I Should Have Known Better

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I should have known better. But drama is compelling, and nothing is more dramatic than the fate and free will. Still, I should have known better.
“You’re not listening to me!” he shouted, the frustration building. My assistant popped her head in to check on the ruckus but I waved her away. After all, my job was to help distressed students, wasn’t it?
I raised my hand to stop his next outburst, at least for the moment. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. If the teleportation actually worked, not only will Cal Tech win first place, but the team will be lauded for a great scientific breakthrough.”
He threw his hand in the air. “Dean Reynolds. You’re. Not. Listening. I’m not upset that it worked. I’m terrified.”
I scratched my head and leaned in, intrigued. I pointed to the chair in my office but the student just continued to pace.
“I’m confused. The Cal Tech team worked for ten months on their entry and you’re asking me to shut them down because they’re making progress?”
The team had hinted at something really special this year in their application for funds but they had kept their entry a bit of a secret. To a newcomer, the Quantum Games sounded pretty nerdy but the truth was that the annual applied physics contest had become a big deal in the academic community. For the last ten years, each “festival” had grown exponentially bigger to the point where the winners found themselves dating cheerleaders and receiving lucrative job offers from NASA and Rand.
“Progress?” he yelped incredulously. “You don’t understand, they didn’t just solve teleportation. They solved quantum physics.”
I stared and blinked. “Excuse me?”
Alan, at least I think he said his name was Alan when he stormed in my office five minutes ago, took a deep breath. “You’re familiar with the concept of free will?”
I crossed my arms. “I’ve heard of it.”
“What I mean is, well-- that is –Look. Newton’s three laws. Newton described the basic laws of motion. For every action, equal and opposite, blah blah blah. The point is, if the laws of motion are absolute, with enough information we should be able to predict every reaction set in motion by any action.” Alan’s breathing became faster and his voice jumped up a tone.
“Calm yourself,” I urged with a hint of warning.
It didn’t help. “The discovery of Quantum Physics showed us that randomness and chaos exist in our world. Newton’s laws are not absolute.”
I stepped out from behind my desk, starting to feel more than a little annoyed. “And this afternoon’s festival?”
“The team- they worked out the equations. I didn’t think it was possible but they did it. They proved that in reality randomness does not exist. Einstein was right, G-d does not play dice. That’s how they were able to make their teleportation device work.”
“Okay…and that means?”
“That means, that using complex algorithms developed right here at Cal Tech, they will soon be able to predict every single reaction to every single action. They’ll be able to predict… the future.”
I cleared my throat.
“Even the electrical impulses in our brain follow Newton’s laws. And if those impulses are predetermined based on other actions in the past…well, then Cal Tech is about to prove to the world that there is no such thing as free will.”
I raised my eyebrows at the thought. This was simply too far-fetched. “As Einstein said to the fusion bomb, you’re over-reacting.”
Alan reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out the front page of the student newspaper, and handed it to me.
“What’s this?”
“It’s today’s paper. Look at the date.” I did. “Now look at the back.” I turned the paper over and scribbled in a red sharpie were the words “As Einstein said to the fusion bomb, you’re over-reacting.”
My eyes widened. I looked up at Alan who simply stared at me with a knowing expression. “How-“
“-I used Cal Tech’s algorithm. You had no choice but to say those words. Do you think the world is ready for Cal Tech to tell them that free will doesn’t exist? You have to shut them down.”
My jaw was still on the floor. If Alan was right- we couldn’t let this get out. The world was not ready. I would not have Cal Tech become the murderer of free will.
I rushed out the door without another word to Alan. I reached the judges before they got to Cal Tech’s presentation and told them we were withdrawing. They looked understandably curious but I dared not offer more information. I can only imagine what the team thought waiting in their meeting room for judges that never showed up.
Later that afternoon Professor Shapiro tracked me down at the back of the banquet hall during the awards presentation. “Dean Reynolds, what is going on? I was just informed it was you! Why would you withdraw our entry, after all the work these kids put in??”
“I know about the algorithm, David. We’re just not ready for that.”
“Algorithm? What are you talking about??” I turned to him, ready to explain my reasoning when a student at one of the banquet tables caught my eye. His cap flew off as he jumped up to applaud the winning team. David caught me glancing at the winners and continued his verbal assault. “You think that M.I.T.’s glorified flashlight deserved to beat our functional teleportation device? You’ve ruined the entire year for these kids.”
“Ruined the year?” I said without looking back at him. “As Einstein said to the fus-“
“-Yeah, yeah, you’re over-reacting. You always make that joke.”
I quickly turned to David. “What did you just…” I trailed off as I turned back to the banquet. The jumping student had turned to face me now. Alan put his cap back on and I could see the writing clearly. M.I.T.
I should have known better.