As Small as it Gets
Copyright © 2001, David A. Epstein.
All Rights Reserved.
“It worked. It actually worked.” I had logged onto a web site: httpq://www5.atom1303.org/cgi-subatomic9058/superstring:133596. We had spent the last five years designing and testing our quantum web. While we made several data connections to subatomic sites, this was our first connection to a superstring.
I was a physicist working in a research lab for QMicroNet. This Silicon Valley company was a pioneer in quantum networking. They created scalable networks to relay information between particles.
“What is all the excitement about, Natalie?” asked Stanley. Dr. Stanley L. Goldberg was the chief architect of the web. While I did not directly report to him, he relied upon my expertise in superstring theory.
“Great news. We’ve received a response back from the string. It’s a closed string and exists in ten dimensions. We’ve picked up its vibrations and verified that they’re determining the characteristics of emerging particles and forces.”
“Make sure that the results are captured in the log file.” His nonchalant response made me cringe. A significant breakthrough had just been made and all he could think about was saving the results. He would not rejoice in the moment. It’s like being at the Grand Canyon, taking a picture, and then convincing yourself that you will best enjoy the experience by viewing the photo in the comfort of your own home.
“No need to mention that,” I replied. “It’s automatically being entered into the database.”
“Well, double check it anyway.” He did not even acknowledge my success, and then he had the audacity to doubt me.
The setup in the lab was relatively simple. The web existed within a color print resting atop a table; it was Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”. A laser device mounted on the table continually scanned the print for updated quantum information. This information was sent to a server computer for processing.
We found a way to communicate with superstrings that did not require high levels of energy or any signal propagation. This method was known as topological connectivity. It involved the creation of manifolds and how data can freely flow through these spaces. The uncertainties encountered in quantum mechanics were bypassed. We induced these spaces to adopt self-organizing principles so that they could pave their own pathways to our desired destinations. Even Stanley was excited by these developments.
For the next six months, I continued making connections. The initial excitement had waned, but I still had plenty of enthusiasm. Many of my colleagues spent their time enhancing web sites and performing other menial tasks. A couple of physicists were conducting experimental research. Nobody knew what they were doing, or so I thought.
One day, while I was logging results, I had wondered where everyone had gone. They were at work in the morning; but only Stanley was around at this time. “Have you seen any of the other folks?” I asked.
“No.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Maybe they all went out to lunch.”
I resumed my work at a network computer that was connected to the server and ran an imaging software program designed to view quantum information flow. Then, something strange happened. A vivid picture of a closed eye appeared on the screen.
The eye was framed by a mandala. As the eye opened, revealing a dim redness around the pupil, I became fixated. My thoughts became fuzzy when the mandala started pulsating and spinning. More images rapidly flashed on the screen, accompanied by sparkly, celestial sounds. It was a montage of phantasmagoric images: historical people and events, art work, numbers and equations. I remember seeing glimpses of Gandhi, Einstein, Cleopatra, an atom, Buddha, “Starry Night”, E = mc^2, the moon and Mother Teresa. My mind melted into the environmental stimuli.
“What’s happening to me?” This was the most vivid thought to enter my mind. I am not the type of person who becomes nervous about uncommon sensations. If I was anxious on this occasion, there must have been a good reason for it.
Although I do not recall everything that occurred, I remember having a strange feeling of my consciousness being pulled in front of my body. As I zoomed ahead, I could not move my arms and legs. I desperately tried to turn away, but I was immobilized. My screams of despair were not heard. I had an intense fear of crashing and flashes of different tragic endings rushed through my mind.
A strange object now surrounded my head and some contraption covered my eyes. It seemed like a dense exterior was growing over my skin. This gave me the idea I was being mummified. It was a frightening experience of being buried alive while in perpetual motion.
While I tried to avoid oncoming objects that appeared to be getting larger, I wondered whether I was traveling faster or becoming smaller. Lights were rapidly flashing by me. Some blurry images of melting clocks appeared in front of my eyes. At the same time, I was being whisked above unfamiliar landscapes showing all types of textures, colors and shapes that I had never seen before.
Finally, the chilling journey came to a jilting halt. I slid out of a space that had no more room for me. As confused and scared as I was during the journey, I wanted to embrace that experience and sanctify it. I felt like I was reborn.
I clearly was floating in space. How I came here, why I was here, who was behind all of this, and what this strange suit I was wearing was were secondary concerns swept to the back of my mind. This was my moment. There was no fear, anxiety, or apprehension to distract me. The glory of drifting in space, the awe it instilled in me, made me feel like I had truely tasted freedom for the first time.
“Pan to Natalie. Welcome to Microspace. It’s quite spectacular, isn’t it?”
