Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2011: Random Fire

Random Fire

by Van Aaron Hughes


June 10:

I never kept a journal. I made day-to-day notes on my research, but a file for personal thoughts always struck me as vanity. Today, however, a little vanity is appropriate. Someday, people will wonder what went through my head at this moment.

This is the big one, the breakthrough I always dreamed of.

I try not to think of picking up a prize in Stockholm, but at a minimum it means a full professorship, perhaps the department chair since Randolph has one foot in the grave. Or maybe I’ll tell the dean what I think of him and go talk to Stanford or MIT. Not Caltech, of course. Harwell shares my area of expertise, with no room for me next to his ego.

My breakthrough is a variation on the double-slit experiment. The standard experiment fires particles at a plate cut with parallel slits; particles passing through interfere with each other before striking the screen on the far side. Even a single particle interferes with itself as, in a very real sense, it passes through both slits at once. Only an observer’s presence collapses the wave function and forces the particle to “choose” which slit to pass through.

My version uses an electron gun with tiny variations in the firing sequence, variations independent of the magnetic field or the electron’s topology or spin or string rotation, which creates a random element as to when the gun fires. The key was randomizing the gun just the right way so the wave function controls when, not where, the particle fires. In essence, I’m conducting a double-slit experiment with the slits offset in time rather than space.

Incredibly, I have detected a temporal interference pattern in the electrons’ impacts.

People are just getting used to the idea a particle can be in two places at once, but this shows it can simultaneously occupy the same space at different times. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies not only to where a particle is, but when.

The university is quiet since finals ended, and I’ve made great progress working without interference. Good thing I’m alone: I’ve caught myself a few times doing my old cool-science dance from years ago, back when I conducted experiments for the thrill of learning something new, before physics became a job.

I’ve told no one about my results except my wife, who didn’t understand much more than the fact that I was very excited. This only earned me her fiery eyes of doom. I had to promise Felice three times I will not be off doing experiments when our baby arrives.


June 23:

Every day I come up with new variations on the experiment.

I should be pushing toward publication, and get my name on this before anyone else stumbles on it. The university is unsubtle with their reminders. They wallpaper the hallway outside with blow-ups of abstracts and illos from papers authored by my faculty peers: constant reminders to keep my eyes on the publication prize.

But my mind keeps wandering, giddy with the implications of finding that an observer can collapse a wave function to alternate times. Of course one can’t extrapolate from elementary particles to a macro scale, and yet . . .

For the first time since reading H.G. Wells as a boy, I half-believe in the possibility of manipulating time.

Distracted, I find myself even more detached than usual. This morning I took the Olds right through the new stoplight at Everson Drive. Why is that light there? I never see any traffic coming down off the Flatirons to that intersection.


July 8:

Still not close to publication.

The paper should include Bloch spheres corresponding to my temporal results, but I have difficulty conceptualizing them. I tried to look up St. Andrews’ web page on applying algebraic topology to quantum mechanics, but it’s disappeared.

There’s no denying the Internet’s usefulness as a research tool, but I find it so frustrating. Give me old-fashioned books, where whatever is on the page stays on the damn page. On the Web, you find something you like, then a moment later it’s deleted or changed without explanation.

Memory says Bremen did that topology page, and he’s now at Caltech. Surely coincidence, but I must be alert to any possibility Harwell’s team is researching along my lines. I tried to call Bremen, but he’s at the Antwerp conference. Where I should be. But Felice would never forgive me for being gone when the baby comes.


July 13:

I didn’t mean for this journal to include thoughts unconnected to the experiments, but I can’t help it.

I’m a father!

Yesterday I was Professor Terence Bienemy. Today I’m also Daddy.

Felice went into labor late Friday night. It took over 24 hours, but Felice never complained. Well, she complained a little. Maybe more than a little. But she never stabbed me in the eye with a hypodermic needle, and I’m grateful.

We named our daughter Allison. I call her Allie. Felice doesn’t much like the nickname, but that’s fine. Somehow I must arrange it so no one else calls her Allie. I will share Allison with my wife and with the world, but Allie is all mine.

The entire weekend I doted on Felice and Allie. Saturday and Sunday nights, the nurses wheeled Allie back into our room every couple hours for feeding, and each time I was overjoyed to see her, no matter little sleep I’d gotten. Felice was so exhausted she would have slept through a kamikaze attack: she snapped awake the instant Allie cried, but I was much more surprised at my own reaction.

