Uncertainty11 Jul 2014
“Computer, report!” yelled the Captain.
“Sir, all primary systems are online but the star orientations do not match anything in my database.”
“What was our entry confidence?”
“It was six nines, sir.”
Captain Nurbek swallowed hard, “Show me the trajectory map.”
It looked like a water droplet in zero-g, slowly morphing while the computer was busy plotting all the possible routes the ship may have taken to arrive here. Nurbek was temporarily entranced by it’s beautiful complexity.
Lost in thought, he recalled the great men of the past. Men who believed in a deterministic universe, where one could predict the future by simply knowing enough about the present. It was an idea that was hopelessly wrong, yet perfectly seductive, because it made men feel like they could become gods. But much to Man’s dismay, the true gods had other plans.
Space has no shortcuts, he mused. Dreams of determinism died at the hands of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. But would he be any less screwed if the Universe was actually a Laplacian dream? No, it made no difference. Determinism was still susceptible to chaos, the law of nature which was responsible for his current snafu. Chaos is what made the long jumps effectively unpredictable and extremely sensitive to small errors in entry calculations. He simply made a wrong guess in a profession where bad guesses were the worst possible offense.
Six nines. Six fucking nines. He needed at least nine nines for a jump of this magnitude. But he was in the middle of a war zone. Any longer and the ship would have been blown to bits. Would waiting another second really have killed him? He would never know. All he knew was, he would be looking at the familiar starscape of the Virgo Cluster had he waited. Instead he was here. Somewhere. Nowhere, as far as the computer was concerned. He glanced back at the rotating shape on the screen.
He suddenly remembered his old physics professor running different colored threads through a blob of silly putty.
“Imagine the strings are flight trajectories and the putty is our little cosmos. Where would you need to enter the blob in order to come out with the red string?” asked the professor.
“Where the red string enters,” I replied, not seeing where he was going with this.
“What if you messed up your calcs and entered at the green one next to it?”
“Then you would come out close to your intended destination, where the green one does.”
“Right,” he said, “this is how space travel would work if space was linear. You could make a mistake and still get to where you were going.”
He mashed the putty in his hands for a few seconds, keeping the entry points of the strings untouched.
“Where do the two strings exit now?”
“Far apart,” I said after locating the strings in question.
“So what would happen if you messed up your entry calcs in this case?”
“I’d be screwed,” I responded with an air of understanding.
“Good, this is how real space travel works. Except the strings are infinitesimally thin, and your room for error is almost non-existent. The lesson here is, get your calcs right, always! And then maybe well get to have this conversation again some day.”
Nurbek snapped back to reality, finally gathering the courage to ask the lingering question.
“Computer, based on your survey of the cluster, will we make it out of here alive?”
The computer paused for a few seconds, as if to heighten the suspense.
“Unlikely, sir, but I could never be certain.”