Schroedinger's Blair

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Sai Patel was a good student. At least he had been a good student up until this week. Maybe a bit detached and theoretical, but Blair had had physics students like that before. Anthropology was just an elective to them, a pretty useless one at that. But an A was still an A to the grade-conscious and if you wanted to get into Stanford or Cal Tech you had to be that.

And Blair Sandburg was a good teacher. Or at least he liked to think he was. Which explained what he was doing wandering around lost in the bowels of the physics building. Miss one class? Well, they were college students. Definite case of been-there-done-that. Miss two classes and a paper deadline? Somebody like Sai? Time to go put on your counseling-professor cap and go looking for him.

Only it was obviously too early in the afternoon to find many denizens of the physics labs. With just a twinge of fond remembrance Blair recalled he'd once been a true night-creature himself, but a good anthropologist goes along with the times and currently the times included being home by seven when it was his night to cook.

Half-lit, crowded with outmoded equipment, most of the doors closed, the hall seemed claustrophobic and unlikely to be housing any wayward, reluctant Anthropology students. Still, a scientist (even a social one) should test all possibilities and Blair could see one remaining door at the far end of a clutter of ... well, something physicists used. As he got nearer he could make out the writing on a neon sticky plastered haphazardly to the metal door face -- SAI, SET UP IS READY.

Looked like he'd found the right place after all. He'd just take a look inside and if Sai wasn't in there he'd sit down and wait.

He dropped the backpack outside the door.

 

*** 00:00 ***

 

So, he hadn't expected the door to lock from behind, but it did with a resounding clunk of steel hitting steel. Steel, in fact, seemed to be the room's only substance. The only other object in Blair's now much smaller and completely metallic world looked something like a Geiger counter might look if designed by the art director of 'Brazil.'

With a sigh, Blair sat down, drawing up to wrap flannel-clad arms around his knees. * Just great. Another good move Sandburg.*

Surely someone would find him in a couple of hours or so.

 

*** 00:12 ***

 

"He *what*!?"

Henri Brown exchanged a grin with his partner. Nothing like the roar of the captain to amuse you - if you weren't the one it was directed at. And as he and his partner were both safely at their desks ...

Rafe peered over the top of the manila folder he held. "What do you think? Ellison or Sandburg?"

More decibels better suited for a Jags game screamed across the bullpen. "What was he doing in the physics lab!?"

In the resulting quiet Simon heard two voices chorus softly from outside his office. "Sandburg."

 

*** 00:36 ***

 

"Explain this to me again."

One of the trio of students slumped further against the cinderblock wall of the corridor as Simon leaned a palm against it.

"Like I said, in 1935 Schroedinger published an essay describing a conceptual problem in quantum mechanics."

Pulling back up to his regular impressive height, Simon motioned for the explanation to stop. "My son's a senior in high school and he has physics this year so I know something about Schroedinger's Cat. Only according to him it's a 'thought problem' not something you can test by building a steel chamber that anyone can walk into."

"Uh, that's what we want to find out."

Trying to remember the boy in front of him was only a few years older than Daryl and trying to forget he was only a few years younger than Sandburg, Simon tried a different approach.

"So Sandburg is all right in there."

Feet shuffled nervously. "Um, nothing's happened to him that wouldn't have happened to Mr. Fluffy."

"Mr. Fluffy?" inquired Simon as calmly as possible. *Only Sandburg.*

A soft "merroh" came from a cardboard box near Sai's feet.

The students were too young to realize it, but much violence can be prevented by chewing on an imaginary cigar. "Why don't you just open the door, son?"

Three adam's apples bobbed simultaneously. "Time lock. Even if we could there'd still be a 50/50 chance."

"50/50 chance of what?"

"In there with Mr. Sandburg, uh, there's a Geiger counter and in the Geiger counter is just the tiniest bit of a radioactive isotope, just enough, you know, that maybe in the course of a couple of hours or so one of the atoms decays. If it decays it sets off the Geiger counter. Setting off the Geiger counter releases a relay that sets a hammer in motion. The hammer shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid."

Simon pulled uselessly at the steel door. "Are you telling me Sandburg is in there being poisoned?"

"Not exactly." Sai pushed at the box containing Mr. Fluffy with the toe of his worn Nikes. "You gotta understand the system is designed so that no observation of it may be made until at least 120 minutes have passed. So all we can say is that Mr. Sandburg is still okay if no atom decayed. But if one did, he's been poisoned. The Psi function for the entire system expresses this by having the live Mr. Sandburg and the, um, unfortunately poisoned Mr. Sandburg, uh, mixed in equal parts."

Mulling this over for a minute didn't help. "Mixed?"

"Yeah." The young physics student shrugged. "It's an indeterminacy in the atomic domain but it becomes an indeterminacy in the macroscopic world where it will be resolved by observation."

Simon grimaced. "So, the timed door pops open and Sandburg is either alive or dead?"

"Exactly! Of the two possible waveforms, one has to collapse and the other become reality."

