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September 25, 2023

A Watched Pot

By Steven French

Alice cycled home from the lab feeling … tired, of course, but also, overlaid on that, something that was edging close to triumphant. Still, she reined back on the emotion and reminded herself of that old cliché: ‘Success is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.’ If anything the percentages went higher one way, lower the other. Since that initial, shadowy thought that had resolved itself into an idea, there had been months and months of seeking out funding opportunities, writing grant proposals, trying to convince assessment panels … then once she’d cobbled together some money, not enough, it was never enough, there was the business of hiring a research assistant, buying bits and pieces of equipment, testing it … All those months of preparation, the long hours, evenings and weekends away from her family … maybe, just maybe, it was all about to pay off. Not that she was comparing herself to Edison, author of that little piece of homespun wisdom about what it took to be successful, much less any of the great men and women of quantum physics. But still, if she could get the set-up to work, to yield a definite outcome that would resolve that thought she had had all those months ago, to confirm it, well, that would be an achievement, for sure. It was still early days, of course, but things definitely looked promising.

Her happiness carried her along past the kebab restaurants and off-licences and everything-for-a-pound stores, into the tree-lined streets and up the hill to her house, only to collapse as she walked into the living room. Her partner was slumped on the sofa, watching some reality show and didn’t even look up, much less ask how her day had been. “Are the kids in bed already?” Alice asked.

“Yeah. I’ve had dinner. If you want anything, there’re some leftovers in the fridge.”

For a moment Alice stood in the doorway, wondering how the two of them had become trapped in this well of bitterness and resentment. Shaking her head, she turned and dumped her coat in the hall, before entering the kitchen. Watching some takeaway leftovers rotate in the microwave, her excitement returned as she reflected on the day’s events. Deciding, on this day of all days, that she wouldn’t eat alone at the kitchen table, she returned to the living room, where some reality show was on the tv, showing a group of people, also in a living room, also not really interacting with one another.

As she sat down in an armchair, with the bowl of pad kee mow in her lap, Alice cleared her throat.

“I did it. Well … Bob and I did it. We managed to stabilise the system,” she announced, ‘and the initial results look good. I left him to tidy up a bit and then tomorrow we’re going to start our run of proper observations.”

“Oh. Good. That’s great. But y’know, I’m trying to watch this.”

Alice sat, staring at her bowl of food, then got to her feet and walked back into the kitchen. Sitting down at the table she pushed the bowl away, her appetite gone. Her thoughts, bouncing erratically between her home life and the lab, were brought to a focus by the buzzing of her phone.

“Hey, it’s me, Carly. How’s it going? Have you got it working yet? Your big experiment?”

Alice smiled to herself. “Hi Carly,” she answered, ‘thanks for calling.”

She paused while she allowed Carly’s question to take her back to how she felt earlier. “Yeah, maybe … I mean, it looks like it!” she said, excitement creeping into her voice again. “We haven’t started the observations properly yet but …” she let the implication hang there, one of many possibilities.

“You’re confident.”

“Yeah, I am. Sort of. I think there’s a good chance we’ve put together the first truly large-scale system to exhibit the Quantum Zeno Effect!” Alice told her.

“So, does that mean the system is frozen in place?” Carly asked.

“Well, it will be.” Alice replied. “It’s only when we make repeated observations on it that we will actually be able to stop its state from changing. It’s been done before for atomic sized objects but this will be the first time anyone’s got it to work for everyday things.”

She paused while she started on her dinner again. “I’ve left Bob to make a couple of adjustments before we start the run of observations,” she continued, around a mouthful of noodles, “but once they’re done, then … yeah, I think this could be a real breakthrough!”

“That’s wonderful!” Carly told her. “Is that a Nobel Prize I see in your future?!”

“Ha! I don’t think so,” Alice answered, “but I think we can demonstrate something important, which is that not just any old interactions with the system will do it. They have to be measurements made by a human observer. Or maybe just by something sentient. Whatever … something that has a conscious mind.”

She chewed her noodles happily.

There was silence for a moment before Carly said,

“So, our consciousness can freeze a quantum system, stop it in its tracks? The power of mind over matter!”

Alice laughed. “Yeah, that does sound kind of New Agey, I’ll admit. Einstein once said that he couldn’t believe the moon is only there when we look at it …”

“So you’re going up against Big Al now?” Carly laughed too.

“Whatever!” Alice said, “The important thing is, we’ll be the first to show the effect in such a large system.”

She returned to her bowl of food, smiling, while Carly paused again, clearly thinking about what Alice had said.

“Right, so … it’s the intervention of the observer’s conscious mind that stops the system from carrying on doing whatever it was doing, yes?” she asked.

“That’s right,” Alice replied, wondering what Carly was getting at.

“And when the observer intervenes in that way, doesn’t that mean that she’ll become tangled up with the system? You told me about that one time, about how everything that interacts with a quantum system gets tangled up with it ...”

Alice looked at the phone in her hand, as the fork fell into the bowl with a clatter.

“And wouldn’t that mean,” Carly went on, obliviously, “that the system and whoever is looking at it would become parts of an even bigger system so that if anyone observed that, they’d produce the freezing effect all over again?”

Alice jumped up from her chair.

“Bob!” she cried, the bowl of noodles spinning across the table to shatter on the floor, as Carly’s voice tinnily continued, “But then that person would become entangled in it all as well … Hello? Alice, you still there?”

At that time of night, it didn’t take her long to return to the University and as she pulled into the car park behind the physics building, she could see the lab window, still brightly lit. She didn’t even bother locking the car as she sprinted down the walkway, through the staff entrance and down the corridor. It was late and there was no one else around, although from round the corner she could hear the hum of a floor cleaner.

“Bob!” she yelled again as she flung open the door to her lab and caught her breath. There was her assistant, bending over the equipment, carefully observing the system, standing stock still, not moving, not breathing ...

“Oh God!” she thought, “Carly was right. Bob and the system became entangled. And as soon as I started observing them … the Zeno effect … shit!!”

She slumped against the door jamb and held her head in her hands.

‘Hey boss,” Bob called out, “did you forget something?”

Alice took her hands from her face and almost laughed with relief.

“No, no, I was just a bit worried that …” she trailed off, then asked, “Bob? Why did you start the observations tonight?”

Bob looked down at the floor, clearly embarrassed.

“Look, I’m really sorry,” he said, “I’m not trying to take anything away from your achievement. But I just couldn’t resist taking a peek.”

Alice’s heart sank as she realised what had happened.

“Oh, Bob, I’m so sorry,” she told him. “When I opened the door, you were motionless.”

“What?!” Bob sat down on the lab stool. “Oh noooo ….”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Alice said. “You’re now part of a bigger system. But for some reason the effect didn’t happen right away …” She paused.

“Maybe because consciousness is so much more complex than physical objects?” Bob suggested.

“Right, so maybe it takes a little time. Maybe. Whatever. But the thing is, when I opened the door, I started observing you and …” Alice paused.

“Bam! The Zeno Effect manifested,” Bob added. Then he continued, “But we’re talking now! So that means …”

It was his turn to pause and Alice’s to complete the implication. “That means that my consciousness is now entangled with the system formed by you and the system you were observing. Which means we’ll be ok, and we can talk, walk about, run our experiment, as long as …”

“As long as no one observes us.” Bob completed the sentence.

Then he added, “What’s that?”

There was a clattering noise from the corridor behind Alice.

“Oh shit,” she said, “it’s the clean-- …”

Article © Steven French. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-09-18
Image(s) are public domain.
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