Rewind

Posted on July 24, 2015

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I debated a long time about writing this story. Yes, it came to me pretty complete and so was pretty easy to write, but that does not always mean it’s worth typing up. I would appreciate any feedback on it.

It’s also my first “hard” science fiction story, a story where science drives the plot. Or at least I tried to make a  plausible attempt. Again you will have to be the judge.

Finally. I never named my detective. He could probably use a name.  Let me know if any come to you.

“Yes, of course I did it,” said the man in a rumpled suit that looked two sizes too big, running his hands through his unruly white hair.

The man in shirtsleeves and tie across the table looked much more put together as he ruffled through a stack of papers. “Doherty, is it? Can I call you Travis?”

“Is this where I correct you and say ‘Doctor Doherty,’ so you can play coy and try to trip me up? I’m confessing to an idiot.”

Nonplussed, the younger man said, “Oh, yes, Professor. So sorry about that. Now where were we. You killed Professor Arthur Olivant to save the world? Is that your contention? It was self defense?” He didn’t quite smirk.

“Not the world you blithering idiot – the universe.”

“Seems like something that important you should have taken it to the authorities.” He was playing it pretty smug.

“Bunch of smarmy geniuses like you? In the first place you couldn’t begin to understand the math of it. In the second place, even if you did, you wouldn’t have the balls to act. It had to be done, and it had to be done then. Olivant’s arrogance knew no bounds. Nothing would’ve stopped him.  Believe me I tried. I tried logic, I tried begging, I tried honor – not that he had much of that. ”

“That sounds very much like the argument a paranoid schizophrenic might make. ”

“I’m sure  you are bright enough in your field,” the professor looked around the industrial green room, complete with matching industrial green metal furniture. “But there are maybe a dozen people in the world who could understand this math. People will be studying these equations for decades, which they should, but that would be moot if the universe was annihilated, wouldn’t it?”

The detective tapped the eraser of his pencil on his pad, twirled it in his fingers, tapped the tip, did it again:  tap, tap, tap. “Now that we have the time, why don’t you take me through it from the beginning?”

The Professor looked at the tapping pencil then at the man.

“Oh, sorry. Trying to give up smoking.” That smirk again.

“The question is,” said Doherty holding up his hands like he was holding a balloon and then first moving them apart and back together began to lecture. “Is the universe going to expand forever, coast to a stop, or reverse itself and implode?”

“Does anybody really care? I mean, won’t we all be long dead and gone before that ever happens?”

“Well, yes, ideally. But that’s not how science works. We solve one problem then that lets us solve other problems, and eventually we solve a problem that is more germane.”

“And what was Professor Olivant’s problem?”

“Besides being an arrogant prick?”

The detective went through his stack of papers again. “Oh that’s right, you have history together, don’t you.”

“Yes, we were underclassmen together, then later worked on our theses in the same university.”

“And didn’t he steal your wife?”

“You work fast Detective, although not very accurately. Fiance.”

“Ah yes, here it is. And how did that happen?”

“He didn’t love her at all, he just wanted to beat me at everything. It was a game for him really. I was engaged during my masters thesis. He had already completed his and had time on his hands I did not. They had an affair. They got married.”

“You must have hated him terribly for that.”

“Perhaps at first, but then I realized he had done me a favor. She had been a distraction from my work, I nearly left academics to take some menial job to support my future family.  And then, he always was a bit of a rake. He plowed through every undergraduate class like a combine on nitrous. They had a very messy divorce, which ruined him financially for years. So she also did me a favor.” He shrugged, “Symmetry.”

The detective stared at him for a long time, as if deciding whether to pursue this line of questioning.

“None of this is relevant, Detective. I’m confessing.”

“What is relevant?”

“Wormholes.”

“Wormholes?”

“Yes, that was Arthur’s field. Sexy stuff, because if they exist, then perhaps someday we could use them to explore the universe. If not, we are pretty much stuck launching overly elaborate television sets into space and waiting generations to hear back, if ever.”

“Sure, you hear about them all of the time in science fiction.”

“Yes. Plus, of course, they would answer all kinds of questions about negative energy, the zero point, space-time composition, anti-gravity. Oh, a slew of equations.”

“You sound envious.”

