The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

For The Forgotten, author Bishop O’Connell thinks very seriously about a famous Arthur C. Clarke quote and how it can apply to the world of fantasy. Would Clarke be proud? Perhaps!


Let me preface by saying that I’m not a scientist. I’m just a layperson who took some classes in college and enjoys researching and learning on my own. That being said, I love science! More specifically, I love physics and quantum mechanics. That might sound strange coming from a fantasy author, but I love how physics can put complex ideas into relatively simple terms: force equals mass times acceleration, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, etc.

But, I really geek out about quantum mechanics and how it seems to turn everything we understand about the universe on its head. Concepts like wave-particle duality, superposition, entanglement, and the uncertainty principle are endlessly fascinating to me. As our understanding expands, it seems that the lines between not just science fiction and science fact blur, but also science and fantasy. With that in mind: can a system of magic be explained using quantum mechanics? That is my Big Idea, or perhaps I should call it my Big Theory.

My novel, The Forgotten, has two points of inspiration. The first is Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems straight forward. Without understanding the scientific principles behind something, it might as well be magic. An LCD screen would be like a magic window to someone from the Dark Ages.

The second point of inspiration is the double-slit experiment. To grossly oversimplify, the premise is this: if you shoot particles at a screen through two slits, you would expect to see two stripes on the screen, mimicking the slits. But you don’t, not even if you send the particles through one at a time. Instead, you see an interference pattern of many alternating bars. That means that individual particles are actually behaving like waves and interfering with themselves.

However, when you place detectors at the slits to see what’s happening, the interference waves go away and you get two straight lines, matching the two slits. The particles cease to exist as waves of probability—existing in all possible locations at the same time—and coalesce into a single location just by observing them! Even more remarkably, setting detectors anywhere after the two slits produces the same results. If they’re on, you get two lines. If they’re not, you get an interference pattern. So not only does observing the experiment change the results from that moment on, it changes the results before being observed.

These two concepts birthed a single question in my mind. What if the observer is what changes the outcome, rather than just the act of observing? That would mean we’re actually, unconsciously, altering reality. The next logical question is: could someone do so consciously and to what extent? If so, how would this be at all distinguishable from magic? After all, every magical effect you can think of can be explained scientifically. Teleportation? There’s quantum teleportation and worm holes. Throwing fireballs? Fire is just particles moving at an energy level that generates sufficient heat to combust a fuel. It’s theoretically possible, or rather not theoretically impossible, for particles to be acted on by an outside force to generate enough heat to combust the oxygen in the air.

Now, I hear you saying, “But Bishop, some of those effects require vast amounts of energy!” You’re right, and there are unimaginable amounts of energy all around us—dark matter and dark energy to name just two. We just don’t know how to utilize them…yet. What if our will, our belief, was the key to harnessing them?

Enter my main character, a homeless girl named Wraith. She sees the waves of probability all around us in the form of equations and symbols——quantum information. With conscious effort, she can alter those equations, thus changing the probability of specific outcomes and, in turn, the very nature of reality itself. Things that are so astronomically improbable that they can be called impossible become certainties. But what impact would this ability have on a person? And what if the person in question already had little more than a tenuous grasp on reality to begin with?

What I found was that I couldn’t imagine any situation where a person could do all this and stay sane or even maintain a sense of self. Who we are is defined by how we act and what we think. But if the structure of existence is less like a bedrock foundation and more like a giant sand dune, shifting and ever changing, how do we define ourselves? How do we know who we are? That’s exactly the question Wraith has to face. Naturally there are complications to answering that question. She isn’t sure how she attained this ability or how to control it. All the while, street kids—her friends and peers—are vanishing, some turning up dead.

Perhaps all these questions are just a sign that my own grasp on reality is less than firm. Luckily, I’m a writer, so that would actually work in my favor. But, to quote Dr. Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested.

(For a video demonstration of the double-slit experiment, see this video clip from Through the Wormhole)


The Forgotten: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

22 Comments on “The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell”

  1. Barnes & Noble had the same $1 deal. So I bought this book and the one that precedes it. But it was your description above that sealed the deal.

    Well done!

  2. > However, when you place detectors at the slits to see what’s happening, the interference waves go away and you get two straight lines, matching the two slits.

    No, you don’t.

    You get two interference patterns, one for each slit. These patterns can be narrow and so look a bit like a single bar – but If the two patterns don’t overlap, then the interfering two-slit pattern is virtually identical to the non-interfering two-slit pattern / the sum of the two one-slit patterns, so you lose the effect you’re talking about.

    > The particles cease to exist as waves of probability—existing in all possible locations at the same time

    Nope, they’re still waves (with a probabilistic interpretation). Just, some details have changed so they can’t interfere. Everything is always waves. Sometimes, waves act like particles.

    > What if the observer is what changes the outcome, rather than just the act of observing?

    If in your setting the answer to this is ‘yes’, then it isn’t quantum. What causes this effect is so central that if you ditch it, you’ve required replacing the entire theory with something completely unrelated.

    What you’ve written here makes me want to point you towards a better popular-level treatment of quantum mechanics, rather than pick up this book.

  3. “Nope, they’re still waves (with a probabilistic interpretation).”

