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Tweaking Planck
by Zia Ahmed

With a nervous mouse click, Dr. Jonathan P. Rubb created a universe.

Actually, bubbleverse was the slightly farcical but technically correct term that he had coined for the phenomenon after much deliberation. The bubbleverse boundary, a transparent hemispherical skin exactly four inches in diameter, shimmered eerily under the bright laboratory lights. Dr. Rubb resisted the irrational urge to pop what seemed deceivingly like a flimsy soap structure.

Instead, he typed impatiently at his computer as a rush of telemetry data from the bubbleverse flowed in. An electronic Geiger counter suddenly sprang to life, startling him with an unusually loud click.

Good, good, he muttered, right on schedule. Carelessly, he brushed aside a phantom lock from his forehead: a quaint habit from the distant past when he had actually had a full head of hair.

The Geiger counter was measuring minute amounts of radiation from the iodine-131 that Dr. Rubb had carefully measured and placed under the bubble half an hour earlier. Distorted by a flickering effect from the bubbleverse boundary, the pale violet sample resembled a glob of mutant play-doh. Dr. Rubb glanced anxiously at the iodine and then at his computer’s clock. Five minutes ought to be ample, he reasoned, more than enough to iron out any statistical anomalies.

The computer screen tirelessly plotted a forlorn decay curve, a textbook exponential forever approaching zero but never quite getting there. Pixel by pixel, the familiar graph rendered itself at an ant’s pace: an incredibly slow ant’s pace by Dr. Rubb’s estimate. His impatience was now palpable. The curve appeared to be decaying faster than usual, but were his eyes carrying out an elaborate deception, showing him that which he so dearly wished to see?

The minutes ticked by, a slow eternity for Dr. Rubb. Ever the professional, he resisted the urge to stop the experiment prematurely and calculate the final results, to take a sneak peek at the outcome. Centuries of experimental methodology weighed heavily on his mind. Experimental bias is far more likely to taint results than unfavorable laboratory conditions, an ominous warning from his graduate student days at CERN assailed him.

His agony was soon over. The decay curve rendered until it ran out of room on the display screen. Simultaneously, the computer emitted a friendly beep to alert Dr. Rubb to the fact. With sweaty hands and a silent prayer to the gods of eureka moments, he typed the short MATLAB command that would give him a half-life estimate based on the collected data.

4.89, came the answer in an instant.

4.89.

Like most events in Dr. Rubb’s sober life, the eureka moment was short on exuberance and long on immediate – and quite secondary – concerns.

He cast a careful look at another number jotted down on a yellow stickie on the monitor. Not that he needed to; this particular number had been etched into his memory for weeks.

8.04. The half-life of iodine-131.

8.04 days. The amount of time it took for a sample of iodine-131 to decay down to half its mass.

8.04 days. How long it took for half the atoms in a sample of iodine-131 to spontaneously turn to high-energy beta particles. Except that in the bubbleverse, it only took 4.89 days.

The answer hit him like a physical blow. It was one thing to predict experimental outcomes on paper and crunch numbers through elaborate mathematical models, quite another to actually witness something revolutionary. Oddly enough, a part of Dr. Rubb’s naturally conservative Machian mind had been unwilling to accept the grand repercussions of his work. Full realization of the magnitude of his accomplishment dawned slowly. For a few brief moments, he basked unabashedly in its glory.

He had done it! Months of effort and isolation had finally paid off. What others had merely offered tantalizing hints to, he had achieved in practice. Too bad he was a little too old for the Field’s medal. Oh well – there would be plenty of other consolations. Dr. Rubb grinned triumphantly.

He had created a Universe. Not only that, he had explicitly manipulated the physical laws in his handiwork to be different from those of everyday experience. Never mind that his universe was four inches wide and rested tenaciously on a laboratory desktop. It was an entire cosmos in its own right, forever separated from the ordinary universe by a quantum barrier that no matter could penetrate. What could arguably be called a cordoned-off region of ordinary space had been granted a far greater stature – the very laws of nature were different within that flimsy-looking barrier.

Well, at least one law was. Dr. Rubb had strengthened the weak nuclear force in the bubbleverse, for no other reason than that the effect of the change would be easy to validate from outside the bubbleverse horizon. A stronger weak nuclear force, paradoxical though the term seemed, implied that matter was more susceptible to radioactive decay. The sample of iodine-131 within the bubbleverse had decayed at almost twice its standard rate.

The potential in such manipulation of physical laws was truly mind-boggling. Displeased with a physical constant of the universe? The speed of light getting to you? Planck’s constant – the measure of graininess in reality – not to your liking? Would you like to experience quantum effects on the macro scale? Or is gravity holding you back? Relax, because now you can construct your own private universe, with all physical laws tuned to your liking. Of course, the energy requirements of such an enterprise on a large scale would be prohibitive but since when has that impeded humanity’s progress?

