I am a particle physicist who works at CERN, for the European Council for Nuclear Research, located on the Swiss-French border. Multiple research teams from around the world work within the massive underground facility, each participating in different projects in order to better understand atomic sub-structure, dark matter, supersymmetry, and the make-up of time and space, all by smashing particles together at near-light speeds. My team is relatively small, just a handful of us, but we make up merely a fraction of a one-hundred-strong community of incredibly talented scientists who work and operate at this world-renowned nuclear research facility.
Due to the complexity, cost, and desirability of CERN’s most notable resident appliance – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – teams must plan their experiments two, sometimes three, years in advance. The collider, a 27-kilometre-long tunnel of super-cooled magnets and accelerators, runs 24/7. Some would book 3 A.M. timeslots six months ahead, just for 45 minutes of precious time with the LHC. The cost to run it is undoubtedly astronomical, largely due to its enormous energy requirements. A power station on the French side of the border provides CERN with the 1.99 terawatts required to operate the LHC every year. Just as a reference, that’s enough power to send Marty McFly back to the future 1,644 times. Every. Single. Year.
Many teams here at CERN utilise hydrogen for their experiments; the lightest and simplest of all atoms, hydrogen protons are relatively easy to pull apart and blast at each other at almost-light speed velocities. My team, however, works a lot with gold. Gold is very, very heavy – atomically – and far too large to pick apart, proton-by-proton, for subatomic studies. However, gold is a very versatile, malleable element that is used in the study of energy conversion and nanoelectronics. Our modern cell phones and laptops would not operate without gold nanoparticles, for instance. We use tiny ‘clumps’ of gold, a few thousand atoms large, in conjunction with high-intensity beams and lasers, provided by the LHC, to try and improve our long-distance communications technology. Atom-by-atom, we aim to use these tiny gold fragments and the majesty of the world’s largest particle collider to increase the power of our radio telescopes, capable of transmitting visual and audio signals across enormous distances: from Earth to the ISS, to future colonies on Mars, to perhaps distant unknown voices calling out to us on the other side of the universe.
I love my work, but it’s not for everybody. It’s gruelling at times: long, silent hours staring at a computer screen of numbers and dots; weeks brooding over wall-to-wall whiteboards, plastered in scribbled equations, knowing something, somewhere is wrong. We go around in circles quite a bit. Projects we imagined would take twelve months end up lasting eight years, and part of that is due to the saturated usage of the LHC; the more of its capabilities we become aware of over time, the longer the waiting list grows. There are other LHC-like colliders in the world, of course: China has one, the US too, and rumour has it that the Russians have just completed construction of their first, after multiple failed attempts, but we are in a very fragile geopolitical state right now, and information or equipment sharing across borders is notably restricted, particularly amongst nuclear and particle physicists. Not that our research in gold and lasers will ever lead to the design of some world-ending weapon, but a fiction does exist amongst pockets of people around the world who believe these machines have some ridiculous destructive capability; if only scientists would make the conscious choice to harness it.
With all this in mind, I need to tell you the story about my co-worker, Andy. We worked together in the gold laboratory, shared an office cubicle next to one another, argued together over computer-generated data, and collaborated on pretty much every nanoparticle experiment performed with the LHC. Andy was as ambitious as I was, perhaps even more so; a dreamer, our supervisor would happily point out. He was probably the most optimistic guy on our team, which is hard to come by amongst a group of overworked, jaded, sunlight-deprived mole-people constantly facing budget cuts, grant rejections, and a growing sense of scientific stagnation.
Andy was a breath of fresh air; a light-hearted, well-liked guy amongst all researchers at CERN, with a lot of personality and people skills, and far more extroverted than I. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with almost everyone at the facility, including the maintenance crew and janitors. On coffee breaks or when just passing by in the hallways, Andy would strike up a conversation with almost anyone he saw.
‘Gerald! How’re the kids?’
‘Karl, my man, did you watch the game last night? What a save!’
‘Hey, Moira, so sorry to hear about your grandmother. If you need anything at all, just let me know.’
But above all, Andy was a very good physicist.
