Translator Notes (2022)
For over a decade, this short story has profoundly impacted my academic interest and writing style, and I’ve been meaning to bring it into English for more audience reach. For now, this is an unauthorised translation work on a fair use / non-commercial basis.
Chinese character names, where applicable, are [Family] [Given] to conform to the original style.
刘慈欣 Liu Cixin (科幻世界 Kehuan Shijie / Sci-Fi World, Volume 1, 2002)
Translated by Yourong Wang, FWPhys. August 2021, September 2022.
朝闻道，夕死可矣。《论语·里仁》/ Confucius, The Analects IV.
Should one learn the universe’s way in the morning, but then die in the evening, there is no regret.
I. The Einstein Equator (finished, semi-edited – 15 September 2022)
“There’s something on my mind I’ve meant to tell you,” Professor Ding Yi turns to his wife and daughter and says, “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 on full autopilot; inside the transparent canopy, there are no driver input devices. The tube outside seems to extend infinitely far ahead, and the car feels like a bullet in a long gun barrel. Were it not for the occasional wiring and electronic devices that whizz past, 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 devices, 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 can provide a strong magnetic field, and that the thin tube suspended in the middle of all this is the pathway through which high energy microscopic particles are supposed to fly.
They are driving inside 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 find the final unified theory.
This tiny car belonged to fleet of maintenance vehicles reserved for 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 from a long time ago; the rest of his family, on the other hand, had never expected the tube would factor in the logistics.
The entire journey ended up taking sixty hours. In the trip around the planet, the passengers didn’t see anything but the steel tube. Still, Lin and Wenwen are 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 on an underwater plain. My daughter, new continent is growing there…”
Later, they travelled across the United States along 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 of China. This facility serves as the control centre of the particle accelerator.
By the time the Ding family parked up and walked out of the control centre, it’s quite late 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 Einstein Equator!” 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 behind them, which solemnly extends into the darkness of night in both directions.
Yi answers, “Tomorrow, the equipment will operate at its design capacity for the first time. Every proton put in the tube be pushed by the equivalent of a nuclear bomb, and accelerate extremely close to light-speed. Then, a particle will only need a fraction of a second to finish the same journey that took us two days and a half.”
Lin intercepts. “Do not 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 we passed. 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 would have been 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 precious 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 testing following the construction of the accelerator, it’s probably the first time the facility is this quiet.
He went to the roof, and surveyed the accelerator from the observation deck 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, as it points at infinity.
Then he heads back to his office, and goes to sleep on his couch, dreaming a dream of a theoretical physicist.
In the dream, he sits in a car parked at the origin of the EE. The car starts to gain speed, and he feels the strong acceleration. He goes around the planet along the 45º latitude, lap after lap, like a metal die rolling along a casino roulette. As he comes near the speed of light, his body becomes heavy like a statue. Upon realising that he’d been endowed with world-creating levels of energy, an exquisite joy jolts across his nerves. In the final lap, he diverts the car 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 definition. He sees a tiny speck of light ahead of him. The speck rapidly grows in size — it’s another copy of himself. They both disappear after a collision took place at the speed of light, leaving behind an infinitesimal point amid the 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 a solid entity. As he searches, they appear: two pairs of eyes floating amid far away galaxy clusters. They fade in from behind 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 lake surface rippling in a breeze, but he did not collapse. As Ding finds himself falling into despair, the clusters of stars start to stir, and flows twist and twirl with him. When all settles, all stars in the universe form a giant eye. The eye-lids blinks across billions of parsecs, like diamond powder sprinkled on black velvet, and it stared at Ding Yi. His existence proceeds to collapses, like a firework show played backwards. His existence now condenses back to an insignificant dot along the fabrics of his universe. He opens his eyes, and returns to reality.
It was the chief engineer at the EE control centre 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 happened. 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 process what you are about to see, don’t worry too much. We might be collectively hallucinating.” The Japanese physicist says, his face pale, and his hand pulling on Yi is still shivering.
“I just came out from a dream!” Yi responded, “what happened here?”
Everyone continues to give him that weird look. The chief engineer proceeds to lead Yi to his window. As he sees the outside, he immediately doubted his previous sentence: the reality in front of him is way more surreal than his dream.
In the light blue tint of dawn, the familiar accelerator structure has completely 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 thick EM shield plates.
