Quantum Diver

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I take a breath. “One, two, three,” I call out steadily. On three, I push my feet hard into the trampoline and stretch my arms above me, careful to keep my chin and gaze tilted up. A fraction of a second later, I throw my arms down fast and simultaneously feel myself being lifted away from the ground. For two seconds I flip and twist through the air, then my palms gently come into contact with the black mesh of the trampoline. My body is stretched out behind them as if I were Superman, using my powers to slow the assault of the incoming fabric.

Of course, it’s only the muscles of my coach that keep me from hitting the ground, I think to myself as I sit and disentangle my limbs from the ropes resting slack between my coach’s hands, the pulleys above us, and the harness around my waist.

“How did that one feel?” my coach asks.

I pause, reflecting. “I think I could have waited a bit longer before throwing, and I don’t think I fully straightened out of my pike, but it seemed to come around alright,” I say.

We have been working on a new dive today, one more complicated than any I currently know.

This dive involves me flipping head-over-heels once—though that expression loses meaning when my body is folded in half—then straightening out so I’m upright again, twisting over my shoulder a full 360˚, and finally—here’s the tricky part—bringing my torso to my feet, and then my feet to the ceiling, so that by the time I hit the water—or the trampoline—my body is a straight line again, and I’m ready to enter head-first.

“It looks great. Perhaps a little rushed… The movements blur together, and you’re right about waiting longer on the take-off,” my coach replies.

I almost always rush the take-off, a bad habit of mine.

“Honestly, I don’t feel like I have very much control while I’m doing the dive. I know what I want to do beforehand, but the actual dive is mostly a blur,” I admit.


When I’m diving, I’m a programmer and my brain runs my code.

Each dive is the concatenation of several motions, performed by various muscles, initiated at precise times, and executed at a certain speed. Arms sweep up, pull torso and chin down fast, squeeze abs here, straighten legs now, and so on.

Combinations of motions get packaged for easy retrieval and execution. The most essential of these is the hurdle, with precise, consistent motions of the arms and legs, able to supply powerful height and energy, or steal it all away.

I drill individual motions on the pool deck and mark out the sequence of motions for a dive with a series of poses and sweeping limbs, my imagination filling in the rest. I envision the dive, reciting what needs to happen when and for how long.

And when I get on the diving board, my brain—the computer—runs the code and spits out a series of commands to my muscles, the machinery of a dive. I focus on whatever parts didn’t get properly programmed, clean up messy parts, and jump off the board again. Iterate for success.


“Ready to take it to the water?”

Nervousness grips at my stomach as I picture the 3m board and my body falling fast toward the water. But I know this feeling well, and though it whispers fears and doubt, I don a confident attitude, my well-worn armor against uncertainty.

My back straightens slightly as I answer, “Sure, let’s do it.”


Better yet, my brain is like a quantum system isolated from its surroundings, not some binary and code.

All combinations of motions are possible; the cleanest lines and worst failures are within my capabilities. It’s my job to adjust the probabilities so that graceful dives and painless mistakes are the likeliest. I train and drill and practice, straining to narrow the options. Still, anything is possible, at least until the system is Observed—that is, until a dive is attempted—when the system’s state is forced to take a single value, a single path through the air.


I’m standing on the board now. The plank of plastic stretches out in front of me, slowly rippling water beyond it. Only the top of my head can be seen from the pool deck.

Hurdle. Stretch. Pike, pop-out, twist. I go through the motions one more time, standing on one leg and piking with the other. I hold the ‘twist’ position for a few seconds, drawing out the word in my mind.
Then I throw myself down fast, folding over and bringing one leg up to the ceiling: Open. My hands are folded around each other, bracing for impact.

“Nothing to it but to do it,” I sing to myself, pushing down the nervousness again.


When the system is observed, each possible path is reduced to a single truth. Was that the path my body took? There are only two possibilities: yes or no.

But this answer does not interest me. I’m yearning to feel the water rush past me. I want to struggle to hold onto the remnants of memories from the dive: flashes of wall, of toes, of ceiling, of water. I do not care what the particular answer is, I enjoy the thrill of discovery—of Observation—the moment when all things are still possible, and the joy at an iteration well performed.


“One, two, three,” I breath to myself. Another “one, two three” as I take three familiar steps forward on the board and begin my hurdle.

The board dips down, I begin rising, and the world becomes a tumult. An explosion.

Of all the possible paths, a single dive comes into existence, and I am honored to present it.

About the Author: 
I am a recent Caltech graduate, and lover of both physics and writing.