The police captain struggled to restate what he'd just heard in something that at least sounded like English. "And as long as we don't observe him, Sandburg exists as both alive and dead versions of himself?"

The student was beginning to cheer up. "Yeah! He's in a smeared out state between alternatives."

Simon chomped harder on his imaginary Montecristo and tried to visualize himself saying "Jim, I'm sorry, Sandburg is smeared."

 

*** 00:53 ***

 

"Jim, could you sense something through half a foot of cold-reduced steel?"

One hand on the steering wheel and the other holding the cell phone, Jim Ellison frowned. "That's not a test we've ever done Simon. Why do you need to know?"

"What about distance? You've said before you can track Sandburg by his heart rate. Can you do it, say, if Sandburg was at Rainer and you were at the PD?"

"That's too far, Sir. I'd have to get closer."

There was a sigh of relief from Simon's end of the phone. "That's good to know. Where are you now?"

Jim peered at the street sign he'd just passed. "Fourth and Oak."

"Nowhere near the university then. I need you to meet me in my office. Pronto, Jim."

Ellison blinked at the phone. "Yes sir, pronto."

 

*** 01:14 ***

 

"Could you repeat that Sir?"

All in all Simon thought Ellison was taking this rather calmly. Although perhaps he just didn't understand what he'd just been told.

"According to these ... students, Sandburg's life depends on the decay of the atom, if the atom has decayed, Sandburg will be dead, if not, he'll live. But until it's observed the atom can be in both a quantum state of non-decay and a quantum state of decay at the same time, and thus Blair is in a quantum state of being alive and a quantum state of being dead at the same time. Until the chamber is opened to see what has happened, a wave function for both possibilities of the atom's state exists. Once the door is opened the probability amplitude of the particle converts to a classical world probability, collapsing the wave function, and causing the atom and, also, Sandburg to be in either one state or the other."

Blue eyes gazed calmly. "Did Blair put you up to this, Sir? Because it seems more like one of his jokes than one of yours. I mean, 'classical world probability'?" He didn't even react when Simon steered him over to the couch.

"Jim, will you listen to me? This isn't a joke. Blair is locked in a steel cage in the bottom of the Rainer physics department. He is either alive or dead or, okay if those kids are to be believed, both at the same time."

Simon got the feeling he was being studied with more depth than the normal five senses could reach. "You're serious."

"Of course I'm serious Jim!"

"Then we've got to get over there, Simon."

Not many people were strong enough to hold him in place with just one hand on his bicep. Unfortunately Simon was one of them. "Jim, listen to me. Why do you think I had you come over *here*? If what they're saying is true then whoever observes Sandburg collapses this wave function. In a sense the observer would be who killed him. And I don't want that being you."

"Then we'll let someone else open the door Simon but we've got to get him out of there. Doesn't every minute he spends in there increase the chance the whatever will decay and release the poison?"

The bigger man grimaced. "No? Yes? I don't know. They lost me when they started talking about the probabilities. I figured I'd done well to get that far."

"I'm going over there Simon."

He had to lock his fingers again as Jim tried to drag himself out of his grip. "All right but you're going to promise me - no extending your senses. I mean it, Jim."

Verbal promises from the Sentinel concerning his behavior when his partner was in danger were, of course, worth the paper they were written on but Simon couldn't do anything but take the man standing before him at his word. Still, he couldn't help feeling that getting Jim anywhere near the chamber before the remaining 33 minutes were up was taking a big chance. Not so much with Blair (if he actually understood the students, the wave function (that would be Blair) was already slated to collapse in one form or another), but Jim would never recover if he thought he was the one who precipitated Blair's death (explanations of the future apparently being fixed since the Big Bang notwithstanding).

*Damn. Where were the days when only the criminals gave him this much trouble?*

 

*** 01:36 ***

 

Curiosity killed the cat. Only in this case it just might kill the anthropologist. Or one already-harassed police captain might kill a certain detective who was rushing up the stairs to the brown brick physics building like getting in there a couple minutes earlier would make any difference.

"Jim! Would you slow down? The door won't open for another 24 minutes. Why don't we stay out here and just wait?"

Jim paced, his hands taking on Sandburg expressiveness. "I can't *just wait* Simon. I need to do something."

"That's the very thing you don't need to do." Taking hold of the windbreaker Ellison was wearing, Simon hauled him toward an empty bench. "Sit. That's an order."

They sat silently. Until Simon realized this might be a bad thing.

"You're not listening are you, Jim?"

"I'm trying not to, Sir."

Simon saw the slight tilt of his head. "Try harder."

"How does he do it? How does he get himself into these situations?"

The invisible cigar Simon now bit into was a Camacho. "You mean without your help?"

Jim entwined his fingers into a two-handed fist. "He does do that, doesn't he? It's not really me."

"What do you mean it's not you?"

"A lot of times I think all the times he's been hurt, all the trouble he's gotten into, it's my fault. I mean anthropologists don't usually get shot, or hung off the sides of buildings or have to jump down waterfalls. So I've always thought it's got to be me."