I was with Andy the night he was approached by a neighbouring research team asking for… help. Perhaps it was more so validation. It was about 8 P.M. when three guys in white coats from the hydrogen team entered our office and came looking for Andy’s cubicle. They were muttering amongst each other as they approached, as if arguing over whether or not this was a good idea. Andy and I were waiting for a 10:15 timeslot we had booked with the LHC that evening, so we were mostly wasting time on Twitter and listening to podcasts until we had to begin preparing our gold nanoparticles for the experiment. The rest of the lab was empty, but there were still many within the facility burning the midnight oil. Of all the lingering scientists to choose from for assistance, they chose him.
When the three approached, Andy pulled his earphones out and reclined back casually.
‘What’s for dinner, boys?’ he joked, knowing the time. ‘I could go for a burger, maybe a pint too.’
‘Do you have a few minutes, Andy?’ one asked nervously. ‘We want to… show you something.’
‘Why me?’ Andy asked.
‘The rest of our team has gone home for the night.’
‘If you stooges jammed the damn collider, I swear—’
They furiously shook their heads and assured him that the LHC was working perfectly, however, their latest test run had resulted in an unexpected outcome. Before going through the awkwardness of disturbing their supervisor part-way through his supper, the three were desperate to find someone to assist them in validating their findings. They came to Andy for both his friendly approachability and his expertise, while I simply got caught up in the conversation happening next to me. Andy looked sceptical at first; these guys either wanted help with something they couldn’t figure out themselves, or were simply looking for a positive guy to boast their brilliant data to. Andy was not ready to leap to his feet for every boy who cried wolf – otherwise he would never get any of his own work done – so he crossed his arms and demanded they explained their issue before he bothered to move from his chair.
After a lot of inconsistent blabbering between the three – with each trying to tell the story from a different beginning – it finally came sputtering out that they had generated what looked to be a black hole, inside the LHC.
At this point, I too removed my earphones. I watched Andy’s eyebrows shoot up.
Now, the LHC was a complex machine and frequently spat out anomalous data, but the smashing of hydrogen protons was a common, everyday practice here at CERN. Never before had it resulted in the appearance of something that odd, leading Andy and I both heavily doubtful that this was anything more than a poorly-executed, late-night prank.
They claimed they had footage of it; video evidence of a black hole in motion.
Andy asked me if I wanted to see this too. I nodded.
The five of us went down to the control room, adjacent to the collider, where all data produced by the LHC was acquired by a supercomputer. The room was essentially a concrete-clad, sound-proof booth, designed to eliminate any external vibrations coming from the enormous machines humming around us, which may influence the data obtained from inside the collider. The detectors linking the LHC and the supercomputer were so incredibly sensitive; they responded to earthquakes happening in Japan; they could feel raindrops falling on the dirt, a hundred metres over our heads.
Rico, of the hydrogen team, took his place in front of the computer monitors and began opening up a series of video files which had captured the event. It took about twenty minutes, and a lot of arguing, to finally align the videos to play simultaneously. Although these videos were roughly only 32 frames in length, they captured atoms in motion at more than 50 million frames per second. It also captured multiple spectrums: light, UV, infrared, and various forms of x- and gamma-ray. When finally aligned, six small windows appeared on a single monitor and began playing the same movie in a continuous loop.
We watched it about twelve times before someone spoke.
Andy leant forward over the guy’s shoulder. ‘Wow.’
We were indeed looking at a black hole; there was no other name I could have given this phenomenon. All six video windows depicted a pixelated spiral, swirling in the centre of the cameras, not visible to the naked eye but quite detectable in most other spectrums. It was not, in any way, black; it reminded me very much of watching water disappearing down a bathtub drain: a spiral of transparency, the edges of which were clearly distorting the light as it was being dragged inwards. Andy made a note that it looked like a galaxy: it had multiple ‘arms’ arching out from the central ovoid core, rotating counter-clockwise.
‘It can’t be a—’
‘That’s a hole,’ Andy stated, cutting me off.
Rico paused the video and turned to us, ‘And it’s big; bigger in mass than the collective mass of protons we crashed together to create it.’
‘How big?’ Andy asked.
‘Three or four microns across.’
We both looked stumped. As physicists, we worked on the nanometre scale, at best. A micron was gigantic in our world.
‘The mass of hydrogen you would need to create a black hole that size is… well, that’s like one-sixteenth the mass of the moon,’ Andy said. ‘The freaking moon.’
The laws of physics could certainly be bent inside the LHC, but I had never seen them break until now.
