who looked sickly her skin had a healthy glow to it.
Her face was stony; her green eyes were deadly serious, staring him down. “She’d probably be cute if she smiled…” he thought absentmindedly.
She interrupted his thoughts by squeezing his arm harder and saying, ’If you value your life do not enter that building.’
And just like that she turned and ran away, disappearing as suddenly as she came.
‘Wha-?’ David repeated dumbly.