Claire de Lune/Quarks and Quirks

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The Paragon Observer Interview

Quarks and Quirks: Doctor Brewster's Selenium Wind Chime

by Michael Stein

It was early Saturday evening when Claire Brewster, the Feynman Chair at the University, flew in with a bottle of a French Burgundy and another of a German Riesling. She waved to me and floated over to Tera Summers, her partner, giving her a quick peck on the cheek before levitating a few wine glasses to the coffeetable.

"I usually get Pinot Noirs from Oregon," she said, "but this particular vintage is spectacular." She walked over with the bottles and a corkscrew, and offered me a choice. "And the Riesling is from the Sekt region. It's not as sweet as most others, but it's nice."

She seemed slightly uncomfortable with me there, which Tera had mentioned; while generally friendly, Tera had said that around people she didn't know well Claire had a tendency to be more reserved and even slightly off-putting, in a faintly pretentious fashion. It was an unconscious behavior, apparently, but I found it more endearing and charming than anything.

"She's a science geek. They're all like that," Tera had intimated, smiling. "It's funny. People are more confusing to them than the equations they dream up."

Claire sat down in a simple black leather and brushed metal chair across from me, and removed her tie. I smiled, and took in the elegantly appointed living room. A plasma display was mounted on the wall; underneath was a library of films that went from the highbrow (Battleship Potemkin) and foreign (Daremo Shiranai) to camp (Rocky Horror Picture Show) and mass market (Mean Girls). Strong tones dominated the decor; deep greens in the plants by the window, rich red highlights in the glass vases that held flowers on the tables.

She must have noticed my gaze: "They use selenium for those reds. It's a deeper red than what gold provides." I laughed, and inquired if I should add glassmaking to her list of hobbies, along with oenology. Blushing, she shook her head: "Actually, I just thought they were pretty. I first saw glass made with selenium in some of the components we worked with when I was at Portal Corp." She uncorked the Burgundy, pouring out three glasses, and continued. "Selenium itself has some photoconductive properties, and so we'd often embed them into glass sensors. Over time, the sensors would degrade, and the selenium would fuse with the glass. We'd know when to replace them when they turned a shade of red."

She talked a bit more on the element: how it was "mostly harmless" and required in small doses for all living things, particularly plants; how a deficiency leads to a dimmed intellect; how an overabundance was toxic. She seemed to relax more as she talked about the element; she wrapped herself in it, blinding me with esoteric points of science that, while completely beyond me, remained interesting, somehow. "It's named for the moon, by the way," she said. "The chemists back then were so romantic. It's closely related to tellurium, named for the Earth. Elements used to be given names like 'gallium', or 'rubidium', 'promethium' and 'caesium'. Now they're just named for people and places. History's nice and all, but names like 'dubnium', 'darmstadtium', and 'roentgenium' just don't roll off the tongue."

We went out on the deck, and let the cool October breeze wash over us as we ate Tera's cooking; Peregrine Island below seemed to fade away as we looked out to the sea. "I love the sea air," she smiled. "It carries with it a bit of everything." I mentioned that it was associated with Athena and wisdom, as one of the four classic elements, and she seemed a bit surprised. "I never really paid much attention to mythologies and such things," she confessed. "They're just bedtime stories, in a way."

Claire smiled a bit sheepishly, "I don't know why they've never interested me, to be honest. Even as a kid, I spent more time with my telescope and science books. There's a certain majesty to the whole universe, don't you think? Layers and layers to delve into, to try and figure out, that anything else pales in comparison."

"It's nice to know that I like the same thing as Athena, though. She was linked to the moon, right?" Claire asked; her uncertainty tempered with a genuine inquisitiveness. "I think that was Diana," Tera chimed in. "Diana was the goddess of the moon." I nodded, and mentioned that Artemis was her Greek appellation. Claire nodded, musing, and gazed upwards to the moon. "Artemis or Diana." She paused a moment, and then said, "Y'know, it's a shame that there's so much light pollution in Paragon. It'd be nice to see more stars out at night, don't you think? Billions and billions of them, each one with a different world."

I asked her, then, about the recent paper published by David Deutsch on the Many Worlds Interpretation. "It's interesting," she replied, "since it's something we've sorta been working with for a while in the Portals. You'd think that being able to travel to all sorts of parallel universes would have been the death knell of the Copenhagen School, but it's actually been quite revitalizing. These days, we're still fairly agnostic on the idea that all of the other universes exist simultaneously," she said. I pointed out that she herself came from a parallel world. "An analogue, she says," Tera said.

"Of course. The Interpretation doesn't rule it out at all. It's more..." she paused, thinking of a way to explain it, "we're finding it harder to separate the Observer Effect from reality, the deeper we go into the theory. It's shocking, actually, to find that objective reality is not quite objective at all. For instance, we've been working on a whole new series of portals that collapse probabilities to desired settings instead of using coordinates like the old series. They save energy, and it lets us pick exactly where we want to end up. So it's not a matter of there being infinite worlds out there, it's like picking and choosing what the world is like by manipulating chance. So it ends up that the conscious choice and observation of a certain pattern lets you appear in a whole different universe."

"Does it work?" Claire laughed. "Not perfectly, no. There are so many variables that even the quantum computers we have are having trouble. We're working on that though. There's a certain ingenuity to humans. The power of reason. We sent people to the moon, after all. Onto another universe's moon. I still have the selenium glass sensor from that expedition, actually."

She smiled, and pointed to a small, hollow glass cylinder, streaked with maroon, that chimed in the wind. "It's really just a matter of time."

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