Something overcame Andy in that moment: a feverish excitement, a mad obsession for answers. ‘Play it again,’ he demanded. ‘I want to see it again.’
We watched the slow-motion video on continuous loop in total silence, allowing the hole’s hypnotic spiralling motion to paralyse us. I was completely stumped by the lack of explanation for the origin of this thing. If matter could not be created or destroyed, then how could an object with a theoretical mass of a goddamned celestial body be birthed from the colliding force of a few proton particles? It was not possible, yet there it was: a black hole spinning like a microscopic galaxy inside of a vacuumed cylinder, located on the other side of these concrete walls. We would have stood there all night if not for the sound of an alarm on someone’s watch: the hour was up. It was time to shut down the experiment and allow the next team to take their allocated timeslot with the collider.
‘No, wait. Not yet,’ Andy argued. ‘If this thing dies, you might never get it back.’
Reluctantly, after a few silent glances, the hydrogen team admitted they knew very well how to recreate it. Apparently, this was not the first time they had witnessed this anomaly. In fact, they had been unintentionally creating these holes for about a month now, watching them spontaneously appear every so often, but had refrained from telling their supervisors or anyone else in their team in fear of being labelled overzealous nutcases. But now, it was becoming such a repeated observation that the three were near-certain they had mastered the precise equation – the formula – for generating a black hole at their whim.
I saw Andy’s hand briefly cover his mouth.
So, the hydrogen team shut the experiment down, saved their files, and moved on. After cutting power to the LHC, the microscopic black hole within the vacuum-sealed tunnel spontaneously dissolved and vanished from the monitors. It would be back; they assured us. In the morning, they would divulge their findings with their supervisor and discuss where to go from there. It might take years – decades – to solve where the hole came from. It may take a century to fully understand its quantum properties.
Andy had a more practical question: ‘But what do you actually plan to do with it?’
The three shrugged. They had no idea.
Over the following weeks, word broke out about the hole. A snapshot of the 32-frame video, depicting the microscopic pixelated spiral, leaked into the media and rapidly became the hottest controversy amongst the global scientific community. However, a black hole’s creation was not a world-changing event that caused riots in the streets or triggered religious nuts to begin proclaiming that the end was some sort of nigh, and, honestly, it did not have a huge influence on my personal ongoing projects within the gold lab. We did see a few more visitors at CERN over time – scholars from other institutes, the French vice-president, a couple of documentary directors and journalists – but, at least within our little team, we carried on with our assignments as usual and tried not to let our minds wander too deep into other peoples’ puzzles. Honestly, the hole created far more questions than it answered, and any longer than a minute thinking about it left me with a headache.
But change was coming. We quickly noticed a steep increase in the hydrogen team’s bookings of the LHC. Obviously, they were taking full advantage of their newfound fame and money to secure as much time with the collider as possible. Other people’s bookings were cancelled, delayed, or shifted to unexpected times, creating internal tension between groups. My research began to suffer from it. I watched week after week go by with no ability to perform new gold experiments, and was left stuck in my cubicle with little to do. Stagnation certainly tested my patience.
But the change that bothered me most was Andy. His absence from our lab was easily noticeable; his shift in focus quite conspicuous. He neglected our meetings to be with the hydrogen team. He abandoned our projects to work on theirs, foregoing all emails, messages, and calls. Before long I found myself staring at whiteboards of equations without him, analysing computer-generated data with no one to counterpoint my arguments, spending nights at my cubicle alone. A frustrated feeling of abandonment quickly overcame me. I began sending him messages at all times of day and night, begging for some sort of acknowledgement; anything at all to convince me that he still cared about our partnership.
Andy returned to me four weeks later, suddenly, and in a state of frenzy like I had never seen him in. Again, it was late, close to midnight, and I was walking with my bags towards the elevator to head home after another uneventful week. Andy appeared. He was sweating. He grabbed me by the shoulders.
‘Come with me.’
I didn’t question him.
We returned to the computer room. We were the only two in there. By the sweat patches under Andy’s arms, it appeared as though he had been cooped up in this room for hours, possibly days. Andy sat me down. In the glow of the computer monitors, I could see the dark circles of his eyes, the sleeplessness that had consumed him.
‘Where is the rest of the hydrogen team?’ I asked.
‘I don’t need them,’ he snapped. ‘They’re useless to me.’
