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Hi everyone. You may remember that I posted a short story here about a year ago. I've cobbled together another little tale and, as the first one seemed to be appriciated, I thought I'd give it an audience here in two parts. Hoping for your amusement, fellows.

The message (part 1)

The office where Kevin Salmon worked was painted a rather unusual and somewhat deep blue, which was not entirely to his liking. Although, he consoled himself with the thought that this was not where the most important work was done anyway. He was a professor of quantum information processing who defined his work as “mainly experimental”; the laboratory was where the real discoveries were made or, just as importantly, not made. I should explain the proceeding a little more. There are basically two kinds of physicists in the academic world; theorists and experimentalists. The theorists attempt to build models (or theories) of how an aspect of the world works and then work out how the models predict the real world should work. The experimentalists do experiments to see if the world does work as predicted and their results therefore either support or disprove the models. If a model is shown to make incorrect predictions it must either be thrown out or modified.

Note however that a model can never be proven as there is always the possibility that a future experiment will contradict its predictions. It was with these thoughts in mind that Kevin was considering the results of his own recent experiments. He was testing a theory which predicted it was possible to transmit information faster than the speed of light. In fact, it predicted not only that certain bits of information could pass instantaneously between two points but that this was going on all the time and was an essential process if the world was to work as it did. However, from his own results it didn't appear this was actually what was going on and, as he knew, showing that a theory is wrong is more of a “real” discovery than finding it might be right.

As Kevin walked into the campus canteen to get dinner he was so engrossed in his thoughts he didn't notice his friend Marcus queuing up to pay for his meal until he was standing next to him. “Busy day, I take it?” said Marc with a smile and Kevin turned in slight surprise. “Oh, didn't see you there. I wouldn't say busy exactly. I've been spending a lot of time in the lab recently and....well, you know how it is.” said Kevin. Marc indeed knew how it was. While it wouldn't be true to say these two men were workaholics, they both could at times become thoroughly absorbed in a project to an almost obsessive degree. This usually happened when they believed they were nearing some landmark discovery or, in Marc's case the completion of one of his “tools” as he called them. Marc was a software engineer who mostly wrote programs for physicists that helped to collect and analyse the data from their experiments.

“So, are you going to the gathering at Julia's house on Friday night?” asked Marc. “Yes, I think I will. I'll ask Kate if she wants to come as well.”. Kate was his wife and although she wasn't an academic herself she had become friends with a number of the people that Kevin and Marc knew through the university. “Have you ever wondered why we call them gatherings these days and not parties?” asked Kevin. “I mean, they seem pretty similar in format to the parties I used to go to when I was a student.”. “Yes, but you'd sound like a student if you went around talking about the next party you were going to. Can't have that, hey?” answered Marc. They laughed a little.

Kevin had already made a resolution in his mind to reach a conclusion in his experiment by Friday. It's not that he was going to talk to anyone about it at the party, except perhaps to Marc and that could wait anyway. The event just provided an arbitrary cut off point for him to aim for after his long deliberations. Why was he taking so long to run and rerun his experiment, analysing his results over and over again and getting the same difficult answer each time? The problem was that he knew others would find his answer difficult to accept, or more likely would refuse to accept it and perhaps call his credibility into question. This is because his answer involved time travel.

His experiment involves two iron and diamond containers (only a cubic centimetre in volume) with an equal mixture of argon and xenon gas in each at a very low pressure. However, at first there is one box which contains all the gas and then two thin partitions of flawless diamond are brought down to separate it into two. One of the newly formed boxes is then slowly slid along a low friction surface to a point six metres away. Next, an infra-red laser is fired into the box that has stayed still (let's call it box A) with an intermittent flashing pattern that in a similar way to Morse code carries information. The information is in the form of a sequence of 1s and 0s which could be used to send messages like SMSs or e-mails if one desired, although so far Kevin had only tried firing 32 bits or less into the box at a time.

The theory went that because the atoms of the gas had been together at first and were then carefully separated there remained a connection between them, or entanglement to use the Physics term. This meant that even when separated by six metres changes in the state of the atoms in box A (caused by the laser in this case) would instantaneously cause a change in the state of those in box B. By measuring tiny flashes of light from box B Kevin should have been able to read back the message he had fired into box A with no delay at all. If the theory was right of course. He was also measuring box A for the same kind of light flashes though and he found the messages he was going to send were flashed from this box before he fired them into it. They appeared 20 nanoseconds before he sent them, which interestingly is the same time it would take light to travel between the two boxes.

