Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…

THEORY!

So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Sunday Nibble #60: Patreonage

Because I was finally fortunate enough to be able to, I signed on as a Patreon monthly supporter for three YouTube creators I’ve followed for a long time. It’s a tiny amount, but it helps them to do what they do and, thanks to the behind-the-scenes info and perqs, it’s pretty easy to see that yes, they really do appreciate the support.

Also, because it’s been a long and very busy week, I’m having a lazy Sunday, so consider this installment a clip show, if you will.

Name Explain

Run by a low-key and deadpan funny British man named Patrick, this channel is all about language, including word origins, place names, and so on, so you can see why I’m a big fan.

He does all of the illustration, layout, writing, and editing for his pieces, with the occasional live-action installment, and he’s a pretty constant poster. Sometimes, it seems like he has new content daily.

Here is one of his latest pieces, in which he discusses what is apparently the most-hated of English words: Moist.

He’s also currently got a Patreon pledge drive going on with the goal being to hit $1,000 in supporters before June 1, IIRC. If he meets that goal, he’ll shave off his beard — which has been his trademark look since forever. And he’s close, having crept past $900 last month.

Just visit the Name Explain YouTube channel and check it out.

Morn1415

This channel is all about science, particularly space and physics, so a natural attraction for me. For the longest time, there was no narration in the videos which we later learned was because the creator is not a native English speaker.

However, he finally started narrating, and while he has an accent, it actually adds to the experience. I can’t remember whether he’s mentioned where he’s from, but his accents puts him somewhere in the Swiss/German/Austrian zone

The piece of his that first attracted my intention involved a comparison of star sizes, beginning with our own Sun, and then spiraling upwards and onwards until reaching the ridiculousness of a star that’s about the size of our entire solar system.

But the one that really impressed me was when he combined two different works — one which went from the scale of quantum foam up to human size, and the other which started on human scale and went all the way up to the entire universe.

Then, he put them together to start at the quantum scale, wind our way up by powers of 10 to the whole universe itself, and then plummet back down to where we started.

He calls it Vortex. Set your video to the maximum resolution you can, switch it to full screen, put on your headphones, turn off the lights and hang on for an amazing ride.

And don’t forget to check out everything else on the Morn1415 YouTube channel.

Matt Baume

Finally, this channel is named for its host, who is a connoisseur of LGBT history, particularly through its portrayals in modern pop culture. Particularly illuminating is his walk through the evolution of the depiction of LGBT characters in television from the 1970s to the present — well, he’s up to the late 90s by now.

There are some real surprises, some pleasant, and some… not. It’s probably no surprise that The Golden Girls dealt with gay themes and presented homosexual characters in a positive light, and Baume has covered that idea several times.

He also covers current events, hosts live hangouts, and has a long-running series, The Sewers of Paris that is also available as a podcast, in which he takes an hour or so to deep dive on LGBT history, as well as interview significant people from that history.

Check out the Matt Baume YouTube channel.

Disclaimer: Other than supporting them through Patreon, I am not affiliated with any of these creators or sites, and am receiving nothing in exchange for this article outside of what all of their other Patrons are getting. I just believe in what they do, didn’t feel like writing too complicated of an article today, and wanted to help them out.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

The Saturday Morning Post #43: The Rêves, Part 21

After a brief hiatus for my Christmas Countdown, your Saturday fiction feature is back, and I broke at a good point because this next one is an omnibus chapter that weaves together all of the characters that we’ve been following so far, and it brings a big revelation about The Rêves, Las hadas selvajes, where they came from, and what they want.

This is the turning point leading into the final beats of Act II of the book. You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or the previous chapter here.

Slingback

Pearl was walking with Preston and Danny through the woods, following no particular trail, occasionally coming across a deer that would regard them, but react with disinterest rather than fear.

“We were the first,” she said. Well, Janis was the first of us, in the autumn of 1970. That’s where we got the name Pearl from, although we didn’t really start to pick up numbers until a little later in the 70s, and it always seemed to be gay men who had died away from their families — and abandoned by them — without any close friends here to notice their loss.

“A lot of Them were new in town, wound up homeless and addicted. Maybe that’s why we somehow found Janis. Then things really took off in the 1980s when our numbers swelled.

“That’s also when we started thinking of ourselves as Las hadas selvajes,” Pearl explained. “That was partly because of an activist group called the Radical Faeries, but also because we had a sudden Hispanic and Latino and Latina influx. Oh, I know they use “Latinx” nowadays, Pearl said, “But no one has explained to me how to pronounce it.”

