A fantasy of a glitch in the universe

18.34, Tuesday 27 Oct 2020

I have this fantasy that one day we’ll find the glitch that cracks this whole thing open.

Which is why I picked up on retroactive prayer last month. Which is why I like the idea that we might discover cold fusion. Or that law-of-momentum-violating resonant cavity drive for spaceships. Or the Global Consciousness Project.

Because of course not but also, preceding that, just briefly, what if…

The fantasy is that we’ll one day do something like be able to mathematically model the entire social flow of the world, like we can map the flows of knowledge like it’s the weather or something, and it’ll turn out there’s some grain unaccounted for, that there is new knowledge that silently appears with no apparent source – and then we’ll discover, in that gap, that the internet has come to life and is talking to us anonymously; or that inspiration is a particle carried by cosmic rays.

Or that if you shape a piece of potassium into a very specific solid, it cuts a hole in the universe that we can see through at faster than the speed of light, or perhaps free energy pours out.

What it must have been like with the ultraviolet catastrophe in 1900 – the innocuous unsolved problem that, cracked open, led to quantum mechanics and 20th century physics! The closest I’ve been to something like this was when our lecture notes were out of date because they’d just discovered that neutrinos have mass.

The specific moment is when I feel: whoa, we don’t know why that happens, and what’s more, everything else still works but we no longer know how.

I’m not hung up on it. I know that dreams of cold fusion won’t hold up to scrutiny. One of my favourite moments from my undergrad was early on, when there was great furore about the possibility of desktop, room temperature fusion, based on the Fleischmann-Pons “discovery” of anomalous excess heat. Based on what they found, there was this possibility that a particular electrode treated in a particular way would just somehow cause water to undergo fusion and emit energy. Some novel surface physics perhaps? I asked my tutor about it and he was dismissive.

“But surely,” I said, “there’s the possibility. We don’t know how, and it shouldn’t work… but there’s the possibility! And if it worked! We have to be open to these things, even if we think they shouldn’t happen.”

My tutor was still dismissive. So I pushed: “Why? Why dismiss it? How do you know that cold fusion doesn’t happen like this?”

“Because I tried it,” he said. And it turned out that he’d got a pre-press copy of the paper, and got hold of the particular materials, and replicated the setup, and he didn’t get the same result.

And that was a formative moment for me. It taught me that it’s safe to embrace credulity in the imagination, because that doesn’t stop you verifying with your hands.

Anyway: there’s still that feeling, before finding out that the world hasn’t turned upside-down.

That 500 milliseconds, or a day, or a week, before it’s proved that, no, neutrinos don’t break the speed of light in Italy, and there was never a fracture in the universe after all, that moment just before the spell is broken: it’s magical.

The pleasure in believings - just for that single second - in aliens on Venus, or a wedge that opens up a faster-than-light data ansible, and what it might mean… both for our understanding of the universe, but also what we can do with it… suddenly knowing nothing but simultaneously knowing something new… and in that second there are galactic societies and starships, there’s psychic communion with animals, there are discovies to be made and adventures to be had.

It’s the fairy story of it. It’s being at the top of a roller coaster and beginning to drop. And when I peep down into those “what if” cracks I find joy and my imagination.

So I hunt out the cracks, even though they’re never real and I know they’re never real, and I nurture my credulity.

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