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The science behind the fantasy

One of the most interesting things about reading a novel like Brainwalker is figuring out where the science ends and the story begins. Every science fiction and fantasy story combines elements of reality and imagination; the best ones ground imagination in a foundation of reality that lets the story soar. For Brainwalker, it all comes down to one simple idea: that Bernard’s mind can be elsewhere than his body. For new readers, that’s a hard idea to swallow. Or is it? 

Several quantum mechanical theories support the idea that Bernard’s mind can exist apart from his body. Scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany recently demonstrated that atoms can actually be in two places at the same time. What the scientists did was take two sets of optical tweezers and play tug of war with an atom.

In classical physics the atom would go in one direction or the other, but according to quantum mechanics it would have an equal chance of being in both places at once. They did the measurements and that’s exactly what happened: the atom was in two places at once. Right now it can only be seen at the atomic level, which is much smaller than the level of the story, but it does give a way for Bernard to be both inside and outside the Brainiverse at the same time.

The other way you can look at it is what’s called mind-body dualism. That’s the idea that the mind is more than just the brain, that it’s something separate that controls the body through the brain. Naturally, if that’s true then of course Bernard’s mind can leave his body to enter the Brainiverse, and he doesn’t even have to be in two places at once. The two parts of him just go their separate ways. It sounds simple enough, but how plausible is it?

One of the key features of quantum mechanics is that the Universe always waits as long as possible before making up its mind. In other words, quantum mechanics tells us that the prize is behind both doors until you open one to find out. In other words, quantum mechanics requires an outside observer who can find out which door hides the prize. What makes it even more interesting is quantum mechanics is non-local, it doesn’t care about distance. No matter how far apart the two doors are, opening one affects both.

Where dualism comes in is in the nature of the observer and how observing something determines what happens. That means that observing something is a mental phenomenon with a physical effect; your mind changing the world. If this is a physical effect, then observing something should change your brain; if it doesn’t change your brain, then your mind must be separate from your brain, and that would let Bernard’s mind enter the Brainiverse.

A single explanation would be simple, but that’s not how quantum mechanics works. You have to open the door, or jump in the wormhole, first. Only then can you find the right answer, and sometimes there’s more than one.

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