Quantum comics

15 Jun

Luckily for me blogs are for daft and self-indulgent ponderings, because I have a doozy! Please read on.

One of my many interests (obsessions?) is quantum physics. Simply put, this is the science that tries to describe the nature of the particles that make up matter and the forces with which they interact. It explains how atoms work and therefore how everything works.  

I read about quantum physics a lot and although I don’t have a shit-show of understanding the maths I think I maybe hopefully grasp some of the ideas. Wave-particle duality, probability amplitudes, entanglement, the uncertainty principle, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons - I love all that crap. Indeed if I had my time again I would give up the glamorous and dizzying heights of cartooning to be a quantum physicist.

“But what does any of this have to do with comics?” I hear you cry. Probably to anyone else not much. But I have a very leapy brain and within it the comics-quantum chasm has been well and truly leapt and the neural pathways irreversibly fused. You will see.

Before launching into it though I want to say I’m not going to write about comics with quantum physics-esque content such as Antman’s visits to the subatomic realm; alternate universes like Bizzaro World; space and/or time travel; didactic strips that teach how god made everything and that gravity is the tool of the devil etc. Instead I will be talking about how comics as a medium might be described by some quantum physics concepts. Just because.

Comics are made of atoms

I’m gonna start with a good old mansplain about how everything in the known world can be reduced to elements which are pure substances made up of one type of atom. Compounds are when the atoms of different elements are combined and joined by chemical bonds. The example everyone knows is water. Each water molecule is a compound of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; hydrogen and oxygen being the elements. H2O ta-da!

Comics (well, my comics) are made on paper and (traditional) paper is made from trees. So paper is made up of organic compounds formed by carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Comics (again, my comics) are also made from ink. At a molecular level modern inks - like the ones in the pens I get from Whitcoulls -  are insanely complicated. So I’m going to cheat and pretend I draw with really old-school ink made from suspended carbon (carbon stuck in a liquid).

So (my) comics are made from the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. At the start when the universe banged big it produced hydrogen and helium.  From helium fusion came carbon, and carbon produces nitrogen and oxygen. When stars burn up these are the elements they discharge. So basically supernovas spew comics. Aces.

Gravity gutters

(Again I can think of no other introduction to this idea other than to mansplain some basic physics which you likely all know but just maybe don’t and if you don’t none of what I say will make any sense (well, even more less-sense). I suspect each section of this post is going to be the same, so please take my apologies as read).

It is the gravitational pull from the sun that keeps the planets in our solar system revolving and rotating and stops everything on the surface of the earth from floating off into space (animals, people, ships on the ocean, ocean under the ships etc.) However this kind of gravitational pull i.e. from stars, is not strong enough to keep galaxies in check. Yet they do not split and scatter and swoosh all over the universe but instead continue to cluster and spin.

To explain this, scientists postulate the existence of dark matter. Dark matter is super mysterious. It’s composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect or emit light so it can’t be seen and no one knows what it’s made of. We know it exists though because of the observable extra-gravity effect it has on galaxies. It stops them from dissipating.

In comics, the spaces between the frames – the gutters - are a kind of dark matter. We cannot see what’s happening in these spaces but we know something is because of the observable effects. 

First is the fact that from panel to panel the pictures change. I hypothesize that in order for this to be there has to be an image intermediary; a place where the morphing of one panel into another actually occurs. This place is the gutter.

The second observable effect is that the panels stay in place on the page. They do not split from each other and scatter. Something is holding them together and based on current understanding, it can only be the gravitational force of the gutters. 

Just as we do not know what dark matter is made of we do not know what the spaces between comic panels are made of. But just as we can infer dark matter’s existence from the behaviour of the universe’s galaxies, we can infer dark-gutter matter’s existence from the behaviour of the comic’s panels. It simply has to exist.

Comics are made of strings.

Another quantum offering is string theory. String theory is super mind-blowing and bewildering and unproven and I understand it only a little. Its basic tenant is that fundamental particles are not – as traditionally conceptualised - dots or spheres but tiny strings, too small for scientific instruments to detect. 

The theory states that the big bang created the elements as usual but in string form. And in the early high-energy days of the universe’s birth the interactions of these elemental strings (somehow) unified the four fundamental forces. These forces—gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear— govern how all known objects and their particles interact.

In the/our observable world the four phenomena are not unified. They work independently. This means that string theory can only work if there are other universes in which the forces are united. And because the forces are united, the physics in these other dimensions is different. And because the physics is different some of these universes are huge, some are teeny-tiny and some aren’t universes at all but gaps between universes. Also none of our scientific rules necessarily apply and anything could be happening inside them (are you still with me?)

Based on the above a comic could either be a separate universe or – more interestingly and likely – contain separate universes. To elaborate, panels can be tiny or large or a size in between; quadrilateral or circular or irregularly curved; fuzzy or definite or open or closed; colour or black and white; and each one can contain an entirely different story, image, world. Every panel has its own physics just like every universe has its own physics (also panels have intermittent gaps in the form of gutters). I say it is all too perfect to simply be a coincidence.

The Copenhagen comics interpretation

As with everything quantum the Copenhagen interpretation is complicated and articulated differently by everyone. It is also a longstanding quantum physics tenet. Really basically the Copenhagen interpretation says a particle doesn’t exist in one state or another but in all of its possible states at once. It is forced to ‘choose’ only when it is observed. That is we can only ever observe whatever the particle has become as a result of our observation; we cannot attribute any ‘truth’ to quantum particles because they have no knowable reality until they are perceived. It’s called quantum superposition and it’s wicked tricky.

The Copenhagen interpretation is illustrated by Erwin Schrödinger's famous theoretical cat experiment. A cat is placed in a box with a Geiger counter, vial of poison, hammer, and a radioactive element (doesn’t matter which one). When the element decays the Geiger counter detects it, triggers the hammer which smashes the vial which releases the poison which subsequently kills the cat. But radioactive decay is a random process and there is no way to predict if and when it will happen so the relevant atomic element exists in superposition—both decayed and not decayed at the same time.

Because the cat’s fate is entwined with that of the radioactive decay it also exists in superposition. Until the box is opened and the cat’s observed, its state is unknown. Therefore while it's in the box you have to consider the cat as if it were simultaneously alive and dead.

I propose that a comic panel is a flatter, picture-based version of Schrödinger's cat box. That until it's observed, a panel’s atomic elements exist in superposition. The act of reading forces the contents to ‘choose’ a fixed state. This create-reality-by-observation has to happen every time with every individual panel in every comic which is why their contents are sometimes similar to each other and sometimes not. It’s obvious really.

Now I think I have written enough about this comics-quantum thing. It is daft in all the universes.

* The email will not be published on the website.