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
"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?"
"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 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .