Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Metrology -- the Boring Science

As promised, here is the short SF story I wrote on the topic of metrology, the study of "weights and measures."  It's "Equivalence Principle" and it appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Analog. The story itself was inspired by a lecture I attended on string theory -- the speaker emphasized that physics was all about unifying disparate physical quantities, such as time and space, and mass and energy. It just shows that you can write a story about any topic, no matter how seemingly boring...


Robert Scherrer

If economics is the dismal science, then surely metrology is the boring science, thought Edward Melton as he crumpled his empty Cheetos bag and tossed it into the trashcan in the corner of Professor Witherspoon’s laboratory.  And was a Ph.D. project really supposed to take ten years?  A decade of tinkering with Witherspoon’s atomic clock, working on a dissertation which always seemed just another year away.
A knock at the door jolted Melton upright.  Dewey Witherspoon stepped into the lab, sporting plaid shorts and a red baseball cap, perched rakishly atop a shock of blond hair.  His blue eyes twinkled as he swished the air with his tennis racket.  “Melton,” he said, “I’m off to the Faculty Club for a tennis date.  Have you fixed the problem with the clock yet?”
“I’m still working on it. I’ve been doing some calculations -- maybe the clock isn’t broken --”
“Not broken?  Gold atoms don’t just suddenly disappear, and atomic clocks don’t run fast unless they’re malfunctioning.  There’s clearly a problem, so please fix it.  I’ll be back later today.”  Witherspoon stepped into the hall, then stuck his head back through the doorway.  “Melton, you look like hell.  You need to get out more, like I do.  Get some exercise.”  Witherspoon’s head disappeared, and Melton could hear him humming “Happy Days are Here Again” as he strolled down the hall.
Melton opened his notebook to recheck his calculations.  A steady diet of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, washed down with vending-machine hot chocolate, had transformed his body into something resembling a sphere, so he had to sit back from the desk and lean forward to read his notes.  He glanced sideways at the massive metal cylinder in the center of the lab.  The microwave cavity of the atomic clock rested above a spaghetti bowl of cables and circuit boards -- his constant companion for the past decade.  Hell, he’d spent more time with the atomic clock than he had with Professor Witherspoon.  “Well, Ingrid,” he said to the clock, leaning over to pat the side of the cylinder, “let’s see if we can figure out what’s wrong with you.”
Witherspoon’s project had seemed simple at the beginning. Most atomic clocks used the hyperfine transition in cesium, but any element with only a single electron in the outer shell would do just as well -- people built clocks that used hydrogen or rubidium.  Witherspoon had come up with the bright idea -- as far as Melton could tell, the only original idea he’d ever had -- of using other elements, stripping off the electrons until only a single electron remained in the outer shell, and then pumping the ionized atoms into the microwave cavity of the clock. 
The first few elements had worked fine, but every time Melton wanted to write up his dissertation, Witherspoon had insisted on trying “just one more element.”  Eventually, it seemed like he wanted to run through the entire damn periodic table.  Every month brought a new element, a new set of data, a new roadblock between Melton and his Ph.D.
The only consolation was that they would eventually run out of elements -- Melton had already purchased a lab notebook and inscribed the cover with “Uranium.”  He kept it in the linen closet of his apartment, next to an unopened bottle of champagne.
But when they got to atomic number 79, gold, the experiment went haywire.  The clock ran twice as fast as it should have, and the gold atoms seemed to disappear from the microwave cavity.  But what was special about gold?  It was the most ductile element, and an excellent conductor, but none of that seemed relevant.  Melton laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back to think.  The boring science, the dismal science, the boring, dismal science.  Suddenly his eyes widened, and he began scribbling furiously in his notebook.

            Melton scurried down the hall and burst into Witherspoon’s office.  “I’ve got it, Professor Witherspoon!  I’ve solved the problem.  We’ll be famous!”
            Witherspoon glanced up from his copy of Golf Digest. “What is it, Melton?  I’m quite busy.”
Melton sketched a wavy line on Witherspoon’s blackboard, filling the air with a haze of chalk dust.  “Physics over the last century,” he said, “has been all about developing equivalencies between apparently disparate physical quantities.”  Melton coughed to clear the chalk dust from his throat.  “Quantum mechanics gave us an equivalence between particles and waves.  We know now that they’re simply two different aspects of the same thing.”
            Witherspoon’s gaze wandered toward the door.  Melton hurriedly erased the board with his shirt-sleeve and scrawled a ragged line of equations.  “And of course, Einstein was responsible for two of the most important of these relations:  space and time are related through the speed of light, while energy and mass are related by E = mc2.  In string theory, the Maldacena conjecture suggests an equivalence between space and matter --”
            “Get to the point, man,” said Witherspoon.  “I don’t have all day.  I’m meeting a colleague for drinks in half an hour.”
            “I think what we’re seeing here is another fundamental equivalence, at least as important as any of these.”  Melton stared briefly at his feet.  “The gold atoms are disappearing, and the clock is running fast.  I think the gold atoms are being transformed into time.”
            “What?”  Witherspoon rubbed his forehead for a moment.  He opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. “You can’t mean --”
            “Exactly.”  Melton grinned and tossed the chalk into the air.  “Energy is mass.  Space is time.  And time is money.”

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Robert said...
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