The Forever Engine – Snippet 13
September 25, 1888, London, England
When Thomson told me we’d meet Tesla at Burlington House off Piccadilly, I imagined an anonymous brownstone like Dorset House. Boy, was I wrong. At first it looked like a massive gray stone three-story building, with columns and balconies and stuff all over it but regularly enough placed that they had a sort of grace in their repetition. Our carriage took us through an arched gateway in the center, and it turned out Burlington “House” was actually four massive buildings enclosing a sprawling rectangular courtyard.
“This is somebody’s house?” I asked.
“Not for over a century, and it wasn’t always this grand. They added the east and west wings about fifteen years ago. I think they did a splendid job matching the original architecture, don’t you? The Royal Society has the east wing.”
“Yeah? So where are the Illuminati?”
He chuckled. “Nothing so sinister or romantic as that, I’m afraid. The other wings house the Royal Academy, the Chemical Society, the Linnean Society, and the Geological Society. There may be a few other small organizations housed here and there in odd corners.”
A crowd of dark-suited men flowed slowly out of the main entrance to the east wing, breaking into animated conversational knots here and there.
“Tesla’s talk must be finished,” I said. “Looks like he gave them something to chew on.”
“I’m not surprised. He’s lecturing on his theory of a force-bearing aether.”
“The luminiferous aether?” I asked. As I recalled, these Victorian scientists had been big on that until the theory got shot full of holes.
“No, not the light-bearing aether, but a force-bearing one, which he claims is entirely different. The luminiferous aether is a propagating medium for thermal, radiant, and electromagnetic energy, but he speculates about a deeper, rigid propagating medium for force — gravity primarily, but also more fundamental forces which bind matter itself together. I understand he believes this force-bearing aether is also the source of mass itself, that without it mass would have no meaning or means of exerting effect on other objects.”
I wasn’t a physicist, but I’d watched enough episodes of Nova to know that this force-bearing aether thing Thomson was talking about sounded a lot like the Higgs field, the omnipresent field which gave all particles in the universe mass — or at least those which actually had mass. Maybe these guys were smarter than I gave them credit for.
“Ah . . . General Buller has cautioned me not to mention anything we know about the Old Man of the Mountain,” Thomson added as the carriage pulled up. “If you would accept a word of advice, I would not make any mention of your space exploration program, either. It may complicate things.”
Probably good advice. Things were already plenty complicated as they stood.
We left the carriage and made our way up the steps to the door. With the lecture attendees still leaving, this was like swimming down the Columbia River when the salmon were coming up. A doorman took our overcoats and tried not to stare at my ill-fitting and unmatched clothing — my own new duds wouldn’t be ready for a few days. As I handed my coat over, I saw my hand tremble and felt sweat break out on my forehead. Why?
I was scared, that’s why. This meeting might very well determine my fate, even the fate of my world. Until I actually did the meeting, there was still the possibility, the hope, Tesla could whip up a miracle. But once it was over, and if no miracle emerged, I’d have exhausted one more of my very limited options.
“You say 2018?” Tesla asked in a fairly pronounced eastern-European accent. He leaned forward, his curiosity aroused. “So you are from future, not past. Most interesting.”
The way he said interesting didn’t make it sound like a good thing.
“You didn’t seem to have a problem with me being from a different time, so why not the future?” I asked. Thomson and I had already told him as much background as I was willing to let go of, and he had reacted with interest rather than incredulity. The date of the Wessex accident was different, though. That brought him up short.
“Unsettling,” he answered. “It is one thing to accept relics dredged up from past, animated museum exhibits. But a fully formed man from the future — that suggests a level of determinism in the affairs of men I find troubling. What if you were to tell me what I am known to have done in future and I do something different? Or better still, what if I were to find ancestor of yours and kill him before he produced necessary offspring? Would you disappear?”
“Beats me,” I answered, not entirely truthfully. He studied me, his brow creased by a slight frown — partly from concentration and partly irritation. I looked him over again — tall and slender, black hair cut short and parted in the middle, neatly trimmed black moustache, high forehead, dark deep-set eyes, thin straight nose. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but there was something remote, almost incomplete about him, as if he existed simultaneously in two worlds and all you saw was the part that happened to be in this one.
What did I know about Tesla from my own time? Not much. He was smart, and he was crazy — probably more smart than crazy. He’d come up with wireless communication and alternating current, both of which transformed the world. Some argued those two innovations created the modern world. He also had a lot of screwy ideas that never panned out.
“It is a pity you are professor of ancient history rather than physics,” he said. “I am certain you could answer many questions both I and Dr. Thomson have.”
“I know a little about physics. There were programs on TV — well, think of them as lecture series by prominent scientists. My daughter, Sarah, got interested in physics and we watched a lot together.”
“Ah, your hobby?” Tesla asked.
“Well, it’s one of my interests. I’d rank it below football but way above synchronized swimming.” That clearly meant nothing to him, so I forged on ahead. “I don’t understand the math, but I know a little of the basics from a layman’s point of view. Take your idea of a force-bearing aether. It’s very similar to what scientists in my time call the Higgs field.”
