The Quantum Archaeologist
The first time my wife died wasn't the hardest.
Biological life is just a chemical reaction that sustains itself. Death is when the effort fails, and we all know that effort fails eventually.
She was the pilot. She was flying us to our summer home just off the Yucatan at Isla Mujeres. We never got there. The tiny plane stalled over the Gulf, though precisely where I don't know. It couldn't have been far from Cuba, as I woke up on one of their beaches, stunned with a broken collarbone and a radius jutting out from my forearm, but alive. My wife was nowhere. Gone. Just gone. When they recovered the wreckage they found her. You will forgive me if I don't dwell on that.
Are people immortal when you are? I mean barring accidents and some diseases, of course. In your now? No? Well, kind of for us, but accidents do happen. Death was stranger then than it must be for you. I mean rarer. Even when we were young, though, we say that we would rather die than be without someone. That is stupid romantic bullshit. The romantics didn't know what we know.
I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Olson. By that I mean I am Dr. C. Olson. My name isn't important; not really. But what is important is that I pioneered the field of quantum archaeology. And by pioneered, I mean started.
Think of a glass of water on a desk. You remember from school that the water is made of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. How many? There are more molecules in each glass of water than have there have been glasses of water. Statistically, you are drinking the same water that Genghis Kahn, Julius Caesar, Hitler, your grandmother, and Socrates have drank before you. And that's just a glass of water. Each one of those molecules has atoms and each atom has protons and electrons and (sometimes) neutrons and those have their quarks and quirks. We could go on. Each of those particles has had enough interactions in the past 20 seconds to be unfathomable, even from sitting on that desk there. But there are rules, no? There are rules. And when there are rules, you can make certain assumptions.
That's right that's right. I know what you're saying with your Heisenberg and your principles. And that a particle is more a lump of probability than a thing. What do you think we're doing here? Accounting? Kind of, I guess. Double entry, no less. Though it always equals zero.
Now, I don't know when you'll be reading this, so you'll have to take me at my word that the idea of simulating reality was already at a high level. Simulating reality was common enough at a level that people traded "seed realities" between themselves to play with at home. But these were simulations and games. Even at their most detailed, they were coarse representations of reality. Microscopes and telescopes didn't work on objects in-world in many of the simulation engines. Oh, sure, some had their work-arounds, but most things were not at that fine of a detail. And what would they get that far down for? Most of the time, they were just calculating the raw physics of the world. Close enough, right? Like playing hose shoes, hand-grenades, nuclear missiles, etc.
So I built on that. I got closer. And I realized if you knew enough to know what something was going to do, that you could reverse that, and if you knew enough to know what was going on, then you could figure out what had happened before. And there are shortcuts. If you're worried about the glass of water, you are not concerned about the sun at that second. At the speed of light, it would need 8 minutes to matter. As it is with all things.
Listen, it's not as hard as it seems. I know there is a model of physics that gives an analogy of particles as billiard balls. That's a terrible model. But this part of the analogy holds: if you see a ball rolling across the billiard table at such and such a speed, you can probably figure out where it came from. Particles aren't balls, just tiny humps of probability. Numbers are reality. Plato was more right than even he knew.
This idea isn't new. They ran the simulators at a gross level back and figured out the big bang happened, back in the 1900s some time. Like almost all science, I'm not being really novel here. It's just progress: slow, frustratingly intermittent progress. It's called science.
But I made progress, learned, and gladly taught computers powerful enough to run countries. Qubits danced. I made the first breakthrough within the first year of real work. It may not seem like much, but I was able to witness myself two seconds before I started the experiment. You can do the same with film, but this wasn't a movie. No cameras were present. I was able to calculate the position of enough particles in my body two seconds before. It looked like a ghost or, maybe, an echo out of the past, if you're a literary type.
Remember the small glass of water? I'm not a tall glass of water by any definition. Remember my wife? I did.
Six years later I was able to see back six months in a bubble slightly larger than the area of my office. The quality was at a level roughly analogous to really early television. Another year after that I could see the people who rented the space before I did, even though I never met them.
This might seem slow, but given the increase in scale and interaction trees, you would be surprised at how fast that progress was.
I started to call it quantum archaeology. Which sounds really cheesy, but as I thought about it the name grew on me. The first iteration of archaeology included dirt and broken femurs and pottery shattered and poetry in tongues unknown even in the times of Babel. But each trip back brought more detail. The same concept applied to what I was doing. The computers rendered and we traveled into the past. Six months. A year. A decade. My own childhood. My own broken femurs and broken lamps.
Have you ever confronted your own conception? A repressed memory? A false, fabricated memory? How about one of those events and the memories that make you want to kill yourself over and over again every time you think about it? Those events where every word is like pulling a trigger on a gun? Yeah. Live through them all without the benefit of your own brain making you look good.
I am not a crackpot.