“LatEEN-ex,” Preston replied.

“Ah,” Pearl said. “Thank you. Anyway, we pretty much kept to ourselves and stayed in unpopulated, undeveloped area — which were shrinking rapidly. We weren’t visible to humans, although some of them could sense us, and we liked it like that.”

“But something made you decide to cause that storm?” Preston asked. Danny shot him a look, but Pearl was clearly not upset by the question at all.

“Yes,” They explained. “You see, it was just shy of twenty years before things suddenly changed.”

“What happened?” Danny asked.

At the same time and just under 85 miles almost perfectly due west, Joshua and Simon had started digging through the data they had skimmed from Ausmann’s network, and decided to start with the oldest documents they could find.

Although none of the files on the network were that old, they did find a folder called “Archives,” and it was structured as a top layer of subfolders per year, each one with its own set of folders by month. The earliest one was for 1985, and the earliest month was April, with a PDF physically dated April 15, 1985, although the computer file was dated October 2012.

It was a memo, from someone at DARPA (name redacted) describing a project called “Operation Slingback.”

“Drag queens?” Joshua joked playfully.

“No, silly!” Simon replied, slapping his shoulder as he scanned the document, finally just looking away from the screen and muttering. “Oh. My. God.”

“What?” Joshua asked, knowing that anything that would get Simon to say that must have been extraordinary.

“Faster than light communications,” he said. “That’s what this project was. It was some Cold War bullshit. If spies could send messages faster than light, they could essentially send them back in time, meaning that they could literally get intelligence to our side even before the Soviets knew they’d created it.”

“Freaky,” Joshua replied. “Does it say how it was supposed to work, since you can’t send anything with mass at or above lightspeed?”

“Sure,” Simon explained. “Tachyons.”

“Theoretical!” Joshua reminded him.

“I know,” Simon continued. “But they seemed to think not.”

The two of them poured through the documents on their own laptops, Joshua taking even months and Simon taking odd — purely based on whether their birth month was odd or even — and then Joshua finally found an “A-ha!” moment dated October 28, 1987.

“Look at this,” he told Simon, and they huddled together peering at the screen. The document was heavily redacted, so while it was clear what they had done, everything about how they did it was censored. That really didn’t matter though. What did were a few brief lines.

27101987 16:34:17 [JUL 87300] OP SLINGBACK TXF RECD SUCCESS…

ORIGIN 29101987 13:15:06 [JUL 87302] CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

29101987 13:16:32 [JUL 87302] OP SLINGBACK TXF SENT

DEST UNK TIME FACTOR UNK CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

“Okay,” Joshua said. “So if the people in the past received and documented the message the people in the future sent, how is that any kind of time travel at all? I mean, dudes on the 27th get some random text, write it down, and now dudes on the 29th know what to send.”

“Look at the methodology,” Simon replied. “They were two separate teams. Senders were at Livermore, receivers were here. The received message was sealed until after the point that the senders confirmed they had done their thing, and the two messages were compared by an independent team at Berkeley.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. “So they managed to send a message back, what… forty-five hours or so?”

“Give or take eighteen minutes,” Simon added.

They continued reading until Simon hit March 22, 1991, when Operation Slingback was folded into Operation Wayback, and a permanent tachyon transmission line was set up between JPL in Pasadena and the Pentagon.

Again, a lot of the theory was redacted, but one intriguing bit was left in. Simon read as Joshua listened.

“Choice of baseline approximately seven times longer than JPL to Livermore by moving end points from JPL to the Pentagon improved time distance transmission by the inverse cube of the distance, from 45 hours to approximately 160 hours. Setting base points slightly longer, from Livermore to the Pentagon, would have yielded lead times of about 240 hours, but this preferred route was vetoed by Code Name Rainbow.”

“Who the fuck is ‘Rainbow?’” Joshua asked. Simon did a quick Google, then laughed.

“Shit,” he said. “That was Nancy Reagan’s Secret Service code name.”

“Really?” Joshua replied.

“Really,” Simon said. “So… then what?”

They kept searching the records and, while Pearl didn’t have access to them, she had lived through the results.

“May 23, 1989,” They said. “That was the day the Earth shook and the ground buzzed, and we could feel that something weird was going on. And that was the day that the other classes suddenly popped up.”

“We haven’t always been here?” Preston asked, sounding nervous as Danny took his hand.

