Recently I’ve been reading about quantum physics in another (futile) attempt to understand it. I studied it years ago as part of my degree, and I’ve read umpteen books about it. The first book I ever read about it – when I was a teenager – was ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’. Before that I’d never even heard of the term ‘quantum physics’ but that book got me hooked and was one of the reasons why I did a physics degree.
The reason for all the reading is because I want to write some fiction about, or inspired by, quantum physics. But the immediate problem is: what sort of fiction could that be? Traditional realist fiction is by its very nature at odds with the findings of quantum physics. The former uses words to generate some sort of underlying reality in the reader’s head, although this might be different for each reader. The standard interpretation of quantum physics is that there is no underlying reality, all we can do is explain observations and not invent some reality that cannot be directly observed. Although Einstein disagreed with this interpretation ( which was most famously articulated by Bohr in his debates with Einstein), it has come to be accepted. Think, for example, of the nature of light, sometimes it behaves as if it were a particle, other times as if it were a wave. Einstein said that this showed quantum physics was inadequate. Bohr argued that light simply exhibits either wave-like or particle-like characteristics, depending on the experimental set-up.
So, traditional fiction about quantum physics seems like a non-starter. There is quite a lot of fiction inspired by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, in which new Universes pop into being every time an experiment is carried out. But there is little fiction that seems to be directly inspired by the more standard ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation, in which the mutually contradictory realities of an object can co-exist in this Universe unless and until that object is observed. This interpretation is illustrated by Schrödinger’s cat, an apparently reductio ad absurdum thought experiment which cannot be faulted. The cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed (although sometimes when I observe my cat, he’s so deeply asleep and so furry I panic and think he’s stopped breathing…).
And how do you capture those apparently mutually contradictory states in fiction? I can’t think of many examples. One not so immediately obvious example is ‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine (the pen-name of Ruth Rendall). In this thriller, the story turns on which one of two sisters is the mother of a child. There is compelling evidence both for and against each woman being the mother, and the book never resolves the problem.
I’ve been inspired by this in writing a short story, loosely based on the real-life Italian physicist Majorana who disappeared in 1938, when he was 32 years old. He most likely committed suicide by jumping overboard off a boat, but there is evidence that he may have actually staged this suicide and continued to live in Argentina. So he seems to have been both dead and alive…