Why not the future? The future was uncertainty. You can't tell what happened yet because something is outside our light-cone, like the Feynman diagrams say. I can't tell that the stars in the Alpha Centauri didn't blow up and release dangerous gamma rays and will kill us when they finally get here in a few minutes. The future is always like that, actually, just generally less calamitous. Generally. But cosmic rays are obnoxious. And probability is still probability. In the past, if we calculate the sun blew up, then we know that isn't true. In the future, not so much.
I never did get much further than the near Earth system, as far as my window goes. Someone smarter will have to do that.
My invention was of little concern to those who prognosticate, but only those who are interested in the past. Police and historians and engineers were fascinated with my invention. Lawyers didn't care for it, at least right away.
The military wanted two, of course. They wanted to know what the enemy had planned before they could implement it. This led to a minor race of communication between the super-powers of the day. Could you do something before someone knew you wanted to? The short answer is: yes, but only just barely.
Regardless, the detail left a little to be desired, sometimes. The fine-grain features were a trifle fuzzy at first. It got better. Iterations on the past, like I said.
The world's timeline populated with events mundane and fantastic. Jesus was historical but he got better and pushed the stone away. The Queen of England sat on a toilet like most other Brits of her day. There was talk about the past's privacy, but they could not object, so neither did we.
And, because we could figure out everything, it meant we could figure out the running of a human mind and run it forwards and backwards.
I brought one back. As much as we could at the time, and placed his mind into the "now" of a sim-space and set it to run. One minute, he was talking with his wife and then...with me, who joined him in sim-space.
He was just a man. Middle aged. Nothing spectacular. His name was Steve. Even his when was uninteresting. So uninteresting in fact that I'll fail to mention when his when specifically was. It was more recent than not, since Susan but not much after that; I didn't want to explain the physics of what I had done too much to him, and I wanted to talk to him. He would know the physics; that was his job.
He asked if his wife had been cheating on him. She hadn't. I told him so. He looked relieved. Everyone was always worried about screwing. He did not ask if he would live long. He would not.
I integrated his memories with my own. We calculated a thousand real lifetimes in the computer and put them in my real head. What was one more life to regret?
Turns out sometimes it is quite a bit.
At times I couldn't remember that I wasn't Attila the Hun or Marilyn Monroe or Marilyn Manson for that matter. I just took them all and lived their lives, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. And the closer you got the more time it took to figure out everything perfectly, so there were gaps and blurry parts.
But that's not why I was there, that reasonable facsimile with the gaps. I was there for reality. I was there to undo something. I needed reality as sharp as I could get it.
The first time I resurrected Susan was a failure. I had tried it far too soon in the process. Before Steve, when things were still fuzzy on some of the edges. Before, really, I knew what I had done.
No, that's stupid. I knew what I did. I realize that my narrative here is getting a little jumpy. The reality is a little jumpy, as well.
I had figured every bit of her before the crash. Every atom of iron in her blood and every molecule of CO2 in her lungs were there.
I said it was a failure and I will tell you why: I tried to fix the embolism before starting the sim. For some reason, when I went to see her in there, there was a gaping hole of nothingness in her chest, just a nothing. The simulation crashed and I didn't even get a memory dump from that run. I had to forensically account for each thing, rerunning her death over and over and over and combing through the simulated reality. That reality we had simulated was paradoxical. It could not exist. It would be as if it contained squared circles or a god.
This took a while. But I was only 200 years old; I had time. My friends wanted me to sabbatical and enjoy the next century or so, I didn't know how they could.
I kept trying to fix the embolism. The next time she wasn't even conscious. Then she was babbling childishly. Then infantile. Running each sim over and over, tweaking. Occasionally there was a complete relapse into nothing. Then angry. Then sad. One time she didn't know who I was.
Grief is what we get when reality fails to meet our expectations. And each time was worse. I felt so close, but each time was a new disappointment. The worst one: she looked scared. Her eyes fluttered back and forth in her sockets; her knuckles were whitened and her body was tense. She didn't say anything but I knew it was wrong. Just wrong. I force-killed the sim and tried to forget what that me had seen.
Again, I walked into the simulator just as I had a thousand times before. Well, maybe not a thousand. Countless, probably, in that I didn't count them. There might be a log or something. And walk, well, that's kind of a metaphor, right?
That's not important. No no no. I watched my wife, Susan, as she opened her eyes; she could tell that this was wrong. Not morally wrong, but logically wrong. It didn't fit into her timeline; like waking from a vivid dream.
There were a dozen worlds where she did not have eyes, just gaping holes where those wet orbs should be. I do not know why. I think on those every time I sleep.
"Why am I here, Chris?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why am I here, Chris? I remember the plane falling out of the sky, and I remember you having no gray hair. What's happened?"
What would I tell her? I would tell her the approximate truth. That was the only option, really.
"We remade you," I said. "From bits of carbon and oxygen and other trace elements."
"How did you do that?"
"Math. We know how the universe works. Every. Single. Particle. Well, it's not particles. That's not important. Once we know how it is, it's just math."
"So you reincarnated me?"