    Technically, subatomic particles (and a surprising number of macroscopic ones as well) are neither waves nor particles but instead are a new thing that has some of the properties of each. The best non-physics example of this would be the Camelopard: it has a hump like a camel and spots like a leopard but it is neither animal; it is a giraffe.

  4. “but I love how physics can put complex ideas into relatively simple terms”

    Clearly you haven’t read Haliday and Resnick

  5. JohnD,

    They are all waves all the time. Bricks are waves. Blocks and clocks are waves. Quantum Mechanics is a wave theory. Particles are useful approximations for describing the structure of the waves in many common cases. Waves, on the other hand, leave no such gaps – even when a thing is acting in a way that can be described as being a particle, it’s still acting in a way that can be described as a wave. This leaves no room for a new as-yet-unnamed thing to displace their identity as waves.

    ‘Wave-particle duality’ was from before they figured out how to describe particle behavior with waves. Things were really, really confusing back then.

  6. Sorry, drachefly, but you are mistaken. They are no more “waves all the time” than they are particles all the time. (Hey, wasn’t that a song by Eddy Murphy?) I suspect that the moniker “wave equation” is what is confusing the matter. But that was an early attempt to describe quantum interactions; today, the preferred description is of interacting tensor fields.

    If you are interested in heading down the rabbit hole, Tong has his notes for an introductory course available at:

  7. twilsonb – I just checked and the excerpt is there. I had to click on the “fit to window” option which expanded the small window. The text was there, but the window was shrunk so it looked like it wasn’t, but there is a scroll bar on the right hand side.

    drachefly – Thanks for the clarification and I’m sorry my book doesn’t strike your interest, but I know my book(s) aren’t for everyone. The great thing about what Scalzi is doing here is there are lots of options and I’m sure something else will be interesting to you. The comment I made about placing the detectors after the slits might be a misinterpretation of the delayed choice quantum experiment.

    JohnD & drachefly – I’m actually loving the discussion being started with this, and even if neither of you buy the book, I’m enjoying this! :D

    The key point I’d make is that this is a work of fiction, and I just wrote about how my understanding of a rather amazing experiment got me thinking and where my mind went. I knew going into this that anyone with a better understanding of the principles than me might well not be taken enough by the story to ignore anything they saw as inaccuracies. It’s akin to watching Backdraft with an actual fireman, or CSI with a real crime scene tech. I just wanted to write an interesting story, and I liked the idea of quantum mechanics being used to explain magic. It seems I’ve found the “flying snowman” moment for drachefly, and maybe JohnD as well. I’m admittedly incredibly bias, but I think it’s a good story, even if my science isn’t completely accurate. But again, work of fiction with elves and magic.

  8. I once watched Backdraft with a real firefighter. It gives me great appreciation for your simile. And the book sounds fun!

  9. Three dollars here in Holland for the Kindle – still a steal

    Which as always leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. It’s perfectly legal but get the authors anything out of these ridiculously cheap transactions?

  10. Marion – Thanks! For me it was watching The Hunt for Red October with my father. He was in the Navy and worked on a sub tender.

    Jantar – It’s rather nice to have readers commenting on how low the prices are instead of how high. haha The reduced price is a short term sale, that I agreed to. While it’s true I don’t get much from the sale at 99 cents, if I get a reader that enjoys it, tells others and/or sticks with the series, it was well worth it in my mind.

  11. I was on a sub-tender too, the last squadron of diesel electric boats! Fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief to enjoy. I target shoot with guns, so I see constant errors with regard to shooting and weapons, more in news stories than in fiction actually. OK, now it gets weird… the bio says your Dad was stationed in Sardinia, on a sub-tender, in Sardinia. The Tender I was on went to Sardinia just after I was discharged… AS-16, USS Gilmore. Same boat?? Naw, couldn’t be…

    I just did finish reading “Superposition” which is another novel using quantum physics and the control of factors of quantum equations causing impossible events in the macro-real world. I quite enjoyed it, and will try finding this book on my android tablet. $0.99 is low, but I’m willing to suffer paying a low price if you (Bishop O/Connell) can stand it.

    Superposition was great, I read it in as close to one sitting as you could do when you need to sleep regularly. The most unbelievable thing was that the world’s largest physics experiment was a super-collider buried under the Jersey Pine Barrens. As if New Jersey politics would allow for such a thing!!

  12. JR in WV – I agree with you, you have to turn it off sometimes. I’m one of those authors who, initially got it wrong with guns. I’ve since researched so my gun shots don’t smell or cordial a or the rest. Haha that is an amazing coincidence, but I’m not sure of my dad’s boat, I was very young at the time. ;) I’ve also got Superposition on my reading list and found it interesting g two quantum mechanics novels appeared here in a week! I’m good with you buying the ebook on sale, that was the point. Of course you’re then obligated to tell everyone you know excellent it is. Haha

  13. JohnD, I need no guide down the rabbit hole. I have a PhD in physics and took multiple courses on quantum field theory.

    The interacting tensor fields’ interactions are described by a wave equation for a very very good reason, not a confusion of terms. To be sure, the waves are not free sine waves. You can have waves that don’t go anywhere, waves that bunch up, waves that act like particles… and that’s all stuff you can do on a violin string, let alone a quantum field. That waves can do all sort of tricks other than propagate outwards does not change their underlying nature: disturbances in a field.