Tag Archives: quantum physics

Whoooosh! It’s the Flash-Sideways (Retro Sci-Fi Review #2)

4 Feb

There was a group on Facebook–back in the heady days of the LOST fandom–devoted to celebrating that uniquely onomatopoeic sound transferring the viewers’ perspective from one reality to its alternate version made: “Whoosh!! It’s the Flash-Sideways!”  I joined the group, as any self-respecting fan would, and accepted my sister Kate the Lostie’s congratulations: I had the gift of prophecy.

At the end of season 5, Kate and I tried (with little success) to tally up the events of the past five years (though we’d only been watching “live” for one at that point) and make some predictions.  Oh, the ABC LOST forums could handle the complicated issues of metaphysics, or the correct moniker for Smokey/Smocke/Flocke/MiB, but we had something more important to consider: if seasons 1 through 3 had flashbacks, and seasons 4 and 5 flash-forwards, what would season 6 have?  Where else in time could our castaways go?

For once, I got it right: sideways.  But I couldn’t take all the credit–SF writer Murray Leinster (alias Will F. Jenkins) was taking the counterfactual to popular fiction in 1934.  Of course, he preferred “sidewise” (oh, those crazy old grammarians).  I read his short story “Sidewise in Time” in an anthology of SF’s golden oldies in 1998–I was eight, and it’s remained one of my favorites of all time.  Meaning one and one-fifth decades.  So very long.

In any case, here’s why:

Professor Minott taught mathematics at what was rather impolitely termed a “jerkwater” college by his haughtier colleagues.  He was desperately in love (well, as much as a really creepy obsession can be called love) with Maida Haynes, daughter of a teacher of the romance languages (here’s to irony folks).  He was a nobody, but he brought a gun to class at 8 am on June 5th, and because it was 8 am, after all, and his students were probably still half-asleep and falling even more deeply asleep at the thought of studying math, Minott brought that gun to bear on his helpless students before any of those chivalrous senior college boys (Blake, for instance, his rival for Maida’s affection) could squeak out a protest.

And when the world is ending and someone pulls a gun on you, you’re going to gather your books, saddle up some horses, and strike off into the mysterious primeval woods that popped up on the interstate overnight.


Something weird’s happening all over the world–some nauseating shift of time and space that’s leaving the earth pockmarked with pockets of alternate reality.  Counterfactual history, if you will, drawn from the parallel realities in which the Confederate States of America (unhappy birthday today, by the way, CSA) won the war; or Romans conquered the Americas; or mammals reproduce by parthanogenesis.  The daily press is boggled, the common people are just plain astonished, a farmer’s wife is even pleased when a prehistoric reptile swallows her boorish husband whole, and a stammering high school boy finally has the opportunity to use his Latin.  But as we know from Fringe, when multiple universes collide, bad things happen.

Professor Minott of the jerkwater college seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on.  He’s been plotting and planning for months–his talents wasted with undergrads, but quite indisposable when it comes to matters of (multiple) universal destruction.  When he brings a pistol to class on June 5th, it’s because he’s already decided what he’s going to do: kidnap a select group of moderately intelligent students, search out a place where the flash sidewise has brought the Vikings to Virginia, and from there, take over the alternate world with his advanced knowledge of science and technology.  And Curriculum Vitae aside, Minott probably has a good chance of doing exactly that.

His problem is Maida Haynes, who just doesn’t recognize what a visionary the crazy math teacher really is.  Insert a power struggle with Blake, an attack by Roman slavers, a dying airplane pilot, and another girl named Lucy who really would like to be Professor Minott’s queen, and you come out with Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time.”

There are used copies of the anthology, Before the Golden Age, as well as collections of Leinster’s SF shorts, on Amazon–I just wish it were out of copyright so someone could write an expanded novelisation, or a television pilot.  A lot of the speculation of even relatively recent science fiction is laughable today, but this story from 1934 has held up pretty darn well.  Alternate realities are in (see LOST, Fringe, FlashForward, etc.), and even the casual SF reader knows something about the Many Worlds Theory.

