July 3, 2012
Scientific American: June 25, 2012
Every so often in the summer months I allow myself a bit of leeway with posts, because as fun as it is to write about real science, it’s also a lot of fun to write pure speculation. I particularly like speculation that takes extraordinary possibilities about our place in the universe, and cuts them down to size, makes the remarkable mundane, and looks for problems instead of solutions – because problems are so much more interesting. In that vein I hope that the following speculation is at very least a brief bit of quasi-scientific summer entertainment.
“Technically,” said the man in the white coat, “it’s infinite.”
I peered a little closer. Apart from a very faint hissing sound, like air being let out of a tire, the short grey cylinder in the middle of the room was not doing much. Leaning across the heavily insulated coils of superconducting magnets and the dense rows of high-speed neutralino entanglers, I was just able to catch a glimpse downwards. The inside was dark, in fact it was more than dark, it was utterly and conspicuously devoid of anything. Where I should have seen the bottom of the cylinder was more darkness, although every so often a little sparkling mote seemed to appear and then vanish. I squinted.
“It’s some kind of visual illusion,” said the white coat, “the human visual cortex has to fill in the gap, otherwise it goes haywire.” He gently moved me back.
This was it at last – the brand new Mark III, a tunnel across not just this universe but across all of them, a tube to every kind of nothingness. I’d seen the briefings and read the literature, but it was still surprising to be in a room with the real thing, and to find out just how ordinary it was. The earlier versions had been a little more temperamental. The Mark I had only stayed open for a few days before literally vanishing in a puff of smoke. The Mark II was stable, but used so much power that the Eastern seaboard had gone into a permanent brownout, and so it never got into commercial use. The III, well the III looked like it was going to be the real thing. It was a true miracle of modern science, humanity’s first foray across time(s) and space(s) – into and through the multiverse. Except that it couldn’t really be used for much. No exploration, no testing of fundamental physics, or really anything terribly interesting – apart from one very particular task.
A few feet above the cylinder was my handiwork, the new extruder. Its stubby nozzle pointing straight downwards from the heavy silo floor above us, right down to the nothingness. The thick lead shielding and the chemical and biological containment layers and sealants were in place now, after months of work. In just a few hours the first containers would arrive. Some had come from great distances across the planet, while others had been stockpiled since the Mark II. Outside, the giant cranes and pumping systems would begin the transfer into the silo, and then the colossal presses would begin their work of forcing everything down through this nozzle, pushing out a single skinny rope of evil paste.
Dropping into the abyss it would carry away all of our unwanted, deadly, noxious, seething, festering, and just downright awful stuff. No more nuclear waste problem, no more pollution of the world’s oceans and rivers with chemicals and bacteria, and no more constraints on the most dangerous of industries, because now there was a place to get rid of all the garbage. It would be a cleaner, better, more prosperous Earth. We’d reclaim our wildernesses, wash our hands in crystalline water and bathe in any river. All the nasty side effects of human existence put out of sight and out of mind, but this time gone for good, sluicing off into the fabric of otherness that lies beneath our sliver of reality.
White coat hurried me out, and with one last look I left and went on vacation.
The first signs of trouble came about a year later, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The satellite feeds showed a dead zone, discolored and ominous. When the navy rushed to investigate they had to turn around quickly, hulls rotting and Geiger counters buzzing like angry bees. Eventually a drone made a cautious flyby, close enough to spot the dripping ooze from that dark gap hovering just above the waves, blacker than anything had a right to be.
The world makes a lot of garbage in a year, and by the time we had figured things out and turned off the hole there was some awfully bad stuff churning its way around the multiverse, coming right back to us. A journey of unimaginable distance but, as it turns out, not infinite – technically speaking.
Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University’s multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His book ‘Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos’ will be available Aug. 7th 2012, and he is working on ‘The Copernicus Complex’ (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.