Chapter 6: Sarah at university, musings on information exchange, the Dean and stroll in the garden
The University’s research establishment was impressive. It stood in its own grounds a few miles outside Cambridge. We approached it along a lime tree lined avenue, with formal gardens to the right and open fields to the left. The avenue curved to the right and opened into a large area in front of the Georgian mansion. The taxi dropped us off at the front steps which led up to an impressive Corinthian pillared doorway. At the top of the steps, holding the double doors open was Dr Andrew Jones.
“Stunning isn’t it – most people are taken back by it. Unless you’re Roman Abranovic, in which case you use it as a training ground. If you would come this way, Professor Chambers and Anita are waiting for you in the reception area.”
“Good to see you all again, Peter, Fritz and, of course, Sarah. You know Anita, of course.” Professor Chambers was looking extremely pleased with himself.
“We’ve arranged what I believe will be a most interesting day for you. First a short presentation – nothing too demanding. Followed by a tour of our facility, I’m afraid that, as yet, our “super computer” is not delivering results, but what you will hear and see is extremely exciting and opens up a huge area of research and, I confidently predict, stunning practical uses.”
“We’ve arranged lunch with the faculty Dean – he’s keen to meet you. You’ll have a couple of hours to yourself to catch up on work or walk around the grounds. And finally, I hope you can stay for our small Christmas Party. It starts quite early – we academic types are like that, no late drinking or rowdiness. And then a cab back to the station in time for the train to Liverpool Street. How does that sound?”
He didn’t wait for a reply but continued. “We’ve a lot to get in today so please follow me.”
With that the Professor turned smartly on his heels. Peter grabbed me by the sleeve and took me to one side.
“Sarah, I thought you’d arranged the details of the visit with John’s secretary?”
“Peter, I had, I’m as surprised as you. There was no mention of a Christmas party or lunch with the Dean.”
“Oh well, I suppose Christmas parties come with the territory.”
The Professor peeled off Peter as he led us through the institute’s many corridors. Fritz and Andrew were deep in conversation and I teamed up with Anita. She was dressed in a neat business trouser suit, her hair cut in a bob and her make- up perfect. More like a business consultant than a mathematician.
“This is your first visit to a research institution?” she asked.
“Yes, I haven’t been with the Council for that long – a couple of months – and to be honest I didn’t expect to be invited along with Peter and Fritz.”
“You’ve managed to be here at an extremely interesting time. John displays the appropriate professorial “sang-froid”, but beneath that cool exterior he’s a ball of anticipation and panic. We all are.”
“Here we are - the conference room.”
With that we walked into a business like room with a large rectangular table in the middle of which was placed a projector.
“Right, please make yourselves comfortable, and help yourselves to refreshments.”
Professor Chambers poured himself a cup of coffee and bit into a digestive biscuit. He then went to a large white board which was positioned at the front of the room.
“Andrew is going to lead on this presentation; I’ll sit in the audience dunking my biscuit in my coffee. If you have any questions, could you leave them to the end, please? We have a lot to get through. OK, I’ll hand you over to Andrew.”
Anita lowered the blinds shutting out the late December sun, and a small side light held back complete darkness.
“Since we last met, there have been a number of major developments. Some expected, some not. What you’re about to see is a series of self explanatory slides and I’ll add the necessary commentary.”
As Andrew spoke he hit the “enter” key of the laptop in front of him and a group of green men with antennae was projected onto the white board.
”You’ll recall that at our last meeting we described the huge levels of energy generated by our ”Boltzqubit”, and how this energy was taken away by quanta which appeared to punch their way out of our space into another space. These quanta carried away the discarded calculations of our quantum computer.
"That was the first quandary – why was the energy being taken away structured?"
"There wasn’t any need for that. Reluctantly, we’d concluded that the information was organised so that it could be manipulated - somehow, somewhere. Hence the little green men.”
The next slide flashed up on the white board, a picture of ten lane motor way, choked with traffic.
“This illustrates what, so far, is the most surprising discovery to date. The information traffic is two way, but while the information flowing from the “Boltzqubit”, is we think, localised, the information coming back is diffused. As far as we can work out it seeps into every fibre of our universe. But it is structured, ordered coherent information.”
It wasn’t just me that felt a chill of fear as Andrew was talking - this seemed to be not simply other worldly – it was seriously creepy. I caught the look on Peter’s and Fritz’s faces – they were as spooked as I was.
Andrew had moved onto the next slide. It showed two almost identical photographs of a film star, with a caption line “Spot the differences”.
“This slide illustrates what we believe is happening. This interchange of information is changing the structure of our, and no doubt other, universes. The changes are minute; they go unnoticed unless, possibly, you happen to be where a discrete change takes place. But even then the changes are very small.”
“What does all this mean? This is the last slide – Roy Lichenstein’s “Explosion”.”
A large blown up comic book depiction of a bomb going off was flashed onto the white board.
“We don’t know. However, that hasn’t stopped us from coming up with a speculation.”