Throw in some quantum mechanics, and this rettro science fiction story could be a hit.

As a side note, Uchronia, the alternate history list, annually awards a prize for the best “allohistorical” fiction of the year (and has done so since 1995): The Sidewise Award for Alternate History (guess what it’s named for).  The 2006 winner was Charles Stross’s The Family Trade (Merchant Princes Series), which I’m halfway through and loving.  2010 isn’t up yet, but the 2009 winnet was Robert Conroy’s 1942: A Novel.


Flashback to FlashForward (finale recap)

31 May

Despite all the hype as a potential successor to ABC’s cult science fiction drama LOST, the infant FlashForward ended up airing its series finale just days after LOST’s own.

Irony’s a bitch.

Like LOSTFlashForward presented viewers with a Byzantine plot, philosophical puzzles, and Dominic Monaghan.  Unlike LOST—and the reason why, I’m convinced, FlashForward didn’t get another season—it wasn’t a character-driven show.  However engaging the storyline and mysterious the subject matter, a show still has to hook us on an emotional level, something Mark Benford and his lackluster FBI cohorts just didn’t manage to do.

The series did have some high points, however.

Physicists, it seems, are hot in contemporary science fiction (you can make anything plausible with reference to quantum mechanics).  Losties got twitchy Daniel Faraday with his endearingly spasmodic hand movements, inevitable skinny tie, and at-times-inaudible science-speak mumbling.  FlashForward brought us Lloyd Simcoe and Simon Campos—the first one being as romantic as Faraday but considerably less socially awkward, and the latter being absolutely effing terrifying.  The most engaging subplots of the show generally involved these two—Simcoe and his relationship with Olivia, and Campos’s teeter-tottering between sociopathic scheming and genuine inner turmoil.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these were the most emotionally fraught storylines, either.

In the penultimate episode The Countdown (1.21), in fact, Lloyd and Olivia have a short phone conversation that might just sum up the entire reason FlashForward failed.  When Olivia decides to drive off with Charlie the night of the blackout to get away from Lloyd (who desperately needs her to be with him at her house, mainly so he can solve an important equation he was supposed to write in lipstick on her bedroom mirror), we get this:

Lloyd: Certain conditions have to be met!

Olivia: Don’t make this about fate, don’t make this about free will.

In other words, make it about the characters.

Well alas alack, it’s a trifle late for that now.  But since the show has gone the way of other sadly misbegotten science fiction (see Dollhouse and Firefly), at the very least a series recap is in order for FlashForward to rest in peace.

The Countdown brought up an interesting idea that probably would have been expanded upon if the series were to have continued: two people having mutually exclusive flash forwards about each other.

After enduring a lengthy speech from global blackout mastermind and sharp dresser Hellinger, Mark seemed to have resigned himself to his own death.  And after being thrown out of the FBI for snapping and beating the crap out of the interrogee turned interrogator, Mark laughs like an hysterial madman when he shows up at a “Flash Forward Day” party (ironic, isn’t it?) and gets a flask pushed on him by another man who’d seen himself quitting drinking.  At this point, Mark’s thoroughly frustrated by his own impotence.  And yet, he can’t entirely give himself up to The Universe.  As Hellinger says:

All of this is so futile, but your faith is admirable.  That board in your office—how much time have you spent on it?  How much time have you spent looking at it, all on faith.  But deep down you must know what that board really is—it’s nothing but a scrapbook of your failures.  A freed Nazi, a failed trip to Somalia, dead birds—but you keep believing, you keep fighting, because that’s what you do.

All this in a condescendingly contemptuous tone, naturally, made all the worse by an upper-crust British accent.  British accents always make me feel inferior.

So when a stranger in a bar says that his flash forward involved talking to Mark—a major departure from Mark seeing masked men with rifles searching him out in his office—the strain might have been just a little too much.  Benford snaps and beats the crap out of his second guy in forty-two minutes.  And gets thrown in jail.

