The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Please meet Daniel Hudon. Daniel has published a broad body of work including poetry inspired by Magritte, humor and fiction inspired by science, and essays about his travels in Asia and Central America (one of which won him the 2011 Tiferet Nonfiction prize). His teaching also spans fields, covering astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston.
We published his short story “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. He read his story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (Note: The video is now available. Please find below.)
Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:
Ultimately, “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater,” was inspired by an undergraduate science course that I was a co-instructor for. Our goal was to give the students – non-science freshmen – our best stuff, and that was our pet name for the course, “The Story of Stuff.” So after introducing the Newtonian worldview, we’d spend two weeks effectively blowing students’ minds with the highlights of quantum mechanics. Beyond being a highly successful theory to describe the structure of the atom and atomic interactions, it’s great material for a fiction writer both for the strange world we’re forced to consider, and for the challenges we’ve had in interpreting its results. I wanted to convey some of this strangeness in a story.
According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the conceptual crux of understanding quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. If you fire an electron through a pair of narrow and narrowly separated slits, it turns out that you cannot predict where the electron will land on an observing screen. At best, you can quote a probability. This is a bizarre idea coming after the determinism of Newtonian mechanics – given the properties of a baseball, of course we can predict where it will land! Even better, until the electron hits the screen, it exists in a superposition of possible states, and its final end state on the screen is determined from the probabilities that can be calculated. I love that idea of the electron’s final position having all these possibilities and then being reduced to the one that is observed. In quantum-speak, that’s the collapse of the electron’s wavefunction, part of the mysterious particle-wave duality, and I took that and ran with it.
In fact, I’ve made a few attempts to write a story about quantum mechanics and this one came together best. Most of these attempts circled around a pun on mechanics – what would a quantum mechanic do differently from an auto mechanic? – but I couldn’t really get beyond the pun. When I hit upon the idea of the theater, I knew I could get a story out of it.
I wanted a character that goes on a good date and has a good time. One of the things that makes dating fun are the possibilities of what might happen. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do as you interact with them and try to get to know them. If there’s chemistry, then the conversation can be heady and tantalizing. That’s what I wanted my main character to enjoy. But as the evening carries on, one is always checking in and wondering if it’s going as well as it could – is the other person into you? Many possible threads of conversation are explored, from the mundane to the feisty, and this was what made writing the story fun.
One of the hardest things was choosing how much possible dialogue the characters should have and an early draft has our main character going a little overboard there. I also spent some time revising the scene where the couple enters the theater because, in the quantum world, consecutive electrons fired through the apparatus will not wind up side by side on the screen, so it took me a few tries to convey some of that confusion as they go through the doors. Some readers may recognize the more recent quantum experiments in that scene where scientists fire electrons through both slits and then close one slit or the other, or put a detector behind one of the slits, all to test the whole notion of particle-wave duality and when the wave function actually collapses. The first draft also had the story ending badly for the narrator – she didn’t get him at all, though she had invited him over. I realized it would be much more satisfying for all involved if she did get him, as that’s one of the things we hope for when we’re on a date.
The drafts had the same boring title, either Quantum Dating or Quantum Dramatics or Quantum Dramatics, and my final edit was to change the title to the present one, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the right title for the story. Possibly.
Note: If you enjoyed Daniel’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. More of Daniel’s work can be found at his webpage.