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2 Many Worlds / A lead to somewhere

10 August 2004

‘So, you really have no clue about where your dreams come from,’ said Theresa. ‘I guess we need an expert opinion.’

‘You know someone who could help us?’ said Patrick.

‘I think he can,’ said Theresa. ‘He’s one of the world’s foremost researchers into the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.’

‘What’s that again? I was following up until you made that sudden turn towards the science-speak.’

Theresa took a coin from her purse. ‘When you flip a coin,’ she said, holding it up, ‘there are two possibilities, correct? Heads or tails. Now’—she flipped the coin and then caught it with her right hand, covering it with her free hand—’if this shows up heads, what happened to the other possibility? Did it disappear entirely?’ She lifted her left hand, revealing the coin within.

‘It came up tails,’ Patrick pointed out.

‘That’s not the point,’ said Theresa. ‘Now, according to many worlds, the two possibilities have happened—the world split in two as I flipped the coin. In here, it came up tails, but in another, heads came up.’

‘Ah, I see,’ said Patrick. ‘But wait, how come I didn’t see or feel the world splitting? And why didn’t I see my other self who saw heads came up?’

‘There are… explanations, I’m sure. I’ll let the expert handle it. Besides, I’m sure there are physicists spinning in their graves ‘cause of that explanation. Coin-flipping is worlds apart from the improbabilities at the quantum level, but it’s the best and fastest way I could explain the whole thing to you.’

Patrick looked confused. ‘Can I have a map to that last sentence?’

‘Never mind that. Now, the expert I’m referring to, his name is Dr Agcaoili.’ She stopped. She remembered her confusion last night as she looked his name up on the internet. She was sure that he was named Dr Agbayani, but the name that came up was Agcaoili. She had shrugged it off last night, thinking that things were different between this worlds and the world she came from, after all. But now her doubts resurfaced.

‘Theresa?’ said Patrick in a worried tone.

‘Theresa looked up at him. ‘Where was I? Oh, yes. Right now he’s the chief scientist of the university’s Institute for Research on High-Energy Physics, but about a year ago he was with a team of physicists from all over the world when they tried to prove the many worlds interpretation through an experiment. I read an article that said their results were inconclusive, but I’m sure he could still help us.’

‘And we’re just supposed to walk into his office?’

‘No, but… IRHEP has been funded mainly by… the Aquino family. I’m sure… I think they could help us…’ She had spoken that last sentence softly, almost as if to herself.

‘They will? Why should they?’

‘My father… he’s an Aquino…’

‘Wow, you must be rich—’ Patrick began, but then he stopped abruptly as he remembered that her surname was not Aquino. ‘Oh! I’m really sorry.’

Theresa shook her head. ‘You didn’t know,’ she said weakly.

Patrick looked worried. ‘Are you sure we have to do this?’ He saw in Theresa the same hesitancy he had whenever he approached his own father, and he didn’t want her to be troubled any more than she already was.

Theresa shook her head once again. ‘It must be done,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Dr Agcaoili’s the only one I know who could help us.’

‘Theresa, if—’

‘I’ll call my father,’ Theresa said loudly, resolutely, as she stood up. ‘Please wait here.’ She then walked out of the cafeteria.

A few minutes later, she returned with a haggard expression on her face, as if she went out to fight a battle and not make a phone call. Her voice, however, retained their masterful tone. ‘Get your bag,’ she said. ‘We’ll meet him outside the IRHEP building.’

They left the Math Department building and headed, not towards the waiting shed for the jeepneys that went around the campus, but towards a path in the grassy area behind the building. IRHEP stood on the outskirts of the university’s land, with none of the jeepney routes passing near it, but it was in the College of Science and Technology’s area, which meant that it was a relatively short distance away from the Math Department building.

‘Hey,’ said Patrick, ‘may I ask you something?’

‘What?’ said Theresa without turning to face him.

‘Well, you said that you didn’t like me—I mean the me from your world. Then how come you agreed to go out on a date with him—that other me, I mean?’

‘Some people—they just can’t take a hint. They think that when I say “no” it means “try harder.” So I got tired of telling them off and just thought, whatever. You won’t fool me so easily, anyway.’

Patrick was looking at Theresa’s face as she spoke with her cheeks flushed in anger. That anger, however, was absent in those normally expressive eyes of hers. Was she being completely truthful?

‘So, what don’t you like about me?’ Patrick asked.

‘You have poor taste in women,’ Theresa said simply.

