Quantum Crashing (or, Crisis on Infinite Me)

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Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the best thing that ever happened to me that hasn’t actually happened yet. I know, this sounds like science fiction, but unfortunately it is just the reality of the film industry. Because nothing about this one-year-old event has been made “official”, I can’t get into specifics – and yet, I have already said enough to explain the crux of my angst. For an entire year now, I have been living in Hollywood Limbo; celebrating something I cannot celebrate, having accomplished something I have not technically accomplished.

Basically, I have spent a year stuck between parallel universes: one in which I am a working professional writer with traditional markers of success, and another in which I am a professional writer who so far has nothing tangible to show for it. I am Schrödinger’s cat, stuck in a lead box with a possibly-decaying radioactive particle, both alive and dead at the same time.

On the plus side, I now know what it feels like to operate on a quantum level. On the down side, it kind of sucks big time and I hope it ends soon.

The most common theory of parallel universes – the Many Worlds Interpretation – springs from the theory of quantum mechanics. As I mentioned in Quantum Leaping a couple weeks ago, quantum particles don’t exist in just one state or another (moving or still, for example), but in what Neils Bohr called a “superposition”: they exist in all possible states at the same time. Bohr noted that our observation of them is what breaks superposition and forces them to, basically, pick a state and stick with it.

I would really like someone to try to observe my career right about now so it would be forced to pick a reality. Of course, it could pick the dead cat reality instead of the live one, so maybe I’ll just stay right here in the box for the time being. Be careful what you wish for, right?

The many worlds theory of parallel universes goes one step beyond Bohr and says that while to us an observed particle looks like it chose just one of its possible states, it actually split the universe into several realities – one for each of its possible states. So, when we open the box to check on the cat, in our world she leaps out alive and pissed off, but we also create a parallel universe in which Fluffy was not so lucky.

This too shall pass, Fluffy.

This too shall pass, Fluffy.

And thus it goes, on and on, splitting off parallel realities with each point of decision or action. Fluffy jumps out of the box and can either scratch our face off or hide under the bed; boom: two more worlds exist, one with eyes glaring out from the darkness and one where we’re bleeding profusely. We, of course, see only one continuous reality from our perspective, but just on the other side of the fabric of space-time there are other versions of us with more or less blood on our faces and/or a dead cat.

I find the idea of a multiverse comforting at a time like this weekend’s anniversary, not just because it nicely captures the schizophrenic feeling I’ve had for the last twelve months, but also because it helps put things in perspective. Naturally, it has been really difficult to be on the verge of a dream come true for so long, and to watch that dream be deferred again and again. I feel like Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham from Field of Dreams, standing on the base line of a magic ball field, one step away from the life I was meant to live. Medicine was Archie Graham’s true calling, and I also want to step over that line into my life-long career. But with each day that I wait, I am terrified that writing will turn out to be my version of Moonlight’s baseball career – something I come so close to, have within my grasp, but never quite catch.

And on top of that, I am mortified that in my late thirties I am again barely able to pay my rent.

It is nearly impossible in times like this, when we feel helpless and on the verge of hopeless, not to examine our path to this point and our choices along the way. The “how did I get here,” “what if I’d done this instead” mental spinning that is not good for anyone. To stop myself, I like to think about the fact that somewhere, out in the multiverse, there exist theoretical versions of me that did make different choices – many of them worse ones – and that no matter how frustrating, depressing, embarrassing, or just plain crappy I consider my life and myself right now, somewhere there is a parallel universe with a version that is worse. Somewhere out there, there is even the worst version of me that could possibly be. Suddenly, things don’t seem all that bad.

Of course, there also exists the remote possibility that I am that worse possible version of me. Does anyone have a radioactive particle and a lead box I can crawl into?

Quantum Leaping

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The other day, a girlfriend and I were discussing the defining challenges we all face in each decade of life. You know, in the first ten years it is mastering the basics, like walking, talking, and not soiling yourself; in the next ten it is navigating social situations and surviving high school (again, without soiling yourself); and in your twenties it is coming to understand that you have not actually figured it all out and that you really are still kind of a shit. Now in our thirties, we decided that the major lesson we are fighting to learn is the challenge of letting it all go – not worrying so much about how we are perceived and instead just living the life we want to live.

