While the space around him formed itself into new curves, and time itself distorted, he still found himself able to think, able to distance his mind and remember. Focusing on the life he’d had helped, somehow: sadness, regret and the sensation of loss were still preferable to the knowledge of the inevitable.
Sometimes, he reflected, it was better to be ignorant.
Dr Nathan Adams had always been rational. Logical almost to a fault, he measured his life, factored it into his past and extrapolated the possible futures. His interminable curiosity only spurred him on, pushing him to learn more, measure more, calculate more. In his mind, greater knowledge could never be anything but beneficial.
He was a theoretical physicist. A postdoctoral researcher working on one of the ATLAS experiments at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, he was one of the thousands of people working and living at the massive collaboration. Day after day, he worked through repetitive calculations in the hope of finding that Holy Grail of particle physics, the Higgs boson, in the midst of all the high collision energy and the chaos it produced.
He sat up and stretched, as he always did, before hitting the alarm on his bedside table. 07:00, the clock read: time to get out of bed. He checked his appearance in the small mirror on top of his chest-of-drawers. A nearly bald 31-year-old looked resignedly back, as if his mirror-self was tired of being stared at every morning.
Nathan turned away after a moment and went through his morning routines with barely another thought: in the four months since he’d joined the collaboration he’d become comfortably accustomed to his hostel accommodation. He left his small apartment, winding his way through the buildings, past the car parks and onto Route de Meyrin, the main road that divided the Meyrin site and the ATLAS experiment buildings. Passing the Globe on his way in, he headed for his office, one of many inside ATLAS’ main building. Climbing the stairs to the second-level walkway, grabbing a coffee from the machine on the way, Nathan reached the small space he shared with four colleagues.
He turned on his computer, took a sip of his cheap Nescafé coffee, and sighed inwardly as he waited for the desktop to load. A six-billion-pound project, and still the researchers were stuck using Windows XP – upgrading the entire, huge network of computers for every new operating system was an impossible task, one he had to admit he didn’t blame the small ICT department for not undertaking. Although he had to admit, the internet connection was spectacularly fast.
Leaning back in his chair and stretching out for the second time that day, he nodded to one of his colleagues as he entered the small office, and decided to make an effort to be more positive. After all, he was working on a multi-billion pound project at the cutting edge of modern particle physics. It was a shame that the final outcome, which would either confirm current theories completely or turn them entirely upside-down, would only come after years of painstaking, routine research.
His desktop finally appeared, with the picture of his family – two sisters and his parents – smiling at him from behind the icons. He stretched out his arms and cracked his knuckles – if his older sister, Joanna, had been here she would have winced. Nathan smiled at the thought – he missed Joanna. She was always easy to wind up and quick to forgive, qualities that Nathan thought made for an ideal sibling.
Double-clicking on Outlook, Nathan leant forward and mentally prepared himself for work. His e-mails came up on screen: thankfully, there weren’t many messages that had appeared since he’d left the office yesterday. There were, Nathan thought, a few blessings of working late.
Deleting the Health & Safety e-mails without reading them, simply out of habit – they never said anything new anyway, and he never went anywhere remotely risky – he looked at the other messages. One about the agenda for the research group’s weekly meeting, today – he’d forgotten it was a Wednesday – another about a possible meeting with the estates people to discuss the lack of running water in one of the kitchens, again, and a third – from the LHC Safety Assessment Group, the LSAG.
Subject: Previous LSAG assessment criticised
Sent: 16th February 2011
It appears that a group of physicists has re-calculated the probability of the LHC collisions producing a micro black hole and found that the possibility, while still only one part in 50 million, does exist for collisions of energies above 7 TeV, the energy that the collider has been operating above since March last year. LSAG and the CERN council would like to inform you that while we hold to our original conclusions made in the 2008 report, we would like to offer anyone who wishes the opportunity to review and assess this collaborative paper (attached).
Should you find any inconsistencies or errors, or find yourself agreeing with the group’s conclusions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
We would very much appreciate your support in dealing with the press over this sensitive matter.
Nathan deleted the e-mail. He knew, as everyone working at CERN did, that there was only an infinitesimal chance of the collisions producing a micro black hole, let alone one that could grow or do any damage. It had been proven, assessed, reviewed and assured so many times that there was no point in even trying to dissent.
Not that Nathan would dissent anyway. He’d read the LSAG’s report – everyone who worked at CERN had – and he agreed with every one of the conclusions it made. If he hadn’t, after all, he certainly wouldn’t be working here.
He glanced at the other two e-mails, then opened up CERN’s back-end system and got to work, looking at the collision patterns that the software had flagged up as being possibly Higgs-related. Nathan was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate fully on each pattern as his days at CERN continued – the more he saw, the more alike they all looked. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, only all the hay looked like needles.
Still, he was nothing if not determined. Holding in his mind his picture of the moment when he found pure, incontrovertible evidence of the Higgs – when he proved that all his previous work on the collision dynamics had been worth it, and proved that those damned annoying supersymmetry advocates had got it all wrong – he started looking through the patterns, studying each in detail and discarding them, slightly reluctantly, when they showed little evidence of the particle he so longed to find.
As he leant back in his chair for what must have been at least the third time that day so far, he was startled by the general warning and evacuation alarm; but only for a fleeting moment, barely enough to recognise it. It didn’t stop, exactly; it was cut off, but the silence was not the sharp, immediate silence of a switch being flicked. Instead, the silence seemed somehow muffled, as if sound itself had been swallowed
He was drifting. No, not drifting: he was spinning, flying, floating… he was trapped in free space, growing increasingly aware of the strong pull on his body. It was pure, undiluted force, so powerful that Nathan could feel nothing else.
Nathan’s brain tried to find the logical pattern, as it had done all his life, but for the first time Nathan could draw no conclusions, form no rational argument. It was just… nothing. Except he knew, that was wrong, because nothing implied the existence of something, and he couldn’t remember if something had ever truly existed. Surrounded by incomprehensible, total, neverending lack, he could barely remember anything else.
Twisting yet static, ruptured yet whole, the blackness swallowed him, convulsing. Nathan knew he should have been afraid, worried, terrified, but there was nothing. Perhaps there had always been nothing.
He felt stretched and squeezed, as if his very atoms were trying to disassemble – which, he reflected logically, they probably were. For in the brief minutes – or was it hours, or even days – he’d worked out what had happened.
That infinitesimally small probability, the danger that all the researchers had laughed at, had come to pass anyway. Overcoming the odds, it had spread, and would likely continue to do so.
Humanity was gone, a hole where it should have been.
Sometimes, Nathan reflected, it was better to be ignorant.