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« Sufficiently Advanced Technology | Ra

The first magic spell is spoken by a 90-year-old retired Indian physicist named Suravaram Vidyasagar on 1st June 1972. It is one hundred and seventy-nine syllables long, comprising equal parts Upanishadic mantra and partial differential equation.

The effect of Vidyasagar's spell is nothing at all. He has discovered what will later be called "uum", the empty spell, which expends no mana and fails to rearrange the universe in any externally detectable way, but which then - crucially - returns to the dispatching mind and tells it so. Vidyasagar immediately notices the curious reaction to his new "differential mantra". He repeats it several times. Each time, he receives, in an almost-non-existent part of his brain, a tiny almost-thought: a thought so faint and difficult to get a grip on as to be a tiny elementary dream: "Success!"

Vidyasagar is confounded. The result is completely unexpected. Later, many will call it dumb luck. "Luck" can certainly be made to stick: future research will show his choice of wording to be at once exceedingly unlikely and exceedingly close to the ideal phrasing for the effect that it brings about, while it will become equally clear that the effects and events which follow were never Vidyasagar's intention. But "dumb"? Vidyasagar is at worst a mediocre quantum physicist, which leaves him merely two standard deviations above the global mean in raw mathematical capability. He is honest and upright, workmanlike, dedicated, competent, attentive and methodical.

After his retirement and the death of his wife, Vidyasagar has been using meditation to exercise his mind, and to keep its contents well-ordered and stable. The mantras that he has devised are lengthy mnemonic poems which map out events of his life, spiritual and ethical teachings to which he abides, stories he has learned, equations, particle interactions and gauge theories, essays and jokes, and even personalities of people he has known. Has it been working? At this point, even Vidyasagar himself is not certain. But it is a simultaneously stimulating and relaxing use of his abundant time, which has been enough to keep him at it.

"So!" he says.

An inexplicable observation. With no idea what he has discovered, or even if he has truly discovered anything, Vidyasagar follows procedure. He tries combinations. When he speaks the words too quickly or too slowly or in the wrong frame of mind, or if he skips more than a few words or rearranges phrases or loses his train of thought midway through, he receives no such acknowledgement. Some rephrasings are legitimate. Some pronunciations result in clearer and more powerful successful nothingness. He takes notes. He charts patterns. He extrapolates predictions.

He obtains a satisfactory degree of certainty about his result. Then, he seeks independent confirmation.

*

Suravaram Vidyasagar's son Rajesh is 59 years old and also a physicist. He collaborated with his father for decades prior to the latter's retirement, and has continued with his own very closely related work. After Suravaram explains his observations, during a long weekend of unbroken rain, Rajesh considers them for a moment and then tells him that they are trash.

Suravaram is a naturally soft-spoken individual, unperturbable. Seated at the other end of the table, his eyes widen and he stiffens noticeably; for anybody else, this would be the equivalent of throwing his glass through a window in fury. "Are you sure you've fully understood?" he asks.

Rajesh has the carefully-typed paperwork spread out in front of him on the table. He gathers it all up into a pile and shoves it away where he doesn't have to look at it. "Dad, listen to me. I remember a time... it must have been thirty or forty years ago, I can't believe how long ago... we were at the lab and some visitors had arrived and they heard we were father and son physicists. One of them was an excitable young man. He had a boneheaded collection of ideas and he couldn't help but explain it all to us. He thought he had married together science and religion. He had no grasp of physics and he was so far from correct that neither of us had the faintest idea where to begin to explain how or why he was wrong. He thought matter was simply a hardened form of energy. He thought that that meant something. That it was useful."

"It was a party," recalls Suravaram. "Dr. Mishra's retirement party. Or perhaps Dr. Khurana's. We were encouraged to bring our families."

"But I distinctly remember that after we had got rid of him, you turned to me and said, 'That was your first fool.' My first quantum idiot. And you had run into a few of them by then, but later quantum theory began to gain traction and publicity and nobody understood it and it happened more often, to me and to you. Letters and telephone calls and visits from crazy people, friends of friends and often strangers. And after a while it got that I could tell who they were from just a sentence. Just one sentence. And now I read this..." Rajesh lets the fragment hang.

