Bounded by Infinity


Poems from a Notebook [#6022]

The first time I met Dr. Antonov, face-to-face and in the flesh, I was left shaken and dispirited. He was the colossus who had bestrode the world of theoretical physics since before I made it my career. The talks for which he was renowned — at once accessible and inspiring without being trivial or condescending (a common failing of so many who seek to ‘popularise’ science) — were instrumental in my choosing to take that path in the first place. So I was as excited as anyone when the news broke that he would be joining us at the Everett Institute, and on the allotted day I gathered in the facility’s atrium with what seemed to be the entire staff to welcome him.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing the crumpled husk of a man which the winter wind blew in. He moved as if in a daze as Dr. Fitzgerald walked him down the row of supplicants, introducing us each in turn. The hand I was offered was a dry and brittle twig; the shake had no life to it, a dead branch bowing in the wind. His eyes, still wide and owl-like, were deep and empty.

The reason for this transformation was no secret. The death of Antonov’s wife had been one of those rare occasions when even the stuffiest of journals had allowed the mask to slip, hinting that there were humans rather than dispassionate science machines behind the curtain, and had printed the sad news along with their condolences. Sarah Antonov had been a physicist of some note herself — although, like the rest of us, she would always be in her husband’s shadow — and so it had doubly felt like a death in the family.

I had assumed, along with most everyone else, that Antonov had chosen to join the Institute because of the opportunity for solitude it offered, rather than for the research we were conducting. Our life here under the mountain — almost monastic, the seclusion partly mandated by our government sponsors — had become something of a joke amongst the community. We were lab-coated dwarves delving deeply for knowledge. But ultimately, Antonov was to prove this assumption wrong.

My main responsibility at that time was to oversee the construction of the experimental apparatus which would provide the data for our next round of research. This wasn’t really a scientist’s job — well, maybe a geologists — but it gave me the unexpected opportunity to get to know Dr. Antonov. He had been taken on without a brief — effectively written a blank cheque, his mere presence and his name on the Institute’s note paper more than enough to keep the Directors happy — and was free to choose to join whichever research group he wished. For some reason he gravitated to the construction work. We would spend long hours walking together through the tunnels which were to carry the coolant lines, or around the circumference of the great central cavern where the segments of the DeWitt torus were gradually being assembled. He would be silent for much of the time, occasionally asking an insightful question which would test the limits of my knowledge of the equipment.

I in turn took the chance to study him. I’d heard the phrase ‘numb with grief’ before — I’d thought I’d felt that way myself once or twice — but it wasn’t until I’d spent time with Dr. Antonov that I really came to understand what it meant. It was as if his wife’s death had enveloped him in a thick membrane, separating him from the rest of the world. He could no longer touch it and it could no longer touch him. His every interaction was muffled and deadened. It was heartbreaking to see the man I so admired broken down like this, but what was even worse were the few moments when the Antonov of old would break through. I’d explain some minutiae of the equipment or the theory underlying it and a smile would suddenly break out on his face and he would mutter happily to himself, “Oh, really? You don’t say? Well, that is marvellous. You know, Sarah would absolutely love that. Yes, she would.”

Eventually, Dr. Antonov joined our group (something for which I received far more credit than was my due). There was never a point at which this formally happened. Instead, he had simply started following me from our tours of the tunnel system into the planning meetings. Of course no one was going to ask him to leave, so there he would sit, in the corner, staring off into space and, very occasionally, clearing his throat and then throwing some small, revelatory comment into the conversation. That was how the Zurek process came about, as an offhand comment which caused us to rip up a couple of years’ work — and at least one career — and start afresh down a new path which took us where we wanted to go in a fraction of the time it would otherwise have taken us.

