Upon the recommendation of the right-honorable Analog book column, I read “Flickermen”, a science fiction novel based heavily on quantum physics. This aint your grandpappy’s novel; the plot of this one is thick with actual, honest-to-god physics (queue Thomas Dolby shouting Science!). It’s SF, so you know there’s going to be a speculative component, but the details are accurate enough that parsing out where real facts end and the speculative part (e.g. BS) begins is a little difficult. Oh, and somewhere in there are real characters and plot, too. So this is going to be a book review, but first, I have to dive into the science.
Now, something I should make clear at the start–I’m a quantum physics nerd. I’m not a physicist, but I am an engineer geek, which according to Dr. Sheldon Cooper rates somewhere between pond slime and silverfish. Still, I’ve always had a hankering for natural weirdness. I remember being fascinated by relativistic time dilation as a kid, after seeing a cartoon where someone steps onto a really fast train and comes back younger. OK, that’s not how it works, but it did get my mind going. In adult life, I’m fascinated by the strangeness of the quantum world. One of my pet peeves is reading a quantum book and having the author step through the entire history of physics before getting to the meat of their proposal somewhere around chapter 25. If that doesn’t scream wedgie nerd, then nothing does. Having said that, I fully realize that other people have real lives, and don’t spend their pillow time reading up on how wormholes must be lined with exotic matter. So I’ll give my 5 minute Quantum refresher course in a few paragraphs below, as I think some familiarity with it is needed to really enjoy the book. The actual book review starts after that.
My Lame attempt to Describe the Double-Slit Experiment:
First off, if you don’t mind watching a cartoon of quantum physics, this link explains it better than I could ever do:
Otherwise, read on.
As Feynmann once said, the weirdness of quantum physics essentially boils down to the double slit experiment. Take a barrier with one slit, another barrier with two slits, a screen, and an electron gun (this works for photons and buckyballs too, but let’s keep things simple). Now, put the electron gun on one side of the one-slit barrier and put the screen on the other side. Then fire a bunch of electrons so that they have to go through the slitted barrier to get to the screen on the other side. With only one slit, the electrons form a scattershot pattern on the screen, as if you were shooting tiny marbles through the slit. That makes sense; the electron is acting like a particle at beginning, middle, and end of its trajectory, as if you were indeed shooting tiny spheres through a small hole. Then put the two slit barrier up, and fire them again. Now what develops on the screen is an interference pattern, which arises because the electrons are acting like waves–the crests and troughs of the waves are combining to create areas of high and low intensity through both slits. OK, the fact that the electrons are particles in one case and waves in another is pretty weird, but most of us have gotten used to the idea that tiny objects can do both things. So it’s not that weird yet. That is, UNTIL you slow the electron gun down to fire a single electron at a time. That’s when we *really* hit bizarro land.
When you shoot one electron at a time, you see that the electron starts off as a particle and ends its life as a particle, just as with the one-slit case, and just as you might expect (i.e. it creates a splotch on the screen where it lands). But after you fire enough single electrons, something amazing happens: the interference pattern begin to emerge. Say what? There is only one electron in the air at any given time–so, if there’s an interference pattern, each electron must be interfering with itself! And that can only happen if the electron travels through both slits at the same time. Another way to look at it is that the electron starts off as a particle, hits the screen as particle, but in between it forms a “probability wave”. As the name implies, this is a wave of probability that acts like any other: probability waves can interfere with each other, reinforce each other, etc. There’s no way to predict where each electron is going to land, but you can say what the probability is of landing at any one spot.
Now take the weirdness up a notch: The two slit barrier again, but this time put an electron detector at one of the slits. Doing this, you should be able to tell which slit the electron went through, so there will be none of this “interfering with itself” nonsense. But guess what? When you gather enough information to know for sure where the electron is going, the interference pattern disappears. It’s like the electron knows you’re observing it, and chooses not to interfere with itself! This pattern holds even if you put the detector after the slit, the so-called “delayed choice” experiment. Think about what this means: it implies the electron is going back in time to adjust its trajectory based on events that happened after it had already made its choice about which slit to go through! Very weird stuff.
This of course doesn’t begin to do the whole thing justice, but the key part for Flickermen is to understand where Quantum physics bleeds into philosophy. Because the detector changes the nature of the results, people talk about the role of the conscious observer in “collapsing” the probability wave. That is, the simple act of observing the electron changes the outcome of the experiment. This leads to all kinds of impossible implications, some of which result in half-alive cats occupying poisonous boxes configured by mad German physicists. In reality, I believe that when we say “observer”, we are actually talking about any device which forces the electron to interact with the real world. In other words, I don’t believe it has anything to do with consciousness per se. But assuming that a conscious observer is necessary to collapse the wave is still within the bounds of accepted theory, or at least, no one has actively disproved it. And if you accept that, then you open up a whole philosophical can of quantum worms.