Doherty shrugged. “My work as well would solve a lot of other problems.” He fixed the detective with a look. “One of us was working on the very big, the other the very small. We both had Nobel prizes in our future, it was just a matter of who would be first. Unfortunately, he beat me to it.”

“He found wormholes?”

“You are aware of the purpose here of the Ultramassive Orbital Super Collider?”

“UMOSC? Of course, they have been smashing meteors for a decade to build this thing so they can smash atoms.”

“Not just atoms, they built this to have the power to accelerate particles to speeds not seen since the Big Bang to test theories you couldn’t begin to understand.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Eggheads like me and Olivant play with math. We find solutions to equations. But an equation might have many possible solutions. For example, what is the square root of 4?”

“Is this a trick question? Two.”

“It is partially a trick question. Two is one solution. Negative two is another. Mathematics has no prohibition against negative numbers, even imaginary numbers. In real life we don’t have much experience with negative numbers, so you don’t think of that answer. For example if I said a box that was four square feet and asked for solutions for the length of the sides, we wouldn’t say ‘negative two’ because we don’t have negative boxes. Well, we can compose equations about all kinds of things we cannot experience, so how do we test for them? We solve the equation first, and look for the physics second. In this way, we might discover something we’ve never witnessed. Only then do we design experiments to prove or disprove a solution’s validity. This is how we’ve solved many problems in the quantum field.”

“So you are saying, first you imagine an equation, then you solve it, and only then do you see if it might be true?”

“An oversimplification, but not an inaccurate one.”

“What does this have to do with murder?”

“Everything, Detective, everything. You see, there are many things which we cannot test on earth. We simply cannot afford to build big enough apparatuses to get the energies we need to test certain things. Hence, UMOSC. A few weeks ago, Olivant invited, summoned, me here to UMOSC to unveil his discovery before revealing it to the world.”

“He was gloating.”

“Precisely.”

Doherty closed his eyes. He could remember the metal ringing as he walked down the hallway. He knew he was on the inside of a massive torus kilometers across, but the curvature was undecipherable and the spin was enough to provide about half a gee of gravity. He had just shuttled over from the Large Earth Orbiting Telescope where he had been going over data that seemed at least unhelpful, if not downright conflicting to his predictions. The universe may indeed be infinite, but that did not sit as well with him of a universe that continuously recycled itself.  He welcomed the distraction of the visit, but had a gnawing feeling. Olivant was not the type of guy to have you over for drinks. He always had an agenda.

He got to the lab door and it opened with the temporary badge given him at security. Bent over tinkering with some complicated piece of machinery on a trolly cart was Olivant. Still a head taller and rail thin, he wore the lab coat like an evening suit and was stark contrast to Doherty’s amorphous composure.   He straightened up and looked back, “Doherty.” Then, like an actor remembering his role, he smiled, put down his tools, turned and extended his hand. Doherty took it with as much grace as he could muster, and Olivant laughed.

“Don’t be so bitter old man,” Olivant said still holding the handshake with one hand and clapping him on the back with the other. “As brilliant as you are, you were always going to come in second to me, like Edison to Tesla, or Heisenberg to Einstein. Unfair really, you being born in my shadow.” Doherty smiled back. He was used to it, maybe had even accepted it. He just didn’t feel it was necessary, so he tuned it out while he looked around at the industrial complex. He had no idea what any of these machines did.

Maintaining the grip, Olivant used it to pivot so they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the other hand still on Doherty’s back. He released the grip and used the free hand to sweep around the room. “Isn’t it marvelous?”

“It is amazing. Of course, I have no idea what I’m looking at.”

“Ha! Neither do I, really. You know us theoretical physicists, we have to rely on the experimental boys and girls to make it all come true.” Olivant was notoriously dismissive of experimental physicists as second-rate players who couldn’t come up with their own theories and settled for verifying the work of others. He considered them barely above mechanics, despite the fact that UMOSC’s team had a significant number of Nobel laureates on it.

“And what, is the ‘all’ that is coming true, Dr. Olivant?” Doherty turned to face his competitor.

“Why, it’s time travel, Travis. Nothing less than time travel.”

Doherty snorted. “Using what mechanism?”

“We have proven the existence of wormholes in the foam.”

“Below the Planck scale? You can neither measure nor view things that small. How have you found them?”