It quickly became the general consensus that as Dr. Antonov became more involved with the project — as he ‘threw himself into his work‘ — it slowly began to pull him out of the fugue which had taken him. I couldn’t help agreeing. He seemed far more animated than at any time since he joined the Institute, taking the lead on certain aspects of the work, chivvying others along. Maybe there was something reckless in his actions, in the hours he worked and the energy he expended, but was that so different from the rest of us? Hundred-hour weeks became the norm as the torus neared completion and the moment when we powered it up for the first time approached.

The melancholy remained — you could hardly expect it to dispel completely, no matter how compelling the distractions — but it was kept private. I sometimes wonder if I was the only one allowed to witness it. There was one evening in particular, in the week leading up to the first test. I passed the door to Dr. Antonov’s office and, finding it ajar, glanced in. He was sat at his desk, staring into space, a bottle of whisky and a glass before him.

I knocked gently and entered. He didn’t look up until I was stood beside him, and then he only flicked his eyes over me briefly before looking away.

“Today — ” he began, clearing his throat and then starting again, “Today is the anniversary of the day I first met Sarah, and of the day, a year after that, on which we were married.” He picked up the glass, studied it for a moment and then placed it carefully back on the desk. I looked at the level of liquid in the bottle and in the glass and estimated that, if he had drunk any of the whisky at all, it was only the smallest of sips.

“We argued, that first time we met,” he continued. “Many Worlds versus Copenhagen. This was at a conference. In Malmö — which I’m told is ironic — but not being a poet I’ll have to bow to their greater expertise on this point. We argued late into the night, and then over e-mail for the next few months. I don’t know what it was that made this particular exchange so… unprofessional — it’s not like I hadn’t rehearsed the same arguments a thousand times before — but in the end we managed to frustrate each other so that it was half a year before we spoke again.” He picked up the glass once more and stared into it, swilling the amber liquid around and around. “She planned to take a sabbatical. We were going to start a family.”

I took the glass from his hand and drained it in one swallow.

“You should go to bed,” I told him. “Get some rest. It’s late and we’ve got a lot to do this week.”

He looked up at me, blinked his owlish eyes once, and then nodded in placid compliance.

The first test of the assembled equipment — the DeWitt torus, the Zurek apparatus, the Deutsch tensor — was a success. In the weeks and months which followed, the already hectic pace of our work only accelerated, driven by the wonders we were discovering. Otherwise preoccupied, it was easy to convince myself that this was exactly the spur Dr. Antonov needed to return him to his previous self, and certainly if you had seen him at that time — hunched over a screen, devouring new data, or at the whiteboard, leading the evisceration of the latest theory or the formulation of the next — it was hard not to conclude that that was what was happening.

You’ve probably seen the footage, by now iconic, immortalised on someone’s camera phone, of our first glimpse of the Tegmark-Hilbert corridor. A thousand strands of coruscating light, weaving around each other, writhing and snaking, entwining to create the tubular void which marked the boundary of our reality. Would you believe me if I told you that every subtle change of hue shown on those screens, every shift in pattern and tone, held a definite, discreet meaning? Probably not. I think I said something to the same effect myself at the time.

“It’s hard to believe that something so beautiful is the product of nothing more than cold, hard science, isn’t it?”

“Oh, it’s easy enough,” said Dr. Antonov, staring with rapt attention at the monitor. “Anyone who’s ever looked at a snowflake can believe it.” And then, under his breath, so quietly that I’m still not sure whether I imagined it: “Sarah would have loved to have seen this. She would have loved it. Loved it.”

I won’t bore you with a complete catalogue of the wondrous things we discovered in those weeks. You can look them up in the text books for yourself (or failing that, I hear the Wikipedia article isn’t too far from accurate). I just wish I could adequately describe the energy and excitement which permeated the Institute at that time. The whole facility buzzed and pulsed with it. All notions of work days and shifts were abandoned as everyone became caught up in the adventure. Sleep was missed; showers went untaken. It’s unlikely anyone would have remembered to eat if the rolling mealtimes in the cafeteria hadn’t become the central forum for information exchange between the disparate research groups.

