My Doomsday Weapon

In the time that I’ve been at Union, I have suffered a number of lab disasters. I’ve had lasers killed in freak power outages. I’ve had lasers die because of odd electrical issues. My lab has flooded not once, not twice, but three different times. I’ve had equipment damaged by idiot contractors, and I’ve had week-long setbacks because the temperature of the room slews by ten degrees or more when they switch the heat on in the fall and off in the spring. I had a diode laser system trashed because of a crack in the insulation on a water pipe, that exposed the pipe to moist room air, leading to a buildup of condensation which then dripped all over the laser, leaving behind a thin layer of we-swear-it’s-not-asbestos insulation material.

I used to think that this was a combination of bad luck, operating on a shoestring budget (relatively speaking), and the undistinguished maintenance history of the building where my lab is located. But now, thanks to Dennis Overbye, I know that it’s something bigger. My string of improbable lab disasters is a Message. From The Future. If my experiment ever gets working, it’s going to destroy the entire universe, so the very fabric of space-time is distorting itself to ensure that my experiment never gets going.

Don’t believe me? This is what my apparatus looks like:


Scary, no?

Clearly, I deserve not one, but two Nobel Prizes: the Physics prize for whatever brilliant thing I’m going to invent that will destroy the Universe, and the Peace prize for setting up my experiment in such a way that it’s possible for gremlin rays from The Future to stop it. I await the Nobel Foundation’s call.

The arxiv paper on which the whole silly business is based has set the physics blogosphere abuzz. Reactions range from resigned sighs to frank and open derision, to an aggreived claim of priority.

Sean Carroll, quoted in the offending article, offers a rather nuanced take on the whole thing:

At the end of the day: this theory is crazy. There’s no real reason to believe in an imaginary component to the action with dramatic apparently-nonlocal effects, and even if there were, the specific choice of action contemplated by NN seems rather contrived. But I’m happy to argue that it’s the good kind of crazy. The authors start with a speculative but well-defined idea, and carry it through to its logical conclusions. That’s what scientists are supposed to do. I think that the Bayesian prior probability on their model being right is less than one in a million, so I’m not going to take its predictions very seriously. But the process by which they work those predictions out has been perfectly scientific.

I think it’s kind of a stretch, but things like “wormholes” which aren’t all that much more probable have evolved from silly beginnings to oddly respectable topics, so Sean’s position probably isn’t completely unreasonable.

In the end, though, I can’t help feeling a little like Jon Stewart watching CNN. Yes, there’s a tradition of sort of out-there speculation in theoretical physics, and this paper probably fits in that tradition. And yes, people eat this stuff up– I give it even odds that somebody asks me about it in an airport or a doctor’s office in the next couple of weeks.

But really, given the limited and shrinking media space for science, I can’t help thinking that those column inches could’ve gone to something better. Even by the standards of far-out physics speculation, this is kind of dopey. Running this in one of the few surviving mass media science sections is a little like devoting a front-page story to Paul Krugman’s theory of interstellar economics, and not running another story about the economy for a week.

But, hey, I’m just a guy with an experiment that keeps breaking. At least, as far as you know, that’s all I am. I might be the guy who’s going to destroy the Universe unless you make it worth my while to do something else…