I was puzzled. Andy took a brief moment to explain where he had been these past weeks, and why it was necessary for me to be with him now, here in this room. In short, he had mastered the formula to create black holes on his own. The hydrogen team had made the mistake of showing him one few too many details of their simulation, and Andy had managed to fill in the missing gaps himself. He was running experiments with the LHC independently now, watching the spontaneous appearance of the hole, tracking its movements, measuring what it took in and what it spat out. The hydrogen team were doing similar work: watching, observing, mastering the hole’s on-off switch. They had recorded thousands of frames of video of the hole in motion; hundreds of gigabytes of data over the course of a month. In a few days, Andy had generated three times that on his own. He had been bribing people to give him more time with the LHC, using a combination of his charm and his manipulative personality to con others into handing over their timeslots. To this, I was outraged; my time also had been lost in this process, and for what? A goddamned hole?
But Andy was convinced this was something more.
The answer to the universal question, what do you do with a black hole, was, to Andy, obvious: throw something in it. While others were obsessing over the hole’s creation and dynamic properties, Andy was already on to the next phase of investigation by dabbling with what this thing could actually do.
‘Andy, what the hell have you done now?’ I asked, concerned.
Andy’s first experiment had been fairly simple: shine a laser at the hole. Honestly, it was a pretty good idea. While the hole was in motion within the vacuum-sealed tunnels of the LHC, Andy directed a single, high-powered beam of light into the collider and aimed it at the anomaly’s centre. With the number of visual detectors surrounding it, it was plain to see what happened to the laser, and the result was incredibly standard: the thin streak of light swirled and bent around the event horizon, following the anticlockwise motion of the spiralling arms, until it was sucked down the invisible drain. Light vanished through the hole, but strangely, light also came back out again. One beam was seen entering the hole, and one identical beam emerged. It was like a mirror.
‘Light cannot escape a—’
‘I know, I know,’ he said, stopping me from repeating the same mantra every physicist knew about light and black holes from all those Steven Hawkings lectures we were forced to watch in college. ‘I can show you the numbers, but believe me, the light entered and left at the same speed and intensity. The hole is not a one-way street. It projects light back out.’
‘Or it refracts light,’ I said. ‘Like water.’
‘Like water, yeah,’ Andy muttered, tapping his fingers on his knees, searching the floor for something he had lost. He looked back up and said, ‘But then I put gold in there.’
‘I needed to throw matter at this thing, not just light. I needed to know if it was actually taking in material and returning it, or just projecting the same thing back at me. So, I took a canister and loaded it into the injector.’
I rubbed my temples, tired, frustrated, and now astoundingly confused. What Andy was talking about – a canister – was basically a thumb-sized, vacuum-sealed metal cylinder which contained roughly six to eight gold nanoparticles each. These canisters were the fundamental units of our research. To study how gold interacted with lasers and other sources of energy, we would ‘fire’ nanoparticles into the LHC from these tiny, single-use casings by loading them first into a pneumatic injector. The injector was capable of holding six canisters at a time, much like the bullet slots in a revolver. It’s important to note here that gold nanoparticles – made up of a few hundred atoms each – were not visible to the naked eye, nor distinguishable by weight within their metal shells. But the injector could read the metallic contents of each canister when loaded into the slots, and displayed a simple digital readout on the control panel that stated whether each canister was ‘FULL’ or ‘EMPTY’.
‘Andy, why would you waste our canisters?’ I begged. ‘What is the point of all this?’
Andy looked me dead in the eye. ‘The gold didn’t come back. I shot one canister at the hole. I watched six pixels crash into the centre of this thing. They vanished. Nothing came back out. Nothing emerged out the other end. Bam. Gone. The injector read that the canister was empty. So, I loaded five more—’
‘You’re throwing our money and supplies down a literal drain.’
He held up a finger. ‘I tried one more time. I popped the other five canisters, one after another. Ping-ping-ping! Most of the particles shot into the hole. Some missed, and just flew around it. The ones that struck dead-centre vanished too. The injector told me that all six canisters were now empty. I came back inside here, to watch it all happen. I kept the cameras running for several minutes after impact, but nothing came back.’ He inched closer on his seat. ‘I went back to the injector to collect the six empty canisters, to replace them with fresh ones and try again. Canister one was suddenly full.’
I narrowed my brow.