Nodding, Simon deciphered, "Only now you've decided it's just pure Sandburg."

"No, being partnered with a cop causes a lot of it, but sometimes it is his fault. I mean this is his fault. It's just that I have such a ...a ..."

"I think he calls it a genetic predisposition," his captain reminded him sourly.

"... okay, a genetic predisposition to protect him. You can't understand but I *have* to know he's all right."

Simon sighed. "The kid tends to bring it out in all of us."

Rather than be comforted by this admission, Jim looked pained. He scrubbed a hand across his face, before meeting Simon’s frown.

"Uh, sir, it seems I can hear Blair's heartbeat through half a foot of cold-reduced steel."

 

*** 02:00 ***

 

Blair looked at his watch. Two hours. *Great.* Well, in a little while when one hungry Sentinel discovered a cold and empty kitchen at least someone would be aware he was missing. Just when he was about to sink back into his thoughts the Rube Goldberg contraption blinked, something whirred and the door to the steel broom closet that had been his home the past two hours popped open.

"Thank God," muttered Blair, pushing hair out of his eyes to get a clearer view of the faces peering in at him. "Jim? Simon? What's everybody doing here?"

 

*** 02:18 ***

 

"I know Jim, but I really need to talk to Sai. I don't want him flunking my class. It'll wreck his GPA and he really cares about it even if he thinks he doesn't."

It was really comforting - the warmth and scent of his partner, the reassurance of the familiar voice.

"Chief, he almost got you killed."

Reacting instinctively, knowing how his touch calmed, Blair put a hand on Jim's arm. "Okay, so he got a little overzealous in his experimentation but everybody's got to have a pipe dream, man. Look at me. I once believed in Sentinels."

"Well you can talk to him down at the station."

"Station? Why would he--"

Jim motioned the young student over. "Tell me, have you performed this experiment before?"

The student shrugged, unconcerned. "Yeah, with a couple of cats."

Nodding, he produced the set of handcuffs from his back pocket and slipped them around the small-boned wrists, ignoring the howl of protests. "What do you think you're doing? Mr. Sandburg!"

"Jim?" questioned his partner.

The Sentinel raised an eyebrow. "Revised Code of the great state of Washington. Title 16, Chapter 16.52, Section 205 - a person is guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree when, except as authorized in law, he or she intentionally inflicts substantial pain on, causes physical injury to, or kills an animal by a means causing undue suffering, or forces a minor to inflict unnecessary pain, injury, or death on an animal. Legislature made it a class C felony last year."

 

*** 24:18 ***

 

With remarkable forbearance Jim had restrained from calling his partner just to make sure he was safely in Hargrove where he belonged. Besides, Blair was still ticked at him for dragging the offending physics student all the way down to the station. Although Mr. Fluffy had seemed noticeably content to be taken into custody by the ASPCA.

The charge wouldn't stick, but it had been worth it to see the student finally have some idea of the danger of his research. Not that it would stop him. Jim had only seen that look of adoration with some farfetched idea in one other person's eyes. And that person would follow him through cold and rain and gunfire.

Outlook beeped and Jim clicked on the popup and chuckled. The poem must have been Blair's way of letting him know he was all right. That *they* were all right. Jim printed it out and tacked it to the wall behind him.

Schroedinger, Erwin! Professor of physics!

Wrote daring equations! Confounded his critics!

(Not bad, eh? Don't worry. This part of the verse

Starts off pretty good, but it gets a lot worse.)

Win saw that the theory that Newton'd invented

By Einstein's discov'ries had been badly dented.

What now? wailed his colleagues. Said Erwin, "Don't panic,

No grease monkey I, but a quantum mechanic.

Consider electrons. Now, these teeny articles

Are sometimes like waves, and then sometimes like particles.

If that's not confusing, the nuclear dance

Of electrons and suchlike is governed by chance!

No sweat, though--my theory permits us to judge

Where some of 'em is and the rest of 'em was."

Not everyone bought this. It threatened to wreck

The comforting linkage of cause and effect.

E'en Einstein had doubts, and so Schroedinger tried

To tell him what quantum mechanics implied.

Said Win to Al, "Brother, suppose we've a cat,

And inside a tube we have put that cat at--

Along with a solitaire deck and some Fritos,

A bottle of Night Train, a couple mosquitoes

(Or something else rhyming) and, oh, if you got 'em,

One vial prussic acid, one decaying ottom

Or atom--whatever--but when it emits,

A trigger device blasts the vial into bits

Which snuffs our poor kitty. The odds of this crime

Are 50 to 50 per hour each time.

The cylinder's sealed. The hour's passed away. Is

Our pussy still purring--or pushing up daisies?

Now, you'd say the cat either lives or it don't

But quantum mechanics is stubborn and won't.

Statistically speaking, the cat (goes the joke),

Is half a cat breathing and half a cat croaked.

To some this may seem a ridiculous split,

But quantum mechanics must answer, "Tough @#&!

--CECIL ADAMS

 

-end-