Hey, you know quantum physics? Ha! It’s a trick question, because no one truly knows quantum physics — at this point we know just enough to know how little we understand about what goes on down at that level. Which, as it happens, makes it fertile ground for fiction, as author Ted Kosmatka found out with his novel The Flicker Men.
The electron leaves the gun at one tenth the speed of light. It travels as a probability wave, passing simultaneously through two slits carved in a piece of steel. On the far side, an interference pattern forms where the waves cross each other—and for just a moment, the math of the universe is laid bare before you. It’s all probability. Uncertainty. A schematic of what might be.
But bend and look close. There, you see it?
Now you’ve changed everything.
The big idea for The Flicker Men was actually a small idea. Quantum-sized, in fact. I was reading up on quantum mechanics, with its strange interaction between observer and phenomena, and I found myself wondering about the nature of observation in a quantum system. I mean, what, precisely, is an observer? Is consciousness required?
In the everyday world that we occupy, observers are fairly mundane, but in the realm of quantum mechanics, that shadowing half-world where light is both particle and a wave, the question of observation accrues fundamental importance and has far reaching implications for reality itself.
What if you used the principles of quantum mechanics to define, exactly, the parameters of observation? What if you found something you hadn’t expected? What if all observers weren’t created equal?
The Flicker Men is an expansion of my earlier short story “Divining Light,” originally published in Asimov’s magazine. For me, it all started with the famous double-slit experiment. For years I was obsessed with this simple, elegant experiment which demonstrates the wave/particle duality of light. They call it quantum weirdness, but that term always seemed too benign to me. It seemed more like quantum brokenness, like there was something fundamentally contradictory about the way our universe functions. Nobody would believe in quantum mechanics if there wasn’t such a consistent mountain of repeatable evidence for it. How can light be both a wave and a particle? How does a probability wave collapse into existence? And then there’s quantum entanglement to contend with—one electron linked to another, Einstein’s spooky action at a distance.
The two-slit experiment sits at the very heart of these questions and lays wide their contradictions. In order to believe in the double-slit experiment, you have to accept that the mere act of observing a quantum system can change it. Probability collapses when observed. Waves are transformed into particles; probability into fact. Reality, somehow, knows if someone is watching.
In the original short story “Divining Light,” I came up with a thought experiment that tackles the two-slit idea in a slightly different way. The experiment, with a subtle change, becomes a kind of test, and the results are open to some frightening interpretations. In the world of the novel, no one is ready for what is discovered.
After the original short story’s publication, I received a lot of mail asking where the real science in the story ended and the speculation began. The answer is somewhere in the middle, though I like to think of the entire novel as an extended thought experiment, each piece building on the logic that came before. In the novel, I explore the original premise further and delve into deeper implications about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.
I was a video game writer at Valve for more than five years and my time there gave me a new appreciation for the way our perceptions shape our understanding of the world around us.
I’ve always been a fan of ambitious stories with big, world-spanning arcs; and in a lot of ways, a physics thriller is an ideal platform for tackling the big questions.
The protagonist of The Flicker Men, Eric Argus, is a man haunted by his life’s work. He’s a promising young researcher who made a big splash in quantum mechanics at a young age, but now he’s burned out, fast approaching the end of his career, and wearing out his last chance.
Instead of focusing on new research, he turns instead to face what’s been haunting him. What should have been a dead end turns into an unsettling new chapter of his career. His experiment leads him to a discovery that shakes the foundations of modern physics and opens him up to dangers that he never knew existed.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle tells us that there’s a limit to what can be known, and thus the world is built at least partially on secrets. Eric and his fellow researchers learn an important lesson in the wake of their discovery. Behind every great secret are those who want it kept.