I’ve behaved compulsively in the past, like when I lost track of time in that undergrad computer lab and worked for four days solid, but this feels different. For one thing, that time in the lab I gained a good ten pounds on Snickers bars, but at the hospital I didn’t eat a bite. My sister-in-law Diana came on Sunday, and she asked when I had eaten last and I simply couldn’t remember. It must have been nearly two days, but I never felt hungry. I thought only of Felice and Allie.

This gives me hope for myself, that I won’t always be chained to my worst fixations. Can having a child give you a sense of perspective? Suddenly whether I am first to publish my experiments doesn’t seem so important.


July 19:

It’s my first real day back in the lab.

I didn’t want to come, but Felice ordered me to work, saying I would drive her nuts hovering over her and Allie.

Heading to campus, I felt somehow more connected to my surroundings. Not one missed stoplight. Tromping into the lab, I noticed the dew clinging to my shoes——does that always happen? Why had I never noticed this before?

Like a tourist, for the first time I noticed the monotonous uniformity of the campus buildings, all the same sandstone brick and red tile, even the accursed football stadium. And why are the massive bike racks still full, when most students are gone for summer? And everything is so green!

I find it difficult to focus on quantum physics right now.


July 29:

The initial glow of fatherhood has faded, and I am ever more exhausted. Her relatives have all gone home, as if the worst were over, but it isn’t. Allie wakes about every hour at night, clearly hungry but still unable to latch to Felice, who refuses to give up breastfeeding.

But except for exhaustion I still enjoy being a father. Plus I spotted Felice in the mirror last night, watching me rock Allie back to sleep, and saw the same loving expression in her blue-gray eyes that there had been when we first dated. I didn’t realize how much I missed that.

I remember the pride I felt dating Felice, not just because she is beautiful and brilliant, but because I had to overcome my nature to win her. When you’re introverted it’s so easy to go with the flow, let the current carry you along; I had to swim upstream to be with Felice. In the past couple years, I’d gone back to being an introvert: with the baby and the breakthroughs, I feel like I am rejoining the rest of the world.

Even with new baby fatigue, I’m making real progress on my research. I’ve refined the electron gun, and my understanding of the wave function’s temporal aspect grows every day.


August 6:

Progress continues rapidly.

I really should concentrate on putting this research into publishable form. Lord knows my career could use the boost. Everyone in this department shares a burden of inflated expectations, because CU boasts three Nobel Prize winners for physics——not for any genuine breakthrough, mind you; two of them got it for building a better refrigerator. So while the Colorado name carries little prestige in the outside world, inside the school nothing short of a Nobel impresses anyone.

But with significant advances coming daily, I can’t bring myself to postpone my new experiments just to write up what I’ve already done. Luckily I have a light lecture schedule next semester, so there should be time yet to assemble a paper.

I spoke yesterday to Bremen, who kept tight-lipped about work at Caltech but made some cryptic remark like, “You never get time back once it’s passed.” I can’t shake the hunch he is working with Harwell along similar lines as mine, but if so, it doesn’t upset me the way it would have a month ago.


August 17:

All afternoon I stared at these results. I now understand most of the relevant mathematics and they make sense, no matter how counter-intuitive. I have repeated the latest experiment four times with the same outcome. Yet I don’t believe it.

I have succeeded in manipulating the collapse of the wave function so a predictable percentage of randomly fired particles hit the screen before they leave the electron gun.

This has to rank among the most amazing experimental results ever reached in a laboratory.

And the most remarkable part: it’s the second best thing that happened today.

I watched Felice breastfeed Allie this morning, and like one of my electrons I felt suspended in time, caught in a transcendent moment. Allie has finally learned to latch without difficulty and watching her against my wife’s chest, catching her infant scent, knowing I was part of it, I belonged there, was the most powerful feeling.

The sensation persisted even when Felice turned her eyes of doom on me, after Allie buried a fist in her hair and yanked. Felice would have cut her hair ages ago but I begged her not to. The texture, the smell of it always take me back to our first kiss——the same reason I can’t bear to part with that rickety Oldsmobile. What I remember most about that kiss is the sensation of puzzlement, wondering what Felice could see in me, a chubby, older, absent-minded professor. But she was right. We must be perfect together, or we could never have created Allie.

I could scarcely be more surprised by this feeling. Until now, the major events in my life always disappointed me. I never had a religious experience.

Perhaps I still haven’t, but this is the first thing in my life that feels beyond natural explanation.