As for everyone else—

At the end of the second-to-last episode, some futures are coming true and some have already shattered:

Nicole starts feeling guilty for hiding her information about Keiko’s whereabouts from Bryce (and thus fears getting drowned and liking it), so she confesses; Bryce, naturally, is angry and shocked, and rushes off to find his illegal immigrant lover.

Aaron’s saved his daughter Tracy from Jericho and learned from a captured Jericho interrogator (Aaron can do some serious Jack Bauer strategic finger-jabbing) that the private defense firm hadn’t killed anyone—as Tracy had thought.  It had been yet more blackout beta-testing, and Tracy was a target because she’d been in the radius but remained awake.  Except, since she did die after all, I guess we’ll never know why she was important (kind of like Walt and the Others…).

Olivia and Charlie are ditching the physicist and his son, the latter two of which are understandably pissed.

Demetri admits to his fiancé that he slept with Janis so she could get pregnant—while he though we was about to get murdered—and then has the gall to ask, “Please marry me.”  Zoey stalks off to Hawaii with her parents.  There goes one escape from the inevitable.  So the once-again-fatalistic Demetri teams up with a guilt-ridden Janis and a vengeful Simon Campos to sneak into the particle accelerator and see if they can figure out whatever crazy system Hellinger used to cause the first blackout—and so stop the next.

End act one.

Future Shock (1.22), the season/series finale, opens with just an hour and eighteen minutes to the time seen in the blackout: April 29th, 10:00 pm.

Let’s start with the good news—Tracy’s alive after all!  That was sure unexpected, and it might even be touching… if I actually cared about her and Aaron.  Bryce meets Keiko as hoped for, and Nicole, though she was drowning, isn’t actually murdered but saved y the sinister man above the watery abyss.  Janis’s baby’s still healthy, and a boy And from Lloyd, another great scientist pick-up line: “You’re part of the equation, and I can’t do it without you.”  (That equation on the mirror, by the way, is Dillan’s.)

Meanwhile, in a creepy octagonal (or something) room filled with large computers and flashing panels, Simon tries in vain to find a file on the computer before the time on the clock runs out and the electromagnetism is released from the Swan hatch and—

Sorry, more flashbacks.

In any case, because of Simon’s physicist inside jokes and because Olivia agrees to recreate the circumstances of the flash forward and ends up looking deep into Lloyd Simcoe’s eyes—“I fought it, and resisted it, and… the future happened,” she explains—Lloyd solves his math problem and discovers that the next blackout is… sometime in the next two days.  In fact, it’s in twelve minutes. Which is shockingly convenient, considering the episode needs to wrap up the entire series and answer that pressing question of another blackout in, at this point, thirteen minutes too.

But there’s worse—Hellinger’s been messing with Mark the whole time.  As it turns out, he has men on the inside (besides Janis), and they’re all ready to shoot up a re-instated Mark Benford just as he figures out the time of the new blackout and channels Jack Bauer in a super intense gunfight.

During all this, Hellinger’s cronies–presumably–activate the accelerator in secret.  Remember all those doomsday predictions about the LHC back in September?  It’s like that.

And just like that, Simon gets a conscience as he tries to shut down the hackers—“I’m not going to let them do this to me—to use my mind, my machine!  Millions of people, Demetri!  Millions of people don’t deserve to die,” he says at gunpoint, in an impassioned tone (see image above).  It would be redemption for the evil scientist… if it were a little less hurried.

In fact, it’s not even clear whether Simon did turn into a good guy at all.  Back a couple episodes, Simon Campos and Hellinger had a major battle of British accents in a seedy hotel room.  But while Simon does demonstrate his contempt for the men he’s been unwittingly working for his entire life, we never do actually hear him answer the Big Guy’s ultimatum: Join us and finish your great scientific work, or die in ignominy.

