How Quantum Physics Explains Action Films

One of the key ideas used by cosmologists (yes, physics again, sorry) to explain away questions asked by annoying philosophical types is known as the anthropic principle. This has two forms (strong and weak) but the idea remains the same for both; that the reason for a situation being as it is is because, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be around to ask that question. For example, one might ask (as Stephen Hawking did in ‘A Brief History of Time’) why the universe is around 10 billion years old, a decidedly awkward question if ever there was one. The anthropic principle provides the simplest answer, stating that since organic life is such a complicated business and that the early universe was such a chaotic, unfriendly place, it is only after this vast amount of time that life forms capable of asking this question have been able to develop.

This answer of ‘because we’re here’ is a wonderfully useful one, albeit one that should be used with caution to avoid not answering valid question, and can be applied to problems that do not concern themselves directly with physics. One example concerns the origin of the human race, as we are all thought to stem from just a few hundred individuals who lived in East Africa’s Rift valley several million years ago. At that time our knowledge of weapons, fighting and general survival was relatively scant, and coming face to face with any large predator would have been a fairly assured death sentence; the prehistoric equivalent of a smart pride of lions, or even some particularly adverse weather one year, could have wiped out a significant proportion of the human race as it stood at that time in just a few months. Despite the advantages of adaptability and brainpower that we have shown since, the odds of natural selection were still stacked against us; why did we arise to become the dominant multicellular life form on this planet?

This question can be answered by listing all the natural advantages we possess as a species and how they enabled us to continue ‘evolving’ far beyond the mere natural order of things; but such an answer still can’t quite account for the large dose of luck that comes into the bargain. The anthropic principle can, however, account for this; the human race was able to overcome the odds because if we hadn’t, then we wouldn’t be around to ask the question. Isn’t logic wonderful?

In fact, one we start to think about our lives and questions of our existence in terms of the anthropic principle, we realise that our existence as individuals is dependent on an awful lot of historical events having happened the way they did. For example, if the Nazis had triumphed during WWII, then perhaps one or more of my grandparents could have been killed, separated from their spouse, or in some way prevented from raising the family that would include my parents. Even tinier events could have impacted the chance of me turning out as me; perhaps a stray photon bouncing off an atom in the atmosphere in a slightly different way could have struck a DNA molecule, causing it to deform the sperm that would otherwise have given me half my genes and meaning it never even made it to the egg that offered up the other half. This is chaos theory in action, but it illustrates a point; for the universe to have ended up the way it has depends on history having played out exactly as it has done.

The classic example of this in quantum physics is the famous ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ experiment, in which a theoretical cat was put into a box with a special quantum device that had a 50/50 chance of either doing nothing or releasing a toxic gas that would kill the cat. Schrodinger’s point was that, when the cat is put into the box, two universes emerge; one in which the cat is dead, and one in which it is alive. Until we open the box, we cannot known which of these universes we are in, so the cat must be thought of as simultaneously alive and dead.

However, another thought experiment known as the ‘quantum suicide’ experiment takes the cat’s point of view; imagine that the cat is an experimenter, and that he is working alone. Imagine you are that experimenter, and that you had stayed in the box for five iterations of the 50/50 life/death random event. In 31 out of 32 possible futures, you would have been gassed, for at least once the device would have selected the ‘death’ option; but in just one of these 32 alternative futures, you would still be alive. Moreover, if you had since got out of the box and published your results, the existence of those results is solely dependent on you being that lucky one out of 32.

Or, to put it another way, consider a generic action hero, in the classic scene where he runs through the battlefield gunning down enemies whilst other, lesser soldiers fall about him from bullets and explosions. The enemy fire countless shots at him, but try as they might they can never kill him. They try, but he survives and the film reaches its triumphant conclusion.

Now, assuming that these enemies are not deliberately trying to miss him and can at least vaguely use their weapons, if our action hero tried to pull that ‘running through a hail of bullets’ stunt then 999 times out of a thousand he’d be killed. However, if he was killed then the film would not be able to reach its conclusion, since he would be unable to save the heroine/defeat the baddie/deliver a cliched one-liner, and as such the story would be incomplete.  And, with such a crappy story, there’s no way that a film would get made about it; therefore, the action hero must always be one of the lucky ones.

This idea of always triumphing over the odds, of surviving no matter what because, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be around to tell the tale or even be conscious of the tale, is known as quantum immortality. And whilst it doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe jumping off buildings any time soon, it does at least give yo a way to bore the pants off the next person who claims that action movies are WAAYYYY too unrealistic.

