Behind “Portle”

by Robert Scherrer

The idea for “Portle” [on sale  now in the July/August Analog] came from a misspent childhood—my own—watching too many reruns of the original Star Trek. The futuristic technology on the Enterprise always seemed to work perfectly, with one exception—the transporter was constantly malfunctioning in new and interesting ways whenever the plot demanded it. Would you use a mode of transport that could occasionally split you into a good half and an evil half? Or sometimes send you into a parallel universe in which one of your friends has sprouted a beard? A fan of the show once pointed out an obvious explanation: maybe the transporter was “found” technology, something recovered from a long-dead alien race. That would explain why the crew of the Enterprise could never quite get it to work properly. This led to me to the main idea in “Portle”: what if we recovered an alien teleportation device, but it turned out that we had completely misunderstood its true purpose?

 


The main science driving the story is quantum mechanics, the “spooky funhouse” branch of physics. In the world of quantum mechanics, nothing behaves quite the way your intuition says it ought to.


 

I wanted to tell this story from the point of view of a confused little girl, Amy Mathews. But how could I maintain a tight first-person focus on my protagonist while at the same time providing all of the background for the reader to understand the true nature of the Portal? A talented writer would have had no trouble pulling this off within a conventional first-person narrative. Having no such writer at hand, I decided to experiment with the John Dos Passos (U.S.A.)-John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) style, interspersing Amy’s diary, which provides the main narration, with random bits of information—a movie screenplay, a television commercial script, even an obituary. Does it work? You’ll have to decide for yourself. But it was certainly fun to write! Amy Mathews herself is based on a real person, whom I must credit with some of Amy’s best lines. The story also contains a few Easter eggs: the actors in my screenplay really did all appear together in a 1979 film, but it wasn’t entitled Apollo 20, a Space Odyssey. And the quantum mechanics textbook in the story is real, although it’s not quite as clunky as Amy Mathews would have you believe.

The main science driving the story is quantum mechanics, the “spooky funhouse” branch of physics. In the world of quantum mechanics, nothing behaves quite the way your intuition says it ought to. For example, an electron doesn’t orbit an atomic nucleus like a planet orbits the Sun. Instead, quantum mechanics says that the electron no longer occupies a definite location in space. If you try to measure where it’s located, the electron will pop up somewhere, but there’s no way to predict where that will be. How does your act of measuring it squeeze the electron into a definite location? Physicists have been debating that question for almost a century.

The conventional answer, called the “Copenhagen interpretation,” says that the electron in the atom starts out in a superposition of all possible locations, and your observation causes this superposition to “collapse” down to a single location. Many people find this unsatisfying, since it means that your act of observing the electron is what causes it to assume its position.

A more bizarre idea is the “many-worlds interpretation,” invented by Hugh Everett in the late 1950s. In this theory, every time you measure the location of the electron, the universe itself splits into different branches, with each branch corresponding to a different possible location. And you split as well. Of course, you’re fully conscious of only the one universe that you happen to find yourself in, but there is another “you” who ended up in the other universe. The many-worlds interpretation means that all possible outcomes of every decision and every experiment are realized somewhere, in some reality. When I studied quantum mechanics in college, our professor presented this idea and then said, “Believe it or not, there are grown men who believe this.” But my sense is that the many-worlds hypothesis has gained more traction in recent years.

I am certainly not the first writer to explore the many-worlds hypothesis—it’s been a gold mine for science fiction, producing stories too numerous to list here. The classic story in this realm is “All the Myriad Ways,” by Larry Niven. Niven’s story takes aim at an obvious problem with the many-worlds interpretation: if every decision I make, and its opposite, are both chosen in some branch of reality, what difference does it make what I decide to do? I hasten to add that I am also not the first person to examine the implications of someone being able to experience multiple quantum mechanical worlds simultaneously—that honor goes to Paul Melko, in his excellent short story, “Ten Sigmas.” That story provides a very different take on this possibility than does my own story.

Personally, I am not a fan of the many-worlds hypothesis—I am a Copenhagen man. So how could I write a story about an interpretation of quantum mechanics that I believe to be incorrect? I don’t believe in time travel or faster-than-light travel either, but I have written stories on both topics and continue to enjoy reading such stories. Maybe the moral here is that the most entertaining science fiction doesn’t always require absolutely correct science. You’ve got to know when to bluff!


Bob at Notre Dame control roomRobert Scherrer is a cosmologist at Vanderbilt University. He has a blog on science and science fiction (as well as any other random thoughts that occur to him) at www.cosmicyarns.com.

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