“Well, we have about 15 Octillion electron volts out here. Enough to measure the very smallest things. And while we cannot ‘see’ the wormholes, we have seen what we are calling ‘shimmers’ in quark colors. A color will start to transition to another color and then back, and it happens right around the Planck Time.”

“Theory has long held that these wormholes pop in and out of existence all of the time. How do you leap from finding them to using them? At the Planck Length, a photon does not even have time to enter the wormhole.”

“Oh, that,” Olivant waved at the walls around them, his eyes twinkling like he had just pulled the greatest joke. “That’s what all of this is about. What is smaller than nothing?”

Doherty looked at him side-eyed. “Well, nothing is smaller than nothing.”

“Exactly,” said Olivant, pausing pedantically.

“Ah, you are pulling negative energy from the vacuum?”

“Ever the plodding student. Yes, yes. Let me help you out. We use a targeted squeezed vacuum state and can ‘pop’ a negative energy precisely in the space where the wormhole is about to form, forcing its mouth open just long enough and just far enough for us to measure it.”

“Proving wormholes is a long way from time travel.” As exciting as the discovery was, Doherty was beginning to feel like his time was being wasted. He could’ve watched the news for this.

Olivant waved his hands above his head. “A mere bag of shells. We measure and record the color state of the nearby quarks, and compare that to what happens when the wormhole is open. We should see a shimmer that is identical to the state just before the event. After that, it’s just a matter of scale.”

Doherty was frankly abashed by his colleague’s naked optimism.  All scientific skepticism was gone.

“Just think of the implications, Travis! We are on the verge of a new age. An age where we reclaim the power of the gods. Once we bend space-time to our will, the universe will be ours.” His eyes gleamed and he spoke as if he forgot Doherty’s presence.

Doherty looked around the lab, unsure. If any of this were true, and that was a big if, he was not sure man was ready for such power. Even men as brilliant as Olivant and himself.

Olivant started to come down. “You’ll see. Tomorrow, you’ll see. I wanted to tell you first, but tomorrow, we’ll run the experiment and the whole world with be amazed.”

“Tomorrow? You cannot be serious. There are years worth of work before you attempt this.”

“What do you think I have been doing for years? We don’t all plod along like you, dear Travis. No, we race forward, our thoughts aflame. You should really try it some time.” He looked around, walked over, picked up his tools. “And now, I have a million things to do before tomorrow. A million. Will you be able to find your quarters? Is there anything else?”

Doherty put his hands in the pockets of his suit and looked around. “I don’t suppose I could look at your paper? I’m a bit stumped on my own work at the moment, perhaps it would inspire me?”

“Of course. I anticipated as much. Everything is loaded into the device in your room. And,” he looked up from his work, “I even had them bring you some of those blasted paper and pencils you are so fond of.” Doherty looked at him and thought “The smug bastard,” then he thanked him, shrugged and walked out.

Doherty opened his eyes and looked at the detective. “Are you getting all of this?” The detective tapped his recorder. “Good. This is one of those cases where working on one thing can apply to another. I went to my room, ordered a light meal and began reviewing the math. It was, of course, brilliant.  While I was devastated he had beaten me to his solution, I came to realize that there was a solution to his equation which also solved my equation: unbeknownst, he had achieved the Holy Grail – rectifying the very large with the very small. He was just so absorbed by his impending godhood that he had not realized the implications. This unblocked my work and I was very excited by it. I began to work through the night. Then, very late, I began to realize some terrible implications.”

“How can you miss a solution to an equation?”

“Remember our box of four square feet? Well two-foot sides are one solution. So is a one foot side and a four-foot side. In fact there are infinite solutions to that simple problem.”

He looked across the table. “I may lose you here. You see, us mathematicians live for the elegance of the math itself, and we want the physics to be as beautiful as the equations. We have spent centuries on solutions merely because the equations were so perfect, we thought there must be physics they described. We imagine the universe is a giant clock, perfectly designed and executed. String theory comes to mind. We have no proof, but it fits the problem. If it were to be true it would answer a lot of questions.”

“I never really saw the beauty in math,” replied the cop.

“A shame, really. But I digress. One of the things we appreciate is symmetry. Balance. If one thing exists, we try to look for it’s counterpart. In this way, many great things have been discovered. And, in many cases, the universe complies. We say many things are ‘conserved.’ Do you know what that means?” He did not wait for an answer. “It means for instance that if two billiard balls collide, a moving and a stationary, the energy from one is transferred to the other so that the two had the same energy as the one.”