I wondered what Peter thought of this speculation. As far as I knew this project was costing the agency a few pounds. I thought some results might be in order.
At this point Anita took over. Honestly she could have been presenting a new management structure to the board of a blue chip company. She was management consultancy personified. I couldn’t get used to it. But then, Adrian knew many who worked in the financial world with PhDs in mathematics, topped off with an MBA.
My musings on the career paths of scientists was cut short by Anita asking a question.
“How do the small changes that take place in our universe have an effect?”
Luckily she wasn’t expecting me to answer personally.
“What we speculate is that this informational energy is able to be accreted. In the same way stars, galaxy, planets are formed from diffuse gases under the influence of gravity. What would this be like? We can imagine this accretion informing structures in space-time, which over time can have significant impact on the nature of both local and distant physical states.”
“We’ve tried to quantify this rate of accretion and the time taken for these accretions and their effects to be observable.”
“You’ll recall that we’d said that the energy flow generated by the “Boltzqubit” was sufficient to fuel galaxies. That sounds a massive amount of energy – and it is."
"We’ve assumed that the energy percolating back into our universe is at the same level, and if it were distributed evenly, which may or may not be the case, then one byte of coherent information would seep into our universe per cubic parsec per century. And on that basis we estimate that significant changes could be observed over a millennium."
"What the changes might be we can’t hazard a guess– although Andrew has suggested that one effect might be at the micro - electronic level. You are sitting at your laptop typing an e-mail. You find that what appears in the e-mail is different to what you’ve typed.”
I couldn’t help thinking Microsoft had got there first.
At this point Anita switched off the laptop. “Any questions?”
There was a long silence. Peter was the first to surface.
“One question, Anita, has this effect been happening all the time or is it a direct result of the “Boltzqubit”? From what you’ve said the latter appears to be the case, but that seems to be most unlikely. Why should we be part of a unique event which influences the whole of the universe and more?”
“That’s the first question we asked ourselves. Peter. The only way what we’ve told you makes any sense is if what we’ve witnessed is not unique. We’ve discovered a specific form of a more general energy source. However, we can’t find any evidence of similar energy flows. If they do exist, they’re keeping very quiet and that’s unlikely.”
“So how do we square the circle? We believe the “Boltzqubit” is unique. It is unique because it has been deliberately created by us. That’s amazing isn’t it? We have the power to change this and other universes.”
I was sure I had loads of questions to ask, I just couldn’t think of them at the moment.
“Professor, what shape do you envisage an information accretion to be?”
Professor Clements took some time to answer, and as he spoke his hands kept forming the shape of different sized balls.
“Fritz, again this is speculation – it depends on the laws that govern informational behaviour. However, I think it is helpful to imagine it as a ball, possibly with filaments of incoherent information being dragged around as the ball rotates. We think there will be some incoherency in any system – not all the information quanta will remain unaffected by the exchange.”
“We also speculate that informational energy will be created. It’s a measure of coherence of the system’s information.”
“We don’t think the structure – the ball - would be static. Information would flow within the structure, self organising. This would happen continuously as information and informational structures are added. So if you could look down on the ball; from, say one of its filaments you’d see a ball churning away, as information fell into it and was organised. How this physically affects the universe and structures in it is anyone’s guess. Andrew’s dodgy e-mail is as good an example as any other.”
“We seem to have moved a long way from quantum computation, John.”
“Peter, I agree. What we have stumbled upon is certainly of major significance. We’re beginning to glimpse a new way of seeing the structure of information. In time, I believe, we will have is a way of manipulating information which will be more powerful than even the most powerful quantum computer. It will take huge effort and endeavour but I think it is possible.”
And with that Professor Chambers closed the presentation.
“OK, now the demonstration. If you wish, we can carry on this discussion over lunch. If you will please follow Andrew?”
Frankly, I didn’t get much out of the visit to the “super computer”. I think it’s because I just don’t have the imagination to be able to translate all the ideas that were discussed earlier on into a piece of metal. Because that is what it turned out to be.
The “super computer” was housed in what I can only describe as an enormous deep freezer. This was because for it to work at all it had be kept at temperatures as close to absolute zero as possible. I understood that the computer itself was no larger than a medium sized car and that was only because it was so inefficient. Andrew kept saying that once the technical issues were ironed out the size could shrink a hundred fold and the power would be massively improved.
It sounded very impressive. But all I could see was loads of instrumentation, pipes and a computer screen. The real excitement came, I’m told, when one of the banks of instrument panels flashed red simultaneously.
“That’s the start of the energy and information blow out,” Andrew informed us. “You can see that even at this very early stage the levels are huge; within no time they become immeasurable.”
And that was it. Not very exciting I thought but the others were very impressed and kept chattering away as we walked from the research block to the Dean’s residence.
That was much more interesting. It wasn’t attached to the main premises, but after we walked round the side of the mansion, we came to a large ancient wall into which was punched an ornate iron gate. We entered a walled garden – it had at one time been the kitchen garden for the large house and the Dean’s residence was the cottage of the head gardener.
