There is a first version of an early chapter in ‘The October Men’ in which Prof Sibley, rather than musing on the past glory of his career in quantum physics, is running a tutorial at which the young then-undergraduate Otto Parsons first shows his true genius.
The idea is that Otto is trying to use quantum physics to overcome the effects of gravity by using high energy beams of electro-magnetic radiation. In the novel, it is assumed (by me) that the beams in question are X-rays but who knows?
What Otto and Sibley do is to crunch two equations together to develop the hypothesis that light and gravity are both expressions of the same sort of energy. For the record, the two equations were de Broglie’s equation describing wave-particle duality – wherein a moving particle can have a wavelength – and Einstein’s famous equation of relativity: E = mc2.
When I ran this version in front of a few patient friends it gave them a headache. In case you are interested in my first stab at trying to create the slenderest of notions that one might be able to open a small hole in time, here is the draft.
In case you’re wondering if I have any special insight into how to use high-energy photons to propel one back in time, I don’t. I made it all up. (Sorry!)
©BigBear Communications Ltd, 2017. All rights reserved.
PROF DAN SIBLEY – Oxford, May 2005
“Goodness! What a big question!” Sibley throws his body back in the chair in mock reaction to a nearby explosion. The room ripples with nervous laughter.
Professor Dan (no one ever calls him ‘Daniel’) Sibley likes to project the image of a louche aged hippy despite having not been quite old enough to have partaken in the bacchanalia of the 1960s (he was only 9 years old in the Summer of Love). He has developed his own uniform of jeans, suede waistcoat – the more colourful, the better – and floral shirts embellished with long, greying, hair which he sometimes ties in a ponytail, bead necklaces, earrings and fawn leather shoes.
His rooms at college are festooned with ornaments and throws collected over the years from various bazaars in out-of-the-way towns in North Africa or the Indian subcontinent. There is the vague smell of patchouli masking the scent of other herbal materials. There is always a strange feeling of vertigo induced by staring out of this bohemian room redolent of a Marrakesh riad and into the august, splendid and sublimely English vista of the quadrant of an Oxford college.
That, together with his mannered, laid-back demeanour, tends to set him apart from both his academic peers and his students. As such, it gives him a pleasant but forbidding air and does the opposite of setting his charges at ease. And Sibley knows it. He is happy to plough his own furrow and to be seen doing so.
His students are at their most wary of him when he is tilting backwards in his chair as he is doing so now.
“Well” opines the brave student, “just going back to first principles, I think special relativity suggests that everything is explained by its energy. So, on that basis, surely everything in the universe is just different iterations of energy pure and simple?”
“Nick,” began Sibley now in his element, “the study of physics is the study of energy – pure and simple as you might say. I was rather hoping you would have grasped that over the last two-and-a-bit years. The only reason why we as pathetic human beings choose to split it out into different components such as light, mass, gravity, enthalpy, entropy and so on is because our sweet little brains tell us these quantities are different. As you correctly state, at the most fundamental level, they’re not.”
There is a moment of concentrated scratching of biros on paper as the students furiously write down Sibley’s pronouncement. Everything is energy. But they know this already.
Nick puts his pen down briefly, draws breath to ask another question, loses confidence and resumes his scrawl. Sibley decides to let them off the hook, for now.
“That’s today’s perspective anyway. Yesterday it was Newton sitting in his back garden getting a bruised head. For him, physics was mass and motion and arguing with Robert Hooke and it was all terribly simple. Today it’s all energy and tomorrow – who knows? – it’ll be ‘physics is photons’. The universe is just photon soup before a whizz in the Magimix.
“That’s not so fanciful when you think about it. You guys were learning about wave-particle duality at your mothers’ breasts. So the concept of a moving particle with a known mass having a measurable wavelength isn’t going to give you a headache. That’s why we know what the wavelength of a cricket ball is going to be when Shane Warne decides to let go of it. We’ve got De Broglie to thank for that.
“That means…” the students all look up from their note taking “that mass and light are in some way connected. So, back to you, Nick. What do you think?”
Nick clears his throat, swallows and takes his first step on the lower slopes of Everest. Stumbling around in the rarefied atmosphere of Professor Sibley’s quantum mechanics tutorial is always going to take effort. But the view from these heights: breath-taking!
“If one combines special relativity with the photoelectric effect you have a direct correlation, surely?”
“Go on.” This is basic stuff but it is fun to watch the infant take its first steps.
“We know E equals m c squared. We also know that E is proportional to light frequency. So, substituting one for the other, we now have a simple premise whereby the frequency of light f is directly proportional to mass m. albeit, the constants in the equation mean that you would need light frequencies of… well, they’d need to be very big if you’re going to see any effect.”
“Absolutely!” Sibley sounds triumphant. “Otto, this is your hobby-horse. What do you think?”
Otto has his head buried in his notebook and his hair. One fellow student had had the temerity to suggest that he had his hair bubble-permed for which Otto had rewarded him with a torrent of sarcasm, arguments which supported one or other of his parents being a gibbon and the firm assurance that his hair was naturally curly and that this meant he could spend an extra 75 seconds in bed every morning because combing it was futile.
“I fully accept what Nick has just said but I’m struggling to see if there’s a correlation between light and gravity in this regard. Is there a means whereby the impingement of light – or photons or however you wish to express it at this point – can influence gravity? We know it can affect mass. Just bombarding a mass with light of the right frequency will cause electrons to be ejected. So, by extension, you would expect there to be corresponding fluctuations in gravitational field…”
“…But it’s hard to measure, isn’t it?” is Josie’s contribution. Josie is not really one of Sibley’s rising stars, bless her, and the best her intellect can achieve is the ability to make occasional pithy jokes. At least it shows she’s listening to what’s going on but it doesn’t make her a Nobel Laureate. Sibley is sure she’s going to get a good degree – a second most likely – but that’s about it for her academic pursuits. Perhaps a glittering career in marketing awaits?
“Look” Sibley thinks it is better they forge on at this point before the tutorial gets bogged down. “The key question at the start of this tutorial (and it seems a long time ago now, sometime shortly after the Big Bang) was: by what mechanisms can energy and mass be interchangeable and to what extent do these manifestations – such as they are – exist in a state of equilibrium?”
Sibley is expecting a moment’s peace and quiet while the four students take a while to ponder the question for the second time. ‘Somewhere in the distance a dog barked’. He is disappointed by Otto.
“It’s too simplistic surely?”
‘Simplistic’? That’s a charge that few have ever levelled at Sibley. He expresses mock shock and then says coolly “Go on…”
“You are asking a question in which energy and mass can exist in complete isolation without considering the collateral effects on space or space-time.” The boy has more than promise; he can teach a few of my post-grads a thing or two. “I keep coming back to gravity because, in an expanding and degrading universe…”
“I’m sorry. Define ‘degrading’.”
“In which matter and energy are seeking ever lower energy states.” Good, just checking. “The effects of matter – sorry, mass – on space in terms of gravitational effects need to be considered. For one thing, gravity is highly likely to retard the degradation process –“
“The word you are feverishly groping for, Otto, is not ‘degradation’ it’s ‘entropy’. Can we please use the accepted academic vocabulary until you are learned and lauded enough – let us say Chair of the faculty, a couple of DSc’s and a Swedish gong – for you to change it yourself? You’re more likely to pass exams if you use the right words anyway.”
The students snigger and Otto blushes. “Quite. Entropy. The point I was trying to make, Professor, is that the universe is a system and, like so many systems, it has buffers that mitigate other effects acting within it.” There is a pause as Otto looks around the room assessing whether he has them with him or not. He isn’t sure but carries on nonetheless.
“If it wasn’t for gravity, the photon soup universe would arrive much sooner. If anything, there is a case to be made that gravity could lead to a recompression of the universe…”
“But wouldn’t that lead to temporal effects?” asks Joanne. Joanne is the quiet, retiring type; every tutorial group seems to have one. Joanne would sit there quietly taking it all in, contributing not too much but comprehending it all anyway. She is destined for a first or Sibley would eat the whole of last year’s volumes of Nature.
“Ah,” Sibley proclaims “the theory that time goes forwards as long as the universe is expanding and will go backwards when it all starts to collapse in on itself. Well, I have my own views on that. Or to put it another way, I’ll believe it when I bloody see it!”
“Well,” Otto interjected, “you asked about mass and energy existing in a state of interchangeable equilibrium. And I would suggest that this has been going on since the Big Bang. Otherwise, why would we have stars and galaxies rather than a uniform shell of matter that expands at an accelerating rate outwards?”
Joanne clears her throat at this point. “No system is uniform is it? There had to be some irregularities from the outset which is why you had collisions of matter and resultant gravitational perturbations. The whole thing was bound to clump from the get-go.”
“So, Otto” Sibley says leaning forward in his chair for practically the first time in the hour “your thesis is that gravity has a role to play in the process of equilibrium. Or is it that it supplants any possibility of equilibrium?”
Otto looks sheepish and admits that he doesn’t actually know. At that point, the tutorial is over and the students rise from their chairs, pack their bags and move to leave the room. All, except Otto who takes especial pains to pack carefully and give his fellow students a head start. Once they are all out of the room, he turns to Sibley.
“What are your feelings about generating artificial gravitational fields in the lab?”
“Nice job if you can do it” replies Sibley. “In fact, I’ll buy you a pint if you can. What’s your thought here?”
“Well, we know that matter and light are commutable. We also know that mass generates gravity and the more mass you have the bigger the gravity.”
“I expect that we can use either high-frequency coherent light or a powerful particle beam – any kind of beam where quantum entanglement can be induced – to create the impression of mass and that this ghost-mass will generate its own gravitational field. This could be enough to compensate for Earth’s gravity. In a small field only, of course.”
Otto has his gaze fixed on the floor. He is trying to give the impression of intense concentration. Actually, it is intense anxiety that this rather off-beam notion will incur his tutor’s displeasure.
“So what do you see as the benefit of this?” Sibley wasn’t being the aged hippy now. He is all ears.
“I don’t know. Off the top of my head, it might prove a lot easier, cheaper and less dangerous than having to send experiments into low-Earth orbit.” Otto continues to stare at the floor not sure what reaction to expect.
Sibley does not react at first, he is considering the ramifications of such research; the funding for something like this might be more than forthcoming. He is also considering whether supporting such an idea would make him look like an even bigger loony in the eyes of his more conventional colleagues. He rises and ambles across to the window.
Gazing through the glass he muses: “Have you done any calculations to support this theory?”
“Only on the back of an envelope” says Otto. This could be encouraging.
“Anything that you might be able to turn into a paper for me to review?”
“I’m not sure. I’d have to work through the formulae and provide the narrative argument longhand before I could be sure that they all would hold together.”
“And how long would you expect this draft paper take you to write?” Sibley is worried that the concept might vanish from Otto’s busy head like a soap bubble. He needs something concrete as soon as possible.
Otto hesitates for a moment, looks up from the floor and proclaims: “Give me a week.”