August 26:

In the words of Daffy Duck, I may be a coward but I’m a greedy little coward. As if sending elementary particles backward through time weren’t enough, I find myself dead set on achieving a similar result on a macro scale before I take this work public. An absurd goal, except the math works.

The experiments don’t, however. For the first time in months, I’m spinning my wheels. It doesn’t help that I have less time free now classes have started, or that every afternoon the lab thrums to the marching band practicing in the field outside. Of course, the sensible thing is to publish the results I already have, but I resist.

I have resolved to contact Harwell. If he is working on the same problem, we should combine forces. There will be plenty of awards and accolades to go around.


August 31:

I spoke to Harwell, and after fifteen minutes’ coy and evasive conversation we divulged our current projects.

There is no race to publish. Harwell has his team working furiously on a project completely unrelated to mine. I revealed more of my work than I should have, but no matter. He responded with courtesy but no real interest. On reflection, I understand why: the whole thing is preposterous. If I hadn’t seen the lab results first-hand, I would never believe it myself.

I actually felt disappointed I won’t be working with Harwell on this. I continue to get no results on the macro-level and his perspective would be welcome. Perhaps I should get to know some of the school’s graduate students better. None has shown much interest in my area, perhaps because I’m in it and have a reputation as a loner, but a few hints at these results should entice a hungry doctoral candidate or post-doc.


September 4:

I started in for the lab this morning expecting to make a big push on my research, forgetting as I do every year the insanity of Saturdays in autumn. For the hundredth time, I vow to locate and stomp on the grave of the clown who put the football stadium across the street from the physics building.

I clearly need help to finish this work.

There is a sharp student in my theory seminar I should try to recruit, one who asks questions I haven’t heard ten times before. Last class I noticed he looked familiar. As I waited for a particularly noxious chalk cloud to settle, I placed him as a former student in an undergrad intro class I got roped into teaching a few years back. He must have stayed at CU for his graduate work.

It’s unusual for me to remember any underclassman. (There’s a reason the main elevator in the physics building doesn’t even have a button to stop on the undergrad-infested first floor.) Perhaps he just stood out for his dark complexion and retro mustache. Italian, maybe? More likely, it was his uncommon interest in the subject. He reminded me of myself at that age, when physics seemed like magic, a code I could crack to understand and control the whole universe. I lost that sense over the years, until now.


September 9:





My mind was on nothing but wave functions when I came around that curve. Wave functions! I missed that new light again. It should not have mattered! There’s never any traffic coming off the Flatirons from Everson Drive. Today there wasn’t but I hit a car at a dead stop waiting at the damned light.

Why did my airbag and seatbelt work but Allie’s car seat failed? Did I install it wrong?

My fault, my fault . . . I didn’t see the car. My baby is dead because I was distracted by electrons and equations. All I can see is Allie, her curly brown hair, her big green eyes. Felice must hate me, but no more than I hate myself.

My little girl is gone, and nothing in the world will ever be right without her.


September 13:

Have thrown myself into my work. Felice thinks it’s to avoid grief. It isn’t.


September 26:

Working feverishly, literally. Temperature, heart rate elevated. Strong danger of stroke or heart attack. Terrible heat wave doesn’t help.

Subjective component is the key. Observer triggers wave function collapse. Forcing collapse on macro-scale involves the mind, the will, in ways not understood before.

I can do it.


September 29:

I think it will work.

I never could have done this before . . . would not have pushed myself like this, body and mind.

But this is what it takes. The only way. And it will work. How many fathers in the world would kill for the ability to do this? I’m so close, if I can just reach it before it destroys me.


October 5:

It’s a shabby looking piece of equipment, compared to the marvelous machine Wells imagined. Most of what matters is in a computer program and in my head. The device looks like two small handles wired to a metal plate on the ground. But I’m certain it will work.

I am the observer. I control the collapse. I don’t quite have all the math worked out, all the implications. Will the altered reality be unstable? Will the observer become unstable, interfering with himself like a particle in the double-slit experiment?

Thankfully, I don’t need to stay in the past. All I need is a temporary shift. I will stand on the plate, grip the handles, stop what happened, come back. Back to Allie when I failed her.

This time I will be there for Allie when she needs me.





Van Aaron Hughes was a winner of the 2010 Writers of the Future Contest. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Vol. 27, Glorifying Terrorism, and Linger Fiction. In real life he is a lawyer and has argued before the United States Supreme Court. He lives in Denver with his wife and three children.

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