‘A few minutes later, all six canisters were full again. I hadn’t touched them. I ran back here and checked the video recordings for the time when I was briefly gone, but still, nothing had physically emerged from inside the hole. But the gold was back. I knew because I fired the same initial canister again, to prove it was full, and the same six particles were spat at the hole. I waited three or four minutes, watching the entire time. Nothing. I went back to the injector. The canister was full again. The third time, I timed it. I fired, rolled the cameras, then waited beside the injector with a timer in my hands, and counted the seconds until the injector read that the empty canister returned to full. And guess what?’
I wasn’t in the mood for guessing.
‘It’s relative to mass,’ he said.
Andy demonstrated his experiment to me directly; he had been using the same six canisters over and over, since they spontaneously refilled themselves each time, in a manner that was still unexplainable. He proved that mass did in fact disappear through the black hole: the slow-motion cameras captured six pixels – being the six individual gold nanoparticles – entering, and zero emerging out the other side. So, the hole was in fact a hole; a mass-consuming, one-way avenue into some unknown void beyond space and time. Andy then set his watch to beep a few minutes later, having now perfected the time-delayed response. At the tone of his watch, the ‘EMPTY’ sign suddenly read as ‘FULL’ again, respawning six nanoparticles of gold inside the canister. We repeated the simulation several times, to demonstrate that the time taken for the gold nanoparticles to reappear was consistent.
The second canister happened to carry seven particles. Five struck the hole when fired, and two missed, whizzing by and vanishing elsewhere through the tunnel. Andy adjusted his watch to match the loss of mass, and at the calculated moment, five particles of gold returned to the canister, excluding the two that were lost. This was proven by firing the second canister again, and watching five particles, not seven, whizz by our screens.
Anything that went through the hole came back, but there was a calculable delay in its return, linear to atomic mass.
Light is not made of matter – not in the traditional sense, at least – so its reappearance from within the hole had been instantaneous, with no time delay. Gold, however, contained 79 protons, 79 neutrons, and 79 electrons; it held mass; it could freeze, melt, bend, conduct electricity; a physical set of properties defined its existence. The hole took this mass – absorbed it, engulfed it – and then brought it back in a manner that was still difficult for me to process. Much like we had observed with the creation of the hole itself, the spontaneous reappearance of the gold nanoparticles within each canister made it seem as though we were again creating mass out of nothing.
‘No, the hole is not creating or destroying anything, it just moves things back to where they were,’ Andy said. He looked down at the metal canister in his hands, then back up to me. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘When an object of a certain mass travels through the hole, it returns to where it was at a proportional amount of time prior – it leaps back, resets itself, not just in a physical position, but a temporal position too.’
What Andy was talking about, essentially, was time travel.
The next morning, everyone at CERN received an email from the maintenance crew regarding the LHC. According to recent meter readings, the last week had consumed almost two months’ worth of electricity. The French engineers at the nearby power plant were beginning to worry. If the current rate of energy consumption persisted, we would likely be facing outages and rolling blackouts which would severely hinder and dismantle our work. The culprit was obvious, although the engineers did not want to single out any particular user. They recommended imposing some sort of lockout time or curfew on the collider’s use during the middle of the night and on weekends, to conserve energy. This only angered people more, fuelling inter-lab rivalry, and increasing people’s desperation to reserve time with the LHC.
The obvious answer was to limit the hydrogen team’s use of the LHC, knowing they alone consumed three times as much energy as the rest of us combined, but the novelty of black holes and the desperate need to understand them drove us towards the first of many stages of our unravelling when a secondary solution emerged: engineers from the Swiss side of the border offered to help instead. A smaller power plant located near Geneva, currently unused, would be able to deal with the overflow, and would serve as a back-up generator for the collider, should anything go haywire. CERN’s operators catered to whatever solution would allow the LHC to continue functioning at its greatest capacity possible. With the addition of the Swiss power station at our disposal, our yearly maximum energy consumption was raised to almost 2.2 terawatt hours.
This was the second red flag I ignored, the first being Andy. With practically no restrictions on electricity now, he happily continued studying the hole, firing gold particles at it, calculating their time-delayed reappearance. I tried to return to normality, but my understanding of physics, matter, and time was quickly unravelling. I stared at my whiteboards of equations only to see gibberish. Eventually I erased them in a mad stroke of frustration, smearing the blue and red ink with my hands until nothing was legible. From the mess I had made, I began seeing ovals, a spiral with a central core, branching arms, swirling anticlockwise… a vortex going around and around and around…
Goddamn you, Andy.