Patrick paused, stunned by her response. After a while, he asked, ‘What’s wrong with my taste? This girl I like, she’s beautiful, she’s intelligent—although yes, she’s very scary.’

‘Are you talking about your ex?’ Theresa said testily, but a blush in her cheeks betrayed her. Patrick did not notice the blush as he laughed heartily at Theresa’s response.

They reached the IRHEP building, but, since they were not allowed to enter yet, they waited outside near the guard post. The guard looked askance at them, but thankfully, he didn’t send them away, perhaps partly due to Theresa’s imperious stance, which intimated that she had a reason to be there. They had to wait half an hour before a white luxury car drove over to where they stood. A chauffeur hopped out of the driver’s seat and rushed over to open the rear door, but before he reached it the door opened on its own. From it stepped out a tall, thin man in yellow long-sleeved dress shirt, black slacks, and brown loafers. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, clean shaven, and with a charming smile that he flashed at them as he waved. Patrick noticed that at his side Theresa had tensed up, and her eyes were fixed on the ground.

‘Hi, Theresa,’ the man said brightly. ‘Sorry I’m late; I had something to do first.’

‘I apologise for disturbing you, Mr Aquino,’ Theresa said stiffly, her head bowed.

‘There’s no need to be so formal with me, Theresa, I’m your father.’ He walked over to them. ‘Your mother fine? Did you get the money?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Theresa, but her voice remained withdrawn, and her eyes continued to stare at the ground. ‘My mother is fine, thank you for asking. And yes, we received the money yesterday. Thank you for that.’

‘You don’t need to thank me; it’s in our contract,’ Mr Aquino said, frowning as he stared sorrowfully at Theresa. ‘Now, what do you need me for?’

‘We—my project partner and I’—she pointed at Patrick—’need to speak with Dr Agcaoili for a class project.’

Patrick tried his best not to react to her words. They were lies, true, but Theresa delivered them smoothly, as if she had been practising them, or as if she was accustomed to lying.

‘Is that all,’ Mr Aquino said, and he motioned for them to follow as he walked to the guard post. The guard had been standing at attention ever since the white car showed up. ‘Guard, do you know me?’ he said to him, and the guard nodded. ‘Okay, write up Theresa Santos and’—he turned to Patrick—’What’s your name, boy?’

‘Patrick Cruz, sir.’

‘And Patrick Cruz in the registered visitors list. And call Dr Agcaoili up; tell him these two are meeting him now.’ The guard did as he was told, and Mr Aquino turned to the two. ‘Will you need to meet him again tomorrow?’

‘That might be necessary, sir,’ said Theresa.

‘Okay, put them in the allowed access list. That way you can talk to him anytime you want. But don’t wander around—it’s for your safety, see. Well, is that all?’

‘Yes, sir, and thank you for all your help, Mr Aquino.’

Mr Aquino stared at her with sorrowful eyes. He walked over to her and raised his hand, almost touching her head. Theresa recoiled from his sudden approach, and he dropped his hand and walked away.

‘Be safe, Theresa. And send your mother my regards,’ he said before he entered the car.

Patrick was watching the white car drive out of sight when he felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked at Theresa, who motioned for him to follow her.

‘Are you okay?’ Patrick said gently.

Theresa nodded, but didn’t say anything. When they entered the building, Patrick looked around, clearly disappointed.

‘Where are the lasers? The sparks of electricity?’ he asked Theresa,

‘They would be inside those rooms, shielded with a thick layer of concrete and manned by experts. Did you expect to see them scattered around?’

‘Well, yeah.’ Theresa sighed at that.

‘They had an accident here once; it killed a researcher. So what they’re doing, it’s really dangerous. They wouldn’t leave those things around just for everyone to see.’

Patrick nodded, disappointment still evident on his face, as Theresa stopped and pointed at a door.

‘There’s Dr Agcaoili’s office,’ she said, and then she knocked twice on the door before opening it. Inside was a small room and a table, behind which sat a woman who looked to be in her mid-forties. A laptop lay unused in front of her, and a book titled Introduction to Lie Algebras was in her hands.

‘Dr Agcaoili?’ said Patrick doubtfully before Theresa elbowed her in the side.

‘No, young man,’ she answered with a light chuckle. ‘I’m his secretary. He’s waiting for you there.’ She pointed to a door on the side of the room.

‘Ah, sorry,’ said Patrick with a sheepish grin as Theresa said a quick ‘thanks.’ The two walked over to the door, and Theresa knocked twice on it before opening. Inside was a much larger room, painted white but dimly lit, as if the single fluorescent bulb overhead was not enough to dispel the room’s darkness entirely. There were shelves of books and a globe, a file case stood in one of the room’s corners.