Yi rushes out of the control building, deranged, and stands on the grass which replaced the accelerator. His guides his sight along the grass path, as they extend to meet the eastern horizon, where the sun is about to rise. He shivers 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 towers left, and the underground portions are mere tunnels now.”
Yi bent and picked up a blade of grass. The grass must have seemed bland and common elsewhere, but it is an extraordinary existence here: it does not have any attributes like the cacti or desert trees that show adaptation to arid climates. Rather, it seems to be full of water, like something straight out of the rainy Southern China. Yi rubs the leaf, and saps drip onto his fingertips. He could smell the light aroma of the grass. Ding Yi stared at it, and stood for a long time. He murmurs in the end, “so, it is a dream.”
A voice comes from the east, “no, this is reality”.
II. Vacuum Decay (finished, unedited – 15 September 2022)
At the vanishing point of the grass path, the sun has already begun rising. Sunlight streams into people’s eyes. In this light, the congregation soon notices someone in the distance. At first, the person merely resembles a cut out against a background of the sun disk, with edges flickering and blurry. As he walks near, people recognise that he is a middle-aged man, in white shirt and black trousers, and without a tie. Nearer, his face becomes visible too. It’s a face with both European and Asian traits, not an unusual occurrence in the local region. That said, nobody will mistake him for a local. His facial features are too standard, to the point of surreal. He resembles more a caricature to represent people on a public signage. Even nearer, it becomes clear that nobody will mistake him for a person from anywhere at all. He isn’t walking, legs staying perfectly unbent, and levitating just above the grass as he makes his approach. He stops when he got to about 3 metres from the group.
“Greetings. I adopt this appearance to better facilitate our communication. Whether or not you all approve of my human likeness, I have tried my best.” The visitor speaks in English in a style like his face, standard and featureless.
“Who are you?” Someone asks.
“I am this universe’s risk containment Agent.”
A word in his answer immediately hits all the physicists present, “THIS universe”.
“Are you related to the disappearance of our accelerator?” Inquired the chief engineer.
“It was evaporated last night. Your planned experiments must be halted. In compensation, I gift you these grass. They are capable of quick growth in such dry deserts.”
“If your designed capacity is reached, particles might reach 10^20 eV. This is close to the energy of the Big Bang, and might bring forth catastrophe for the universe.”
Upon hearing the answer, the chief engineer turns around to look at the physicists behind him. They all stand in silence, and appear deep in thought with frowns on their faces.
“Do I need to explain it further?” The risk containment Agent asks.
“No. No need.” Ding Yi shakes his head a little. The physicists have fully anticipated that the alien visitor would utter something completely beyond the comprehension of humans, but surprisingly, the answer he gave was already considered in the 1980s. It’s only that most people in that age regarded it as a novel hypothesis detached from reality, to the point the theory is almost forgotten now.
The concept of vacuum decay first appeared in an article in the journal Physical Review D in 1980, by Sidney Coleman and Frank de Luccia. Long before this, Paul Dirac had pointed out that the vacuum state we find ourselves in is a false vacuum. In the seemingly empty space, virtual particles come to life and disappear in unimaginably short periods of time, like spires. Such sagas of creation and annihilation in an instant take place everywhere in space and time, and this makes what we refer to as vacuum truly a boiling sea of quantum fluctuations, and this gives energy to vacuum.
The idea of Coleman and de Luccia is that they hypothesised the creation of even lower energy vacuum through certain high-energy processes. This vacuum is more stable than our false vacuum, and maybe even have a ground energy of zero — completely devoid of quantum fluctuations. Such a true-vacuum may begin its existence only femtometres across, but the moment it exists, nearby space will drop to this energy, and convert to this true-vacuum, increasing its size dramatically and forming a sphere of destruction.
“Such a sphere will soon expand at the speed of light. Inside it, protons and neutrons decay at an instant, destroying all matter devoured by the sphere. Such a ball will destroy planet earth in 0.03 seconds, the entire solar system in 5 hours, the nearest star system in 4 years, and the milky way in 100 thousand years. Nothing can stop this expansion, and the entire universe will be doomed as time goes on.” On speaks the Agent following people’s thoughts — can he read their minds? The Agent opens his arms, in a gesture to encompass everything,
“If we liken our universe to a vast ocean, we are the fish. The water surrounding us is so still and clear that we forget about it. Today I am here to warn you, it is not water, but a liquid explosive, waiting for just one tinder to set everything ablaze. As a risk containment Agent, it is my duty to put off all such sparks before they ignite.”