The first time he saw this happen was genuinely shocking for Kevin. He had spent six hours that day repeating the message sending process with a different message every time, checking all the physical components of the experiment. He also examined the code of the software, which Marc had written for him, in case this was misreporting the timings and leading to a false result. He considered asking Marc to look over his own program as he was the specialist in this area but was stopped by the fear of what even his good friend would think of his result. Surely almost anyone else would struggle to believe what he seemed to have found. After more than a month of debating the situation with himself Kevin had decided to think outside of the box, as it were. He would not take the standard physicist's path of reporting his results as they were and trying to get them published. He would develop his experiment further, to the point where his evidence would become difficult not to believe.

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Part 2

He found that the duration into the past the messages were sent was proportional to the distance between the two boxes. As this duration was equal to the light travel time between the boxes they would have to be 300000 km apart for a message to be sent one second into the past. Kevin wanted to send messages at least a minute into the past but realised this would mean the boxes being 18 million km apart. This didn't seem to be very practical and he was in a quandary about what to do for several weeks. Then he met one of Marc's friends, a man called Phillip Locket, when they were introduced during an after work drink. Phillip was Canadian and had met Marc while they were working together on a big software project at Phillip's university. “So, Marc tells me you're a bit of a footballer.” said Phillip. “Well, I play in a few games for a university team, but it's only a bit of fun really.” said Kevin.

“Speaking of fun, are you good at any pub games like pool or table football?”. “Well yeah, I play a bit of table soccer.” answered Phillip and just at that moment noticed the table football game standing in one corner. “Ah, could that be a challenge I hear?”. Marc smiled slightly. It was interesting that while not being the most competitive minded of people generally speaking, Kevin became quite the sportsman when it came to pub games and particularly the good old table football. They had been playing for about five minutes when one of Phillip's players caught the ball with a glancing yet strong touch that sent it rolling almost sideways. Because of the angle of motion it got stuck in a pattern of bouncing from one side of the table to the other and neither man's players were able to get another touch for a few seconds. The session ended with Kevin winning two out of three games. The image of the ball bouncing from side to side stuck in Kevin's mind and for a few minutes he couldn't think why. Then he realised what it reminded him of: the path a beam of light takes between two reflective plates if it's angle to the plates is large. Most of the ball's motion had been in a sideways direction, but a small amount had been forwards so it had gradually moved down the pitch as it bounced. This is analogous to the situation with the light beam; it moves relatively slowly along the length of the plates because it has to travel so far to repeatedly cover the sideways distance between them. By the time it reaches the end of the plates it has travelled many times further than the plates' length.

Kevin realised he might be able to use this principle in his experiment. His current set up had a path between the two boxes that allowed light to pass between them and, although it didn't seem that any important light was travelling this path, he decided on a hunch to block it with a piece of card and see what happened. Now the messages weren't detected coming from box A and he didn't know why. He then placed reflective metal plates along each side of the path and wrapped box A in opaque adhesive tape so that light could only get from it into the path by going through a narrow hole. This would mean any light that left the box would reach one reflective plate at a high angle and then take the long side to side route along the path between the plates. He couldn't think why this should affect the distance into the past the messages were sent and was doubtful that anything interesting would happen when he tested his new set up.

However, when he saw the software report a message being detected 0.1 seconds before its sending he realised his intuition had been right. It concerned him somewhat that he had been led by his intuition into modifying his experiment and now faced results even harder to believe than in the first place. Yet, as he would soon find out the real danger for him was that he would come to understand the terrible implications of his results. He pressed on and rotated box A slightly to increase the path length. If the device still worked it should have now sent messages a minute into the past. Kevin was just thinking about what message he would send when it appeared on the computer screen; “Hi from one minute in the future!”, it read. Well, I guess I'll send that message then he thought. Sure enough, about a minute later he entered the same message into the software and it was flashed by laser pulses into box A.

He decided to try again a few minutes later and soon another message had appeared on the screen; “The time is 14:21. What time is it where you are?”, he read. OK, he thought, but what would happen if I sent a different message to the one I just received? He wondered how that would be possible, as for events to be logically consistent, whatever message he entered would have to be the one he had already seen. Despite this, he decided to try sending a different message anyway and thereby fell into the trap which his experiment had created. As he tried to enter a different message he found that his fingers were typing in the same message he had already seen and he was unable to stop himself. His sense of free will started to evaporate before his mind's eye. He tried to escape the trap by reminding himself that he hadn't been convinced there was such a thing as free will for a long time anyway, but it was too late.

The memory of his hands acting against his will and typing out the message was stuck in his mind now and he felt like his every action was that of a puppet being controlled by invisible strings. When Marc found him about half an hour later he was lying on the laboratory floor in silence, as if trying to sleep. “Kevin, what happened? What's wrong?”, said his friend in alarm, kneeling on the floor next to him with concern on his face. “The message.”, was all Kevin could bring himself to say.

The end

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