A slightly shorter version of this short story was submitted to the Quantum Shorts 2013 competition organised by the Center for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore.
UNPERFORMED MEASUREMENTS HAVE NO OUTCOMES, the sign read. It whizzed past the train window, making it hard to tell if it was some kind of crafty advertising or just random graffiti. Fox checked his wristwatch. ‘Late’ was now definitely an outcome.
The carriage quivered as the train passed over a junction. In the dark, Fox could not tell whether the train had chosen the left or the right branch of the line. He was already late for his appointment, and now he didn’t even know, if he was on the right train. Had he missed a service announcement? No, there had been none.
The two branches of the train line would eventually converge several stations down the line. A quick glance at the almost illegible map over the doors confirmed his hunch. At worst, a detour along the longer branch would make him even later for his appointment.
Then the strange sensation started all over again. The very experience that had put him on this particular train in the first place: First, it was a slight sense of detachment. Like he was watching himself from the outside. Then it grew to a much stronger impression of looking at himself sitting in the train carriage riding down one set of rails, while he was sitting in another carriage following the other branch. If he put an effort to it, he could switch back and forth between the two positions. Eventually the sensation would either fade away or he would wake up with substantial blanks in his memory.
The first time he felt this strange splitting was two months back while teaching a class of high school algebra. He had been unsure of the most sensible sequence of lessons, and suddenly found himself teaching several topics all at once, wiping out equations on the blackboard while writing others on top of them. He had to cut the lesson — or lessons — short and take the rest of the day off, contemplating the strange experience. The following weeks, the sensation had reemerged several times at irregular intervals. It always occurred in situations, when he was unsure of where he was or what would happen next. During that time Fox came to shy away from any ambiguity or doubt.
“It’s nothing to be alarmed about,” his doctor had said, when Fox finally consulted him. “Probably just a mild stress reaction.” At this precise moment Fox simultaneously experienced sitting face to face with his doctor, and being stretched out on the dental chair in the clinic located exactly one floor below the doctors office — a planning mix-up had made him unsure of that afternoon’s schedule. The doctor must have picked up on Fox’s strained expression and added: “Just in case, I’ll have a specialist look at you.” In the same instant the dentist said: “Open up!”
And this was his destination now: A slightly creased card with inconspicuous typing:
Dr. W. Paul
Psychoengineer, SPR, EAP
Dr. Paul, a friendly, soft-spoken man, had a grayish beard and wore a worn corduroy jacket. After a lengthly conversation about Fox’ symptoms, his work, his general state of health and life situation, followed by some rather trivial exercises involving picture cards, dr. Paul fixated Fox with an expectant look:
“I have a name for you: ODDS, Organic Decoherence Deficiency Syndrome. It’s not even in the catalogue — yet,” he said and padded the thick, blue Diagnostic Manual in front of him on the table. “Of course, we have to make some neurological tests, but you tick all the boxes: The undecisiveness, the split consciousness, the blackouts.” He smiled as if had just successfully completed the Times crossword.
“What does it mean?”
The doctor’s face lit up:
“Modern science tell us that we are not detached observers of the world around us. Rather we constantly create novel situations by some indeterminable effects, hereby forcing the world into a new state. In this way every experience is a singling out of a particular factual result, here and now, from all the theoretical possibilities, the innumerable counterfactuals, thereby making obvious the discontinuous aspect of physical phenomena.”
“I’m not sure, I understand.”
A small foreign-looking coin materialised in the doctor’s raised hand. With the routine of an illusionist, he snapped his fingers, sending the piece spinning upwards, snapped it in midair and slammed it onto the desk pad covering it with his streched fingers.
“What are the odds, that I can correctly anticipate the outcome of this flipped coin, would you say?”
“Well, fifty-fifty, I guess.”
“Tails.” The doctor withdraw his hand reveiling the tail-side of the coin.
“Again!” He repeated the toss. “And now?” Fox shrugged.
“Tails, again! And now, heads! And again, tails! Heads!” The doctor was correct every time. He flipped the coin once more and concealed it on the table top:
“What are the odds this time?”
“Obviously, there is some trick… I don’t know.”
“8 to 1? 30 to 1? The point is not, whether there is a trick or not. The point is that the odds change, because you now have new information. Probability is not a property of the coin or the toss. It is an expression of your belief – of what you know or think you know.”​​​​​​​
“You are different. You maintain the counterfactual, the untested possibilities in your mind for a long time indistinguishable from the factual one. You avoid the instant decoherence normally associated with experience. This is why you have these doubling experiences from time to time. We don’t know exactly what causes them. They are associated with physical changes in the frontoparietal attention network, but that could happen for any number of reasons.”
“Can it be suppressed, neutralized, or whatever it is, you do?”
Dr. Paul smiled again: “Well, a cocktail of cognitive therapy, epistemological exercises, and a pinch of psychotropics gets you a long way. But then again: ODDS has been described, but not defeated. On the other hand, you should consider yourself lucky. Very few people get to experience this astounding aspect of reality first hand. You personally bear witness to something, it took most of the twentieth century to fully grasp: That reality isn’t objective. It is a personal game of conditional probabilities!”
“I don’t feel particularly lucky.”
“No, of course. I will make arrangement for the tests, and then we will see.” The doctor stood up and his chair made a screeching sound.
The screeching sound was followed by a slowing down of the train. Fox opened his eyes. Where was he? On his way to see the specialist? No, he had already been there. Or had he? He remembered the bearded doctor Paul and his strange syndrome, but maybe that was merely another counterfactual fantasy.
He so wished that someone would peer down his confined box and update his state; let him decohere into something definite and stable, whatever that might be. But the ODDS seemed to be against him, he thought. Fox gazed into the darkness through the grimy window of the train. There it was again: UNPERFORMED MEASUREMENTS HAVE NO OUTCOMES.​​​​​​​
Niels Chr. Alstrup
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