The Fever Dream of a Theoretical Physicist Asleep in his Office at CERN

Francis had never been a drug person.

He didn’t like the idea of ceding control of his faculties. The warm, shimmering drunk of a few large brandies was the furthest down that road he was comfortable travelling. So had nothing with which to compare the sudden loss of his senses that he suffered one late afternoon in his office. When he told his friends later how he’d felt he joked that it was the closest thing he’d experienced to tripping. But he had no way of knowing if the two experiences shared any real similarities. His drug experiences were all second hand, gleaned from movies or from half heard stories in boring conversations at parties.

He would also never quite be sure whether he’d caught the fever from visiting his (now passed) aunt in hospital or by that day’s lunch at one of Geneva’s less reputable sushi outlets. He had planned to spend the afternoon doing some hardcore pondering on the data CERN’s supercollider had been spat up in it’s most recent test. As his temperature rose and his thoughts became muddled he considered heading home instead. But he was loathe to leave his office. The light outside was beginning to fade and the daily hubbub of the corridor theoretical physicists was dwindling to silence. It was the perfect time to think.

He had been doing nothing but thinking recently. The pressure to come up with big ideas was so stressful he’d been deliberating himself into a stupor. It had consumed his every waking thought, wearing him down to the point that an illness such as this was inevitable sooner or later. As particles collided and new and unknown sub particles revealed themselves there had been a clamour to fit the information into the current model. Or, for the more excitable, mostly younger physicists, throw the whole lot out and start again. The hall his office was on, one of a dozen or so scattered above the monolithic subterranean structure, had been like a dry forest for months before that test; dead but ready to ignite at any time. And with one spark it had lit up into quite the blaze. His immediate neighbour Lotta had a tendency to bounce a ball off their shared wall when deep in thought. Since the results hit she’d been flinging it with such ferocity that most top level tennis players would struggle to replicate the sound of the ball smashing against the wall. She hadn’t been at CERN long; another PhD student on the carousel, another name scribbled on paper and stuck to the door in lieu of a proper sign. She was desperate to make her mark while there. His other neighbour Calvin had been around longer. He was a pacer, pounding in circles around his desk muttering as he tried to wrap his esteemed mental faculties around the new findings. This didn’t bother Francis until Lotta arrived. The volume of her throws annoyed him and he’d started stomping louder, his mumbles rising to audible yelps and flustered barks.

Francis was never quite sure what to make of Calvin. Despite being a man of science and evidence he held strong faith in conspiracy theories, in secret orders pulling the world’s strings. Francis had nodded along at his theories, ever polite and confrontation averse. Lotta on the other hand did not suffer fools gladly, leaving Calvin in no doubt how she felt about his extracurricular theorising. Despite the racket she’d miss Lotta when she left.

He himself was a starer. There was a stretch of lawn outside his window, along with a wood that began where the grass ended. This tame bucolic scene was the stage where his mind performed best. Earlier that day he’d had some industrial ear defenders delivered to keep the noise of his neighbours’ thinking tactics at bay. He needed the peace. He’d been rolling the numbers around in his mind from the moment they became available but whichever angle he judged them from they didn’t seem to chime with the expectations of any of the theoretical physicists. Of course at lunch Calvin had sat back and declared it had been more or less as he’d predicted, only to be laughed out of the room. There is no credit given for post-event predictions. And judging from the fierce clomping around Francis had heard from his office he was sure Calvin was having as much trouble digesting the results as he was digesting his Sashimi.

He settled into his chair and placed his new bright red ear defenders over his follically underwhelming head, adjusting his glasses to fit under the ear padding. Then, once he had nestled his behind into just the right spot on the chair, he put his feet up on his desk and began to stare. And as he began to stare he began to sweat harder. And as he began to sweat harder he found himself drifting into a state of troubled sleep.

He was staring into the lawn, musing on how the data didn’t quite fit. It was like picking up the final piece of a jigsaw and finding it to be pyramid shaped. None of it’s dimensions were as expected. It was so unanticipated, so unusual that careers would be defined by those who made sense of it. History would be made – particles and even new models would be named for whoever could make the numbers fit. Prizes, esteem, envy and, most likely, an embarrassing amount of cash were waiting for someone to just reach out and grab them. If they could only draw the lines that connected the dots.

Those rewards were at best a secondary concern to Francis. He wanted to be the one to solve it for the same reason you want to answer a question you’re certain you know the answer to. You want to heave it up from the depths of your mind before someone tells you. It’s an itch you need to scratch yourself. You know it’s in you somewhere. Who was that guy in that film? No, don’t tell me. I need the satisfaction of cocking and firing the answer from the tip of my tongue. I can feel it’s there, like a splinter I can’t quite pull out or something stuck between my teeth that I can’t quite dislodge. It’s a tactile pleasure, releasing ourselves from these minor burdens. It’s a momentary joy, like the male orgasm. One quick splurt and it’s over.

For has long as he could remember Francis had felt the gnawing sensation that he could answer one of The Big Questions. More than that – he had already answered it. It was in him somewhere, imprinted on his marrow, etched into his bones. He just had to get it out. One quick splurt and the meaning of it all would be released.

In his more sentimental moments he felt this was a spiritual quest. He had been ordained to do this. As a child, while other kids imagined themselves winning the World Cup, he’d pictured himself accepting a Nobel prize. He had even made a trophy from papier-mâché and written a long yet humble acceptance speech. He’d delivered it from a makeshift lectern, explaining to an invisible audience how such prizes were secondary to the importance of the work. It was an act which both excited and concerned his poor parents. Over time he outgrew the thought – but never the feeling.

And here it was, so close he could taste it. Vindication.