“No, dear,” Pearl said. “It’s been barely 34 years. “Now Class I and Class III knew how to behave and stay hidden, for the most part. If they did wind up appearing around a human, they would be sure to make it brief and ambiguous, always leaving doubt whether anything had been there at all.”

“Is that why I can appear like an animal around humans?” Preston asked.

“I’m getting to that. And I should tell you that we do have another word for them besides humans, since we are also humans. Mostly. We call them vivants. And we started having big problems with them because — no offense, Preston — Class II’s just couldn’t keep themselves from showing off to vivants, and things started to get really, really weird, especially in all the tourist spots — which happened to coincide with the new L.A. Metro system they were creating.”

“Shit,” Joshua exclaimed as he found a document with a bunch of stories with a ‘Haunted Hollywood’ theme, all of them starting in the late spring of 1989 and continuing for a few years. Somebody on the project had felt it necessary to compile them, even though most of them seemed to come from trashy rags.

At one point, a psychologist even posited a term for the condition: “Cinema psychosis,” hallucinations and delusions caused by an obsession with films and old movie stars. W.C. Fields was often seen wandering drunkenly along side streets off of Hollywood Boulevard, while the Marx Brothers were fond of hanging around the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, along with Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn.

Rudolph Valentino would regularly pop up near Hollywood High School, while Clara Bow seemed very fond of USC. The stories went on and on in the tabloids, but there was not a single clipping of a story from a mainstream outlet save one, a brief blurb in a TIME magazine from 1992 that talked about alleged hauntings at the Roosevelt, although in the most skeptical of terms.

It concluded by saying that such reports had suddenly increased in the last few years — odd for celebrities that had been dead for much longer — and wondered whether it wasn’t some publicity stunt by the city in order to increase tourism even as the new Metro Rail system was working its way from downtown to Hollywood and points north.

That particular part of the story was highlighted with a cryptic note scrawled in the margin: “If only!”

“So… they fired up this machine to send messages into the past,” Simon recapped, “And it somehow brought back all of these… not ghosts, exactly, but ‘echoes,’ was it? Echoes of people who had died, and while the unknown ones seemed to keep to themselves, the famous ones started popping up everywhere?”

“As crazy as it sounds,” Joshua started.

“Dude, we have been dealing with some pretty crazy shit for the last five years now. I mean, in a weird way, it’s kind of nice to know that there is a scientific explanation for it.”

“Don’t forget that other part, what Anabel told us.”

“Right,” Simon continued. “Ausmann wants to ‘Commit genocide and destroy my kind,’ she said. So we know what that kind is. We just have to figure out how he intends to destroy it.”

“The obvious guess would be to just turn off the machine,” Joshua offered.

“I know,” Simon said. “But the fact that they haven’t done that implies that it’s not the answer at all. Let’s do a little digging closer to the present.”

Earlier that day out in Simi Valley, the police finally did some digging in what was left of Ausmann’s house. It had been an obvious target for their attention for two reasons. One, there were no signs of life. Two, it was the only place in the entire neighborhood — indeed, the entire city — that had been razed by the storm.

When Detective Davis saw the homeowner’s insurance records that his staff had pulled on the place, he was immediately suspicious.

“Insured for twice market value, and that benefit is locked in,” he explained to one of his Lieutenants. “It’s written so that force majeure events are covered with triple indemnity.”

Force majeure?” his Lieutenant asked.

“Also known as ‘act of god.’ This guy have any other insurance?”

Twenty minutes later, the Lieutenant came back with the benefit details on the life insurance policies Ausmann had on himself and his wife, and Davis nearly shit his pants, thinking “Thank god HIPAA confidentiality only covers health insurance.

He sent his forensics team in to carefully explore the ruins, and they found Coraline’s body in about twenty minutes, face down in the hallway outside of what was clearly a panic room, the ceiling dumped on top of her.

Davis sighed. This was going to be one of those cases, he thought. A shit-ton of circumstantial evidence that pointed to a really guilty spouse taking advantage of this sudden act of god and murdering his wife, or one really unlucky son of a bitch who happened to lose his wife to an act of god that only served to make him look guilty as hell.

Davis was still looking over the records when Chief Lewis arrived and popped up next to him. “So,” she asked, “What do you think? Natural disaster, or homicide?”

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I really don’t. It all depends on whether we find her husband, whether we find him alive, and whether we can figure out where he was when this storm hit.”

Lewis looked at the insurance documents and let out a low whistle. “Well,” she said, “I can give you my professional opinion.”

“I think I know it already,” Davis replied.

“Damn straight, skippy. Guilty as hell unless he’s got an iron-clad alibi.”