I couldn't lie to her. I'm not a crackpot.
"Not quite yet. You're a sim right now. This is a test before we make your body."
A previous iteration of her stopped here and stared at me, dead. This one didn't. This one just paused. Then she asked "I'll not be the same stuff, obviously. So you made me from nothing?"
"Carbon and other trace elements. Got that," she started to move, take in her surroundings. Then she asked, "Why?"
"Because we needed you."
Did she die again? No, it wasn't that time, but another, was this time the worst? It might, maybe. I can't remember sometimes. I drank for a while. Once she looked at me and laughed and then kept laughing as her eyes went wide with fright when she couldn't stop. I killed her simulation then, her face frozen in a terrible smile.
Back to this now, this when: She looked at me. She was skeptical. I couldn't lie to her.
"We..." I started. Stopped. Opened my mouth again; then stopped. "I mean...I love you."
She stared out the window, not answering. This was her way. The room was mostly white and plain and dull, but the window was large and below us the city looked like a forest. Occasional buildings and solar panels jutted through the green. There was a city down there, under the canopy. On the wall opposite the window was a splash of color. It was a screen, but for now, it looked like someone had thrown yellow paint at the wall. If you walked up to screen, it would sense your head's location and orientation and adjust the shadows, simulating 3D inside a simulated world.
I walked up to the wall and touched it. The splash of color disappeared and then the wall showed an equation. It was very short, but no shorter than it had to be. Any shorter and it would break. I had worked hard for it to become so. Every variable would increase the complexity; every variable makes it that much harder to calculate.
"That's it. That's why you're here. That and because I love you."
She looked at it. This was something she could do in her head, if she knew what the symbols meant. And could carry the decimal places. It was kind of beautiful.
"If you found me in the past, can you tell the future?"
"Kind of. We can't even tell the past all the way back. There are rounding errors, so to speak, at a point. The model is not reality. Map/territory, as they used to say, when they used maps. We can eliminate extra information that confuses the computations much easier from the past. As for the future, we can statistically control for things we assume will happen, like the radiation from the sun; but we don't know if that supernova or some solar flare event will knock everything out or some distant flux in interstellar dust will move anything. It's all outside of our light cone."
"So you can merely guess at the future."
"Why didn't you just say that?"
I grinned stupidly. It was her. I started to cry right then because I could talk to her again. It wasn't a dream, it was a simulation. And we could move her to the real world. I would remember it when I woke up and I could come back when I wanted. Before when I talked to her it was always a dream. Or I had screwed up and she got scared and I had to kill her again and again and again and I couldn't stop imagining all those dead Susans right that second. I had to push it all down and it took me a second to regain the ability to breathe. She looked a little worried, but then I asked:
"Are you happy to be back?"
"I didn't even know I was gone. How long did it take you to...calculate back to me?"
"I've been at it for...doesn't matter. It was worth it."
She looked at me. She arched her eyebrow up. Her motor control appeared normal. I was crying.
"So, I guess you are finally older than me," she said.
"Well, I don't know about that." I said. "Your birthday is technically still before mine."
"Fine. You've existed longer than me. Happy, now?"
I kept grinning that stupid grin. That was the stupidest question she could have asked.
"Happy now?" I mocked. She grinned.
"Can we go home now?"
I made some gesture. The equation dissolved and the splash of color re-emerged. A second later, a schematic of her body replaced it. There was a red dot near the middle of her chest. Not near her heart, but in her lung. That was the embolism.
"We know what killed you. It's not a problem, now. Very little is. But we still have to fix it. Just a day. We've already started, in fact." I had, in fact, started fabbing her new body as soon as the sim booted so we could dump this simulation of her mind into it. She probably wouldn't even remember this. I had to decide.
We could make the body. She'd go to sleep here and wake up and then she'd be real. And I would be able to hug her, just hold her tight and have her hold me.
"Why couldn't you fix me when you were remaking me?"
"Causality. The particles don't care if you're dead, after all. It's safer this way."
I waved the schematic away. The splash of color returned.
"You said that you can calculate the past."
"So far? Far enough to know exactly what Socrates said when they gave him the hemlock."
She looked at me for a second. Amazed.
"I remember the plane. I was flying it, then not. This is me at that moment, right? Or just before? Is that why I don't remember dying?"
"You were on the plane. Did you watch me die?"
"No." That was kind of a lie. I didn't watch her first hand, at least that time.
Of course I knew what happened, on any scale.
"I don't want to talk about that, now," I said. "You're here."
At this point, I was well over 400 years old. She had been dead for over two centuries. And here she was, again. She would think about it soon enough. How could I explain this obsessive love? Even our own children said it was too much. But it didn't matter. She was here. Here. And she loved me just like that last day. And I loved her.
"I love you," I said. She smiled at me.
"I love you, too,' she said. She looked thoughtful for a moment, "So, what did he say?"
I paused a second.
"I don't know. I never learned Greek," I said. She laughed high and light. I had waited for that sound for so long and I could never sick of it.