was just another day at the office. I have an unremarkable job
in a no-landmark part of town in a no-big-deal European country.
In my work, I use several cellphones. Don't ask me why.
not a telemarketer, God forbid.)
I was, plugging one of the office cellphones into a recharger,
when my co-workers headed for the lunchroom nearby.
was left alone in the office, and started toward the scent of
food and coffee...
tripped on the recharger cable I had strung between my desk and
the socket. The pull of my foot flung the phone to the floor,
and the battery-casing lid flew open.
looked down on the wall-to-wall carpet. The phone lay there, disconnected
from the recharger, and the lid next to it.
the battery was gone. Vanished.
looked under the tables. Under the shelves. On the shelves. On
the tables. In my shoes. In my pockets, in the lapels of my pants,
inside the air-conditioning machine.
and frustrated, I went to eat my lunch. After lunch break, I and
my co-workers combed through the office. The battery stayed missing.
They made the obvious suggestion: the phone must have been empty
before it dropped on the floor.
I objected, "if it had been empty when I plugged it in, why
didn't I see the 'No Battery' prompt on the phone's screen? And
where in the world was the battery then?"
someone been hiding it? I knew my co-workers were fond of pranks.
So I studied their faces from my desk... but couldn't notice the
secretive glances and suppressed smiles of a good practical joke.
They seemed just as baffled as I was.
passed. We gave up searching, and told each other, "It's
bound to turn up sooner or later, in the last place we look."
That's what people tell each other to keep their belief in a solid
"Maybe the phone quantum-tunneled through the floor."
"Maybe you triggered a bug in the giant computer-simulation
we mistake for the real world."
"Maybe the battery crawled away somewhere."
least two co-workers suggested I repeat the incident, to see where
the battery might have fallensmall objects can bounce much
farther than you think.
I didn't try that: I feared losing another battery, and I'm a
of those jokes wouldn't leave my thoughts. Lying awake in bed
at night, I listened to music in my earphones but couldn't stop
thinking: Can things really disappear?
called up my uncle who works in theoretical physics, and explained
the problem. Uncle fits all the clichès: absent-minded,
unassuming, dresses like Albert Einstein.
hobby is to write science-fiction stories. Whenever I get an idea
for a new story, I check it with Uncle. If he thinks the idea
is too far-fetched or unscientific, I toss it.
uncle was at home, and didn't mind me calling. I briefed him on
the event and asked, "What if the battery really did
quantum-tunnel through the floor? The current from the charger
was running through the phone. What's the likelihood of an object
that big to jump through a solid floor?"
uncle told me he'd make a calculation, and I thought he was kidding.
I forgot about it.
he called back a few weeks later. "I'm sorry, A.R., but that
probability can't be calculated."
doesn't mean it can't exist. People routinely assume that everything
is computable, but it's not that simple."
knew it was my cue. "Make an educated guess. We know the
size and mass of the battery, and roughly the amount of force
exerted on it when it disappearedthe current from the recharger,
plus the momentum of its fall."
uncle made a little laugh. "That information isn't crucial.
What matters is that the object disappeared at a moment when you,
the observer, wasn't certain of its position. When you weren't
looking. I mean... are you sure the battery was inside?"
well... I don't know."
You may have stumbled on a rare occasion of superimposed quantum
states on a macroscopic scale: the battery was both there and
not there at the same time. It's a very unstable condition. All
it took was a little 'push' to get knocked into either state."
where'd it go?"
went quiet for a few seconds, which usually meant his brain worked.
When my uncle thinks real hard, he freezes up. It can be aggravating.
a time, he said: "The 'Schrödinger's Cat' phenomenon
could be applied to any object in the universeeven the universe
itself. If it isn't observed, it can be in two states at once..."
science fiction makes you quick at these games. "Wait. How
could that battery be in a 'not-there' state to begin with?"
I dreaded his next words. Maybe I'm the paranoid type: I take
nothing for granted. If Uncle had said "Things vanish now
and then," I'd be prepared to believe him.
colleagues have been discussing this funny hypothesis lately...
that if there is a 'cosmological constant,' it may not be an external
but an internal force. You've heard about 'dark energy' which
causes the cosmic expansion to accelerate..."
Cold sweat broke out on my skin.
proposed the source of the 'dark energy' is generated by space-time
itself. But the energy is not created from nothing, it's 'borrowed'
from the rest of the universe. And this just might affect the
properties of matter."
hemmed and hawed. "More like... make matter more dependent
on observers to maintain its integrity. Suppose the battery disappearance
was possible but very unlikely. That you witnessed a completely
unique event. Then again... suppose it wasn't unique, but highly
likely. I suggest you repeat the incident. See if you can make
another battery disappear."
you ever had the sensation that your world-view implodes in a
terrifying insight? That your foothold on reality slips?
did vanish. So anything just as likely could happen at
any moment. Such as a new universe spawning spontaneously from
our cosmos in a random quantum fluctuation."
would almost certainly destroy our reality."
could try and recreate the event. Drop a similar phone with a
battery inside, again, in the same spot."
you do, and another battery disappears..."
the universe may be about to disintegrate."
if nothing happens?"
proves nothing, except that all bets are off."
got to find that damned battery!" Then I had a ridiculous
idea. "You said the integrity of matter may depend on observers.
We should work in that direction, not make things more unstable!"
if I cheat? I buy another battery, and tell everybody it's the
missing one. That I found it."
uncle hesitated. "No... well... in quantum mechanics, observers
have an effect on reality. But nobody's ever proved you could
falsify an observation."
said the cosmic expansion was borrowed, an energy loan. So let's
just... fudge the numbers. I can't make the battery re-appear,
but I can make it seem like it did."
not sure that changes anything."
try, anyway. Tell nobody. Okay?"
went to a shop disguised, wearing sunglasses and a false mustache,
so the shop clerk couldn't identify me later, and bought another,
took the new battery to work, hid it under my table during lunch
break, and then did the "Hey-I-Found-It!" act. Everybody
at work was so pleased and said I-Told-You-So.
told you," said Phil, "it'd turn up last place you looked."
we didn't talk any more about it. Reality had been asserted. And
there were no more disappearances at the office that year. I mean,
none compared to the year before, when things were lost almost
seemed almost as if... things had become more "there"
after I "fixed" the disappearance. That scared the crap
out of me. It still does.
I anticipate the effect of my cheating? Did I really change something?
I don't know if others got the same ideato pretend. The
lost item wasn't recreated, only the appearance of it. Is it real
if we agree it is?
Got a crazy theory: This is what
we do all the time. I just wasn't aware of it before. Every
day of our adult lives, we mend and patch the appearance of reality,
keep the consensus alive.
like civilization needs constant maintenance to keep going, so
does reality. And it's a good thing. Better than the alternative,
course, if anybody asks, I just made this story up. Appearances
must be kept. The new battery cost me about ten bucks. For saving
the universe, that's cheap.