Favorite Quantum Physics in Fiction?

We'll be accepting applications for The Schrödinger Sessions workshop at JQI through tomorrow. We already have 80-plus applicants for fewer than 20 planned spots, including a couple of authors I really, really like and some folks who have won awards, etc., so we're going to have our work cut out for us picking the attendees...

We're also discussing the program for the workshop-- more details when we have something more final-- which has me thinking about good examples to use of storytelling involving quantum physics. I'd like to be able to give a few shout-outs to already-existing fiction involving the ideas we'll be discussing. And while I know several already, I'm always happy to hear more...

Things on my mental list already:

-- Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity", probably the best fictional exploration of Many-Worlds that I've seen. Yes, I'm aware of Larry Niven's "All the Myriad Ways." This is better.

-- Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," though that's less explicitly quantum. It turns on the idea of the principle of least action, which is essential for Feynman's formulation of quantum physics, but originates in classical physics. It's an amazing story, though.

-- Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief and sequels make heavy use of ideas from quantum technology. He even specifically cites ion traps when talking about quantum computing infrastructure, which is a great fit with the labs at JQI.

-- Charlie Stross mentions quantum communications a lot in his SF. He's really hit or miss for me, and sadly most of what misses for me hits with a lot of other people, so he's evolving toward a less appealing state, but one of his early books-- either Singularity Sky or Iron Sunrise, I forget which-- had what's probably my favorite hand-wave involving this use of quantum entanglement for FTL communications, with the idea that FTL travel via hyperspace breaks entanglement, and thus the entangled qubits used for instantaneous communications are a precious resource shipped through normal space at great expense.

It's hard to think of on-screen examples of quantum technology, though, largely because it's been years since I've had the free time to watch many movies. Interstellar name-checks the need for "quantum data," but it's really about astrophysics, not quantum mechanics. I know the Coen brothers did a movie a few years back where quantum physics plays a metaphorical sort of role, but I haven't seen it. Quantum computing as a way of cracking encryption may have been a McGuffin in a thriller movie or two, but I don't recall specific examples.

Anyway, I would love to have a longer list of stuff to suggest/ cite/ name-drop. Please leave ideas in the comments...


More like this

Fred Pohl wrote a novel called, IIRC, The Coming of the Quantum Cats, with the premise that scientists in one time line have successfully figured out how to communicate with other time lines. I don't think it holds up that well, though. In one prominent timeline, a world in which oil shortages have given Saudi Arabia enough leverage over the US that a cartoonish version of sharia has been imposed in this country, the central character (who in most of the timelines is one of the key scientists on the project, though in another timeline he's a US Senator who is good friends, via JFK, with a Soviet immigrant known in our timeline as Joseph Stalin) is an investment banker who runs into trouble because of his counterpart from another time line. The resolution to the problems thus created is to exile the various major players (many of whom, as I said, are alternate timeline versions of the central character, and several of the other characters also have alternate timeline counterparts who are major players) to yet another timeline in which New York City has been abandoned sometime after the 1920s (we know this because the George Washington Bridge had been built). It's not a terrible novel, but I don't think it's his best, either.

If we're being generous, then Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves might count. The premise here is that a gateway has been opened between our universe and an alternative universe in which plutonium-186 is a stable isotope (it eventually becomes subject to the physics of our universe and decays, but in the process our universe becomes a little more like theirs). But that's more of a "landscape" premise than a "many worlds" premise.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Terry Pratchett. His take on QT is a superposition of rather satirical and fairly accurate. But a further question: how to write fiction that is compatible with current quantum physics but also steps into post-quantum physics, whatever that might be at galactic dark matter scales and at sub-Planck scales. MWI is an interpretation of the probabilistic element of QT that's equally applicable to classical probability, so for me it doesn't much count.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Greg Egan, especially his first (or at least, first widely distributed) novel, Quarantine, in which the biological cause of wave-function collapse is discovered and exploited.

By Mike Scott (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

I read Quarantine back when it was new(ish), and didn't care for it all that much. Egan is one of those writers that in principle I should like more than I do in practice...