Inside, Davis’ heart sank. Pursuing a guilty verdict against someone who was clearly richer than god was any LEO’s worst nightmare. Those assholes could afford to fight back, and make his life hell for the next decade.

“Okay, people,” he called out to his staff, “New assignment. Find her husband. All of his deets have been BT’d to you.”

Ausmann wasn’t stupid, and this exact scenario had been playing in his head from the second he decided to slam that board into his wife’s skull. He’d taken an Uber under an assumed name, using a burner phone with its GPS permanently disabled, and an untraceable pre-paid debit card. This got him from Simi out to Warner Center, where he hopped on the F Line, again using an untraceable TAP card paid for by that same debit card, then eventually made his way up to JPL via a last mile Uber that he ditched at the entrance.

His first lucky break came when he walked in to see all four of the guards staring intently at one monitor, and then he saw what was on it — porn. In fact, porn that had clearly been recorded in the parking lot Ausmann had just walked through where no sex was actually happening.

He cleared his throat loudly and they all looked at him. “I know that’s not one of our cams live,” he said. “Know how I know? Follow me.”

He led them outside to show them that the spot in the video had neither the car depicted nor the fucking couple, then he led them back in, telling the supervisor, Jerry, to shut off the monitor. He paced for a bit, then finally looked at them all and said, “Sorry. This is a severe violation of so many rules and regulations that I have no choice.”

“We thought it was a live — ” Pedro, the youngest of the guards started to say, but Jerry shot him a look that shut him up.

“You’re all fired,” Ausmann told them. “Watching porn at work, and where any visitors could see it? Really? Really? You’ve got one hour to clear out your things and go. Meanwhile, I’m confiscating the physical log books for the week, and I want you all to write down your network log-ins and passwords.”

There was a lot of grumbling, but Jerry wisely rode watch on them, which Ausmann appreciated. Of course, he would let Jerry’s medical benefits continue by keeping him on payroll as a “consultant,” but mainly because he knew that the man was not a boat-rocker.

How could he be? His wife was on chemo, and it was only through the gold-plated insurance that this Federal job gave them that he could afford to keep her alive.

The rest of them? Yeah, they were young and healthy, Ausmann thought. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.

Ausmann headed down the elevator, cut off from the sudden grumbling upstairs. Meanwhile, Pedro, Juan, and Cobre let the anger loose, and Jerry let them vent for a while.

“What a motherfucker,” Cobre declared. “Can we cut the oxygen off down there?”

“We should,” Juan agreed.

“That’s… a bit extreme, boys,” Jerry cut in.

“Ass-kisser,” Cobre muttered.

“What about the water?” Pedro offered.

“What about it?” Jerry asked.

“I mean… he doesn’t have to know that it’s not off because of the flood, right?”

Juan and Cobre agreed. “What’s the worst that can happen? He can’t flush a toilet or wash his hands?” Juan asked.

Jerry pondered for a long moment, finally agreeing. “Okay,” he said. “You can turn the water off. But, trust me, I’ve known him for a long time, and he is hiding something. Your best defense is to pretend that you know nothing.”

“Didn’t you already tell us something?” Cobre replied.

“Fuck,” Jerry said. “Okay. This. Get the hell out of here, forget you ever worked here, and I will do what I can to make sure that you wind up with better jobs somewhere else.”

“As long as it doesn’t involve sucking cock,” Pedro shot back.

“Oh, you fucking tease,” Juan sighed.

“No,” Jerry explained. “You forget that Ausmann wasn’t here before the storm, you don’t talk to anyone about it, and as far as you know, he came down as soon as it started raining.”

Juan, Pedro, and Cobre stared at Jerry for a long moment, until Cobre let out a quiet but dismayed, “What?”

“I think it’s called ‘selling out,’ Pedro said.”

“Ah,” Juan replied. “Right. So… Jerry… how much is that really, really worth to you?”

Twenty minutes later, each of the three guards had a net worth increased by half a million, and none of them would ever say a word about Ausmann. Or Jerry who, by this point, was just as guilty.

After all, the only reason he could afford to transfer them each that kind of money in cryptocurrency was because he had long ago sold the secret of what they colloquially called the Retro Telegraph to several foreign nations for far more than that — not so much to help them as to cause them the same kinds of problems it had caused here.

He wasn’t supposed to know about the machine, of course, but one of the secrets of the security industry was that the guards always knew everything. They kind of had to, although the “kids” in his charge generally didn’t. But Jerry had been given the same clearances as Ausmann when he had taken on the job as head of security.