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Losing

I have mentioned before that I am a massive rugby fan, and I have also mentioned that I’m not that brilliant at it and have much experience of losing. I also support England, which has left me no choice other than to spend the past ten years alternating between moments of joy and long periods of frustration over what could have been, whilst continually living in the shadow of ‘that drop goal’ (apologies for non-rugby fans, for whom this will make little sense, but bear with me) and trying to come to terms with our latest loss (although… any New Zealanders reading this? 🙂 ). The team I support have spent the last few seasons living through a similar shadow of former success, and many losses have subsequently ensued. As such, I am very well acquainted with the practice of losing, and in particular the different kinds of loss that can occur (and the emotions inspired thereof). The following list will not be exhaustive, but I’ll aim to cover as many as I can.

The most obvious variety of loss has also perhaps the most potential to be depressing; the thrashing. An entirely one sided affair, where all concerned tried their best but simply weren’t good enough to even come close to standing up to the opposition, a thrashing can serve as a message saying “People might tell you to try your best, but your best isn’t good enough“. This is a terribly depressing thought, suggesting that all of one’s hard work, effort and training matter for nought in comparison to one’s opponents; or, the thrashing can be taken in a positive vein, a sense of “hey, they are just better than us, but we did well and there’s no shame in it”. Which way one goes really depends on the opposition concerned and one’s way of handling failure (refer to my back catalogue for more details) but a good example of the latter course occurred during the Rugby World Cup in 2007 when Portugal, never noted as a great rugby side, lost to the rugby powerhouse that is New Zealand by 108 points to 13. That was a definitive thrashing, but Portugal had nonetheless scored a try against the world’s best sides, hot favourites to win the overall competition (although they subsequently didn’t) and had played with pride and tenacity. The sight of their side, chests puffed out and eyes flush with emotion, singing the national anthem at the start of that game was a truly heartwarming one.

Subtly distinct from, but similar to, a thrashing is the collapse, the different being whose fault the scale of the loss is. A thrashing is very much won by the winners, but a collapse is caused by the losing party allowing everything that could go wrong to go wrong, performing terribly and letting the result tell the story. The victim of a collapse may be the underdog, may be expected to lose, but certainly should not have done so by quite so spectacular a margin as they do. This generally conjures up less depression than it does anger, frustration and even shame; you know you could and should have done better, but for whatever reason you haven’t. No excuses, no blaming the ref, you just failed- and you hate it.

Next in the order of frustration is the one-aspect loss, something generally confined to more multifaceted, and particularly team, occasions. These centre on one individual or aspect of the situation; one’s left back failing to mark his man on numerous occasions, for example, or a tennis player’s serve letting him down. Again the predominant feeling is one of frustration, this time of having done enough and still not won; in every other aspect of one’s performance you might have been good enough to win, but because of one tiny aspect you were let down and it was all for nought. The one-aspect loss is closely related to the ‘kitchen sink’ loss, such as Spain experienced at the hands of Switzerland at the football world cup two years ago. Spain were clearly the better side in that match, and but for one lucky goal from the Swiss they surely would have won it, but after that Switzerland holed up in their own penalty area and defended for their lives. Spain might have thrown everything they had and then some at the Swiss after that, might have struck shot after shot, but no matter what they did it just didn’t come up for them; luck and fate were just against them that day, and for all their effort they still managed to lose. A kitchen sink loss is also characterised by frustration, often made doubly annoying by the fact that the one aspect of one’s performance that has let you down has nothing to do with you, but can also summon depression by the seeming irrelevance of all the hard work you did put in. A match you should have won, could have won, often needed to have won, but no matter how much effort you put in fate just didn’t want you to win. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?

The even loss also records significant frustration levels, particularly due to the nature of the games it often occurs in. An even loss occurs between two closely matched teams or individuals in a close contest, and where portents at the start say it could go either way. Sadly, in most sports a draw is rare, whilst in many it is impossible, and in any case such a situation satisfies nobody; there must be a winner and, unfortunately, a loser. Such a loss is always hard to take, as one knows they are good enough to win (and usually have done so in the past; such occasions are often repeat fixtures against local rivals, meaning the prospect of a year’s gloating must also be considered) but that, on the day, it went the other way. On other occasions, a sense of anticlimax may be present; sometimes losses just happen, and do not inspire any great emotion (although the near-neutral loss is a category unto itself), and after a tight game in which you played alright but were fair beaten there’s sometimes not too much to get emotional about.