Ding Yi responds, “it does not sound like an easy task. The known universe is billions of light years across. It isn’t a small place even for super-civilisations like your own.”
The Agent smiles. This is the first time he puts on a smile, and the smile is just as nondescript, “it isn’t that complicated. As you know, the state of our current universe is but the ember of the Big Bang. Stars and galaxies? They are just dust that still kept some residual warmth. This is a low-energy universe, and active objects like quasars only existed in the distant past.”
“In the universe’s current state, the highest-energy natural processes, such as supermassive black hole mergers, are still orders of magnitudes away from the Big Bang itself. As it stands, the only opportunities where that energy can be reached, is through the scientific attempts of intelligent civilisations. Such attempts all try to focus high amounts of energy on one point, giving this point world-creating energy levels. As such, we only need to keep our tabs on those sufficiently evolved lifeforms in this universe.”
Matsuda Seiichi interjects, “so, when did you notice humanity? From the age of Max Planck?”
The Agent shakes his head.
“So it’s the time of Newton! … No? Wouldn’t it be so far as Aristotles?”
“No.” The Agent replies. “Our universal risk management framework operates like this. It first distributes large numbers of sensors across the universe to monitor worlds with life, and an alarm will sound when one of such worlds give rise to a civilisation capable of creating high-energy physics processes. Agents such as myself are then dispatched to surveil those worlds, but we will not intervene unless they actually perform such an experiment.”
As he speaks, a black square appeared above the Agent’s head, about two metres across. The square is initially filled with unfathomable darkness of interstellar space, like a hole poked on the surface of reality. After a few seconds, a blue image of planet earth appeared in the square. The Agent points at that and remarks, “this is the image of earth from our sensor above your world.”
“When did you place the sensor to monitor earth?”
“By your geological eons, in the Carboniferous period, near the end of the Paleozoic era.”
“Carboniferous …” “That’s over 300 million years ago!” The crowd gasps.
“Isn’t that a bit too early?” The chief engineer queries in awe.
“Early? We came way too late. When we first come across planet earth, and saw the amphibian animals crawling across forests and swamplands of the Gondwana, we all felt chilly. Through the long time before our visit, this world was well at risk of evolving intelligent life. By our measures, we ought to have placed our sensor in the Ordovician or even Cambrian era.”
The image of planet earth zooms to fill the square, and the camera pans around different continents. Some feels it resembled a vigilant patroller’s stare.
The Agent continued, “the image I am playing for you now was collected in the end of the Pleistocene, about 370 thousand years ago. Almost yesterday for us.”
The camera movement stops, and the field of vision temporarily centres on Africa. The continent is on the night side of the planet, and looked like a big ink blob enclosed by three slightly brighter bodies of water. Suddenly, something seems to have caught the camera’s attention, and the zoom increases. Land grows and fills the entire picture, as if the camera crew quickly descended onto the surface of earth from orbit. A striped pattern of land emerges. The white was remnant snow from the receding glaciers, and the blurry patches black has to be left for imagination, be it forests or grassland with scattered rocks.
The zoom continues, a snow-covered hill fills the entire view. The picture is filled with the greyish blue tint unique to snowy landscapes at night. A few black points soon becomes recognisable, and they are figures of humans. Then it’s noticeable that all their backs look a bit hunched. The cold night breeze tangles their long hair.
The picture darkens again. A face fills the view this time. In such dim lighting, it is not easy to tell the details of that face, but the brow and cheek bones are very pronounced, and the lips are long and thin. The zooming still has not stopped, and reaches an almost impossible level. The picture only shows a pair of sunken, staring eyes. Over the dark pupils, there are some silver dots. They reflections of the night sky.
The video feed cuts out with a sharp warning tone. The Agent chimes in, “our alarm went off here.”
“Why now?” The chief engineer is confused.
“This prehistoric caveman has stared at the night sky for a duration above our safety threshold, and expressed sufficient curiosity for the universe. Furthermore, this is the tenth such incident on your planet, and our criteria were met.”
“If I did not mishear you just now, didn’t you just say your alarms only sound for civilisations that can generate world-creating energies and processes?”
“Isn’t that what we are looking at?”
The crowed looks at each other in deeper confusion.