This is the essential assumption behind Flickermen.
Back to FlickerMen:
The book starts out well. The character Eric Argus is sympathetic, has a tortured past that makes you want to root for him, and he has a burning desire to get to the bottom of a deep mystery. His high-end nuclear physics research at a prior institution came to a crashing halt for personal reaons, and his friend Jeremy has given him one more chance to continue his research. Except that Eric doesn’t want to work on that stuff anymore. Instead, he wants to revisit one of the most well-studied experiments in physics–the double slit. This of course deeply concerns Jeremy, who is putting his career on the line to give Eric one more chance. And here Eric is, blowing his 3 month probation at Hansen (a Massachussetts scientific thinktank) by following in the footsteps of a thousand physicists before him.
Except that after running the experiment multiple times, Eric has an idea that will change everything. He decides to take this whole “conscious observer” thing to the next level. He rigs up the experiment with a detector, to see which slit the electron went through. As mentioned in my description above, the interference pattern should disappear, and so it does. Next he rigs up a light so that the detector will indicate which slit the electron went through, but then he puts a box around the light, so no one can see. Now, we have a detector, but the conscious observer still doesn’t know the output of the detector. In Flickermen, the act of hiding the detector output makes the interference pattern re-appear. That is, even though we have a detector at one slit, the entire system acts as if there’s no detector, and the electron begins interfering with itself again–all because there’s no conscious observer. Now, this is where I believe the science falls apart–I believe that in the real world, hiding the detector from an observer will not cause the interference pattern to disappear. But I don’t know if that’s been tried, so I’ll suspend disbelief.
In Flickermen, when someone opens the box to look at the light, the interference pattern disappears, because now there is a conscious observer. You can imagine where this is going, and it is straight into the philosophical rabbit-hole. For, what is consciousness? In other words, if a dog looks into the box, is it conscious enough to make the interference pattern disappear? What about a chimpanzee? What about a mentally disabled human? Or a child?
You get the idea. If you accept the role of consciousness in collapsing the probability wave, then you have to figure out what that word even means. And Flickermen dives into that meaty topic with a vengeance. It is a fascinating premise, and based on real science, though of course it crosses the line into dodginess, which is I suppose required to make any science fiction novel fun. But it’s close enough to how things really work that it will stir-fry your noodles, and I love books that do that. I must say, I was riveted by the first half of Flickermen like I haven’t been riveted by a book in a long time.
Unfortunately, the second half absolutely did not live up to the book’s promise. Flickermen turns into sort of a thriller, complete with high speed chases, gunfights, and “action” like a million other books out there. That’s not necessarily bad, but after the deeply fascinating thought ride of the first half, it was a huge letdown. My overall rating for Flickermen? 4 stars. And that’s an average of 6 stars for the first half (out of 5) and 2 stars for the second half. Overall I think Flickermen is worth reading, if nothing else than for the fascinating premise that drives it.
I hope I was able to give this review without spoilers, and that’s it for this time. Toodles.
Completely unnecessary postscript delving a little deeper into the quantum rabbit hole
Book review is done. I’m just adding just one more explanation of quantum weirdness here, for those who don’t understand why physicists can’t completely rule out the role of consciousness in collapsing the probability wave (even though most don’t believe it).
At first, the quantum weirdness might not seem THAT weird, certainly not enough for scientists to abandon their common sense. For example, the fact that putting a detector at one slit changes the outcome of the experiment seems explainable by more mundane processes. After all, we all know that to measure something you have to shine some sort of electro-magnetic radiation (light) on it. Those photons have energy, and bouncing them off an electron trying to go through a slot seems bound to change things. So, the fact that putting an electron detector at one slit would remove the interference pattern doesn’t seem so bizarre after all. What’s all the fuss?
But it’s so much weirder than that. In the quantum world, any action that allows you to know the precise state of the probability wave will collapse the wave even if that action has no direct influence on the item being measured. A simple example is the two slit experiment above. Putting a detector at one slit removes the interference pattern, even for electrons going through the other slit, where the detector is not measuring. There are many other more sophisticated experiments that have used very clever tricks to deduce which path the particle has taken, without influencing the particle at all. Even in those cases, the probability wave collapses. It really does seem like the act of knowing is what changes the experiment, not direct perturbation of the element being measured. And as soon as you make the claim that the act of knowing about something changes it, you get deep into a philosophical minefield that leads to all sorts of very bizarre (but legitimately debated) quantum explanations. For example “Many Worlds” Theory, where each quantum probability collapse leads to an alternate universe.
All right, I’m done now. This started off as a book review, but ended up with me explaining just why I’m so fascinated by the quantum world. If you want to read more you can of course find several books for laypeople, but if you want recommendations, feel free to shoot me an email or reply to my FB post.