And then, we come to perhaps the strangest form of losing- the happy loss. It’s often hard to be comfortable about being happy with a loss, particularly in a tight game decided only by the narrowest of margins and that one could have won. There are some people who will never feel happy about a loss, no matter how good the game or the opposition, constantly striving for the concrete success a victory can show; but for others, there is still comfort to be found in losing. There lies no shame in losing a match against a good, deserving opponent, no shame in losing when you could not possibly have given more, and no shame in doing far, far better than you were expected to. I have talked before on this blog on the value of learning to fail with grace; just as important, in life as in sport and such, is learning how to lose.

The Rich and the Failures

Modern culture loves its celebrities. For many a year, our obsessions have been largely focused upon those who spend their lives in the public eye- sportsmen and women, film and music stars, and anyone lucky and vacuous enough to persuade a TV network that they deserve a presenting contract. In recent years however, the sphere of fame has spread outwards, incorporating some more niche fields- survival experts like Bear Grylls are one group to come under the spotlight, as are a multitude of chefs who have begun to work their way into the media. However, the group I wish to talk about are businessmen. With the success of shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, as well as the charisma of such business giants as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a few people who were once only known of by dry financiers are now public figures who we all recognise.

One of the side-effects of this has, of course, been the publishing of autobiographies. It is almost a rite of passage for the modern celebrity- once you have been approached by a publisher and (usually) ghostwriter to get your life down on paper, you know you’ve made it. In the case of businessmen, the target market for these books are people in awe of their way of life – the self-made riches, the fame and the standing – who wish to follow in their footsteps and as such, these autobiographies are basically long guides of business advice based around their own personal case study. The books now filling this genre do not only come from the big TV megastars however- many other people smart enough to spot a good bandwagon and rich enough to justify leaping onto it appear to be following the trend of publishing these ‘business manuals’, in an effort to make another quick buck to add to their own long personal lists.

The advice they offer can be fairly predictable- don’t back down, doggedly push on when people give you crap, take risks and break the rules, spot opportunities and try to be the first one to exploit them, etc. All of which is, I am sure what they believe really took them to the top.

I, however, would add one more thing to this list- learn to recognise when you’re onto a loser. For whilst all this advice might work superbly for the handful of millionaires able to put their stories down, it could be said to have worked less well for the myriad of people who lie broken and failed by the wayside from following exactly the same advice. You see, it is many of those exact same traits – a stubborn, almost arrogant, refusal to back down, a risk-taking, opportunistic personality, unshakeable, almost delusional, self-confidence – that characterise many of our society’s losers. The lonely drunk in the bar banging on about how ‘I could have made it y’know’ is one example, or the bloke whose worked in the same office for 20 years and has very much his own ideas about his repeated passing over for promotion. These people have never been able to let go, never been able to step outside the all-encompassing bubble of their own fantasy and realise the harsh reality of their situation, and indeed of life itself. They are just as sure of themselves as Duncan Bannatyne, just as pugnacious as Alan Sugar, just as eager to spy an opportunity as Steve Jobs. But it’s the little things that separate them, and keep their salary in the thousands rather than the millions. Not just the business nous, but the ability to recognise a sure-fire winner from a dead horse, the ability to present oneself as driven rather than arrogant, to know who to trust and which side to pick, as well as the little slivers (and in some cases giant chunks) of luck that are behind every major success. And just as it is the drive and single-mindedness that can set a great man on his road to riches, so it can also be what holds back the hundreds of failures who try to follow in his footsteps and end up chasing dreams, when they are unable to escape them.

I well recognise that I am in a fairly rubbish position from which to offer advice in this situation, as I have always recognised that business, and in some ways success itself, is not my strong suit. Whilst I am not sure it would be all too beyond me to create a good product, I am quite aware that my abilities to market and sell such an item would not do it justice. In this respect I am born to be mediocre- whilst I have some skills, I don’t have the ambition or confidence to try and go for broke in an effort to hit the top. However, whilst this conservative approach does limit my chances of hitting the big time, it also allows me to stay grounded and satisfied with my position and minimises the chance of any catastrophic failure in life.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons one can take from this idea. For anyone seeking to go for the stars, then all I can offer is good luck, and a warning to keep your head on your shoulders and a firm grip on reality. For everyone else… well, I suppose that the best way to put it is to say that there are two ways to seek success in your life. One is to work out exactly where you want to be, exactly how you want to be successful, and strive to achieve it. You may have to give up a lot, and it may take you a very, very long time, but if you genuinely have what it takes and are not deluding yourself, then that path is not closed off to you.

The other, some would say harder, yet arguably more rewarding way, is to learn how to be happy with who and what you are right now.