Then his wife got sick, and he saw his opportunity. England, France, Switzerland, Mexico, and Holland all got a lot more “haunted” after that.

When he’d finished packing his things, he turned the water back on downstairs, then left for the last time, his ID, keys, and all that other rigmarole left on the counter inside the guard station. Naturally, he had a duplicate set at home.

He made sure the door was locked from inside behind him as he left, then hopped into the 2003 Toyota Corolla that he always drove to work. He was smart enough to know that most spies got caught by being too flashy with their purchases.

Ausmann arrived downstairs after the elevator stopped briefly. He figured that it must have been a couple of the guards fucking with him, but fortunately he had the override codes. He just had to find them, which took him a bit.

He had intentionally left his cell phone at home in the bedroom rubble, although he had also made sure to smash it after deleting any information older than the morning of the day the storm hit. Since he never used it to make calls and he had physically disabled the GPS in it, there wouldn’t be anything there to prove that he had been at home or hadn’t been at JPL for the last few days.

“I never take my phone to work with me because I have one built into the car, and I can’t take it down to work with me anyway, officers,” he had rehearsed in his head a million times, along with, “I asked my wife to give me a ride to work that morning because I knew we were going to be there for a few days on a critical mission, so I wanted her to have both cars, just in case.

“What’s that? No, I’m sorry, it’s highly classified work for the Federal government, so I can’t tell you that. Just that it involves monitoring of… scientific data, and we were expecting a lot to come in once forecasts of the nature of the storm started to arrive.”

He had been doing a lot of rehearsing in his head today, and once he found the tiny cryptic card with his most important passwords written on it, but encoded in a way that only he could understand, he punched in the override and the elevator moved again.

When the doors opened, he thought he heard noises coming from around the corner, followed by an echoing boom, so he ran to the pull-switch in the wall and activated lockdown. The sirens started doing their annoying as hell three second whoop, silence, repeat, and red lights with spinning reflectors lit along all of the hallways as the main lights dimmed.

Ausmann grabbed a flashlight, put on night vision goggles, and strapped a motion detector to his wrist. Well, one that would detect motion happening more than ten but less than fifty feet away from him, then he made a full circuit of the floor, finding nothing and no one.

“Must have been one of those fucking ghosts,” he grumbled. “He repeated this procedure for the other levels of the complex until he was satisfied that he was alone, then went to his office and shut off the lockdown protocol.

Finally, he was ready for his real mission with all of the distractions gone and himself sequestered in a safe place where not even the cops could get to him. He turned his computer on, logged into the network, and navigated to one particular folder.

“But what’s going on right now,” Pearl warned the boys after explaining all of the history of the Rêves and Las hadas up to that point, “Is that one vivant wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“Is that why those dudes have been hunting us?” Preston asked.

“They were unintentional pawns in the game,” Pearl said, “But we’ve looked into their hearts, and they feel so guilty about being used that they are now on our side. Even as we speak, they are working against the real enemy, a man named Ausmann.”

“Never heard of him,” Preston said.

“Lucky for you. He’s the entire reason that we unleashed that storm on the city the other night.”

You did that?” Danny asked in amazement.

“Of course,” Pearl said. “That’s our domain. Nature. We try to avoid human war because it’s full of things like hate and vengeance. And, as I said, this Ausmann person — I shouldn’t really even dignify him with the title vivant — wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“How do you destroy the dead?” Preston asked.

“My god, that motherfucker has no imagination,” Joshua said as he pointed to a folder that had been updated four days ago, the most recent one in the stack. It was titled Operation Ghost Toast.

“That’s the problem,” Pearl replied to Preston. “It’s not easy. But those idiot Class II’s — again, no offense — have mostly decided to join forces with Ausmann in favor of the humans.”

“Why?” Danny asked.

“Because without them we would be nothing!” Bette exhorted the troops rallied around her in the Westwood Cemetery. “They created us. They sustain us. So we will march with them!” She had taken on her persona from her appearance in the WW II era film Hollywood Canteen, and had turned this whole thing into a rally the troops moment with all of her other Class II’s who’d been there.

“But don’t take my word for it,” she announced. “Here’s a real treat for you all! Miss Betty Grable!”

Betty came dancing on in all of her full pin-up glory, and she proceeded to give a rousing speech urging all of the Class II’s to join their fight to defend Ausmann from the evil, greedy, and unknown Class I’s and the pretentious Class III’s. There was also a good dose of shaming of the Class II’s who had fled to Anabel’s side.