The finale includes a pretty long scene with Simon hacking into the mainframe–and the only assurance that it’s Hellinger’s men comes from… Simon.  No corroborating evidence (no wonder Demetri’s so close to shooting him).  If he really was not working for the enemy, he failed to stop the blackout with all his rapid keyboard pounding.  Personally, I think he wanted to fire that NLAP particle accelerator up again.  He warned Demetri to take a seat for his safety, and despite his talk of saving millions of lives, his first words were–“I’m not going to let them do this to me—to use my mind, my machine!”  They could be Benford and co.  “I,” “me,” and “my” are pretty self-explanatory.  He values his mind and his work.

Maybe he was still working for the enemy. Simon Campos has a good track record for lying, anyway.

And so the second blackout does happen, though with ten minutes forewarning to world governments, which, I guess, saved a couple million.  The flights that couldn’t be grounded in time, however, might end up on a mysterious island run by the mysterious Hurley and his ambassador Ben.

As for our protagonist—Mark Benford is last scene running toward a window (fourth story at least, I’d guess) in the exploding Los Angeles FBI hq.  His daughter, however, comes full circle with her flash forward: while first she saw her father being reported dead, on April 29, 2010 Charlie sees a much older self (in 2015) telling someone, “They found him.”

All in all, FlashForward gave us a neater tying-up of ends than LOST and a pinch of ambiguity in the end, but neither the story the creators intended, nor the depth of its older sibling, nor nearly as much sobbing by fans.

Though, I will miss that kangaroo.

God Emperor of Quantum Physics

7 May

The universe wants what the universe wants.

I think I started reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series sophomore year of high school—I’m pretty sure it was sophomore year because freshman year I was obsessed with Watership Down for some reason I can’t quite remember, but ended up using the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear as my senior yearbook quote (a decision I shall never regret).  So it was between year one and four, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t three as year three I was keeping a Word document of Algernon Charles Swinburne poems.

But that’s not really relevant.

What’s relevant is that next Tuesday the Scattering will one year old, and in celebration a return to the beginning is in order.

Shockingly, this blog does not derive it’s name from the scattered nature of my thoughts and the tangents that posts often go off on [see first paragraph].  “The Scattering” is actually a far-future event that takes place at the end of the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s famous series—God Emperor of Dune.  It’s a species-wide diaspora of sorts, with human beings spreading out across the universe after the (spoiler alert) murder of Leto Atreides II, half-human/half-sandworm dictator.

— begin tangent –

Whenever I hear Bozz Scaggs’s “Lido Shuffle” (and I hear it quite a bit when my iPod’s on shuffle), I subtly change the lyrics to pay tribute to said God Emperor’s death:

Leto (woah-oah), he’s for the money, he’s for the show—drowning in the Idaho-o-o-o-o.

— end tangent –

The Scattering was the ultimate end of Leto’s Golden Path, a prescient vision that turned into a guide for all the horrible choices he had to make in his 3,000+ year creepy hybrid life—the only path that would prevent the total destruction of homo sapiens sapiens.  Essentially, if humans scattered to the millions of planets and billions of stars, no force (not even themselves) could ever destroy them all.

And thus, Leto II saved humanity.

But the most interesting part of the series, for me, was Herbert’s idea that simply seeing the future made the future.  When Leto’s father Paul (a messiah himself, if not a god) had his visions, he was tormented by the terrible things he saw.  And yet, the very fact that he saw them predisposed him to follow the paths he’d glimpsed—for all he knew, the alternatives he was blind to could be worse.  But Paul couldn’t take the pressure, and left his son to choose the devil he knew.

But after watching the most recent episode of FlashForward (“Course Correction”), I’ve begun to wonder whether Herbert’s ideas weren’t entirely science fiction.

For those of you who aren’t watching ABC’s new series in the hopes that it can fill the void that LOST will leave in just a few weeks, FlashForward is a science fiction drama focused on an event known as The Blackout—a couple minutes of time when the whole world went unconscious, or rather: the whole world shifted consciousness and mentally traveled six months into the future.  Everyone glimpsed what would happen (or not happen—if they’d be dead) to them on a particular day in April, and everyone freaked out.  Free will versus destiny debates broke out everywhere, and philosophy professors all over the country saw a sudden spike in their research grants.  (Well that last part’s speculation, but I’m pretty sure ABC has it in backstory somewhere.)