This is a challenge facing all people, but definitely one that is significantly harder for women. Our fearless leader, Barbara Streisand, summed it up nicely when, after a decade and a half spent pushing the rock that was Yentl up the Hollywood hills only to be vilified for it, she said, “Why is it men are permitted to be obsessed about their work, but women are only permitted to be obsessed about men?” At my first job after college, I can remember the frustration of feeling this double standard but not being able to define it. When I defended one of my ideas in a meeting, I was invariably chided for “taking things personally”, while my male colleagues who did the same were praised as “passionate” and “assertive”. The societal expectations for women are far more defined and far less forgiving – and it really doesn’t help that random estrogen surges occasionally make us cry for no reason at all.

So my girlfriend and I started talking about how often we let the judgment of society (or even the potential judgment) have more say in our behavior than our own desires. Do I want to be starting a family? No, but I feel like I should. Do I want to cut this negative person out of my life? Yes, but I am afraid she will hate me. Do I want to tell this story or voice this opinion? Yes, but what if they call me a bitch? Even with Tina Fey declaring “bitch is the new black,” that one still hurts. But we need to stop letting ourselves be so limited, and instead allow ourselves to reach our full potential. In other words, we need to unleash our inner quantum.

The Theory of Quantum Mechanics exists because over the years scientists have come to understand that, at the atomic level, particles operate in far more interesting and liberated ways than boring solid objects do in the real world. The marquee headline being that atomic particles can and do exist in two states at once. Why? Because of quantum. Duh.

Regardless of why or how, the big problem for many scientists (and other logical types) is the idea that there are separate rules for particles and objects. After all, objects are made of particles, so shouldn’t things be able to act just as “quantumly” as their parts? That little syllogism is probably why so many of us – you too, don’t pretend – believe deep in our bones that quantum tunneling, teleportation, time travel, and all those sci-fi fantasies must be possible.

One of these scientists, Aaron O’Connell, was so certain the logic must follow that he became the first person to actually get a solid object to be in two places at once. No kidding. For a fully respectable explanation of his breakthrough, check out O’Connell’s 2011 TED talk (Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object), but for now let me hit you with the highlights. To achieve his result, O’Connell had to figure out what it takes for a physical object to “unleash its inner quantum” (my silliness, not his). The answer tuned out to be… nothing.

Literally nothing, in this case. O’Connell created a tiny piece of metal that he then suspended over a void in a containment device that allowed him to remove all light, sound, and air, and lower the temperature to just above absolute zero. When completely free of any interference, the tiny object began to “breathe”. More precisely, they found that it was both still and vibrating simultaneously – which means its various particles were both stationary and bouncing around like pong at the same time. Two states, one object. Whoa.

The analogy O’Connell uses to explain is an elevator. As solid objects, we basically live life in a crowded elevator, with lots of other things to keep us company and keep us acting “normal”. But just like you and I are way more likely to get jiggy wit the Muzak when there are no other passengers or visible security cameras (admit it – I am not the only one), solid objects are more likely to behave quantum mechanically when they are alone.

On a practical level, I am pretty sure that this means Aaron O’Connell has proven the show Quantum Leap to be entirely accurate, except for the fact that Sam could see, hear, breathe, and didn’t boil to death in a freezing vacuum. On a broader level, though, his discovery is important because it reinforces the idea that the more we can kick out of the elevators that are our heads, the closer we can come to operating at our full potential.

For us, it is a matter of shutting out the light of all the eyes that are watching and judging, banishing the inner sounds of self-doubt and pride, ignoring the winds of both criticism and praise, and not feeling the heat of embarrassment or fear. If we can boot all of that interference out of our elevator, maybe we can finally start to live quantumly – both remaining solid (the person we are, the qualities we cannot change) and at the same time vibrating freely (quantum leaping like fools to the Muzak of our souls).

Or, maybe we’ll just invent time travel, which would be pretty cool too. Oh, boy!