Foundations-2

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It has been said that the most important phrase in science is not 'Eureka!', but rather: 'That's funny…'

This is false. The most important phrase in science occurs during a late Wednesday afternoon on September 1st, 1915 inside a laboratory at the Philadelphia Institute of Chemistry.

With a crinkled brow and an exasperated grunt, Ms. Annette Theodora Lang throws her head back and utters the five words which will alter the very course of human destiny:

"What if it's an anomaly?"

Besides her, there are two others in the room: Wilson Hutchinson is a young and handsome mathematician in an ill-fitting tweed jacket. He was once described as 'the Lord Byron of hydrodynamics'. Seated beside him is Professor Gregory Cabenwald — the oldest of the trio and the man to whom this laboratory belongs. He is a leading mind in the field of theoretical physics.

Cabenwald removes a tin case from his breast pocket, opens it, plucks out a cigarette, then snaps it shut. Once he has slid the tin back into his pocket, he delicately taps the thin, pale cylinder against the back of his knuckle.

"An anomaly?" He nudges the cigarette between his lips.

For a moment, Annette Lang regrets her choice in words. She is a scientist, and — as Cabenwald is quite fond of reminding them both — a scientist recognizes that there is no distinction between the natural and the unnatural. An anomaly is merely that which your current model fails to account for. But the more she considers it, the more she starts to wonder if she is not on to something:

"We can find no end to the golden filigree's iterative patterns. Each layer forms smaller and smaller shapes, repeating until our instruments can no longer discern them. And we only presume the filigree is gold, because we cannot test it. We cannot test any of it," she says, throwing her arms up in exasperation.

"The entire object is chemically inert and indivisible. It is impenetrable via radiation and emits warmth without apparent source. Submergence in liquid nitrogen and molten steel both failed to measurably impact its temperature. And when we sought to change its shape? It broke the hydraulic press."

Hutchinson grimaces in memory. Cabenwald produces a brass lighter, igniting the tip of his cigarette. "Your point, Miss Lang?"

Her eyes fall down to the smooth, fist-sized onyx gemstone sheathed in spiraling gold. "It defies all we know about physics, chemistry, and natural law. Either everything we know is in error… or this is. Gregory — I don't think this object is supposed to exist."

"So it defies our models. So what?" Hutchinson replies. "No model is perfect. Abstracts leak. The point of science is to find where our models break, so we can refine our models, update them, make them —"

"This is not akin to discovering epicycles are wrong, or believing in luminiferous aether or phlogiston," Lang counters. "Our models are incomplete, yes. But they are not incomplete by an order of this magnitude. This is — it's as if we've proven that Pi has been '3' all along. Or determined the earth is flat. Or found an integer hidden between '4' and '5'."

"What shall we do, then? Throw it away? Destroy it?" Hutchinson folds his arms. "Science is about accepting reality as it is, not as we wish it to be."

"We cannot destroy it, because insofar as we can tell, it cannot be destroyed," Lang says. "And if we accept that? If we accept that an object like this can, does, and should, exist? We concede the very notion that immutable laws can be derived. For God's sake, Wilson: It violates Newton's Third Law! How can we build a model of physics without Newton's Third Law?"

Cabenwald takes a long, slow pull from his cigarette. When he exhales, the clouds of smoke unravel into twisting strands that lick at the ceiling. "What would you suggest, Miss Lang?"

Lang lowers her hands into her lap and bites down on her bottom lip. "Perhaps we should consider — perhaps we should consider that this object does not operate on the physical laws that govern our world."

Hutchinson's face creases with frustration. "What —" Cabenwald lifts his hand, cutting him off.

Still gnawing at her lip, Lang continues: "Perhaps it does not obey our physical laws — but someone else's. Perhaps, by those laws, its properties are reasonable and sound. But by ours? They are not. By our physical laws, it is anomalous."

Cabenwald has that familiar look. His brows are squeezed together, like two immense cogs in an adding machine grinding their way through a particularly difficult polynomial. "You are suggesting that there may be a set of physical laws governing this object which are distinct from our own."

"Yes."

"How? Why? From where?" Hutchinson's indignation swells. "Is this premise even falsifiable? How would you test something like this?"

"I do not know."

"By ascertaining the laws governing the anomaly," Cabenwald replies. "By constructing a model independent of our own, via experimentation. And, as you develop that model, working to reconcile it with the broader model of science — determine via experimentation whether two completely independent systems of physics could co-exist."

Lang nods. "And, if so, determine from whence this adjacent system came."

"You have your hypothesis, Miss Lang. Now go forth and test it."


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