Central to the mystery of the blackout are Simon Campos as Lloyd Simcoe, two quantum physicists whose experiments may or may not have had something to do with the world-changing event.  In any case, they’re experts now, making talk show appearances and working with the FBI.  And in “Course Correction,” Simcoe makes a particularly interesting statement about what happens when people see the future.  To avoid butchering science, I’ll leave explanation to the experts—

From a 1998 Science Daily article:

One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.

In a study reported in the February 26 issue of Nature (Vol. 391, pp. 871-874), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have now conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of “watching,” the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.

When a quantum “observer” is watching Quantum mechanics states that particles can also behave as waves. This can be true for electrons at the submicron level, i.e., at distances measuring less than one micron, or one thousandth of a millimeter. When behaving as waves, they can simultaneously pass through several openings in a barrier and then meet again at the other side of the barrier. This “meeting” is known as interference.

Strange as it may sound, interference can only occur when no one is watching. Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it’s clear it didn’t go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.

(today in 2010, this premise is generally accepted among the physics in-crowd)

And so, to oversimplify in every way: once you see something, you make it real.  Or as Lloyd Simcoe explained, the universe wants it to happen—and if you try to thwart your [fate], the universe will “course correct.”

This doesn’t only apply to the visions seen by all the poor denizens of FlashFoward world, but Paul and Leto of the Duniverse as well.

Paul Atreides saw the Golden Path, but found it too horrifying to comprehend—he didn’t find the idea of millennia of sandtrout cilia invading his privy organs terribly appealing.  By not following his vision, Paul should have changed the future, but the Duniverse course corrected through Leto.  From Children of Dune:

Already he could feel how far he’d drifted from something recognizably human. Seduced by the spice which he gulped from every trace he found, the membrane which covered him no longer was sandtrout, just as he was no longer human. Cilia had crept into his flesh, forming a new creature which would seek its own metamorphosis in the eons ahead. You saw this, father, and rejected it, he thought. It was a thing too terrible to face. Leto knew what was believed of his father, and why. Muad’Dib died of prescience. But Paul Atreides had passed from the universe of reality into the alam al-mythal while still alive, fleeing from this thing which his son had dared.

My advice: think twice before you let the spice flow.

God’s Little Finger (FlashForward 1.11, 1.12)

21 Mar

Yes it’s true that, at least while ABC’s cult hit finishes up its final 8 hours, FlashFoward will remain LOST’s less cool, less popular little sister who didn’t get asked to prom because no one on FlashForward has a contract with L’Oreal yet.

Still, last week’s double episode (“Revelation Zero,” parts 1 and 2) brought the second half of the season to a competitive place: I don’t think it’s any question that Dominic Monaghan makes a much better Simon Campos than Charlie Pace, and that FlashForward’s quantum physicist beats Daniel Faraday (bless his twitchy little heart) hands down.

[Spoilers below]

The second half of season one begins with a nauseatingly inspirational story: a window washer who nearly died in the blackout has become a super-religious inspirational speaker intent on telling the world that the blackout, with its multi-million life cost and consequent tragedy, is a dramatic piece of God’s plan.  Of course, his words drip fervor better than I can paraphrase:

“God is breaking into human history in a way that’s never happened before—and you!” he shouts in his vision, preaching to a packed crowd.  “You are right at the center of everything!”

Critiquing the idea of a master plan of God for insufferable conceit isn’t anything new.  Carl Sagan in Contact wrote a priest who laughed at Creationists and other sundry fundamentalists for seeing Earth as “God’s little green footstool.”  Is there a master plan?  Or is human insistence on one just a psychological defense mechanism that kicks in when we start to look into the abyss?

Revelation Zero’s cup filleth over with such God complexes.

