The Last Question of Thomas Marco

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These are the last words of Thomas Marco, the last surviving member of the ill-fated DIANA 2 exploration mission to Mars. They were written, barely legible, in a personal journal, in the hours before his death.


This is it. All I have left. A pencil I can hardly hold in shivering fingers, and my dear old journal, slowly revolving in what little remains of our spaceship. The heating failed a few hours ago, and it is growing cold. I am wrapped in my sleeper, wearing everything I have, and still my hands shake. I can feel the end coming. Soon, I will go to sleep, and I do not think I will wake again.

Sven and Victoria passed away some time past. I could not tell what killed them. Perhaps they simply gave up. I can’t blame them. I put their bodies in the landing capsule, with the others, and jettisoned it. They will drift forever in space, but at least they are together. Back then, I still had hope that I could turn this thing around and get home. That hope died with the heating system.

The irony is not lost on me that I have become one of the things I studied for so long -- a hidden system, an unobserved variable, alone and isolated from all else that breathes. I do not know where I am, or how fast I am going. One would assume rather fast after that botched slingshot around Mars.

I have always loved my job. I spent my childhood days flying kites on the beach, wondering how they worked. My Dad taught me to ask questions, to read and learn. The rigors and romances of university life gave way to a job where I could ask questions every day, and instead of finding answers, I found more questions to ask. The life of a quantum physicist was all I ever dreamed it would be.

And then I got the call.

How could I refuse? DIANA was a chance to find answers to those questions that really mattered. A chance to see Mars from orbit.

Emma never asked me to stay. Neither of us asked that unspoken question -- what if I did not return? We chose to roll the dice without knowing the odds. I told myself that even if the worst should happen, I had made the right choice. It was all I could think about; I even named my daughter after it.

What nonsense. I gave up everything only to die, shivering and alone, in a spacecraft out-of-control somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. My daughter will forever be without a father, and my wife without a husband. If I could tell them only one thing, it would be that I am sorry. I truly am.

I still have a question, one last question, in my last hours. But my curiosity about the world has finally faded. Soon I will be leaving it -- and I am afraid. So my question is:

What will come after?

When I close my eyes, what will I see? Will I see Dad again? And Emma, and Diana, when their time comes?

Perhaps like a particle lost to scattering, I will drift to some unknown destination. I will leave the confines of all I know, and go to a place nobody can measure me, following a path no mathematics can predict.

Perhaps I will find out what lies beyond the axes of the Penrose diagram. That exciting negativity that captured my imagination as a child -- the universe beyond the event horizon. It is a land of the Other, where the lost half of the Hawking radiation is taken, particles that will never see the light of this world. What do they illuminate in those ruined stars? Will I see showers of light cascading from holes in the sky?

And if two universes exist, why not more? When I die, will I see the multiverse? Will I see a billion billion worlds lying side-by-side, their planets and stars shifting and stirring into a fractal infinity? We have invented such strange words for concepts we do not really understand.

Perhaps I will trade this body of flesh and blood for a soul of energy. I will become a wave, shifting in the strange fields that transcend matter, and pass through the walls of this spacecraft as though they were never there at all. Maybe I will be stretched across all of time and space, localized only by probability. Isn’t that what I wanted? To see all, and to know all?

But what I fear most is that I will stop. I am afraid that this will be the end for Thomas Marco. All that I once was will cease to exist as the last of the neurons in my brain die. Those quantum centers will cease firing. The guns of thought will fall silent, and all identity and reality will stop for me. I will never again know curiosity, or love, or joy, or pain. I will be nothing but a face half-remembered, a name inscribed in history as a footnote of mild interest.

One thing alone gives me hope. In a quantum system, there is no end. Things can change in strange and wonderful ways that nobody can predict; particles can become waves, neutrinos can change flavour, matter can become energy… but there is no finality. When the experiment ends, the particles travel on to a place unseen. When my experiment ends, perhaps I, too, shall continue.

And maybe for the first time, I shall have a definitive answer to one of my questions. Will I go on? There are only two possibilities: yes or no.

My vision is darkening, and the lights flicker as I write these last words. My last thoughts are of Emma and Diana and Dad – and I hope that, in time, or out of it, I will see them again.

-- Thomas Marco, a husband, father, and loving son.

About the Author: 
I am a PhD researcher at the Institut Neel CNRS in Grenoble, studying quantum dot qubits in Silicon.