Today was an exciting day for physics. The LIGO collaboration announced the first ever detection of “gravitational waves”, the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. Yes, he was right about everything.
It so happens that a couple of years ago I wrote a short science fiction story which featured gravitational waves and interferometric detectors as a keystone of the plot. As a piece of writing, it has many shortcomings; but the opportunity was too good to miss, so here it is.
Day In, Day In
Cato Sandford, April 2014
Sanoush had never before seen a hummingbird, but there was no mistaking the struggling iridescence mere inches from his face. The creature had become ensnared by heedless greed, its impossibly delicate beak stuck fast into the honey oozing in luxurious golden ripples from the green papery bark of a transport-box. Transfixed, he observed it battle chaotically with its unyielding foe. The futility of its panic made it perfunctory.
Yes, Sanoush had now seen the bird; and he knew that the world somewhere outside the darkness of his dream had seen him see it. The bird. Ten thousand and one eyes watched him do nothing as a tiny life was sapped. Even through the fragmented moral prism of sleep, a conditioned discomfort grew within him, the fear of imputed malice. He knew to himself that there was no malice, no Schadenfreude, just fascination and inertia. But those eyes judged without generosity.
Onerous, but appearances must be maintained. He reached out to the fast little body. Yet as he did so, a new idea crystallised, and, thriving on the diminishing distance between Sanoush’s fingertips and their quarry, it hastened his hand to the bird even while he was assembling the pieces. He could happily play the part of saviour: the eyes would see and they would nod in cumbered approval. But his prize would be finer than anything that the invisible minds could mete out. The delicious power of touching lightning.
The tiny bird was now motionless from exhaustion. Softly, he clothed it in his fingers, unbearably alive to the texture of its feathers, of its fragile ribcage shuddering with each diastolic pound. The heat and pliability of the thing’s flesh were that of the living, but he somehow couldn’t acce-pt it existed at all – such a small agile body – vibrant and shimmering – yet in his grasp, in his power, and he desperately wanted to – what a beautiful thing to have in your hand, and what a beautiful thing to have the thing in your hand! The prospect of releasing it was unbearable. He knew the bird was frightened from the pulsing on his fingers; but carrying this twist of freedom, feeling its vulnerability, held him captive. Every second he delayed was destroying the object of his fixation; what an agony.
What if, inadvertently, he were to crush it? It would be easy; it would be the cleanest way to preclude regret. A simple look of consternation as the limp corpse fell to the ground would convince the eyes. And if it didn’t… well he could live with that. Himself – whatever, he could subdue “conscience”, a product not of his heart but of the shrill grievances of others, thousands of others who had never had this opportunity. Because power lies in finality. The first is remembered (and the last renders all else irrelevant).
The green frisson exploded from his fingers and darted away into the lazulaic sky. He followed it with his gaze, with his apology. And as he looked up, the one yellow sun of his world, Diell, was joined by its red twin Räa and they glared down upon him like a conjunctival God.
The dream dissolved quickly as he woke, leaving only a vague residue of guilt. He looked over to the wall on his left where his home-made sundial, suspended outside the window, projected a hodgepodge of diagnostics. Strange to still call them sundials, really – such an anachronism for the intricate array clockwork which performed just about every task you could demand of a chronometer, all without needing a single drop of electrical current. Painstaking combination of modified materials in the mechanical and optical elements yielded remarkably good calibration, and the device seamlessly adjusted itself to temperature and humidity fluctuations. Prisms, mounted judiciously at the foci of a sequence of parabolic mirrors, catalysed the sunlight into its constituent wavelengths; on a good day, you could resolve absorption lines from the stellar and terrestrial atmospheres, and based on the wavelength of the spectral peak, a valvular contrivance would determine whether it was the yellow Diell or the redder Räa which occupied the sky. (Of course, this was something that could be easily ascertained with a glance out the window, but the point of the machine was clearly not to be practical.) A multifariety of other innovations and contrivances, some still under construction littered the device; his latest addition was a catchment that would co-opt three mirrors, two of the more powerful lenses and the light of whichever sun was up, to perfectly fry an egg.
This latest sundial obsession was just one facet of Sanoush’s long-standing fascination for the two suns and the magic of light. The strongest memories of his childhood were the blissful days he’s spent truant in a field, wheeling around and around to watch the second-perfect synchronous rise of Räa and set of Diell. His parents had at first encouraged his interest, proud of their boy’s encyclopaedic knowledge and flourishing acadaemic enthusiasms. But they were disappointed when his flair for science did not lead him into the elite (and lucrative) field of moisture synthesis.
