Note From translator
For almost a decade, this short story has quite profoundly impacted my research interest and writing style, and I’ve been meaning to bring it to FWPhys, albeit as an unauthorised English translation for now.
Character Names, where applicable, are [Family] [Given] to conform to the original’s style.
Cixin Liu (Kehuan Shijie / Sci-Fi World, Volume 1, 2002)
Translated by Yourong Wang, FWPhys, in August 2021 on a fair use / non-commercial basis.
“Should one learn the universe’s way in the morning, and die in the evening, there is no regret.”
— Confucius, The Analects Chapter IV.
I. The Einstein Equator
“There’s something on my mind. I’ve meant to tell you,” Professor Ding Yi turns to his wife and daughter and proceeds to say, “most of my mind is preoccupied with physics, and I could only make so much room for you two. It pains me that this is the case, but I cannot do anything to fix that.”
Fang Lin, his wife, comments, “you’ve said such to me two hundred times.”
The 10-year-old daughter, Wenwen, joins, “and a hundred to me!”
Yi shakes his head, “but you never truly grasped what I mean. You never knew what ‘physics’ really meant.”
Lin replies, smiling, “as long as it isn’t another woman.”
At the moment, the family is sitting in a car travelling at 500 km/h inside a steel tube with a diameter of five metres. This tube has a length of thirty thousand kilometres, and it encircles the earth along the 45º N latitude line.
The car is operating fully on autopilot; the transparent vehicle contains no driver input devices. Viewed from the inside, the tube extends straight ahead, and the car feels like a bullet in an infinitely-long gun barrel. Were it not for the wiring and electronic devices whizzing past like a turbulent stream, no one could have felt the car’s motion. Not until the car slows down, would the colossal number of sensors and instruments installed along the tube wall manifest themselves. Those, and the countless shiny rings equally spaced from one another — all the of technology blends in to a uniform blur as the car picks up speed again. Yi tells his wife and daughter, that the rings are superconductive coils which provide a strong magnetic coil, and that the thin tube suspended in the middle of all this is the container for the high energy particles.
They are driving in the largest particle accelerator ever built by humanity. This planet-encircling construct is called the Einstein Equator. With it, theoretical physicists hope to finish the last dream of the giant standing on the shoulder of giants: to construct the final unified theory.
Tiny cars such as these are supposed to be maintenance vehicles for use by the engineers, but Prof. Ding borrowed one so he can bring his family on to a journey “around the world”. He’d promised such a trip this from a long time ago; the rest of his family, on the other hand, had never expected the tube would become the path they eventually took.
The entire journey lasts sixty hours. In the trip around the planet, the passengers saw nothing but the steel tube, but Lin and Wenwen are still quite happy, as the two days proved to be a rare opportunity for the family to hang out together.
The journey isn’t bland, either, from a certain point of view. Ding would occasionally point at the tube and say to Wenwen, “we are going past Mongolia, do you see the vast prairies?” … “we are passing Russia, and past the northernmost corner of Japan — see the rising sun reflected on the snow on the Kunashir Island. That is the first ray of sunlight Asia welcomes today!” … “We are in the bottom of the Pacific now. It’s so dark.. wait! There’s some crimson glow. Hey that’s an underwater volcano, its lava is quickly cooled by the water, so the red colour flickers, like a campfire of the underwater plains. My daughter, new land is growing there.”
Later, they travelled across the United States inside the tube, dived across the Atlantic, and entered Europe from the coast of France. Past Italy and the Balkan Peninsula, entering Russia again, and returning to Asia by crossing the Caspian, and then into Kazakhstan. Now, they are covering the final leg of the journey, to return to the origin point of the Einstein Equator, the International Nuclear Science Centre, in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, China. This place also serves as the control centre of the particle accelerator.
By the time the Ding family left the control centre building, the outside is already deep into the night. And the vast desert extends afar under a starry sky. The world appears simple and ethereal.
“All right! Three elementary particles, us, have finished an acceleration experiment along the accelerator line!” Ding exclaims excitedly to Lin and Wenwen.
“Dad, how long does a real particle take to run such a long lap around the tube?” Wenwen inquires, pointing at the accelerator tube behind them, which extends into the darkness of night swiftly in both directions.
Yi answers, “Tomorrow will be the first time the equipment operates at its maximum capacity. Every proton inside the tube will be pushed by the energy equivalent of a nuclear bomb, and accelerate very close to lightspeed. By then, a particle will only need a fraction of a second to finish the save journey that took us two and a half days.”
Lin intercepts. “Don’t think you already honoured your promise. This doesn’t count as a real journey around the world.”
“Yeah!” Wenwen nods, “when dad has time, you must take us along the tube outside of it, and really show us the places it passes. That’s what a proper journey should be like!”
“No need.” Yi responds to his daughter with a rather calm tone, “if you opened your eyes of imagination, then this journey is enough. You already saw everything you wanted to see from within the tube, and even more! My kid, the blue oceans, red flower fields, and green forests are not the prettiest of things. True beauty can’t be seen by the eye, but only imagination! Different from the ocean, flowers, or forests, it is colourless and shapeless. Only when you mould the universe into your hands via imagination and mathematics, converting reality to a beloved toy, can you see such beauty…”
Yi did not go home. After sending off his wife and daughter, he returned to the control centre. Only a few on-duty engineers were in the main hall. After two years of nerve-racking tuning and verification runs following the construction of the accelerator, it’s probably the first time the centre is this quiet.