1. Our window washer, whose “center of everything” speech might have made Galileo cringe;

2. Mark Benford, accused by his FBI-mandated psychiatrist (he kind of held a foreign government official at gunpoint, recall) of the same—“I’ve read your file—you have a God complex.  Something you saw made you think that you’re at the center of the universe”;

3. Benford’s babysitter Nicole, who insists that her vision of drowning must be a punishment from God… for something not yet done;

4. And best of all, Simon Campos, who has both more and less power than we viewers probably thought before.

First of all, Simon’s a scientist, that archetype of dangerous knowledge-seeking. It’s no coincidence that Nicole’s slightly unstable mother quotes Genesis before setting fire to the family Bible: “And if you eat from the tree of knowledge, you shall surely die.”  Fear of the experimenter goes back to Adam, Eve, and Prometheus themselves.  From the serpent’s mouth, “in the day ye eat thereof” (he hisses), “then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.”

Our window washer probably doesn’t want to open his eyes: the master plan might not be God’s after all, but a mere mortal’s design—or worse, no plan at all, and just a mere mortal accident.  Simon and Lloyd’s “kidnappers” do say that they didn’t cause the blackout with their plasma wakefield experiment, but rather “amplified” it.

In any case, we the viewers have a lot of evidence suggesting that this isn’t God “breaking into human history,” but human history plain and simple—emphasis on the human.

Power’s a major theme in episodes 11 and 12: from Janis tracking Simon with an ankle bracelet, to Simon tirelessly hatching escape plans—his beatific grin after faking anaphylactic shock and a penicillin allergy was priceless.  Not to mention the bizarre Ring of Power (natural, since Monaghan’s used to being a hobbit, after all) Simon’s “Uncle Teddy” (also known as Mr. Flosso) gave him to keep him awake during the blackout—oh, right, because Simon Campos is Suspect Zero.

As Simon’s shadowy puppetmasters lurk in dark rooms moving chess pieces around, we learn that he’s been part of a very long-term plan since age thirteen, Uncle Teddy supporting the family and moving them to Toronto to make sure brilliant little Simon Campos got the education he needed.  His father died in a “hunting accident” just days before the blackout so Simon would have the funeral as an alibi; his sister Annabelle was kidnapped as “insurance” for his cooperation; his favorite professor was murdered and stuffed in a car trunk as a “last warning” for the physicist to cooperate; and Simon himself was kidnapped with Lloyd Simcoe, losing a pinky to Uncle Teddy’s cigar snips to keep the FBI getting too suspicious.

But before we start feeling too bad for Simon Campos the pawn, all fans of the Ben Linus-like character can breathe a sigh of relief that Simon is just as much a sociopath as we ever hoped:

Since Simon was awake during the universal blackout, his “vision” of strangling a man (and liking it) wasn’t actually an event from the future after all—but from the past.  On the day of the blackout, in a tunnel leading out of the baseball stadium, he quite happily chokes the man who’d killed his father.  And in the present, in the backyard of his mother’s house during a family dinner (with FBI’s Janis Hawk inside no less), he suffocates Uncle Teddy as well, knocking him down and pressing on his chest until those emphysema-afflicted lungs starve he heart and brain of oxygen entirely—and as Simon tells his victim cheerfully, the bruises on the old man’s chest will be his alibi, the signs of failed and desperate CPR.

(Speaking of his family—I’m told that you can tell a lot about a guy by how he treats his mother, and Simon’s relationship is interesting to say the least.  She worships him, and he returns the kindness by mocking her with his impressive vocabulary.  “Don’t be so magniloquent,” he says to ‘comfort’ her as they embrace during Annabelle’s disappearance.  Magniloquent, naturally enough, means ‘using high-flown or bombastic language.’  Of course.  Two more English lessons from Simon Campos: winge, and cogitate.)

So maybe Simon Campos is exactly what Wedeck calls him—“that squirrely SOB.”  But at the same time, he might be the only character on FlashForward with the right to a God complex (there’s more knowledge of the blackouts in that little finger he lost than on all of Mark Benford’s corkboard).  And Simon Campos, done being manipulated (or, more magniloquently, “I’m done being your bitch”), is shaping up to be an angry God:

“I never get pushed around,” he says, standing over Uncle Teddy’s corpse, “And I always get even.”