Of course, no educated person would deny that the development of light manipulation technology during the Optical Revolution had been crucial to the progress of civilisation. How could the energy-hungry water-desalination plants be kept running without photovoltaics? How else would the quantum photonics underlying agricultural biochemistry be understood? Yes, the optical sciences were central to almost everything, from interaction-free medical diagnosis to nanofabrication to computer technology to long-distance communication.
But of course, no educated person would deny that optical science was a matter for historians. For instance, the physics behind photovoltaics was nearly twelve thousand cycles old. Within a generation, industrial engineers had perfected production-line metamaterial synthesis, and PV coatings boasted light-absorption and electron-motivation properties just shy of the theoretical limit. At around the same time, scientists has developed the means to exploit exotic quantum states where matter and light become indistinguishable, allowing information to travel seamlessly from computers’ electronic hardware to the photon highways of digital communication. The technology had been without substantial improvement in the last three hundred cycles.
But Sanoush simply couldn’t get excited about the “respectable” research areas of moisture science or genetic technology or nonlocal transport or whatever. He had no stomach for the seamy realities of its corporate bedfellows. In discussions in the subject, he inveighed against the approval of increasingly radical genetic innovations, and the subordination of human rights to the interests of blind wealth creation. His arguments were of little effect.
For indeed, Sanoush’s world was very much like our own. Truly, the only significant physical difference was the existence of two suns rather than our sole Sol. The synchronicity of this binary star system was, perforce, perfect: every nursery-schooler knew by song and liturgy that the setting of one coincided with the rising of the other.
The truth is that the two stars had formed separately from different protostellar gas clouds, and had spent a billion years wandering the galaxy before their unexpected encounter and mutual gravitational capture. Now they were consigned to circle each other until the shock of Diell’s inevitable and explosive demise four gigayears hence would end their tarantistic embrace. But that was yet to pass, and for now their waltz endured, with a planet perched perfectly at its fulcrum – the centre of the Universe.
Of course, there are consequences to such a configuration. Perpetual illumination and warmth, along with only very mild seasonality, was a boon to photosynthetic organisms the world over. The size of plants and the vigour with which they would colonise every available patch of ground would astonish the farmers of the most productive soils here on Earth.
True, there were some issues with irrigation as fresh water scarcities started to bite and soils started to degrade. The frenetic growth of sunlight-gorged algae and cyanobacteria had in many lakes and oceans led to severe hypoxia and a poverty of aquatic biodiversity. But technological advances in the “respectable” research areas of desalination, genetic technology and moisture capture were rapidly addressing these problems. And on the bright side, no-one was going hungry, and rickets was unheard of. Energy had been essentially free since the infrastructure investments following the Optical Revolution, where swathes of the countryside had been devoted to photovoltaic electricity generation. On this world of constant illumination, power and warmth flowed from the heavens in indefatigable torrents.
Sanoush dawdled in bed, eyes idly following the logic of his sundial, mind on breakfast. A consequence of the perpetual daytime was that there was no clear rationale for its organisation. As long as he got his work done, Sanoush could sleep when he was tired and eat whatever meal appealed to him. And there would always be a warm day outside to welcome a ramble.
But the flipside to this circadian freedom, he often mused, was life with a perpetual patina of ambiguity. Friendships were complicated by the absence of a common schedule> The cycles lacked a certain common currency. Sometimes one found oneself waking with nary a clue as to where the world was in its doings and how to fit in with it. People necessarily grew adept at reading the lengthening of shadows and subtle changes in hue. Still, losing track of time was easy.
A relaxed sunshine demeanour admixed with this translucent vagueness meant that progress could be slow (contrary to what might be expected on a world where every hour was a potential working hour). It meant that the fierce despair of the existentialists and the insular reductionism of psychoanalysis had no place to thrive. It meant there was no word for “crepuscular”. It meant liminality was a thing of the waking mind rather than of the waking world.
Sanoush’s mind, as it happens, was by now fully awake, and wandered reluctantly onto his work. Some time ago, an interesting puzzle had emerged from one of the instruments under his supervision. Rather than ignore it he had given pursuit, only to find the problem was maddeningly unyielding.
It all began while he was recalibrating a laser interferometer for a routine but delicate spectroscopic assay on a sample from the chemlab. Shortly after he’d finished tuning the instrument and activated the new lambda-reference denoiser, a peculiar sputter of oscillating signals pinged the data pipeline. It lasted about twenty seconds, and just when a divergence in the frequency seemed inevitable the signal abruptly died. Not a single seismometer gave any substantial readings, leaving the provenance of the signal a mystery.