One day perhaps, vessels would travel at boundless speeds, unencumbered by relativistic principles. Ships enclosed in bubbleverses, where the speed of light was arbitrarily large, would foray the vastness of space, violating natural law with impunity. Travel to earth orbit and beyond would become ridiculously cheap. What need would there be for expensive fuel if gravity itself were suitably weakened? Or even reversed? Cold fusion – the Holy Grail of energy physics – would be child’s play once the strong nuclear force was adjusted. Imagine: all of the world’s energy needs delivered from a glassful of seawater. Computing machines with a tweaked Planck’s constant would harness quantum effects in the real world, turning every PC into a supercomputer. All these wonders and more would be within humanity’s grasp. After all, what meaning do laws and physical constants have if they can be stretched or broken at will?

Was he God now, creator and sustainer of a miniscule universe? Given eons, would his hemispherical cosmos develop life one day, life that would struggle with the usual philosophical questions of existence? Like, why is the weak nuclear force the strength that it is? Why not stronger or weaker? Because he, Dr. Rubb, part-time God, had ordained it so! Was the “real” universe any different? Were physical laws merely the whim of an omniscient, fickle creator? Was there a meta-Rubb out there somewhere, forever unapproachable, with the universe resting comfortably on his palm?

Dr. Rubb shrugged off this disquieting idea with an uncomfortably forced chuckle. Free association had led his thoughts into a curious mélange of the profound and the inane. Suddenly, he was overcome with a sense of extreme exhaustion. Coffee and adrenaline had sustained him for the past thirty-six hours and now, with the fruit of his labor resting quietly on the laboratory desktop, he was about ready to collapse.

He looked at his watch. 1.30 AM. The campus would be deserted at this time of night. Congratulations and accolades would have to wait until morning. Not many at the Institute would appreciate being woken up at this hour, not even to be told about arguably the most profound physical discovery of the century.

Suppressing a yawn, Dr. Rubb sleepily grabbed his keys and headed for the elevators. He paused thoughtfully by the door and debated whether or not to leave the experiment running. No harm in it, he decided. The bubbleverse was completely benign. In any case, what better way would there be to celebrate success than to display the original token of his triumph?

***

His dilapidated Corolla was the only car in the parking lot. It was a chilly night but the car started up on the first try. Struggling to keep his eyes open, Dr. Rubb eased his way out of the parking lot and onto the deserted campus streets. For someone who had just attained the pinnacle of professional – even human – achievement, his thoughts were curiously subdued: mostly related to a soft bed and a warm goose-down comforter.

One block from home, he was greeted by beer-induced cheering and mufflerless engine revving. The brothers of Phi Beta Nu were celebrating Friday night with traditional zeal. Damn frat boys, he snarled, and continued his drive down the narrow residential street.

Without any warning, a large pickup truck, headlights blaring like twin suns, appeared out of nowhere. It veered wildly out of the opposite lane and headed straight towards him. The last iota of adrenaline in Dr. Rubb’s bloodstream responded a precious half-second before his conscious mind could even register the danger. He slammed on the brakes and turned the steering wheel a full ninety degrees away from approaching catastrophe.

The truck disappeared from the windshield, only to be replaced with the fast-approaching front wall of what appeared to be a nice four-room colonial. Screeching tires, anti-lock brakes and burning rubber were of no use. Dr. Rubb’s no-longer sleep-addled mind knew that impact was imminent. His last thought before he crashed into the wall was entirely predictable regret.
The impact never came. Instead, the car came to a jerky but complete stop. Dr. Rubb blinked his eyes. He was unhurt, and looking upon what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary suburban living room.

Perfectly ordinary except for a disheveled scientist in a rundown Corolla, and a slightly displaced couch which the car had bumped into. Dr. Rubb looked upon an elegant mahogany entertainment center and a 32” TV screen in utter disbelief. He turned around and saw a wall through the car’s rear windshield – a plain wall, which the car had ostensibly driven through, with two large windows and cheap, flowery drapes. Solid, undamaged, utterly unaffected by the collision. Light from a bright street lamp was trickling in and the room was illuminated with a pale ghostly glow.

Even in this disconcertingly surreal scene, Dr. Rubb’s trained rational mind was assailed by two possibilities:

One, he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and none of this was really happening.

Or two, he had just tunneled – no, teleported – through the front wall of a bricks-and-mortar house, like a trapped, panicky electron, the winner of a quantum weirdness lottery.

Somehow, someone had briefly tweaked Planck’s constant in this universe.


Zia Ahmed lives in the Boston area.

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