Suravaram regards him with only the faintest irritation in his expression.

"How do you think you would react?" Rajesh asks him. "A man comes to you and claims that spoken mantras have literal power. You'd dismiss the claim out of hand, wouldn't you?"

"I would," says Suravaram, softly, "unless that man was a competent physicist with a strong track record of rigour. And he was my father."

"A strong track record of what? Is there a Vidyasagar particle? A Vidyasagar equation? If I go to a man in the street, or even a random quantum physicist, and I ask them what the name Suravaram Vidyasagar means to them, what will they say? What have you done?"

"It is fair to say," says Suravaram, "that I have relatively few important results to my name."

"You spent your whole life investigating phenomena which nobody else had investigated because nobody else thought they were important, and what did you find? That they weren't important! You collected leftovers off the ground, tidying up where others had already been, because you never had the skills or the intellect that you needed to build something really significant from scratch. And now you're at the very bottom end of your lifetime, looking back at your accomplishments, and there's not enough to them, and you know you'll never live long enough to see the real advances in computing hardware and particle accelerator technology. You're worried you're going to miss the real thing when it really happens. This is the threshold. Everything's going to happen, for real, starting now, and you're not going to be part of it. So what I think has happened is that in desperation, you've invented a whole new alternate science that you can be the king of."

"It's not a science," says Suravaram. "It's not a theory or even a hypothesis. Or even a claim. It is nothing, so far. It is just an observation that I cannot be certain is repeatable."

"You're seriously suggesting that the recitation of mantras can have a physical or measurable effect. What you're suggesting overthrows--"

"I am not," says Suravaram. "I am asserting nothing. Least of all about physics. It could be a psychological effect or a biological effect. I don't know yet. You are reading things that I have not written. You are having an argument, but it's with somebody who isn't me."

"You're blurring the line between science and, and magic--"

"I am not. I just want you to repeat my experiment."

Rajesh glares at his father and then at the paperwork. "... No."

For a long moment there's no sound except roaring rain. Suravaram stands up and stalks around the room, inspecting trinkets on shelves. He should be using his cane, but hates to do so in front of people who knew him before he needed it. He reaches a window, and stares out of it into the vertical water.

"I am a scientist," he says. "Since before you were born, I have never not been a scientist. I am not disappointed with my life. I am proud of my limited accomplishments, because they were obtained rigorously and with great care. It's true that there is no Vidyasagar particle. But you are also a scientist. And your name is also Vidyasagar. So?"

Suravaram turns around, pausing for just long enough that his son feels like he should respond, but then interrupts him: "And you are also much nearer the end of your scientific career than the start of it. And you are also, very soon, going to miss a great deal of the future. So? I think it's you. You're arguing with yourself."

"I'm not frightened of my lack of accomplishment," says Rajesh.

"No," says Suravaram.

"I'm not frightened of upsetting all of physics," says Rajesh.

"No," says Suravaram. "You're frightened of making a fool of yourself. Just like I am."

Rajesh fidgets. He fumbles for the piece of paper with his father's first mantra on it. "I... I suppose I could try reading the words out loud--"

"No," says Suravaram. "It must be honest. You must make an honest effort. You must believe the words you're saying, and follow through the mantra in your mind without losing your train of thought, or it will not work."

Rajesh looks into his father's eyes and says, "But I don't believe it. Not a word of it."

And the rain keeps pouring.

*

Suravaram Vidyasagar dies less than a year later, believing that "uum" and whatever else it signified is dying with him, if it has ever been real. Rajesh Vidyasagar reluctantly revisits his father's work soon after this, predominantly in order to obtain closure. It works first time.

Before the end of 1973 he has discovered a second spell, "eset", which emits small amounts of mana into the world and records the echoes bouncing back off nearby thaumically-aligned materials and architecture. Before the end of the following year, he has devised a third spell, "kafanu", and an arrangement of static materials - almost a tonne of mostly tungsten - that allow him to move a physical object with words alone. Rajesh Vidyasagar thereby becomes the world's first mage.

Much later, once Suravaram's historical significance has been recognised, a popular myth is widely reported, that his final words were "I do not know what I have begun."

 

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