Concerned that he’d unwittingly introduced some bug into the instrument’s software, Sanoush called up some other interferometer operators to ask for advice. It turned out that they’d also recorded the oscillations, but since they were lowly technicians with narrowly-defined responsibilities, they’d just had dismissed the signals as some noise. Now this was interesting… Sanoush methodically contacted every interferometry lab he could, and found that, 1) the disturbance had been felt worldwide, and 2) was highly sensitive to the orientation of the instrument. These tantalising findings failed to impress his superiors, who made it clear that if he planned to pursue this project, it would be in his free time. Had he known how much time it would consume, and how far out of his depth he would have to venture, he would have given up right then. But he didn’t know, so he kept going, matching the problem’s recalcitrance with his own tenacity. It took a couple of exhausting hectocycles, but finally he concocted a tentative explanation for the phenomenon.
Normally, signals like the one he had measured are the result of tectonic activity; but the fact that no seismometer he had looked at could account for the event was troubling. An important difference between a seismometer and an interferometer is that, while a seismometer makes strictly local measurements, his interferometer accumulates its readings over distances of many kilometres. Sanoush’s hypothesis was that the strange signal could be explained if the very space that comprised those kilometres had been deformed by some ripple in its structure.
His investigations of the literature had led him to the work of a long-dead maverick physicist called Unapaetr. Unapaetr had devised a theory which, among other things, predicted exactly what Sanoush thought he had witnessed – tiny waves in the structure of space which would distort his interferometer readings.
Unapaetr herself had an interesting story. During her lifetime, her ideas had been universally dismissed as preposterous and borderline heretical. Her insistence, for instance, that the World, Räa and Diell constituted a mere speck in a potentially infinite “Everything” beyond human reckoning. Furthermore, she claimed the World was not at the centre of this Everything, but that it just happened to be balanced precariously in a vortex-like recess of energy-space created by the sweeping orbits of Diell and Räa.
Sanoush, unable to cope with the abstruse mathematics, had coded up a visualisation of Unapaetr’s predictions for the Solars System. It showed the two suns orbiting one another, with Unapeatr’s space-time fabric warping around it: a seething whirlpool cradling the World at its centre. The simulation’s shifting folds and convolutions were mesmerising; Sanoush had lost much time enraptured by their intricate waltz.
But the code would inevitably break after maybe twenty billion cycles. Having checked and re-checked the logic, Sanoush concluded this must be a consequence of compounded rounding errors from the computer’s imperfect rendition of irrational numbers. Very dependably, the World would be nudged from its divot in energy-space, and end up flung into the void. But this instability was just an imperfection of his hardware –- there are no rounding errors or unwarranted numerical perturbations in Nature.
(Two million kilometres away, a comet, invisible in the floodlit sky, swung past the sun Räa.)
Still, he had written up his findings in an article entitled “A Simulation of Celestial Instabilities Arising From Local Manifold Deformation In Unapetrian Space-time”. Having given it a final read-through, he sent the manuscript off to a handful of editors who seemed to be interested in fringe physics.
The outbox whoosh – the culmination of hectocycles of effort -– left Sanoush momentarily without purpose. He sat stupid, his brain and body running in mismatched gears. He had to get out of his office, his cave, and breathe some fresh air. He forced his muscles to convey him downstairs to catch the transtube to the outskirts.
The gentle pulsation of the transtube was soothing. He’d shoved a paperback into his jacket on the way out, and now he pulled it out. It was one of these new experimental writing forms, which they were calling “love poetry”. Sanoush was trying to like it, but everything he’d read so far was just mediocre, reaching for meaning but grasping only air. It just felt incomplete, like a crucial part of the language was missing, something to give it mystery, concealment, romance. But he was no “poet”, and in any case, he couldn’t concentrate in his current mood. He sat with the book open on his lap, staring out of the window.
Leaving the looming city and its fog behind, sensation returned to his body. When the scent of damp forest crept into the sterile interior of the shuttle, he called the transtube to a halt and descended to the forest’s rim. The wind was somewhat stronger than usual, causing the tallest trees to brandish their great arms and their leaves to hiss. He crunched his way through, not penetrating too deeply into the wood, and after a time he stepped out into a large meadow which stretched for a kilometre or so. The great red Räa was off to his right ahead, about one hour from setting and making the clouds blush pink in anticipation. Sanoush turned towards it, closed his eyes, and drank the waning warmth on his face, trudging slowly into the glow. His shoes were muddy and far from waterproof; he looked down at them and decided he didn’t care. Raising his eyes a little, he could just distinguish the outline of his shadow, pale and elongated before him.
Something was wrong. Puzzled, he stared at the shadow; then lifted his head to squint up into the great red sun, which had yet to graze the horizon. A conjunctival god. Incipient dread catching his throat, he turned to look behind him.
Twelve thousand kilometres away, the opposite end of the World was plunged into mayhem. In the deepening dusk, people blundered into each other, falling, screaming, their rodless eyes blind, their machinery dead, their ears filled with the panic.
And in the chaos and the terror and the blindness, not one soul could glimpse the greatest beauty of creation. The stars.