I'm working on a story about quantum cryptography - an abstruse field which is going through rapid and exciting developments. The results so far aren't going to revolutionise the world -- it's promising useful results for very high end security, but nothing immediately applicable to what we do all day. In the future, however, quantum computing could produce some astonishingly powerful machines, quite plausibly capable of things as far removed from our current state of IT as the Pentium is from a knitting machine.
That's not the only reason I'm getting hot under the collar. The best bit is that I get to phone up real physicists who are playing around in their labs with stuff like single photon entanglements, artificial atoms and teleportation. One such -- I don't want to say too much until the story's cooked -- proves to be a most amiable and patient soul who goes out of his way to guide my fumbling, half-baked questions into areas where I not only understand what he's saying, I get an idea what I'm talking about to boot.
Just as well. Quantum physics is whacky enough in its own right, but when you try and bend it to do something useful you end up jumping through all sorts of hoops. As far as I can tell, the particular brand of quantum crypto our friend is working on relies on twisting photons in various ways that can't then be properly detected. Billions are born, and most of them subsequently die lonely deaths without reaching their target: those few that do might or might not then reveal their secrets to the recipient. Neither side knows exactly what's happened - but they then swap hints with each other until they reach an agreement. The whole confection seems to operate in some hazy mish-mash of probability that gives an Eastenders plot line a run for its money in the implausibility stakes -- but if you try to sneak a look at what's going on, the whole thing twists in on itself and refuses to play ball.
Or something. What's most fun is that I quite rudely take advantage of having a real live quantum mechanic on the line to ask all sorts of ancillary questions that bug me every time I try and make sense of a New Scientist or Nature article on the subject. Little things like "So, is quantum teleportation instantaneous or is it bounded by c?" - which is rewarded by a long pause and a giggle. I get the feeling that this is something of a rude thing to ask, but like most rudery it's absolutely fascinating.
Mostly, though, I'm exhilarated by having some real new technology to write about. When every other story seems to be about intellectual property, reheated chip designs or TCO, the sense that things are thundering ahead behind the scenes is most refreshing.
Watch this space.