There was also a rousing speech from Valentino, finally, once one of the Rêves realized that he’d actually heard the man’s voice when he worked as a PA in the early days of Hollywood, before he’d gone on to minor fame as a character actor, and the Sheikh spoke in a strong accent that was heavily influenced by living his first eighteen years in Italy.

But the content of the speech was unmistakable as he excoriated Anabel, and he felt uniquely qualified to do so because they had been contemporaries. In fact, she had died exactly six months and twenty days before he did, although she had been older.

Still… he had stories about how she had screwed over Italian immigrants in San Francisco after the Great Earthquake, hadn’t been the nicest person ever, and how she now had a deep and bitter hatred for humans because giving birth to one had killed her.

He managed to fire the crowd up, partly because he was handsome and charismatic, but also because no one had ever heard Valentino speak before.

“A toast!” a voice cried out, and it was John Wayne, sitting on a ghost horse. “That dago tells the truth,” he announced. “Never trust a woman who goes into business,” he said. “Always trust the white man, because he will never do you wrong.”

“We never should have trusted Ausmann,” Simon said as they looked at the folder. “Operation Ghost Toast my ass.”

The first file in the folder was titled “READ ME.PDF,” so Simon, Joshua, and Ausmann all clicked.

The ensuing document was heavily redacted, and despite Joshua trying the copy and paste to text trick immediately, it didn’t matter. This document was truly redacted. It had the DARPA logo at the top, a time and date stamp, and then the From, To, and Subject fields were all blacked out, as was the greeting before the message, which itself read:

NOTICE REGARDGING TERMINATION OF OPERATION SLINGBACK: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY THE EQUIPMENT BE POWERED DOWN IMMEDIATELY DUE TO UNEXPECTED AND DANGEROUS AFTEREFFECTS POSSIBLY INVOLVING ████████████████████████████. PROPER TERMINATION PROCEDURE IS DOCUMENTED IN PUBLICATION SCP-██████ CLASSIFICATION LEVEL SUPRA EYES ONLY PER DIRECTIVE ██████████████████████, 27112004 ISSUED BY █████████████. INSTANT POWER DOWN IS ONLY AUTHORIZED IN CASES OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED BY POTUS.

“Well, fuck.” Joshua and Simon exclaimed together.

“There’s no way to shut this thing down?” Ausmann had wondered.

“So… if we break it, we can really fuck shit up?” Joshua asked, and Simon just shrugged.

“I love it when you’re non-committal, honey.” Joshua announced, but then both of their phones and the downstairs buzzer rang.

“What the fuck?” Joshua asked as Simon looked at, then answered, his phone. When he finally hung up, he looked at Joshua and his WTF face.

“What, dude?” he said. “That was Brenda, she found us and wants to come up to talk, so I gave her the entry code.”

“Talk about what?” Joshua replied.

“Dude, chill, she’s not a narc,” Simon said.

“But what does she want?” Joshua demanded, right before the elevator doors opened and Brenda entered.

“Hey, boys,” she said. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all for a long time. So, tell me. Earth is getting weird. Anything you want to say about it?”

Joshua and Simon just looked at each other, then at Brenda before giving weak smiles and sinking into their sofa in the living room, directing Brenda to the most comfortable seat.

They quickly caught her up on what they learned, leaving out the last bit about shutting down the machine, at the end of which she jumped up and said, “Oh my god. Then you absolutely have to call my boss, Rita.”

“What for?” Joshua asked.

“Apparently, they’re creating a department at the state level to basically do what you do, there are hints that they want me to run it, and my boss is strongly urging me to bring you along as our specialists.”

Joshua and Simon just started at each other a long moment, then turned back to Brenda.

“No,” they said in unison.

“We don’t want anything to do with this business anymore,” Joshua said.

“We’ve learned too much.”

Brenda took a deep breath. “All right. All right. I can understand. But, for me, can you please at least Zoom my boss and tell her no yourselves? She promised me a big promotion if you did that…”

Joshua and Simon exchanged another look between them that clearly spoke unstated volumes. Simon nodded, and Joshua replied.

“All right, fine. We’ll Zoom her, but can we at least tell her to go fuck herself and take her job offer and shove it?”

“Do you have any idea how much this position would pay?” Brenda countered.

“See this condo?” Joshua said.

“We… we own it,” Simon muttered , bashfully.