I was startled. A male voice sounded in my ear, but I had no idea who was speaking. For a moment, I thought that I might be hallucinating, but when I heard the voice again, I realized that my moment of having this place to myself was shattered. I looked around to see who was there. Behind me was a figure with horns and funny ears. I quickly glanced away and wanted to run away. The only problem was that there was nothing to run on.
“Glad to see you made it. Hope you enjoyed your trip.” At this point, it occurred to me that I was wearing an ear piece.
“What do you want from me? Who are you?” I asked. I looked at the figure and saw that he was wearing a fleshy, protective suit.
“Don’t you recognize me? I am Pan, the Greek fertility god and I am here to …”
“Pan? What? Some type of weird dream.” Upon closer viewing, it looked like he was wearing a mask.
“Ah, come on Natalie,” he replied in a softer tone. “You know I don’t appear in your dreams,” he said as he returned to his natural speaking voice.
“Ravi? Is that really you?” Ravi was a whiz scientific programmer from India.
“Who do you think I am, Gandhi?”
I had a flashback to staring at the screen. “Why did you saying that?” I asked.
“Ah, snap out of it Natalie. Come on, I will take you to the party.”
“Party? What are you talking about?”
“Just hang on while we jet over there.”
“Where are we going?”
“We are heading over to the floating port. I will put us on autojet and go at a reasonable speed so you can enjoy the scenery. Just keep looking through your optical viewer.”
Now I realized what was covering my eyes. “OK, but how do I adjust it?”
“It auto-adjusts. You will see all sorts of neat things. Strings, manifolds, maybe even a ghost or two.” He reached into his suit and pressed some buttons. I could not get a complete view of the device.
“Strings? Ghosts?” I was baffled by this, yet no more so than the realization that I was floating in a spacesuit.
What occurred next was quite intriguing. This clear bubble was forming around us. Once formed, it had a diameter roughly twice the size of my height. There were a few control panels in the front. Ravi mentioned that it was a temporary quantum biosphere for transport. He explained that it was really an energy field formed by creating disturbances in the current space. We started to accelerate into this place he called Microspace.
For what appeared to be the next few minutes, our vehicle manoevered through some interesting topologies. We cruised over a stunning landscape that featured all types of curves and projective spaces. The surface was riddled by holes bubbling with a vapor-like substance along their rims. Arch-shaped structures protruded from the surface; it was breathtaking as we passed through one of them. The colors were simply incredible. Suffice it to say that other than the blues, greens and reds, there were unfamiliar colors for my viewing pleasure.
I also saw spinning spheres on the surface. Now that Ravi explained where we were, I figured that we were hovering over what quantum physicists called a spinor field. This and the general viewing of the surface led me to conclude that we were traveling along a manifold. A beautiful mathematical construct had revealed its inner works with intricate detail.
“Why does it appear to be in 3D? I thought we’re in ten-dimensional space,” I commented.
“We are in ten dimensions. Your optical viewer transforms it into three dimensions. Your senses would be overwhelmed without it.”
For an instant, I felt like removing the viewer from my eyes. I wanted to see what abstract mathematics and physics really appeared. I could hardly visualize in my mind what a manifold looked like, and now was my chance to really grasp what it was all about. It was only a sliver of common sense and my trust in Ravi that prevented me from doing something so foolish.
“Check those out over there.” Ravi pointed to some long, vibrating closed loops. Some were merging together to form larger loops, others were splitting into smaller loops. He started mentioning something about supersymmetry, but I did not even need to hear this. I intuitively knew that I had seen my first superstring.
Their vibrations rocked our everclear cruiser. I fell backwards; he fell to his knees. Yet I was overwhelmed with a joy like I felt when I nursed my son for the first time. Thinking about Nathan, now a precocious five-year old who absorbs everything in sight, made me wonder how long I would be away from my family. I was beginning to miss them.
As we passed by the strings, I looked back and realized that this was going to became a reminiscence. I wanted to behold it. This memory was not going to wither away.
“You see that long pad over there? Notice the small dots moving on it?” asked Ravi.
“Yes, I see it.”
“That’s the floating port. We are going to land in a minute or two.”
Approaching the port was uneventful for me, probably because the preceding events were so powerful in comparison. The port was flat and hovering in space. There were a few small buildings located on its surface. When we were close enough to notice some of its features in closer detail, a small patch of a surrounding clear dome opened. We cruised through the opening and landed on the port. I was curious about what was keeping us on the ground. Perhaps it was a new gravity coupled to the surrounding superstrings.