During our lunch breaks, we often emerged from the underground bunker and relaxed outside, if it was warm enough. There were some cafés around CERN, a park with trees and fountains, chairs and tables for people to enjoy their sandwiches and coffees. Andy and I enjoyed a comfortable silence together, as we always did when we were thinking. He was lying on his back on the grass, hands behind his head. I was sitting with a book in my lap, nibbling at an apple. I wasn’t able to really absorb any of the book’s words, but I tried to preserve the illusion that I was capable of thinking about something else other than the hole.
Andy had come to the conclusion – through a series of trials and general assumptions about mass – that time travel was linearly proportional to the atomic weight and density of the travelling object. Simply, the larger the object, the further back in time it went.
The question was, how big was too big? How far back was too far?
A whole human, for instance, would travel several trillion years into the past. In a universe only 14 billion years old, that would be illogical. But somewhere between a gold nanoparticle and a whole human being, there was a correct answer.
‘What would you send back in time, if you could?’ Andy asked me. ‘If you could contact humans in the past, and give them something, what would you give them? And which stage of human civilisation would you contact?’
I made a joke that I would write a letter to myself advising me not to accept this job. Become a painter instead, something far less stressful.
‘Well,’ Andy began, ‘given the weight of a single piece of paper, and the ink added to it – assuming it’s all carbon and graphite – a letter would travel back to roughly the time of the dinosaurs.’ He sat up. ‘But you’re on the right track. Imagine the astonishing amount of information we could send back in time if we packaged it correctly.’
‘So, what first? Do you want to assassinate Hitler, prevent 9/11, or save the Star Wars franchise?’
Andy waved all those ideas off. Man-made disasters were unavoidable; preventing one would simply allow for another to take its place. Human nature, not a lack of information, was the underlying constant in all those scenarios; unchangeable, irreparable. Scientific progression, however, was hindered merely by time. It took time for Edison to generate a working lightbulb. It took time to successfully launch a man into space. We already had all the elements and level of intelligence needed to create the first computer, or send robots to Mars, or synthesise vaccines, but it took time for us to comprehend that we could. If time travel would allow for information to be sent to the past, then scientific advancement was the most logical aspect of human history worth manipulating. If the answer was supplied before the question was even asked, the time wasted undergoing all the tedious trial-and-error would be eliminated entirely.
‘Imagine if the human genome was solved by the Nazis. Imagine if Renaissance scholars achieved aeronautical flight. Imagine if the ancient Greeks possessed the formula for the atom bomb.’
‘The hole is microscopic, though,’ I pointed out. ‘There’s not much other than nanoparticles that can currently fit through it.’
But Andy had already found a remedy for this too: a black hole’s size was relative to energy, he claimed. With the addition of the new Swiss powerplant, he had witnessed a noticeable increase in the hole’s diameter from four to six microns across; proportional in growth to the addition of energy supplying the LHC. Still using gold nanoparticles, Andy had observed that an increase in the size of the hole decreased the time taken for mass to travel through it. Imagine then if the hole was a millimetre in size – a centimetre, even! My imaginary letter to the past could potentially travel mere decades, instead of millennia, making it a more accomplishable mission. Size was certainly not the limiting factor here; only energy.
Regardless, the size of the hole required to send something as simple as a single-page letter back in time was well beyond CERN’s yearly maximum energy allowance. But that did not stop Andy from coming up with practical alternatives: what about a microchip, which contained several gigabytes of information? I asked how the ancient Greeks would possibly know what do with a microchip without computers, without electricity, reminding him that the Soviets could not even understand a floppy disc back in the 70s. Andy was convinced he could find some middle ground that would satisfy all limitations of mass, energy, and time; a 3D-printed tablet, perhaps made of silicon, the size of his hand and thinner than a strand of hair, could contain a whole encyclopaedia of tiny, printed information, visible through a basic magnifying glass lens. With the right tools and resources, he could manufacture an object of precise atomic weight, and generate a black hole of an exact size, so that the object would be sent back to a particular year, month, and day of his own choosing. If we utilised the hole correctly, it could change all of human history.
