DUPLICATION IS THE KEY by Mishkat Bhattacharya

September 5, 2016

I live very close to my office. People think it’s because I love what I do, but it’s really due to the fact that I am always forgetting things at home and work. And not just in those places. Leaving behind my personal diary next to a water fountain, my suspenders with airport security, or my nephew’s homework outside his dog’s kennel, are all in a day’s routine for me. You could call me the opposite of a kleptomaniac.

A partial cure for this disease, I have discovered, is duplication. For example, if I make two copies of my car key, I find I can pretty much drive – no pun intended – AAA out of the roadside assistance business. The original key hangs from my belt on a carabiner. I use it exclusively to open the car door, and then replace it immediately on its perch. A second key is then extracted from inside a glove box, and used to start the ignition. If I forget to retrieve it, as I usually do, at the end of my drive, and lock myself out of the car, the carabiner on my belt comes to the rescue. However, this technique can break down under pressure, for example if I am in a hurry, and end up using the carabiner key to drive. Nonetheless, I have found that placing a third key in my trouser pocket, to be used strictly in case of emergency, makes the solution foolproof, even to a talented fool.

For sure it has been tempting to apply the mantra of redundancy to every aspect of my life. But – mainly due to the costs involved – I thought it would be wise to first confirm the importance of duplication to society, life, and the universe at large.  After doing some research, I concluded that since in the current Information Age we cannot do without the phrase “Cut and Paste”, duplication must be essential to society. Likewise, going back about a century, we can understand why the invention of the Xerox machine counts as a major milestone in human history: ever since then, employee morale in organizations has hinged upon the working condition of the office copier. Using the same perspective on even earlier times, we can claim that the Industrial Revolution basically taught us how to duplicate machines, and the Agricultural Revolution taught us how to duplicate food. And going back to the very origins, we find life itself arose when self-replication became possible: but for RNA’s ability to copy itself, I would still be an inorganic molecule wallowing in primeval slime.

At the same time, it should be noted that duplication is actually a double-edged sword, and can give rise to much contention, for example when it involves cloning sheep, proliferating nuclear weapons, or supplying answers to an exam. In fact the universe itself, being aware of the dangers involved, has put a hard cap on outright duplication. This is embodied in the No-Cloning theorem of quantum physics, which says that you’re allowed to make a copy that is exact down to the level of subatomic detail only if you destroy the original. This is what makes quantum teleportation such a tricky proposition – what if the original is expunged, but the copy does not come through? Anybody trying to get themselves teleported could end up as static on some transmission line. This is why next time I have to rush back home from work to pick up something I forgot, I am going to decline the teleporter option – that is, as long as I can find one of my car keys.

Mishkat Bhattacharya is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York, a place on earth that has three seasons: almost winter, winter, and…still winter.

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