By scale, I thought that the port was roughly the size of a football field. Its surface was covered by a burgundy substance. When our quantum biosphere collapsed, my first action was to reach down and feel the surface. It was some type of synthetic material; it felt similar to a shag rug. My immediate impression was disbelief. I was amazed at how something like this could be designed, and at the same time, what a lousy job they did with the landscape architecture.
We walked over to a group of people who were standing in a courtyard near a small building. They were dressed in costumes: Cleopatra, Frankenstein, a witch, and a ghost. I did not recognize the other person.
“Great, our honored guest has arrived. Welcome to the pad, Natalie. Come join the celebration,” said the Frankenstein character. I recognized his voice. It was Mark, one of the chief physicists working on the secret project.
“Right. Thanks. I see that you’ve been busy without me.”
“We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“I guess not, but I had no idea that my research was being used like this.”
“We had to keep it quiet, you see,” said Cleopatra in a male voice. I jumped slightly.
“Charlie, why are you dressed as Cleopatra?”
“Why, she was so beautiful, of course. What a great chance to be a cross-dresser and look so elegant.”
“Very funny, Charles.” Charlie was a specialist in artificial intelligence. He designed several expert systems for us.
“So Natalie, what the heck are you supposed to be?” I knew it was Sheila, but had no idea who she was supposed to be. She was dressed in a long black dress, wore a stunning gold headpiece, and had ten lengthy arms. Mark chuckled after she made the comment.
“How should I know? Who are you dressed up as?” I asked.
“That is Durga,” interjected Ravi. “She is the great Hindu mother goddess.”
“Sheila? A mother goddess? That’s rich. So tell me, what’s going on anyway?”
Mark put his arm around my shoulder. “It’s a company celebration. We’re celebrating the release of our new product StringZip, our pioneering technology to explore Microspace. And what better way to launch the product than to launch into Microspace and have an office party? And since it’s less than a week before Halloween, ...”
“StringZip? When was it developed? Was it tested out?”
“We developed it during the last year. It was the result of our classified research. We injected nanoports into organic molecular substances and performed trial launches of voluntary subjects. There were some problems; we almost lost Charlie. Fortunately, we were able to make some adjustments. Next, there were some trips to a proton. Once you made the data connection to a superstring, we knew we could take the final step.”
Charlie popped open a bottle of champagne. He poured it into some glasses standing on a nearby table. I glanced over to where some other costumites were intermingling. A banner with the words “Congrads to QMicroNet. Fall Launch of StringZip” was placed above an entrance to the building. Charlie passed out the full sparkling glasses and gave a toast.
After Mark and I clinked glasses, he continued with his explanation. He mentioned that the razzle-dazzle on the computer screen was intended to keep the viewer distracted. The real action was performed by the laser device. A hidden aperture in the device opened and emitted low-frequency lasers towards the screen viewer. It induced subtle changes in the viewer’s psychology and physiology.
“Why did you do this?” I asked.
“We wanted to surprise you and a few others. After all, it was your research that helped get us here. Some of us came here and set things up. Let me explain...”
“Explain what?” I interrupted. “Seems to me that what you did was highly unethical and probably unlawful. What if I decide to sue the company for performing experiments on me without my consent?”
“Natalie, calm down. We didn’t perform any experiments on you. Charlie, Stanley, and the other researchers successfully performed countless tests before we did this.”
“But you said that you almost lost Charlie.”
“There are risks involved with this, but they’re small. Listen, we have succeeded in our endeavors. Your stories about unknowingly traveling to Microspace will be priceless. Please, don’t look upon this as a violation of your rights. Look at this as a revelation.”
“I’m just upset that nobody told me. You know that I’m excited by this.”
“I know. So anyway, we hired a group of research consultants. They discovered a method to induce topological connectivity using humans. This meant that with the proper neurological stimulation, we could put the viewer in a trance and translate this altered state into a corresponding human topological roadway. You know about quantum roadways, but the novelty here is that we found a way to connect human roadways to the quantum ones. The human subject becomes part of the web.
“After inducing the trance, the lasers do two things. First, they deposit encoded information from the quantum web into the viewer. This includes a travel route and destination. Second, they place the viewer onto the human roadway, and she gets sent into the web. As she travels, the roadway contracts and she becomes smaller. We do this without compressing her atoms.”
“This is far out. And what about the spacesuit?”
“What about it,” said Charlie. He dropped in on our conversation.
“How did I end up wearing it?”
Charlie continued with the explanation. “You see, when you were traveling along the manifolds to Microspace, ...”
“I explained it in terms of a topological roadway,” interrupted Mark.
“OK, same idea. Anyway, the suit was created while you were traveling. You were traveling in a field which insulated you from environmental effects, but you still needed a protective suit to store oxygen, water, food, and regulate temperature. There’s also an auto-sanitation system. All of this was created using real-time interactive nanotechnology.”