‘Or, it could kill us all,’ I said. Andy looked up at me. He knew what I meant. One wrong piece of information placed in the hands of our ancestors, and we could make ourselves extinct.
He responded with an underwhelmed hum. ‘I suppose that’s also possible.’
Three months later, Andy was fired. No one was surprised, not even me. He had been abusing the LHC for his own needs for too long, neglecting his own work, disregarding the hydrogen team as the founders of this marvel, but perhaps most of all, consuming so much power that, even with our backup supply, it simply became impossible to cater towards the study of the hole any longer.
The rest of us at CERN had to make a hard choice: either we all suffered blackouts and curfews together, or we eliminated the one person threatening all our livelihoods. Andy was the sacrificial lamb that had to go, and he was not happy about it.
Other members of the gold team attempted to bargain with my supervisor for him to stay; despite his arrogance, Andy was indeed a very good physicist, and surely if we kept a closer eye on him, we could help wean him off his obsession with time travel and black holes. In my eyes, the concept of losing Andy sparked only fear. Let’s not forget, Andy knew the formula to create black holes entirely on his own. He didn’t need CERN. He didn’t need us. Or me. Short of some sort of intercontinental embargo, there was absolutely nothing stopping Andy from being scooped by the Americans, the Chinese, the Russians even, who would each gladly offer him unlimited access to their own colliders just to see the hole with their own eyes. Andy was a walking disaster waiting to happen, but I don’t know if I could have ever stopped him.
I went through a lot of Andy’s stuff after he left CERN. He took nothing much with him other than his laptop and a couple of hard drives; enough to sustain himself in the wild. I was compelled to try and dissect his mind, to find exactly what he ultimately had planned to do with the hole. I found stacks of scientific journal articles about black holes, theoretical physics, parallel universe theories, and relativity. These topics were well outside the range of understanding gold nanoparticles, but I could see Andy was trying to solve time-related paradoxes, which were relevant when considering the potentially fatal side-effects that may come from meddling with the past.
Say, for instance, Andy did manage to send the ancient Greeks enough information required to generate an atomic bomb, and say that bomb resulted in human extinction sometime between then and now; Andy therefore would have never existed, and thus would not have been able to send the Greeks that information in the first place, thus the Greeks did not create a bomb, allowing Andy to be born, and so on, and so on…
But this assumed that time existed only linearly, and also that time travel was instantaneous, which it wasn’t. Much like the gold nanoparticles respawning after a mass-proportional time delay, if I wrote a letter to myself and managed to send it back to 20 years ago, warning my younger self of this job, warning me of Andy, I will not have any memory of receiving that letter for another 20 years. Time dilation was perhaps the one aspect of physics that could not be broken by the black hole.
But this was apparently not enough to dissuade Andy. Upon finding his notepad, wherein he had been practising his Third Century BC Greek lettering, I knew exactly what was to eventually come.
Time travel made it to the UN within a year. We watched world leaders stand before a crowd of highly-strung politicians and ambassadors and argue over whether these sorts of programs should be shut down. The US, in particular, was adamant that CERN and other facilities around the world were now as dangerous as nuclear weapons factories, demanding the EU to dismantle our LHC under threat of numerous sanctions.
Perhaps the Americans were jealous that they had not figured out black holes for themselves. Or perhaps they had, and had witnessed something horrific come from them.
A consensus was never reached; multiple nations agreed that playing around haphazardly with black holes could have global consequences, but it was ultimately impossible to stop the progression of science or the lust for knowledge. In response to the Americans’ demands to shut down all hadron colliders, the Russians politely said, ‘No,’ while the Chinese ambassador declared that the Americans would have to pry their collider from their cold, dead hands.
It took me almost a year to completely forget about Andy. He lingered in the back of my mind for a long time after he left, keeping me awake at night, continuing to distract me at work, but gradually we all had to move on. Progress at CERN went unimpeded. Energy consumption was still a hot topic, but the hydrogen team were willing to have their time with the LHC limited and closely monitored so that they did not encroach on other peoples’ time and resources.
