At an Intersection in Copenhagen, or Five Ways of Looking at a Traffic Light

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1. As Ike approached the intersection he grew more annoyed than usual. He could clearly see that the traffic signal was broken: it displayed both red and green simultaneously. Yet no one was there directing traffic, or making repairs, or even simply assessing the problem. If he were in charge (and he did have a considerable amount of administrative experience) things would be different. He would have someone there dealing with the defective light and with the safety issue. And he would be particularly focused on who was at fault for letting matters get to this impasse in the first place. That information about who was to blame would be especially important, in his view. There ought to be consequences.

But for now, his primary concern was to safely make his way through the intersection. After quickly assessing positions, velocities, and so forth, Ike calculated and executed a likely passage through the intersection, narrowly avoiding a city bus that almost crossed directly into him as he traversed the intersection.

2. Neils was having difficulty figuring out the traffic light. Was it red, or was it green? Sometimes it seemed to be one color, sometimes the other, but most of the time it looked to him as though it were both colors at once. Bemused by the situation, he speculated about different possible causes of the ambiguity: was he too distracted by his almost daydream-like visualizations of miniature planetary systems? Or was he concentrating too hard, trying to read more into the light than was actually there? Surely there was a joke or witticism waiting to be discovered in the situation. Neils decided these musings could wait until later, when he had returned to his office. Right now, however, he still needed to make his way across town.

But no matter how much he tried to see both sides of the problem, he could not resolve the state of the light while he was approaching the intersection. Not until he had finally fully entered the intersection did Neils realize, too late, that the signal was red. His car was struck from the side by a city bus traveling at full speed, and Neils was killed almost instantly.

3. David was puzzled by the fact that the traffic light in the intersection he was approaching did not seem to be functioning quite as it should. He could not seem to determine whether it was showing red or green. Not only was the immediate practical situation annoying, but the underlying socio-political issue was vexing, too. Such a problem should not occur in a society like this, a society focused so firmly on the people and their welfare, he thought, before returning his attention to the pragmatic problem at hand.

But as he entered the intersection, David realized instantly that he already knew what color the light was, and he knew about the bus approaching from the other road that crossed here. It was as if he had always known, as if some part of him had always been at this crossroads, and had secretly whispered to him what circumstances he was facing. And because of this, David was able to pass safely and uneventfully through the intersection.

4. True to his temperament, Hugh was largely unfazed, if perhaps a bit disappointed, to perceive a malfunctioning traffic signal at the approaching intersection. He had an important consulting job to get to, a meeting with a high military official, and he did not wish to be delayed by something as trivial as a broken stoplight. So, indifferent to any immediate potential hazard, he proceeded towards the intersection apace.

Hugh, finding the light to in fact be green as he came into the center of the intersection, safely passed through and continued on his way. He arrived on time for his consulting meeting.

And also, at the same time:

Hugh, to his chagrin, found the light to be solidly red as he attempted to make his way through the intersection. His car was struck from the side by a city bus traveling at full speed, and Hugh was killed almost instantly. Hugh was not just late for his meeting: He never arrived at all.

5. As I try to find my way to the science fiction convention I have come here to attend, I find myself driving towards an unusual intersection. While the light is still too far away for me to be able to quite resolve it, there is something about the intersection that strikes me as being strange, although I can't quite put my finger on what particular quality distinguishes this intersection from so many others.

Once I get close enough to the intersection to see the signal clearly, the light - and the intersection, too! - the whole thing - collapses instantaneously to a single point.

Still astounded by what I have just witnessed, but prevented by traffic from stopping to contemplate and absorb the situation, and unable to follow my original, now non-existent path, I end up taking an entirely different route to my destination. When I finally arrive at the convention, the first discussion I hear as I enter is on the topic of incorporating quantum mechanical ideas into science fiction stories without making the tales too abstract and off-putting.

About the Author: 
Peter Roberts, mathematically trained, is a poet who occasionally writes fiction. His fiction has appeared in places like Daily Science Fiction & the "Futures" section of Nature.