“One thing that we do not think of conserving, though, is time. It always runs forward, there is no ‘anti-time.’  It’s part of entropy. It is not conserved. Or, so I always thought. When I looked at Olivant’s work, it was right there, staring me in the face. You see, I had been looking at my problem all wrong. All of these years, I was focused on the wrong question. I was concerned with if the universe had the energy to keep expanding or if it would run out and eventually collapse.  It turns out, the size of the universe is irrelevant. I never looked at it as if it was already collapsing and looking back. I never looked for an event that would cause the collapse. I never conceived that a human could incite the event. ”

“You may, in fact, have lost me.”

“As I warned you. Time, you fool, the answer is time. If you put anti-time into the equations, everything will run backwards. Light will return to its source and all mass will collapse back to the original singularity from which it came. All you have to do is reverse time.”

“So you are saying that somehow, with his discoveries, Olivant could have the ability to reverse universal expansion and collapse it?”

“No. I’m saying he would reverse the universe’s expansion. It would happen instantly once the wormhole opening exceeded the Planck Length, once he brought it above the quantum threshold. The wormhole would turn the universe inside out.”

The detective sat back, as if he had allowed himself to be taken in by some ruse and was now aware of it. “Preposterous!”

Doherty let out a huge sigh and looked into the corner of the room, thought a moment, and looked back. “Imagine, if you can, the universe is this big bath tub. Got that?”

“I think I can manage.”

“Olivant’s experiment pulls the plug out of the tub. Poof, everything pours out of this universe into a singularity in some empty universe somewhere. When it’s all gone, Kapow! that universe has a big bang.”

“And how long would this take?”

“The message would go to the edge of the universe instantly, like gravity. Everything would stop and reverse in billionths of a second. The UMOSC would vaporize in 10-43 of a second. Olivant would never even know what he had done. The near stuff, earth? It would disappear in a few minutes. Until it did, things would run backwards. Cars would run in reverse. Recently dead people would come alive. You would grow a few minutes younger, if you lived that long because the earth would stop and reverse direction in an instant, tearing itself apart. The rest would happen at the speed of light and take as long to recompact as it did to expand.”

“Symmetry.”

“Symmetry.”

“That is quite a story, Professor. But I’m not sure the science fiction defense is going to hold up.”

“Is that what you think it is, Detective?”

“I think this guy was pompous, you have been coming in second to him your whole life, and this was the last straw. You couldn’t outcompete him, but you could stop him from winning, so you killed him in a jealous rage. Then you made up this ridiculous confection.”

“Do I seem like an impulsive man to you, Detective?”

“I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise it’s premeditated.”

“Well, I had certainly considered it might come to that, if that is what you mean.”

The detective leaned forward, as if a greater charge was a bigger win. “Oh?”

“Once I was sure of the science, I spent the rest of the night considering the implications and considering every course of action. You will find the notes in my room.”

“I cannot help you now, you just confessed to planning the murder.”

“As if you were here to help me, Detective. I’m here to help you. Look, if you got a tip that a man was going to set off an atomic bomb in a large city, and when you got there he had his finger on the trigger, what would you do?”

“I supposed I would tell him to drop it and if he didn’t, shoot him.”

“On a tip? On what authority?”

“Well this is a pretty big hypothetical, it would depend on the circumstances. But I am a cop, I have that authority, to kill people who do not comply.”

“But you would take the risk of killing one man by mistake to save many.”

“Again, it would depend on the circumstances.”

“What if I told you it was, oh, 98% positive he had the bomb, and if you asked him to drop it he would press the button. What would you do?”

“I’d shoot him.”

“Well, Detective, I stayed up all night. I checked and rechecked my math. I’ve been working with these equations most of my life. I was sure he had his finger on a bomb. I had the surety.”

“But no authority, that’s why it’s murder, Doctor.”

“Ironic that you are given more power to make instantaneous life-and-death decisions on things you know nothing about than I am on the one thing I know everything about. If I had come to you and told you about this with 100% surety, you never would’ve acted. You couldn’t conceive of acting. Maybe I should’ve told you it was a bomb and let you handle it.”

The detective ruffled through his notes. “So, you stayed up all night and then called Dr. Olivant for a meeting in the lab?”