‘They said that two students wanted to meet me, and I’m curious to know why,’ said a dignified-looking man, almost bald but with a well-trimmed moustache and beard. ‘I’m Dr Agcaoili. How may I help you?’

He sat at the end of the room behind an impressive wooden table. Behind him were the only windows to the room, heavily curtained, which added to the room’s darkened feel.

Theresa approached the table and introduced herself, extending her hand towards the physicist, who shook it lightly. Patrick did the same, and Dr Agcaoili grabbed his hand with both of his as he said:

‘You’re Richard’s son, aren’t you? You look just like him, save for the nose. That looks like Patricia’s’

‘You know my parents?’ said Patrick in surprise.

‘Yes,’ said Dr Agcaoili, letting go of his hand. ‘We three met in an English writing class in this university, became friends, and parted ways after graduation. But we still talk every now and then. I’m really sorry about Patricia.’ He took his seat and waved for the two to do the same. As soon as they were seated, he spoke.

‘So, what does my friend’s son and my benefactor’s daughter wish to discuss with me?’

‘I’ve read your articles ever since I was in high school,’ said Theresa.

‘Impressive,’ muttered the physicist, nodding.

‘I know you’re one of the authorities on the Everett interpretation, and I think only you could help us in the strange situation we seem to have been caught in.’

‘Ah, Everett,’ said Dr Agcaoili wistfully.’ I’m afraid I’ve started losing faith in him. The last experiment, you see.’

‘I thought it was inconclusive, and that you’ll try again in a few years,’ said Theresa.

‘Is that how they put it?’ said Dr Agcaoili. ‘It was far from inconclusive—it disproved Hugh Everett III’s theory about the universal wavefunction and the splitting of worlds.

‘Excuse me,’ said Patrick. ‘I don’t have a head for those things. Theresa told me about the coin flip splitting the world in two, but I don’t know how it split, or why I can’t see the world.’

‘The coin flip,’ said Dr Agcaoili, looking at Theresa with clearly feigned shock. ‘Stephen Hawking might just shoot you, young woman.’

‘I know it was wrong, sir,’ Theresa replied. ‘I know that quantum physics operates primarily in the atomic and subatomic scale, and not in the macroscopic scale of coins and cats. But I needed a way to explain the whole thing to him, you see.’

‘And why is it important that he understand this? Is he planning to become a physicist like me?’

‘We’ll tell you about the reason later, sir. For now, could you tell us about the experiment?’

‘But first, we need to explain these things to Mr Cruz more clearly.’ He turned to Patrick. ‘The coin flipping analogy cannot perfectly explain many worlds, because it’s not a perfectly random event. If you knew all the forces affecting the coin, like how strong you flipped it, gravity, wind resistance, you could predict how it’ll turn up—given the time to calculate, of course. In fact, there are some people who could flip the coin in a certain way to make, say, heads come up almost all the time.

‘Now, what we’re talking about in quantum mechanics are totally random events—they cannot be predicted, not accurately, due to a thing called Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I’ll explain how the randomness comes up.

‘Suppose there’s a cockroach crawling somewhere in this room, and you want to kill it. Obviously you have to know where it is, and where it is going—that is, the position and the velocity (that means both speed and direction) of the cockroach. The first one’s about the present state of the cockroach, and the second one about its future. From those two pieces of information you’ll have an idea where it will be a few seconds from now, and that’s where you’ll hit it.

‘You need light to see the cockroach, so you can know its position and velocity. Now, the cockroach isn’t really affected by the light that strikes it, the one that gets reflected into our eyes so we can see it. But the particles we study in quantum mechanics are different; they are so small and light that when light strikes them, the light actually affects them. It changes either their velocity or position. Imagine trying to feel for marbles on the floor while blindfolded; as soon as you touch one, you may have brushed it away, so you know where it was, but not where it’s going now.

‘Now, this uncertainty—that you can’t know both the present and the future state of a particle accurately—means all these equations we have only tell us the probable states of a particle—where it could be, how fast it could be moving, what direction it could be headed, etc. Some people started wondering about this randomness. Where does it come from? Einstein, in particular, was very much against this fundamental randomness in nature. He once said, “I, at any rate, am convinced that God does not throw dice.” Niels Bohr, a physicist who helped develop the uncertainty principle, apparently responded, “Stop telling God what to do.” He believed that this randomness is a fact, that there’s no hidden explanation for it. He even helped express it mathematically; and when you’re using numbers as proof, it’s very hard to argue against that.