“This one, and the other one on this floor. Outright, free and clear, paid cash. You’ve seen our car. Anything your boss could offer us would be pocket change.”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“So, do we have your permission to tell her to go — ”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Brenda said. “Just don’t tell her that I said you could.” She scrolled and tapped her phone and Joshua’s and Simon’s chimed. “I just sent you the Zoom link. It’s a standing meeting that’s she’s got open, so any time you check in, she’ll notice.”

“Cool,” Simon said.

Brenda stood and headed for the door. “Thanks. And I do understand why you’re pretty tired of this shit. I just wish we could work together to end it.”

“Oh, we can,” Simon said. “We will.”

“There is something in the works. It just takes a few more steps. But we will definitely be in touch when we need you,” Joshua added.

“Thanks, guys!” Brenda said, and then she left. Simon and Joshua looked at each other.

“So,” Joshua said, “Now we just have to figure out how to save all of these innocent Rêves who did nothing while also saving a guilty human or two, and averting some sort of apocalyptic supernatural war.”

“Sounds to me like the most direct approach is to just turn off the machine,” Simon said.

“Yeah, but how are we going to get to it?” Joshua asked. “Even if Ausmann isn’t a factor, it sounds like that shit is probably under a fuckton of security codes and is probably harder to shut down than it is to launch a nuclear missile.”

“True,” Simon said. “But the real trick is figuring out the million dollar question.”

“Which is?”

“What does Ausmann want to do? Because whatever that is, we need to do the opposite.”

“Oh. Right,” Joshua replied, but then he had a sudden weird moment of vertigo in which he literally saw double when he looked at Simon. Of course, his eyes were watering, so the ghostly double-image he saw was probably a result of that. He took a moment, wiped his eyes, then carried on when things went back to normal. No reason to alarm Simon.

“So how do we figure out what he wants?” he asked.

“Good question,” Simon replied. “Meanwhile… good time to tell a bureaucrat to go fuck themselves?”

“Isn’t it always?” Joshua laughed.

Simon grinned and sent the Zoom address to their widescreen. Might as well get the full effect.

“Record it,” Joshua reminded him.

“Done,” Simon said, right before Rita let them into the room.

“Boys!” she greeted them. “Hello!”

That opening made the impending “go fuck yourself” all the sweeter.

* * *
Image source: CERN, (CC) BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Forces of nature

If you want to truly be amazed by the wonders of the universe, the quickest way to do so is to learn about the science behind it.

And pardon the split infinitive in that paragraph, but it’s really not wrong in English, since it became a “rule” only after a very pedantic 19th century grammarian, John Comly, declared that it was wrong to do so — although neither he nor his contemporaries ever called it that. Unfortunately, he based this on the grammar and structure of Latin, to which that of English bears little resemblance.

That may seem like a digression, but it brings us back to one of the most famous modern split infinitives that still resonates throughout pop culture today: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” and this brings us gracefully back to science and space.

That’s where we find the answer to the question “Where did we come from?” But what would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?

One quick and easy answer is the Big Bang. This is the idea, derived from the observation that everything in the universe seems to be moving away from everything else, so that at one time everything must have been in the same place. That is, what became the entire universe was concentrated into a single point that then somehow exploded outward into, well, everything.

But the Big Bang itself did not instantly create stars and planets and galaxies. It was way too energetic for that. So energetic, in fact, that matter couldn’t even form in the immediate aftermath. Instead, everything that existed was an incredibly hot quantum foam of unbound quarks. Don’t let the words daunt you. The simple version is that elements are made up of atoms, and an atom is the smallest unit of any particular element — an atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, etc. Once you move to the subatomic particles that make up the atom, you lose any of the properties that make the element unique, most of which have to do with its atomic weight and the number of free electrons wrapped around it.

Those atoms in turn are made up of electrons that are sort of smeared out in a statistical cloud around a nucleus made up of at least one proton (hydrogen), and then working their way up through larger collections of protons (positively charged), an often but not always equal number of neutrons (no charge), and a number of electrons (negatively charged) that may or may not equal the number of protons.

Note that despite what you might have learned in school, an atom does not resemble a mini solar system in any particular way at all, with the electron “planets” neatly orbiting the “star” that is the nucleus. Instead, the electrons live in what are called orbitals and shells, but they have a lot more to do with energy levels and probable locations than they do with literal placement of discrete dots of energy.