@0 "The quantum data" in Interstellar was meant (if I understood it correctly) to be data that would shed light on quantum gravity. So yes, he had to jump into a black hole, but he was looking for an data that would shed light on an ultimate theory---the quantum behavior of spacetime singularities. Astrophysical? Quantum mechanical? Both, I think.
@1 I thought of *The Gods Themselves* too, but it is more of a landscape story.
@2 Interference makes the MWI more than what's possible for classical probability, but I'd rather not derail the discussion.

I always thought of *The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy*'s Infinite Improbability Drive as a parody of QM in science fiction. Larry Niven uses a similar construction for his hyperdrive, which relies on going to the "second quantum" of spacetime as a way to avoid relativistic restrictions ( http://larryniven.wikia.com/wiki/Quantum_II_Hyperdrive ). Exactly what is meant isn't clear, but he does indicate that there's a real "world" there, and that sometimes when the quantum hyperdrives fail, it may be because some predator who lives in that quantum attacks a ship, but the idea isn't explored further. Niven is exactly the kind of writer I'd expect to get into the hard science of QM, and he probably deserves an explicit invitation to your workshop. Neal Stephenson's *Anathem* also loosely connects a Platonic mathematical world with QM Many Worlds, but I could be remembering it incorrectly.

A good discussion of fiction and QM is in David Deutsch's *The Beginning of Infinity*. He points out that all stories that obey the laws of physics will occur in some branch of the universal wavefunction. So, stories with magic or unphysical technology are untrue, while stories that are just not how "our world" turned out can be thought of as true stories for somebody else. My little addition in this context is that "Choose Your Own Adventure" books can be thought of as a MWI branching at each choice. Sometimes the storylines reconverge, and sometimes they've decohered too badly, so there are multiple endings.

Chad, you might find https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_fiction interesting, too.

By Evan Berkowitz (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Well, my attempt at getting italics failed.

I should also point out that Asimov's robots' brains are positronic, which means they must be relying on something deep and physicsy (because otherwise use electrons and don't risk antimatter weapons walking around in polite society). I don't know if this was ever clarified.

By Evan Berkowitz (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Does The Void series by Peter F Hamilton count? The Void is intended to be a microuniverse, though it does require energy input from our plane. There are also plenty of FTL and wormhole technologies in the entire PFH settings. The Reality Dysfunction series might be one of my favorite series of all time, scifi or no.

Alastair Reynolds covers a ton of really awesome physics, though how much of it is "quantum" is probably up for debate.

(As a Medicinal chemist, i'm much more lax about what i'd call "quantum" since from the POV of my non science friends, pretty much everything i read is too hard and sciency for them.)

By Double Shelix (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Evan @6: Yes, that was the idea behind Asimov calling his robots' brains positronic. The story in which he first used that word was published in either 1940 or 1941, a time when "electronic" circuits were basically LRC circuits with maybe a few diodes (the transistor wasn't invented until 1948), and little or nothing in the way of quantum wizardry. Obviously, you need something more complicated than that to fit a robot's brain into a space roughly the size of a human head.

Evan @5: Yes, Adams is explicit in his parody. In the chapter in which he describes the concept, he explicitly mentions the small but nonzero probability that the party hostess's undergarment will be a foot to her left, and mentions this being a party trick, but at the sort of parties physicists rarely attend. Being able to calculate this small but nonzero probability is a step on the way to creating an Infinite Improbability Drive.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

The Cohen brothers movie you are referring to is "A Serious Man", and it is one of my favourites, but you really have to be both jewish and a quantum physicist to fully appreciate the movie.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Neal Stephenson, Anathem!

No, wait, that's one of the worst uses of QM in science fiction...

By John Novak (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

#10: Care to provide specifics? I actually like that book.

By Wavefunction (not verified) on 19 Mar 2015 #permalink

Well, there must be something by Stanislaw Lem. I haven't read it, but I understand that "The Investigation" might be a candidate.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 20 Mar 2015 #permalink

#5: "@2 Interference makes the MWI more than what’s possible for classical probability" As you say, let's not go OT, but AFAICT almost all MWI storylines do not depend on interference. [But then again, to go OT, there can be interference in Hilbert space presentations of stochastic classical field theories.]

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 20 Mar 2015 #permalink