I gained a new partner, someone new to stand beside me and glare at whiteboard equations for hours in silence, someone else to argue with over data, but she was not nearly as entertaining nor as full of charisma as Andy had been. However, it was adequate. I accepted Andy’s departure as if it had been a blessing in disguise; he had been a toxic influence on me and other people here: manipulative, greedy, a complete megalomaniac. I settled for a normal, quiet, completely characterless partner as a sort of self-imposed punishment. That year, we worked very well together. We spoke about gold and only gold. We ignored any happenings going on in the hydrogen lab and disregarded all philosophical and ethical arguments circulating about time travel.
The last time I saw Andy…
No, actually, I never saw Andy again. But I know what happened to him.
One morning, I was getting a hot coffee in one of the cafés above the facility before making my long elevator trip down. There was a television inside the café, and when I walked in, I could tell by the number of people standing beneath it, silenced, that something big had happened. Even the baristas were distracted.
On TV, the headline beneath the French newsreader read:
Someone whispered that hundreds were dead. Another suggested thousands.
The details of the catastrophe emerged in random bytes of information; every hour we knew more. It had all taken place at a military-funded atomic research facility in some obscure, isolated town, which had contained Russia’s newest nuclear-powered hadron collider. The facility had been largely vaporised in an instant; iron beams liquefied, a crater left in the epicentre of the blast. The fireball had been witnessed almost a hundred kilometres away and several dozen nearby towns were currently being evacuated in a mad panic. It rivalled the Chernobyl disaster in scope and damage, triggering a similar nationwide state of emergency. Nuclear fallout was already spreading, expecting to reach as far as Poland.
Sirens. Gas masks. Burn victims. Chaos.
Andy had been a part of this, I knew. I did not need to see evidence of his incinerated corpse to know he had probably been the one responsible for his own death and the deaths of everyone around him. One push of a button, and his life was extinguished. He had probably done it with an enormous grin on his face, wide, twinkling eyes, and a palpating heart. Someone was gullible enough to give him an inch, and Andy took a mile.
When it finally became known how much radioactive material had been consumed during the blast, I was in awe. The Russians had decided to power their collider with a nuclear plant, and very little – if anything – remained of their fissionable material when the reactor was finally inspected again. By the opinions of expert nuclear physicists on TV, the blast had been roughly one-hundredth the strength of Hiroshima; 150 tonnes of TNT; equivalent to roughly 0.6 terawatts of power.
Andy’s blast had consumed almost a third of CERN’s yearly energy supply in one second.
I had Andy’s notes. I had his equations and data from his many experiments using gold nanoparticles. It took very little time to rearrange his time-dilation algorithms to work backwards, to take energy and estimate the size of the hole he had generated; to take that size and estimate the mass that could fit through it; to take that mass and calculate how far back in human history Andy had officially screwed over.
I found that the hole that had flattened a Russian town and triggered a continental nuclear disaster had been roughly 500 microns in size; almost a hundred times larger than what anyone had achieved at CERN. A hole that large could potentially consume a mass of a low-density element, such as silicon, equal to a fifth of a gram. If Andy’s dream had been to translate physics’ greatest equations into Greek and send it 3000 years into the past, it’s very likely, with that amount of power, that he had succeeded in his goal.
Of course, no one could predict what would become of Andy’s efforts; it will take 3000 years for the consequences of his actions to affect us, if any were to come at all. There was every possibility that his gift to the past would go unfound: buried in sand, sunk to the bottom of an ocean, degraded by erosive winds; simply lost through time in one way or another. There was a high probability that his offering of future knowledge went unnoticed, unread, or were found to be simply untranslatable by his intended recipients, and even if all his lines of code and algorithms and annotations were accurately deciphered, there was no indication that something tangible could ever be constructed from them. These were the logical thoughts that kept me calm and allowed me to sleep at night. I tried to remind myself that I was a rational, realistic person; a scientist, a pragmatist. Andy had been a dreamer, let’s not forget.
His outrageous fantasy of ancient Greeks possessing atomic power was illogical. I could hardly imagine a film of silicon – a fraction of a gram in weight – could contain any substantial amount of writing, however microscopic, enough to cause drastic changes to any aspect of human history. Mankind did not make scientific discoveries in random, sporadic bounds; it took thousands of incremental steps and countless trials to construct a fundamental understanding of mass, energy, light, which ultimately led to the creation of something as devastating as an atomic bomb. So much information could not be penned in a single line of script.
Thankfully, I won’t live long enough to suffer the consequences of Andy’s actions.
by Ashlee Conway