I explained the Higgs field the same way I had to Thomson, then had to get into the Higgs boson, got tangled up in what a boson was, and started losing them. I’d been a teacher for the better part of ten years. I thought I was a pretty good one, but I was making a hash of this. I took a breath and paused a moment to gather my thoughts.
“Okay, all matter is made up of particles, and there are two types of fundamental particles: fermions and bosons. In a nutshell, fermions are particles with mass which combine to form atoms, which in turn form molecules and then all other matter. Have you heard of atoms and molecules?”
“We’ve heard of them, but let us say the atomic and molecular theory of matter is not generally accepted in the physics community,” Thomson said.
“Most members of the so-called physics community are fools,” Tesla replied. “Existence of atoms and molecules has long been recognized in chemistry. Please continue.”
“Okay, fermions are particles with mass, the building blocks of the material universe. Bosons are force-carrying particles with no mass. So if a fermion, a particle with mass, bumps into another one, it imparts some of its momentum to that particle by giving up and transferring a momentum-carrying boson.
“A Higgs boson is the manifestation of interactions between fermions and the Higgs field, but it’s more than that. It’s what actually gives a fermion mass. The more powerfully a fermion interacts with the Higgs field, the more Higgs bosons it has, and so the more massive it is. Think of the Higgs field as a rain shower and a fermion as a person who walks through it. The more absorbent the person’s clothing, the more water it absorbs from the rain and so the more wet it becomes. But once the clothing becomes saturated, the rest of the water just runs off. It can only get so wet.”
Thomson said nothing but chewed on his pipe, frowning in thought, eyes distant and unfocused.
“Interesting theoretical explanation of the property of mass,” Tesla said after a moment.
“Not a theory,” I answered. “Scientists in my time had isolated and observed Higgs bosons in high-energy particle accelerators. It’s the real thing.”
“Tell me of this — what did you call it? — high-energy particle accelerator,” Tesla said.
I did, and he listened thoughtfully, occasionally nodding in understanding. When I explained the Wessex particle accelerator as a weapon which had instead produced this time-shift effect, he smiled and almost laughed, but I couldn’t tell exactly why. He was definitely an odd fellow.
Thomson came back into the conversation then. “The use of a rotating electromagnetic field to produce this effect naturally made me think of you, Mr. Tesla. I know of no one more knowledgeable about the subject, with the possible exception of Mr. Edison.”
That must have been the wrong thing to say, as Tesla’s face immediately clouded with anger.
“Edison knows nothing. He makes his discoveries without a priori hypotheses. He simply tries a thousand different mechanical combinations — or has his hired lackeys do so — until something works. He has no idea how or why it does so. He is not a scientist. He is a tinker, and a thief to boot!”
I remembered something about the disputes between Tesla and Edison from my own time. Edison had clung to direct current and Tesla had promoted alternating current, eventually winning what people called The Current War. Maybe I could use that to settle him down.
“If it’s any consolation,” I said, “before he died, Edison said his greatest regret in life was not listening to you on the controversy over alternating versus direct current.”
Tesla looked at me, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
“That is interesting,” he answered, “since he stole my plans and ideas for alternating-current generators and is manufacturing them even now. That is why I returned to Europe. There is nothing left for me in America.”
Shit! No Current War here, apparently.
“Listened to you about compensation,” I added quickly, making it up as I went. “If he had paid you fairly, and you had stayed and worked with him, who knows what you might have come up with together?”
Tesla studied me for several seconds, eyes calculating. Then he looked away.
“Edison is a man of appalling personal habits, a filthy man, and with no interests beyond accumulation of wealth. I could not have worked long with him.”
“I have never met the man,” Thomson said, “but I confess I have heard similar judgments from others. We are doubly fortunate you were available. Surely this must excite your scientific curiosity. Will you help us understand this phenomenon?”
Tesla looked at him and I could see something about the question amused him, some private joke.
“I do not know if I can shed light on this matter. It is too soon to say for certain.” That wasn’t what I was hoping to hear, especially after he’d seemed so engaged in the physics discussion. “There is much to absorb,” he went on, “much to think about. But I have previous engagements on the continent which I must attend to.”
“We are bound for the continent ourselves,” Thomson said. “Would you consider joining our party and traveling with us?”
Tesla looked from Thomson to me and considered the possibility, but then shook his head.
“No, I am afraid that is not possible. I will think more on this matter, though, that I can promise you. If something comes to me, how can I find you?”
“You can contact us through the British consulate in Munich,” Thomson said.
“You travel to Bavaria then.”
“Well . . .” Thomson shifted in his chair, perhaps thinking he may have said too much. “Only in passing, but we will keep them informed. I would ask you not to share that information with anyone else.”
“Of course,” Tesla answered and then turned to me. “Your situation here must be very difficult, Dr, Fargo. I wish I could have been more help.”
“So, did you buy all that?” I asked Thomson once we we’d flagged down a horse-drawn cab.
“Buy? I’m not sure I . . .”
“Did you believe him?”
Thomson’s confusion showed clearly in his face. Scientists are easy to fool because they are trained to accept the world at face value.
“He knows more than he’s letting on,” I said. “What’s he doing here in England?”
“I told you, this talk. Well, now that you mention it, he contacted the society and offered to give the speech, as he was already in the country. Why? Do you think that’s significant?”
Everything is significant.