He visualised equations and watched them dance across the lawn under the fading light. He thought of great men and women and of their great ideas, imagining them reeling in their biggest achievements like gigantic fish. Many old men and many seas. And he cast out his own line out into the waters.

He caught himself sinking into reverie and retreated. He started to worry. It was getting dark and his light did not work – both he and Calvin had tried to fix it, but they were not men built for practicalities. All they had achieved was to break it in a way facilities management couldn’t quite work out how to repair. To bring light into the room he’d need to get up, walk over and switch on a lamp. The thought alone was exhausting. He was feeling clammy and queasy. The heat that seemed to be radiating from him made a nonsense of how damn cold he was feeling. He thought about seeking medication or calling his partner Siavash to ask him to take him home. But despite the ill feeling seeping into his muscles he was profoundly comfortable in the chair. It felt like it had been moulded round him, almost an extension of his rear end. Soon his conscious thoughts once again ebbed away unnoticed, leaving his subconscious to sidle in and surreptitiously take over the controls.

He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and nudged up his glasses to rub at his eyes. When he moved his hand away everything looked blurry, the edges of each surface and object bleeding into one another.

He stared out the window as his eyes readjusted. He thought about the supercollider and as he pictured the vast snaking vessel in his mind he began to see it traced in the air in miniature above the lawn. To his surprise he did not feel surprised. He felt himself drifting out of his body, drawn towards the glimmering cylindrical machine. He took the place of one the particles accelerating inside it. The world starting to blur and fade away as he picked up speed. He felt a sense of profound purpose and meaning – he had been chosen to be sacrificed on the altar of science in a high-velocity ceremony, to be dashed against his opposite number like a ship against the shore, spilling his treasure out onto the rocks and sand. He could sense the practical scientists, those smug bastards so pleased with their handywork, standing in the control room above him like high priests solemnly intoning statistics like last rites.

As the moment came he felt a divine fear, that curious mix of emotions that comes with knowing that It’s All Going to Be Ok but It’s Still Going To Hurt. Time seemed to stretch and contract – he was waiting, he was colliding, he was travelling, he had come to a sudden end. In the moment of collision he was consumed by light and found himself withdrawing, zooming out as if he’d flicked the mouse wheel of his consciousness. He saw the particle he had embodied a moment prior frozen in time as a whole universe came spilling out of it. Now he was suspended in space, the collider having disappeared, leaving these two particles paused in their final death dance, with the whole of creation seeping from them.

As he stared into the constellations that came sparking forth from the two particles they blurred into the darkness of space and became numbers. He saw the equations that described their molecular make up, their properties, the effects they had on the celestial matter around them. As he looked around the galaxy he saw planets and peered into them, seeing entire ecosystems of numbers and mathematical symbols, food chains and hierarchies, weather systems and climate shifts. He saw mountains raised by tectonic activity and erode away into the seas. He saw as numbers evolved, developed communities, political systems, technologies, sciences of their own. He watched civilisations of numbers rise and fall in an instant.

A voice seeped into his consciousness. Calvin, at lunch telling him he’d seen it coming all along. It had annoyed him at the time – such arrogance! – but now he felt a strange sort of affection for him and his ways. Then another voice – Calvin again. He’d expounded on some pet theories of his. “Inflation is a lie!” he’d said with fanatical certainty. “Economics is a lie!” There are Things We Are Not Told, he explained. He hinted darkly at some conspiracy at the heart of it all. Bilderbergs or some Illumaniti. Shadowy rooms in which nations are built and brought low. ‘A fortunate belief’, Francis thought. How nice it must be to have some order imposed upon the chaos. He thought, ‘I can see it all from here.’ The interconnectedness of everything, a holistic theory of the universe, a web of conspiracies and plans, doomed dreams and pregnant plots.

For a moment, one twinkling, glimmering moment in a lifetime of dark, he understood.

Or at least he thought he understood.

It was too much. His mind tried to expand, to wrap itself around all this knowledge and hold it close. To make it part of him, one with him. But he couldn’t quite stretch himself far enough.

If I can take this back he found himself thinking, the first semblance of an internal monologue he’d had in what felt like hours, if I can take this back and publish this…I can…I could…I could save everyone.

This would be the most important finding of all.

This would be the defining moment of my career.

But what…what is it? What do I know that I didn’t know before?

As he pondered his visions the preposterous nature of it started to manifest itself. He didn’t know he was dreaming. Not quite. Or rather he did, but he didn’t know that he knew. And in it’s last throes he saw the data from the experiment he’d been pondering all week before him drifting in space. It started to fit into a pattern, clicking into the models he’d known and studied like a key into a lock. He pictured a safe door creaking open. And from it sprang that one spark of knowledge, the equation that described reality itself. The motherlode. The holy grail. The McGuffin in the movie adaptation of his career. The card so high and wild he’d never have to deal another. He stretched his everything toward it, every synapse of his fevered brain. And he almost had it. It was so close he could feel the terrible weight bearing down on his very being. He almost had it.

The question beyond the question.

And then it was over. As he woke he was soon conscious of the fact he’d been dreaming. For a few lingering moments it still felt in his heart as if it were all true. He picked up a pencil and started scribbling wildly, words and phrases that he half remembered, fragments of that equation written in his subconscious. He held onto it as long as possible. That horrible, wonderful feeling of being in the presence of something so powerful it supersedes language and thought and speaks only to the core of what is and will be. He enjoyed the dregs of it as they drained out of him. And when he was sure it was gone, that he was faced with nothing but the tiny pinhole frame of his consciousness, he fumbled for his phone in the dark and called Siavash and asked him to pick him up and take him to the pharmacy. His response, when asked what was wrong, was to say that an old and past it’s prime fish had given him the universe and now he felt most unwell.


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