He went to the roof, and surveyed the accelerator from the open platform above. He sees the tube as if it were a straight line that divides the world in two. He felt as if the stars above were countless pupils, and all of them are staring at the line into infinity.
Then he headed back to his office, and fell asleep on his couch. He dreamt a dream of a theoretical physicist.
He sat in a car, stopped at the origin of the EE. The car starts to accelerate, and he feels the strong acceleration. He goes around the planet along the 45º latitude line, lap after lap, like a metal die rolling along a casino roulette. As he comes near the speed of light, his rapidly growing mass makes the body frozen in shape like a statue. Upon realising that he’d been endowed with world-creating levels of energy, a regal kind of joy jolts across his nerves. In the final lap, he diverts into a side path, and breaks through into a strange place.
This is the place of nothing. He saw the colour of nothing. It is not black nor white. Its colour is no colour, but it isn’t transparent either. Here, space and time were both things awaiting his own creation. He sees a tiny speck of light ahead of him. The speck rapidly grows in size — it’s another himself. They both disappear after a collision took place at the speed of light, leaving behind an infinitesimal point amid infinite void. The seed of everything explodes, inflates, and expands. When the red glow emanating from everywhere starts to dim down, matter appears. First as dilute nebulae, then stars and galactic groups. In this new universe, Ding Yi has a quantum wave-like self. He could survey one end of this place in one moment and the next jump to the other end. Actually he did not jump, but rather exists at both places at once. He exists at every point of this immense system; his self filled space like a boundless mist, with silver deserts weaved from streams of stars burning within.
He is everywhere and nowhere; he understands he is but a shadow of probabilities, a spire of superposition who wanders the universe, eagerly searching for an observer who can collapse him back into an entity. As he looked, they turned up: two pairs of eyes floating amid far away clusters. They fade in from a curtain of stars and gas, suddenly parting. The pair with long, beautiful lashes is Lin’s, and the pair filled with naive curiosity belongs to Wenwen. The two pairs of eyes look around the universe, but do not notice the existence of Ding. His wavefunction shivers, like a rippling lakewater in a breeze. But he did not collapse. As Ding is falling into despair, the clusters of stars start to stir, and flows of star twist and twirl with him. When all settles, all stars in the universe forms a giant eye. The eye-lids blinks across billions of parsecs, like diamond powder sprinkled on black velvet, and it stared at Ding Yi. The existence collapsed to local, like a firework show played backwards. His existence now condenses back to an insignificant dot along the fabrics of the universe. He opens his eyes, and returns to reality.
It is the chief engineer at the control centre of EE who woke him up. Yi rubs his eyes, and sees that a few fellow physicists and technical staff are standing around his couch. They gaze at him as if seeing a monster.
“Did I oversleep?” Yi gets up and looks out of his window. The sky is brightening, but the sun hasn’t risen.
“No. Serious incident!” The chief engineer says. Only now could Yi realise, that the weird look people gave was not due to him, but to something that happend. The chief engineer pulls Yi from the couch, attempting to lead him toward the window. But somebody stops them from behind. Matsuda Seiichi, one of the previous year’s Nobel laureates.
“Professor Ding, if you cannot mentally comprehend what you are about to see, don’t mind too much. We might be dreaming.” The Japanese says, his face looks very pale, and his hand pulling on Yi is still shivering.
“I just came out from a dream!” Yi responded, “what happened?”
Everyone continues to give him that weird look. The chief engineer proceeds to lead Yi to the window. As he sees the outside, he immediately doubted his previous sentence: the reality in front of him is more surreal than the dream.
In the light blue morning light, the familiar accelerator structure has vanished, and in its place is a band of green grass. The green pavement extends into the horizon eastwards and westwards.
“Come check out the control hall!” declares the chief. Yi follows them downstairs, and experienced another sudden shock: the hall is empty, and all equipment is gone. Where machines and computers were mounted is now covered in grass. Grass growing straight out of EM shield plates.
Yi rushes out of the control building, deranged, and stands on the grass which replaced the accelerator. Following the grass, as they extend to meet the eastern horizon, where the sun is about to rise, he shivered in the chill of a desert morning.
“What about the other parts of the accelerator?” He asks the chief, who struggles to catch up with him.
“All gone. Over ground, under ground, in the ocean. All gone.”
“All turned into grass too?”
“Oh, that’s not the case. There’s only grass in the desert near us, other parts simply vanished. The ground and ocean parts only have support structures left, and the underground portions are mere tunnels now.”
Yi bent and picked a grass leaf. The grass must have been bland and common elsewhere, but it is extraordinary here: it does not have any attributes like the cacti or desert trees to show adaptation to dryness. It seems to be full of water, and plants like this should only belong to the rainy south. Yi rubs a leaf, saps drip onto his fingertips, and he could smell the grass’ light aroma. Ding Yi stared at the grass in his hand, and stood for a long time. He remarked in the end, “so, it is a dream.”
A voice come from the east, “no, this is reality”.