“That’s where the topo-adaptor enters the picture,” said Mark. “Sheila made key contributions in this area. The adaptor is a complex software program that we put out on the quantum web to interface with the subject’s profile. Charlie’s expert systems handle these interactions.”
“OK, I get the picture,” I remarked. I had many other questions about the experience; but I was too burned out to listen to more explanations.
I walked by another group of people and into the building. There was a band playing. Because there was no oxygen, I was not sure how sound was being created. I surmised that it was done with some type of signal processing. Several people were dancing.
In another room a man was painting an abstract picture. He was dressed up as Salvador Dali. The picture contained all types of soft watches, but it was quite different from “The Persistence of Memory”. This one contained networked computers with clocks hanging over them, and also, a couple of penguins.
“What do you call it?” I asked him.
He was quiet for a few seconds. I asked him again. “The Loss of Memory,” he replied. I did not recognize his voice.
“Hmm. Are you inferring that computers make us forget who we are?”
“Did you ever know who you were?”
“How can you ask such a question? You don’t know me. Who do you think you are?”
“The only difference between me and you is that I am you.” This was evidently a feeble attempt at a Zen koan. I walked away with a touch of righteous indignation, but as it sunk in, I saw the humor in it. This guy was a bit of a showman. As I was walking back to speak with Mark, I felt a tremor beneath my feet.
A few strings could be seen merging and splitting above. One string appeared to be twisted and stretched out of shape. I saw it rip into several pieces. I spoke to Mark. “The strings look so much bigger than us, but if a string is the smallest known entity in the universe ...”
“I know what you’re getting at,” he replied. “Don’t worry, it’s an optical effect. Your viewer is compressing a lot of ten-dimensional data into three dimensions. The strings appear larger than they actually look.”
“And how can we withstand the intense energy that the strings emit.”
“Our little community is running off that energy, but remember that we’re insulated from its effects as long as we’re in this protective field.” I was not satisfied with that explanation. As I was about to ask him a followup question, I felt another tremor beneath my feet. This one was strong enough to knock the table with the champagne glasses over.
Mark and Charlie looked at each other. A larger tremor rippled across the port. Charlie let out a scream. Ravi and I dived to the ground. I looked up and saw that the strings were moving in opposite directions. They were being parted by a growing fissure.
As more tremors occurred, I thought about a phenomenon called compactification that occurs in superstring theory. When this happens, the ten-dimensional world splits into four and six-dimensional worlds. The 4D world is our normal world, three dimensions of space plus one dimension of time, but the 6D world is curled up such that each dimension is the size of a superstring. That is an incredibly small size. The behavior of the strings is compactified into the 6D world, but the spatial properties are altered. We say that this curled-up ball is a compactified space.
I yelled to Mark. “Maybe the space is being compactified.”
“I thought that occurred during the Big Bang. This space was supposed to be stable; that was one of our great discoveries. Why is this happening?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe we disturbed the quantum eco-balance. In any case, it appears that our space is ripping into two.” A large quake occurred. Mark fell to the ground. I tried to help him, but I was having problems myself. In the panic that ensued, he inadvertantly knocked his optical viewer off his face. Judging from his reaction, he evidentally was flooded with the stimuli of a splitting 10D space. He shielded my eyes from the chaos that must have been bombarding his retinas. At the same time, I heard someone singing, “Dali will never go away again.”
“Help me. Help. What’s happening?” cried out Ravi.
I extended my right hand to help him. He tried grabbing on to it. The quake intensified. As I came close to grasping his hand, he whirled away into the eddie of the curling space. I, on the other hand, moved outward in the opposite direction. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be hit by a hurricane. I do not recall what happened to the others and I certainly do not remember how I returned.
The next thing I recall is being beached on some strange landscape. Rocks jutted up near a body of water. There was a platform that supported a dead tree, a stopwatch covered with insects, and a melted clock. Suspended on a dead tree was another melted clock; it was ticking irregularly. I felt like a nondescript entity fighting against my mortality, but time, nevertheless, gave me a face. I could not escape its wrath.
My consciousness completely returned to my body. I now realized that I was sitting at the computer screen. The imaging software programming was simulating particle movements. I looked over at Dali’s picture. As I gazed at the nondescript entity, I had a hunch about what I was dressed as during my stay in Microspace.
In a curled-up manifold far far away, I had no doubt that Ravi was trying to make sense of his new 6D world. He was the inquisitive type, always striving to unveil the hidden mysteries behind shifty-eyed surfaces. I knew that he would excel in his little ball while he waited for his world to unfold.
Written by David Epstein, 3/31/98