‘Bohr is the most famous scientist who believed in this interpretation of quantum mechanics. In fact, it’s called the Copenhagen interpretation, from the capital of Denmark, where he was born. He believed that before a particle has been observed, it could have any of the probable properties for it. Once it has been observed, though, a value has been “chosen” (for lack of a better word) and all other possibilities “collapse” towards that “chosen” value.

‘Erwin Schrödinger, another scientist who helped develop some of the equations for quantum mechanics, had a problem with that interpretation. He thought up the following experiment: a cat was placed in a sealed box, and in a Geiger counter near the box there was a bit of radioactive substance. Now, radioactivity is one of those random events under quantum mechanics; even if we know that this element’s half-life was, say, one hour, one can’t be sure that it really will decay in one hour unless you observed it. Now, if it did decay, then a poison would be released into the box, killing the cat. If it didn’t decay, the cat lives. Now, according to the Copenhagen interpretation, the cat is both alive and dead until someone observes the cat. Sounds strange, right?

‘Some years later after that, a scientist named Hugh Everett III came up with an alternative interpretation. He called all the possibilities for the totality of existence the universal wavefunction, and he came up with the idea that all these possibilities are realised, but they all can’t be observed by the same observer. Using the above example, “I” might get bound to the observation that the cat died, and there would be another Dr Agcaoili who gets bound to the observation that the cat lives.

‘Now you ask, why can’t I see this other me, this other world? They split off into another dimension—sadly, “dimension” has been a much abused word. It simply means a direction of travel. Up and down is a dimension; so is left and right. Backwards and forward, as well as time. Time is a special dimension ‘cause we humans can only go forward in it. We cannot stop at a certain time, and we certainly can’t go backwards in it.

‘The dimension the other world splits off towards cannot be described by these four dimensions. It’s quite difficult to explain it without using complicated math, so just trust me on that.’ He smiled and continued. ‘Anyway, it’s not a dimension we could look at, just like how we couldn’t look backward in time, so we can’t see what lies in that direction.

‘So if we can’t observe these other worlds, how can we know if they really exist? That’s where our experiment came in. If you remember our Schrödinger’s cat example, the world splits whenever the possibilities of an uncertain event are actualised, and the observer is split to see each possibility happening. Now what if we create a scenario where the observer splits, but the world doesn’t?

‘Sounds simple, but it required a lot of research in other fields. First, we needed to develop thermodynamically reversible nanotechnology, so we could record our observation results without splitting the worlds (because the world splits whenever the possibility of something thermodynamically irreversible happens, like a cat dying. You can’t bring a dead cat back to life, can you?) Second, we needed to develop artificial intelligence that would turn our reversible nanotechnology computer into an intelligent observer, the one will be splitting. Now it’s a coincidence that you came to me asking about this, Patrick, ‘cause your dad was one of the programmers of the machine. I recommended him for the job since he’s an expert in the field.’

Patrick nodded blankly. He didn’t know that his father was talented, that he had a hand in a scientific revolution. There was a lot he didn’t know about his father; he hoped that that would soon change.

‘Okay, so we take this reversible intelligent observer, and we have it measure the spin of an electron—spin is exactly what it says, a rotation along an axis, like what the earth does. First, we have it measure the z-axis spin—up or down. Then, the electron’s spin along the x-axis is measured—left or right. Then, after making the machine forget the second measurement, it measures the z-axis spin of the electron again. Now, if Niels Bohr is correct, and all possibilities “collapse” into one value after being observed, then the two z-axis measurements will not always agree, since the electron’s spin will only “collapse” into up or down during that x-axis measurement. But if Everett is correct, then the two will always agree, since there has been no splitting of the world and the first measurement has been the only one all along.’

‘So, what did you find out?’ Theresa asked. She had been leaning forward in her seat during the narration of the experiment, clearly interested in the details.

‘We planned for a thousand repetitions, just to be sure, you see,’ said Dr Agcaoili. ‘We had a differing observation just on the second try. Out of our thousand repetitions, 500 of the observations agreed, and the rest didn’t.’

‘So Copenhagen was correct,’ muttered Theresa. ‘There are no many worlds.’

‘‘But wait,’ said Patrick. He could dimly grasp some of what has been told him, like how someone would imagine an intricate painting that one has never seen but has only been described to him by someone else. It was a credit to Dr Agcaoili that even Patrick was able to understand that much. ‘Didn’t you come from another world, Theresa? And you saw all those other possibilities, right? The ones we’re not supposed to see.’