I couldn’t imagine anything more romantic. It stood in the centre of the kitchen garden, a worn redbrick pathway leading to the front door which was crowned by a climbing rose. Even at this time of year it was offering up a few deep red flowers; it must have been stunning in full bloom.
A middle aged, spare man, with a distinguished head of white hair, was standing in the open doorway to the cottage.
The Dean was a formidable catch for the college who, after a distinguished career making discoveries and money in equal measure, had decided to settle down in academia – and gifting much of his considerable fortune to the college.
“Ah, John, I see you’ve brought our guests along. Do, do come in, I’m Dean Alan – that is my Christian name is Alan.”
We all remarked on how beautiful the cottage was.
“Yes, stunning isn’t it, and to think it was only for the head gardener. The only draw back – if it can be called that – is when I leave the job, I leave the cottage. No doubt the head gardener suffered the same fate that I will. No, come on in.”
The cottage wasn’t large, the front door opened directly into the drawing room and behind that was the dining room and behind that a small kitchen.
“Now what can I get you to drink.” the Dean asked when we were seated comfortably in the drawing room. He served the refreshments from a small drinks table and sat in a small chair by the front door.
“One draw back is it’s not very good for large groups. I bought this old chair with me when I arrived, ideal don’t you think. Tucks away nicely. Lunch will be arriving shortly.”
We must have looked confused because he went on explain that his meals were cooked in the main kitchen and brought to the cottage.
“Very civilised and convenient don’t you agree?”
The meal, which was taken in the dining room, was extremely pleasant, nothing over elaborate or fussy; good plain cooking. The wine that accompanied it was top notch. By the end of the meal I was feeling rather heavy eyed. We moved back into the drawing room for coffee.
“Seen John’s little treasure have you?” The Dean was extremely animated as he spoke.
“We’re all extremely excited by the progress he and his team have made. But as you will have heard we are perplexed by, how shall I put it, its singular behaviour. I don’t have to tell you that that discovery significantly increased the costs of the research – we have had to curtail other areas of work to enable John’s work to continue at full speed. We are, of course, aware of how much you people are behind John’s work and are determined that it should not be under funded.”
Peter stiffened, “Dean, John has appraised me of the cost over-runs and we will want to do all we can to limit the impact on the work.”
And then he relaxed, much to my relief, I was in a very mellow mood after such a lovely meal and hadn’t the energy to be unamused.
“Even though you’re some way off from delivering any practical application –the discovery of the energy “sink” is fascinating. It raises a whole universe of questions.” Saying that Peter sunk his teeth into a chocolate brownie,
The Professor smiled replying. “It’s ironic that so far the only information extracted from the system has been whisked away to other universes; but we’re confident that given a fair wind we should have demonstrable results within a year or so. What we have stumbled upon is of huge significance. We don’t understand it; we can’t really explain it and we couldn’t have imagined it. But it is happening: at the quantum level energies are being created that can fuel stars. And for what purpose?”
At that point little green men marched across the room. I tightly closed my eyes and they were gone. The wine and/or the excitement were headier than I had given credit for.
I was aware that the Dean was looking at me.
“Are you all right my dear? I’m afraid this room does get rather stuffy with more than a few people in it. Would you like to clear your head? The garden is not at its best this time of year but I can recommend a quick stroll.”
I didn’t need asking twice.
“Thank you, I think I will. I’m sure the others can theorise away without me.”
“I’ll join you if that’s alright.” The Dean had already opened the door and we left the others to their speculation.
We walked a little way down the path and the Dean pulled out a packet of cigarettes and an elaborate lighter.
“Do you smoke?”
“You know, my dear, despite myself I always feel guilty when I light up. Silly isn’t it?
Why shouldn’t I enjoy this small pleasure?”
The winter’s sun gave very little warmth and our breath steamed with condensation. The lighter flared and the Dean drew in a deep breath, setting the tip of his cigarette aglow. Smoke from the cigarette escaped out of his mouth and nostrils and lazily rose to mix with cold afternoon air and our condensing breath.
I smiled. “Oh, I think no one begrudges you an occasional puff – as long as it’s nothing stronger.”
“It is occasional and legal. But even so, some of the academics here would have me stop smoking the filthy weed. I ask you and at a University known for its tolerance and forbearance.”
“It really is lovely here, Dean.”
“Smoke and Intolerance notwithstanding?”
Chapter 7: Someone, Somewhere is making changes to Dead World and Sarah’s involved.
“Rabbit, what changed?” asked Adrian.
“Oh I see what you mean. Well, it wasn’t a technical change, the sort Dave mentioned - wireless transmitter and receivers and all that. No, it was a fundamental change affecting Dead World. Quite suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of the fundamental properties of Dead World altered.”
“But how did you know things had changed?” Adrian followed up.
“I suppose you’d call it a rumour - that’s what it was. It spread out from the core, along and in between the spiral like some sort of a shock wave.”
“The news on the street was that somehow things had changed. Something different was taking place in the core and this had changed the dynamics – and here we are.”