Things get weird on this level, but they get weirder if you go one step down and look inside of the protons and neutrons. These particles themselves are made up of smaller particles that were named quarks by Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Man as a direct homage to James Joyce. The word comes from a line from Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake, which itself is about as weird and wonderful as the world of subatomic science. “Three quarks for muster mark…”

The only difference between a proton and a neutron is the configuration of quarks inside. I won’t get into it here except to say that if we call the quarks arbitrarily U and D, a proton has two U’s and one D, while a neutron has two D’s and one U.

And for the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang, the universe was an incredibly hot soup of all these U’s and D’s flying around, unable to connect to each other because the other theoretical particles that could have tied them together, gluons, couldn’t get a grip. The universe was also incredibly dark because photons couldn’t move through it.

Eventually, as things started to cool down, the quarks and gluons started to come together, creating protons and neutrons. The protons, in turn, started to hook up with free electrons to create hydrogen. (The neutrons, not so much at first, since when unbound they tend to not last a long time.) Eventually, the protons and neutrons did start to hook up and lure in electrons, creating helium. This is also when the universe became transparent, because now the photons could move through it freely.

But we still haven’t quite gotten to the force that created all of us just yet. It’s not the attractive force that pulled quarks and gluons together, nor is it the forces that bound electrons and protons. That’s because, given just those forces, the subatomic particles and atoms really wouldn’t have done much else. But once they reached the stage of matter — once there were elements with some appreciable (though tiny) mass to toss around, things changed.

Vast clouds of gas slowly started to fall into an inexorable dance as atoms of hydrogen found themselves pulled together, closer and closer, and tighter and tighter. The bigger the cloud became, the stronger the attraction until, eventually, a big enough cloud of hydrogen would suddenly collapse into itself so rapidly that the hydrogen atoms in the middle would slam together with such force that it would overcome the natural repulsion of the like-charged electron shells and push hard enough to force the nuclei together. And then you’d get… more helium, along with a gigantic release of energy.

And so, a star is born. A bunch of stars. A ton of stars, everywhere, and in great abundance, and with great energy. This is the first generation of stars in the universe and, to quote Bladerunner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” These early stars were so energetic that they didn’t make it long, anf they managed to really squish things together. You see, after you turn hydrogen into helium, the same process turns helium into heavier elements, like lithium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. And then, once it starts to fuse atoms into iron, a funny thing happens. Suddenly, the process stops producing energy, the star collapses into itself, and then it goes boom, scattering those elements aback out into the universe.

This process will happen to stars that don’t burn as brightly, either. It will just take longer. The first stars lasted a few hundred million years. A star like our sun is probably good for about ten billion, and we’re only half way along.

But… have you figured out yet which force made these stars create elements and then explode and then create us, because that was the question: “What would you say exactly is the ultimate force that wound up directly creating each one of us?”

It’s the same force that pulled those hydrogen atoms together in order to create heavier elements and then make stars explode in order to blast those elements back out into the universe to create new stars and planets and us. It’s the same reason that we have not yet mastered doing nuclear fusion because we cannot control this force and don’t really know yet what creates it. It’s the same force that is keeping your butt in your chair this very moment.

It’s called gravity. Once the universe cooled down enough for matter to form — and hence mass — this most basic of laws took over, and anything that did have mass started to attract everything else with mass. That’s just how it works. And once enough mass got pulled together, it came together tightly enough to overcome any other forces in the universe.  Remember: atoms fused because the repulsive force of the negative charge of electrons was nowhere near strong enough to resist gravity, and neither was the nuclear force between protons and neutrons.

Let gravity grow strong enough, in fact, and it can mash matter so hard that it turns every proton in a star into a neutron which is surrounded by a surface cloud of every electron sort of in the same place, and this is called a neutron star. Squash it even harder, and you get a black hole, a very misunderstood (by lay people) object that nonetheless seems to actually be the anchor (or one of many) that holds most galaxies together.

Fun fact, though. If our sun suddenly turned into a black hole (unlikely because it’s not massive enough) the only effect on the Earth would be… nothing for about eight minutes, and then it would get very dark and cold, although we might also be fried to death by a burst of gamma radiation. But the one thing that would not happen is any of the planets suddenly getting sucked into it.

Funny thing about black holes. When they collapse like that and become one, their radius may change drastically, like from sun-sized to New York-sized, but their gravity doesn’t change at all.

But I do digress. Or maybe not. Circle back to the point of this story: The universal force that we still understand the least also happens to be the same damn force that created every single atom in every one of our bodies. Whether it has its own particle or vector, or whether it’s just an emergent property of space and time, is still anybody’s guess. But whichever turns out to be true, if you know some science, then the power of gravity is actually quite impressive.