Mealtimes were also the only chance I had to keep up with news of Dr. Antonov — my duties keeping me occupied deep within the bowels of the control centre — although he never put in an appearance himself. One of a multitude of star-struck junior researchers would come to collect a tray of food to take back to him in the lab he’d commandeered, and I’d buttonhole them or one of the other members of his staff and press them for word of his wellbeing. That’s how I first came to hear about the success he had had in probing the membrane which separated our universe — our reality — from the myriad others which swam and curled about it.

“He’s discovered actual information flow between tunnels,” a young post-grad explained excitedly, while spooning down mashed potatoes and gravy. “You can get a reading from the other membrane where it presses against ours.”

“How — ?”

“ — does he get a clear reading? He found — and this is the absolutely incredible bit — he found a blip in the readings, a micro-second where an area of our membrane was clear of outside interference. From that he was able to calibrate the Zurek apparatus. And now he’s got the entire compute lab working on processing signatures from all these other realities.”

“So — ”

“So if we’ve got information transfer — yes, alright, shut up — I’m going to say it — if we’ve got information transfer then there’s a chance that we’ll be able to physically cross over ourselves!”

Those were exciting days, incredible days. If I live to be a thousand I shouldn’t think I’ll ever experience anything quite like them. But you know what they say about all good things. As with where it all started — with the throwing of a switch and the first powering-up of the torus — I can just as accurately pinpoint where it ended: with the arrival of General Morris. Our benevolent benefactors had come to reclaim their investment. Overnight the utopia of pure science which we had created was torn asunder. Most of the research projects were shelved, their staff either reassigned, or — more frequently — made to sign certain papers and then bussed away from the facility. The excited buzz was hushed, to be replaced instead with whispers and innuendo.

At first I tried to ignore the rumours. Scientists are as prone to professional jealousies and infighting as the members of any other profession — okay, probably more so than any other profession — and so I put the rumours down to bitterness on the part of those whose work had been cancelled, aimed at those who were allowed to remain. But eventually it was none other than Dr. Fitzgerald, furiously packing up his office, watched by a couple of impassive Marines, who convinced me of their voracity.

“That man. That pal of yours. Antonov.” He spat the name. “He wants to weaponise the parallel realities. Weaponise! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. He’s mad, of course, but they believe him. Oh, if I could find the world where I didn’t make the damned fool mistake of inviting him here. How I curse that dark day.”

I found Dr. Antonov in his old office, hunched over a buff notebook which he folded shut as I walked in. I straight-up confronted him with Fitzgerald’s accusations.

He sat for a moment, blinking his eyes — still owl-like, still empty — before calmly replying. “You see, David, it’s all about power.”

“Power?” I couldn’t keep the disgust from my voice.

“Yes. No.” He was flustered at my reaction. “No, not that sort of power — I mean, what would I want with that sort of power? — I mean energy, David. Electricity. They’ve offered me a dam.”

“A dam?”

“And a couple of reactors. Portable ones. You see, we simply couldn’t run the equipment to its full potential — and this really is no reflection on the superb job you’re doing — on the commercial supply we have available to us.”

He made it all sound so logical.

“Fitzgerald said you were building a weapon.”

“I am. Of sorts. Maybe it would be better described as a shortcut around weapons. It’s all about statistics.”


“Statistics. Since the Cold War, so much of what the military does — so much of how it thinks — is to do with statistics. Think of the Rand Corporation. All those studies which concluded that if we took this course of action then so many millions would die, but if instead we took that course it would be some different millions dying in their place. But what if we were to look at it from the other direction? What if we were to reverse the cause and the effect, the event and the observation. What if, instead of fighting a war, we simply chose, from the billions of possible futures, the one where the outcome we desired has occurred. Wouldn’t that be a much more sensible approach?”

I told him that he was mad, and walked out.