Theresa’s eyes widened at that, and she glared angrily at him. Dr Agcaoili clasped his hands in front of him.

‘Is that so?’ he said, staring at Theresa as he reached for his mug of coffee. She tried to stare back, but she looked away as he took a sip, as if blinded by some bright light. He put his mug down and continued. ‘You don’t seem like the types to play jokes, a proper-mannered young man and a serious-looking young woman. But… with the proliferation of practical joke shows on TV, one can’t be sure.’

Patrick leaned towards Theresa, whispering loudly, ‘Are you sure he can help us?’ But Theresa ignored him, staring intently at Dr Agcaoili, who gazed serenely back at her.

Suddenly, she stood up and bowed at him. ‘Thank you for your time, and sorry for the intrusion.’ Then she turned to Patrick, saying ‘Let’s go’ to him as she walked towards the door of Dr Agcaoili’s office.

* * * * *

OJ Tan headed back to the police headquarters after meeting with Leah Castro. The onset of the leading edge of a typhoon, bringing heavy rains and gusting winds to the city, ensured that a normally one-hour drive now took twice as long. After reaching HQ, an exhausted OJ had to invent a plausible story to prevent the visiting generals of military intelligence from discovering the true target of SPO4 Rivero’s investigation. Afterwards, he endured an almost hour-long phone conversation with a police attaché from the embassy of a western nation. He managed to convince him to provide access to their mass spectrometer by reminding him of the thanks and accolades he would receive should the terrorist be captured with his aid, as well as reminding him that capturing this terrorist would prevent his helping a plan a similar attack in his own country. It was a typical OJ Tan way of stroking people in authority; appealing to their sense of importance (which most government officials were very concerned about) and to their patriotism (which some government officials still tried to keep in mind). He then ordered Rivero to send all their evidence that needed analysis to the embassy, and then, feeling that he had accomplished a job well done, he collapsed on his chair and stared at the phone on his desk, waiting for Leah to call. The phone rang just before 4 pm. OJ picked it up all panicked, tried to settled down, then said to the headset in a suave tone, ‘Hello?’

‘OJ, I’m sorry it took a while,’ said the voice of Leah. ‘She didn’t look like a first year, so I had those records checked last. Anyway, her name’s Theresa Santos, daughter of a Rachelle Santos and Jonathan Aquino, youngest son of the head of the Aquino group of companies. She had the second highest score in last year’s admission test. My God, what’s happening? Do you remember what happened to the topnotcher? He died after drinking acid in chem lab. Are you still investigating that one? The family still doesn’t know if it was an accident or on purpose, if it was suicide or murder.’

‘‘I’ll check on that,’ OJ said indifferently. ‘Do you have a contact number for her family?’

‘For her mother, yes. It’s 812-4774.’

‘Thank you very much, Leah. Talk to you later.’

‘I’ll be expecting that,’ said Leah with a laugh before hanging up. OJ ignored her teasing comment as he dialled the number hurriedly. He felt the thrill of the chase; this could be a big break in their investigation.

‘H’lo?’ said a slurred female voice after almost a minute of ringing.

‘Hello, ma’am,’ said OJ politely. ‘Is this Rachelle Santos?’

‘Yeah. Who wants to know?’

‘This is Senior Inspector Tan of the Central Police District. You daughter has been found dead in Ultramall yesterday. She died in the bombing. We’re sorry we’re only telling you this now, but we had trouble iden—’

‘Wait, wait,’ said the voice on the other line, all sobered up. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘Your daughter, Theresa Santos? We found her body in Ultram—’

‘But she got home yesterday. Is this a joke? Do you know who his father is? He’ll sue you for this, you know.’

‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t understand. We found her body at Ultramall yesterday.’

‘And I’m sure she was here yesterday. Now, if you’re done with the jokes—’ OJ heard the phone slam. He stared at the phone, looking confused. After a few moments, understanding dawned in his eyes.

‘Briones!’ he called to a passing cap. ‘Come here.’ Briones did as he was told. OJ opened the photo of Theresa’s body in his phone.

‘Head down to the TV station. Tell them to put this photo on the news, and tell them that anyone who knows where she is should call us here. It’s connected to Ultramall. Got it?’

Briones nodded and hurried away. OJ was too keyed up to sit down, and so he paced the front of his desk. He had caught scent of his prey, and the hunt was on.

[Back to Crossing Everett index.]