You know what, I could've won the Nobel Prize. Should've, maybe. But instead, I'm the laughingstock of my field... Perhaps I should begin at the beginning.

I'm an experimental physicist working on the properties of small scale variations in crystal structure. Or rather, I was working on that until another, possibly more fruitful path of inquiry opened up.

My wife, Jane, is also a physicist. But, unlike me, she's a theorist, i.e. she's one of the most esoteric people I've ever met. Her job is, after all, basically to think up the least wacky idea that's still both interesting and relevant. The history of physics has shown that this may still be a very strange idea.

Anyways, one day I called her at work and she said, "I've just finished working out this very cool idea. If it works out, it may be The Big One!" I could hear the capitals in her voice.

"You've unified the forces?"

"Well, maybe not that big."

"Made supersymmetry make sense?"


"Figured out where Newton's sex drive went?"

"Dan, be serious."

"Alright, alright. Tell me what you've found."

"If what I've written here's right, I proved that you can make stable excitations in the vacuum."

"Isn't that just what a particle is? Excitation in the vacuum?" Did I mention that I've had profs who wouldn't understand some of our pillow talk?

"No, excitations in the ground state of the vacuum. It'd be like a voltage, but with vacuum potential instead of electric potential."

"Do you think I'd be able to test for this in the lab?" Theory and experiment may make strange bedfellows, but not necessarily bad ones.


"I'll see what I can do."

So there I was, on the path. I considered it a natural outgrowth of my work with crystals. After all, what's vacuum but the ultimate, fundamental crystal lattice? Getting the funding was hard, especially for a condensed-matter guy like myself, but eventually I was able to get a grant to study small-scale vacuum excitations.

One day, I was poring over the equations that Jane developed for this phenomenon when something about their form hit me in a flash. I called her up. "These equations have a vacuum energy term in them, right?" I said.


"Couldn't we arrange things so that the energy of the disturbance replenishes itself from that vacuum energy term?"

"I guess so, though I can't see how that'd help anything."

"Don't you see? We have this potential difference. If we use a bit of its energy for something it replenishes itself from the surrounding zero-point energy. Thus, we get free energy."

"Oh my God. We could tap into the zero point energy. Even if the state's only metastable this would still be a major development."

So there's the thing. If I could only excite a certain harmonic of the vacuum ground state then I could flip the first law of thermodynamics the bird and get more energy out than I put in.

Here's where I screwed things up. I let it be known that I was close to a major breakthrough. I think I said enough of the right thing that it even made the newspaper. So everyone was, of course, expecting big things from me. I'd made a bit of a name for myself in my previous work and I cashed it in as far as I could.

I'd finally got the reaction geometry just right so that I'd deliver a precisely-measured amount of energy to a sufficiently small region of vacuum. I ran the test and my instruments picked up exactly the effect I'd anticipated. A 60 TeV excitation in the fabric of space, and it was indeed stable. Not only that, but a fine powder was slowly falling from the excitation. It fizzled out after about five seconds.

After ensuring the powder was not radioactive, I removed it and performed a chemical analysis. It turned out to be silicon dioxide, i.e. ordinary quartz sand. I calculated the total mass of the sand and it was several orders of magnitude more energy than the energy of the excitation. So, on the local scale at least, I'd pulled something out of nothing.

So of course I shouted my result to the world. Naturally, everyone pointed out that, when the total power consumption of the equipment was added up, the experiment consumed about 100 times more energy than was produced in the sand. The news media who were so excited about my possible breakthrough were practically nonchalant about my actual breakthrough.

So that's how I managed to burn all my karma, and throw dirt on my reputation, and not win the Nobel Prize. And all because of a little pile of sand.

Jane thinks she can figure out how to tune the excitation to produce a specific material. I believe she'll have a reasonable theory within the year.

Thanks to sam512 for inspiration and advice.
This writeup is copyright 2004 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at .

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