Somehow I kept my job. Maybe Dr. Antonov felt some sympathy with my position. Maybe he simply forgot about the encounter as soon as I had left, becoming engrossed once more in his work as soon as his back was turned. Whatever the reason, I stayed on at the facility while the last of the research teams deemed non-essential departed and the military completed their occupation. My job became mostly that of an advisor, standing passively by as the Army engineers laid the cables which would bring in the needed power. To give credit where it’s due, they worked quickly and efficiently, and before long we were once again ready to fire up the torus.

The morning before experiments recommenced dragged slowly by. Now with nothing more than a nominal role in proceedings, I hung around the darker corners of the main control room, trying not to get in anybody’s way. As the allotted hour approached and the room began to fill, it gradually dawned on me that there was somebody missing. When he still hadn’t appeared twenty minutes before the start time, I quietly slipped out and went looking for Dr. Antonov.

He wasn’t in his lab. None of his acolytes could tell me where he was. No one could remember seeing him recently. I made my way through empty corridors to the administration block. His door stood ajar. His office was empty.

I sat down at Dr. Antonov’s desk, my search already at its fruitless conclusion. The facility was a massive warren of tunnels. I had helped plan and build them, and while that gave me a certain advantage when it came to searching for someone within them, it also meant I understood exactly what a herculean task it would be.

From the mess of papers strewn across the surface of the desk, a corner of buff notebook caught my attention. I pulled Dr. Antonov’s lab journal towards me and opened it at the last marked page. The entry was dated that day, scrawled in an uncertain hand and doubly underlined. I’m coming, Sarah. We’ll be together soon.

My heart racing, I flicked backwards, stopping here and there to read more. One page held a sprawling equation. On one side of the equality sign was a complex jumble of figures and runes. I recognised it from some of the embryonic papers which had been circulated as representing a set of readings inferred from the reality membrane — the unique signature of one of the near-infinite number of swarming universes. On the other side, in the same handwriting: Sarah!!

I flicked further backwards, coming at last to a diagram. It showed a sphere of sorts, wedged at the confluence of three hatched lines. The markings they bore were all too familiar to me, identifying them as part of the facility’s infrastructure. They indicated a single precise location within the great web of experimental apparatus.

I sprinted from the room and was there in a few minutes.

The sphere from the diagram, made real, resembled a deep water submersible, squat and tough, its bare metal skin seamed with lines of heavy bolts. It was partly hidden behind a nest of cables, casually draped in plastic sheeting.

Dr. Antonov was stood by it, leaning in through the open hatchway.

“I’m afraid you’re leaving it awfully late for goodbyes,” he said pleasantly, straightening up. He checked his wristwatch. “There’s little more than a minute until power-on. You should get clear.” He began clambering awkwardly into the sphere.

“You’re going to try to cross the membrane.” I don’t think I really believed it myself until I said it aloud. “You’re going to try to go to another reality.”

“Not just any reality.” He reached out and took hold of the hatch.

“You think you’ve found one where your wife is still alive?”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. And not just where she didn’t — she didn’t — ” He paused, hauling on the heavy door, unable, even now, to say the words.

I ran forward and helped swing the hatch closed.

“Thank you, David,” Dr. Antonov said, through the remaining narrow gap. “I’m going to a better world, one where she and I are happy together, as we should have been in this one.”

“But doesn’t that mean — ” I began. The hatchway shut with a heavy, final clunk, before I could finish the question. The tunnels began to hum as the machinery within them came to life. A fog of coolant fell in roiling streams from the pipework. I ran, managing to put a few hundred meters and several turns behind me before the pulse of pressure caught me and threw me to the ground.

The sphere was gone when I went back to look, and with it Dr. Antonov. I didn’t get to finish asking my final question, about the parallel world where Antonov’s wife Sarah still lived, and about the other Dr. Antonov who surely lived there, too, sharing in her happiness. Nevertheless, I had received my answer. He had understood what I was asking, and in the brief moment that we looked at each other through the door’s thick glass dome, he had replied with a single, sad, resigned nod.

And in that moment I had also seen, behind him in the sphere, propped against the far wall, the gun.