Mind Your P’s and Q’s

Welcome to story time here on Planet Pailly!  Today’s story was inspired by a recent conversation I had with a new friend, a conversation which I described in a previous blog post.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

The whole class was staring at the teleportation chamber, cringing at the wisp of smoke rising from the chamber floor.  Cadet Keefer had just killed a gerbil.  Again.

Keefer’s face blanched as she realized what had happened. Suddenly she was mashing the reset button.  Reset!  Reset!  Reset!  But the whole teleportation system had locked up.  The controls were frozen on their last settings, with all the emergency lights on.

Professor Montgomery was coming over.  “What happened?”

“I… I can’t…” Keefer said, still frantically trying to get the teleporter to reverse.  The machine had disassembled that poor gerbil atom by atom, so Keefer just had to make the stupid contraption put the gerbil back together again.  Right?

“It must’ve been the Heisenberg unit,” Keefer said, or at least that was her best guess.  On the very first day of teleportation training, Professor Montgomery had said 90% of the teleportation accidents he’d seen were caused by Heisenberg commutation units.  They were finicky pieces of hardware.  You had to keep a close eye on them.  The quantum teleportation system needed to track the exact momentum and position of each and every atom in your body (or in this case, in that gerbil’s body), and that was impossible if the Heisenberg unit failed.

On the control board, the momentum and position were represented by the letters p and q.  And sure enough, right there in the middle of the status board, an error message read:

pq ≠ qp

“Looks like you’re right,” Professor Montgomery said, tapping his finger on that message.  “What have I told you about the Heisenberg unit?”

Keefer’s face was turning bright red with embarrassment. “Mind your p’s and q’s,” she recited.

“That’s right,” Montgomery said.  “You can take the test again in a month.  Until then, I don’t want you touching the teleporters.  I don’t want you anywhere near them.  Stick to the simulators until you know you can do it right.  Understood, cadet?”

“Understood, sir!”

What Kind of Writer Do I Want to Be?

Today’s post is about a personal revelation I recently had.  You see, I spend a lot of time researching for this blog, making sure I understand what I’m talking about, and doing my best to explain it all clearly and concisely.  And all this work, in theory, is supposed to benefit my science fiction writing.

But I don’t want to write hard Sci-Fi.  I used to think science fiction existed on a spectrum from hard science fiction, where everything is super scientifically accurate (and here’s a full chapter explaining the math to prove it), to soft science fiction, where everything’s basically space wizards and technobabble magic (lol, who cares if unobtainium crystals make sense?).

I’ve since discovered another way to think about science fiction, and I find that to be more useful.  But sometimes I’m still left wondering why am I doing all this extra work?  What’s it all for if I’m not trying to write hard Sci-Fi?

Recently, I was talking with a new friend, and somehow the conversation turned to quantum physics.  I swear I wasn’t the one who brought it up!  My friend had seen a video on YouTube, and I felt the need to disillusion him of the weird quantum mysticism he’d apparently been exposed to.  I was doing my best to explain what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle actually means, and I ended up digging into what I remembered about the math.

Mathematically speaking, the momentum of a quantum particle is represented by the variable p, its position by the variable q, and the relationship between p and q is often expressed as:

pq ≠ qp

I don’t have the math skills to explain how this non-equivalency equation works.  I think it has something to do with matrices.  My high school math teacher skipped that chapter. To this day, I still haven’t got a clue how a matrix works.  I just know it’s an important concept in quantum theory.

But by this point, my friend was staring at me with a sort of dumbstruck awe, and he said: “Wow, you really do understand this stuff!”

That brought me up short.

“No, not really,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed. I couldn’t help but recollect the famous line attributed to Richard Feynman: If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.

So I told my friend about this blog and about my writing, and how I use the research I do for my blog to flesh out the story worlds in my science fiction.  And then I said something that I don’t remember ever thinking before or being consciously aware of, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true: “I just want to make sure I know enough so that I don’t make a total fool of myself in my stories.”

And that’s it.  That’s the answer I needed.  I’m okay with stretching the truth if it suits my story.  I’m okay with leaving some scientific inaccuracies in there.  I just don’t want to make a mistake so glaringly obvious to my readers (some of whom know way more about science than I do) that it ruins the believability of my story world.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing.  The fiction kind of writing, I mean.  And on Wednesday, we’ll have story time here on the blog.