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…


  1. #1 The Backpacker
    October 14, 2009

    OOooo so shiny. I would ask how it works but being a bio wanabe I would havehave no idea of what you are talking about.

  2. #2 William
    October 14, 2009

    Sounds a lot like Timothy Zahn’s novella “Time Bomb”, published in 1988. It’s not one of his better stories.

  3. #3 phisrow
    October 14, 2009

    That is a pretty awesome looking bit of apparatus. Though, I must admit, the little pieces of wood are a trifle incongruous. Are they temporary?

  4. #4 onymous
    October 15, 2009

    This post is lacking one key thing: the phrase “let me show you it”. Or perhaps I should say, your awareness of all internet traditions: let you show us it.

  5. #5 Doug Natelson
    October 15, 2009

    Remember the Niven story, “On massive rotating cylinders and the possibility of global causality violation”? To sabotage the enemy, all we need to do is leak the plans of a time machine to their leadership, which will then be wiped out by the Universe to avoid

  6. #6 Patrick LeClair
    October 15, 2009

    We have a saying we like to teach to all the new lab students: wood and black tape on an apparatus means temporary, and you should fix it properly. Wish it were really true … still have thousands of dollars of electronics propped up on wood blocks in case of flooding, and black tape patching cables.

  7. #7 Bob O'H
    October 15, 2009

    William Dembski had used similar reasoning to explain the problem of evil. Apparently The Fall acted retroactively.

    Guess what? Nobody takes him seriously either.

  8. #8 Tom
    October 15, 2009

    What, no duct tape?

  9. #9 dean
    October 15, 2009

    I mentioned this at another site too. I have a different take on the seriousness of the foolish story: I think stories like this one will make it much more difficult to knock down the woo that chopra and others of his ilk spread: “How can you say that about Dr. Chopra – why is he any more foolish than that respected physicist saying …”

    Perhaps I over-react, but I’m hesitant to assign an upper bound to the stupidity of some people.

  10. #10 llewelly
    October 15, 2009

    Will that thing turn the universe into a puddle of sticky goo, or is it the Ultimate Freeze Ray?

  11. #11 Jamie
    October 15, 2009

    Shouldn’t that thing be threatening Princess Leia in a cell somewhere?

  12. #12 NoAstronomer
    October 15, 2009

    Well, whatever it is it’s obviously not complete yet – there’s still room to bolt more bits on.

  13. #13 Mike5
    October 15, 2009

    I find that blue tape gives apparatus a nice visual pop, and it looks more professional than black, duct, or, heaven forbid, masking tape.

    P.S. Backpacker/bio wanna be – take heart:

  14. #14 Adam
    October 15, 2009

    I work on a big UHV system (fills a large lab), and frequently find that when installing or removing some doodad or another, that they invariably tend to look like ray guns. So I always wind up pointing them at the other grad students and going “pew pew” or “rata tat tat.”

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 15, 2009

    Don’t ask me. I’m the Theorist. My wife is the Experimentalist, who’s been teaching Physics labs for over a decade in university, after her PhD, Postdoc, and stints in Industry. I only taught one Physics Lab, technically an Astrophysics Lab. We never blew up the universe, made black hole, or time traveled backwards. I like your Lab Run Amok stories… But am more than dubious about the LHC kerfuffle as Bad Sci-Fi.

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    October 15, 2009

    ?That is a pretty awesome looking bit of apparatus. Though, I must admit, the little pieces of wood are a trifle incongruous. Are they temporary?

    No. They’re just shims to hold the coils in place. I probably could’ve made something nicer out of plastic, but that would’ve required more time in the machine shop.

    Well, whatever it is it’s obviously not complete yet – there’s still room to bolt more bits on.

    Exactly. It’s not just scary-looking, it’s versatile!

    I mentioned this at another site too. I have a different take on the seriousness of the foolish story: I think stories like this one will make it much more difficult to knock down the woo that chopra and others of his ilk spread: “How can you say that about Dr. Chopra – why is he any more foolish than that respected physicist saying …”

    I think that is a concern. Though Chopra and his ilk have no problem finding ways to spin much more serious physical ideas into quackery, so it’s not like not running this story would slow them down at all.

  17. #17 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 15, 2009

    Chad. Chad, Chad, Chad.

    See, your experiment is always having improbable disasters, in THIS universe.

    In innumerable other universes it worked first time, you already won the Nobel Prize and are far too busy giving invited talks, spending your Prize money and generally whooping it up to have any time to blog.

    So… the fact that we are reading about it on your blog, is selecting all us readers, and you, to be in the rare fraction of multiverses in which your experiment keeps failing for improbably reasons.

    Much simpler.

  18. #18 CCPhysicist
    October 15, 2009

    I also want to praise the use of bits of wood in your design.

  19. #19 Doug Little
    October 15, 2009

    What the hell does that thing do. It looks like it belongs in a computer game. Am I going to have to learn to fight something from another dimension when you turn that thing on. Where is Doctor Who when you need him.

  20. #20 Elijah
    October 15, 2009

    Man, I’m jealous. None of the gear I get to use looks anywhere near that cool.
    But then, I’m a chemist, not a physicist.

  21. #21 Kaleberg
    October 15, 2009

    Wow, Boing Boing doesn’t even get pictures of stuff like that!

  22. #22 IanW
    October 16, 2009

    Your invention didn’t ring any bells with me, so you definitely qualify for the No Bell prize….

  23. #23 Adam H
    October 18, 2009

    Could you be more explicit about what it is you’re trying to accomplish? Too late on a Saturday for my feeble mind to work out and I don’t feel like clicking a hundred links. I looked at the arxiv abstract, but I still don’t grok it. Infinite thanks.

  24. #24 Rob Moser
    October 18, 2009

    The wooden shims you’re using for the coil appear to be unseparated chopsticks from Chinese takeout. Excellent. :D

    What do you suppose the chance of a resonance cascade is once you achieve full operation of your device? Do you have a crowbar handy?

  25. #25 Patrick Nielsen Hayden
    October 18, 2009

    Teresa says if you ever take that thing apart, she wants the copper wire, in order to make an awesome pair of steampunk goggles.

  26. #26 Teresa Nielsen Hayden
    October 18, 2009

    I like the wooden shims. They add narrative verisimilitude. Without them, it would just be a big shiny piece of lab equipment. With them, it’s a big shiny piece of lab equipment *in progress,* which makes it much more interesting.

    Mega-cool, in any event. I covet it. You don’t need a steampunk/mad scientist costume at Halloween. You can just pin a photo of your experimental apparatus where a name badge would normally go.

  27. #27 Teresa Nielsen Hayden
    October 18, 2009

    Whoops, Patrick commented first. It’s all true, except I also covet those cylindrical extrusions.

  28. #28 Bruce Arthurs
    October 18, 2009

    Where do you put the water in, and where does the expresso come out?

  29. #29 Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey
    October 18, 2009

    This is the kind of thing movie set designers struggle to imitate when they represent lab apparatus. Some do it badly, some do it well.

    Visitors often tell us our Cockcroft-Walton electrostatic accelerators look like “something out of a science fiction movie.” Well, sure. They’re 1930s technology. When moviemakers portrayed laboratories in the 1930s, they copied the knobby look of state-of-the-art high-voltage equipment like this.

  30. #30 agentzee
    October 27, 2009

    If anything needs to be built into a very large tesla coil it’s that.

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