“I knew that egomaniac would be there obsessing over details, not of the experiment, but for the press conference.”

Doherty rushed first to the lab, and then to the auditorium. He was still in the suit he had arrived in, unkempt white hair rising like an unruly sail over his prominent forehead with the wind of his passing. Olivant looked up from notes before him on the podium as he came in.

“I hope,” he said looking Doherty up and down, “you will be more presentable when the cameras of the world are upon us.”

“You need to cancel, Arthur.”

Olivant’s only response was a raising of the eyebrows. “Have you been drinking Travis? There are hundreds of people here for this event. We have been working on this for years. We built the collider for it.”

Doherty’s words gushed out. “I have not. I have been pouring over your work.  You missed a solution, when you start the experiment you will create a singularity.”

“Of course, we know about that.”

“Do you know that it will grow without bound?”

“What are you talking about?”

Doherty was waving a fist full of papers at his nemesis. “There is no event horizon on your singularity, it will rip the universe apart. You have to look at this.”

Olivant fixed him with a calculating stare. “I do not have to look at anything. I have considered everything. Everything except how badly you would actually take this. Your behavior is pathetic. Leave now and I’ll forget we ever had this conversation.”

“Arthur, please! For the sake of any friendship we ever had, just look at this, just consider for one moment I might be right. Delay the test. Prove me wrong. Humiliate me in front of the world, but do not dismiss me!”

“I don’t have time for this,” said Olivant, and then pressed a button on the podium and spoke into the microphone. “Security, please, to bay 34.”

“It’s sad, really,” said Doherty, all of the animation suddenly gone out of him as he walked up to the podium.

“What’s that?” Olivant was genuinely puzzled by the change in his colleague. Doherty closed the gap and was laboring up the steps to the stage.

“This script we run. How many years now? Fifty? I’d gotten used to it, in fact, your dismissive arrogance. Just this once, I had hoped it would be different, but I knew it wouldn’t. So predictable, like time itself.”

They were face-to-face. Olivant tilted his head to one side, assessing his friend.  When he spoke, he spoke gently, as if to a child. “When this is all over Travis, I promise you I will sit down and look at your scribblings, is that okay?”

There was a tear running down Doherty’s face as he raised the miniature plasma welder Olivant had been using yesterday up to his friend, placed it against his chest and pulled the trigger. “Scribblings? No, Arthur, it’s not okay.”

Olivant collapsed on the floor and that is how security found them when they burst in.

The detective leaned back. “The perfect, improvable defense.”

“Do you know why I confessed, Detective?”

“I assumed we would get to that.”

“Because my motive is my defense. Remember when I said only a dozen people alive would understand this? They are all here on the collider to witness the experiment. Only here could I get a jury of my peers. Put me on trial. The math will set me free.”

“When it’s all over, maybe you will get your Nobel prize after all.”

“In mocking me, you are entirely missing the point.”

“Please, good sir, continue to inform me.”

“This reprieve was only temporary. The question is no longer if the universe will collapse but when.” He looked at the detective and sighed, then held up his hand and ticked off the points of his logic. “If the big bang can be caused by sentient interaction, and we’ve already had a Big Bang, then sentient beings have already done it, since the universe is infinite, anything that could happen will, and it will happen again. We must attack the cause and rewrite the very fundamentals of physics to prevent it if we have to.”

“And what was the cause?”

“Well that should be clear, even to you. The cause is hubris, you idiot. Hubris.”

Afterward

As I was writing this I realized it may strongly resemble Asimov’s story, The Billiard Ball, which I have not read since I was 12. I think I’ll allow myself the guilty pleasure of revisiting in now to see if I maintained a healthy separation. I hope so.

Appendix

Some bits and  pieces I collected while researching the story.

  • In 1996 we showed that a submicroscopic wormhole would have a throat radius of no more than about 10-32 meter.
  • This is only slightly larger than the Planck length, 10-35 meter, the smallest distance that has definite meaning. We found that it is possible to have models of wormholes of macroscopic size but only at the price of confining the negative energy to an extremely thin band around the throat. For example, in one model a throat radius of 1 meter requires the negative energy to be a band no thicker than 10-21 meter, a millionth the size of a proton.
  • The energy required to make measurements at the Planck length (the Planck energy) is a whopping 12 octillion electron volts—far beyond the capacity of today’s particle accelerators.

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