The Agent gives off another nondescript smile, “is this so hard to understand? When life realises the existence of cosmic mysteries, it is only one step away from unravelling them.” Seeing that the crowd is still in astonishment, he continues, “take your planet for example. Life took 4 billion years to realise the mysteries of the universe, but that moment is less than 400 thousand years away from your construction of the Einstein Equator, the key development of which only took less than 500 years. We can even say that the caveman looking at the night sky first saw a gem, and your entire human history since then amounts to just picking it up.
Ding Yi nods, “I see what you mean. That great stargazer!”
The Agent resumes telling his story, “since then I’ve arrived at your world, and looking at you from afar, like guarding a kid who plays with fire. The surrounding landscape illuminated by the fire fascinates this kid, and lures him to make a bigger and hotter flame, until today, where the whole universe is at risk of being burnt as well.”
Professor Ding pauses, and finally asks the most important question in the history of human science, “this is to say, we will never get a unified theory, and never understand the universe’s ultimate mechanism?”
The other scientists stand silently and look towards the Agent, like a group of spirits awaiting the Final Judgement.
“There are many sorrows of being an intelligent life,” the Agent says plainly, “this is but one of them.”
Professor Matsuda interjects with a shaking voice, “as a higher-level civilisation, how do you handle this sorrow yourselves?”
“We are fortunate. We have the grand unified theory.” The flame of hope blazes up again in the scientists’ hearts.
Ding Yi immediately realises another terrifying possibility, “has the vacuum decay been activated elsewhere in the universe?”
The Agent shakes his head, “we found the theory in another way. It will take some time to explain, and I might do so to you at another time.”
“Can we repeat this?” The Agent shakes his head again, “the time has passed. Nobody around can repeat our methods.”
“Then, so, just tell us the grand unified theory?”
The Agent keeps shaking his head.
“Please! This is very important — no, this is our everything!” Ding Yi runs up to grab the Agent by his arm, but his hand simply passes through the Agent’s body.
“The Knowledge Sealing Guidelines prohibits this.”
“This is one of the highest creeds of civilisations in this universe. Advanced ones cannot pass knowledge to lower level groups — we call this the Tube Transmission — low-level civilisations can only gain knowledge via their own research.
Ding Yi responds loudly, “This is an understandable rule. But if you share the grand unified theory with all who seek it, they will no longer need high energy experiments to obtain it. Won’t this equally ensure the safety of the universe?”
“You see this too simply. This theory only works for our universe. When you get the theory, you will see that infinitely many others exist, and you will then immediately set out to look for a super-grand-unified theory that governs them all. Beyond that, technical applications of our unified theory will enable you to produce even higher energies. You will try to use this energy to break the walls between different universes, which may have different vacuum energies, and such attempts to bridge them will destroy two or more universes simultaneously. Tube transmission will also induce other adverse effects in the receiving world, many of which you cannot understand yet. As such, the Sealing cannot be disobeyed. I don’t only refer to the deep mysteries of the universe — if humans so far still don’t know the Newtonian Laws of motion or calculus, I cannot teach them to you either.:
The group of scientists fall in silence.
In their eyes, the sun, which has risen pretty high in the sky, has been put out, dowsing everything in darkness. The universe suddenly appears to be nothing but the stage for a huge tragedy, whose scale and gravity is yet beyond their grasp, and will require the rest of their lives to come clear, in suffering. Some in fact have already reached this conclusion: the rest of their lives are meaningless.
Matsuda Seiichi slumps onto the grass, and vocalises something that will become a historical saying, “in an unknowable universe, my heart can’t bother to beat.” His words resonates with all the physicists present, which all share a blank and defeated look. After a long time, Ding Yi suddenly breaks the silence, “I have a solution that not only allows me to get the grand unified theory, but keeps the Sealing Guidelines intact.” The Agent nods, “go on.”
“You tell me the ultimate mystery of the universe, and then destroy me.”
“I give you three days to think about that.” The Agent’s response comes immediately after Yi’s words.
Ding Yi is hysterical, “this is a viable deal?”
The Agent nods.
III. Altar of Truth (finished, unedited – 15 September 2022)
People refer to the huge hemispheric dome thusly. It has a diameter of 50 metres, and is placed in the desert with the spherical part facing down, like an inverted mountain. This hemisphere was constructed by the Agent out of sand. A huge tornado appeared out of nowhere, and when it subsided, a pillar of sand coalesced into this structure. Nobody knows how he precisely guided grains of sand into this shape, which is strong enough to support its own weight. Still, the way it’s positioned makes it a little unstable, and gently rocks in the wind.
According to the Agent, in his distant home world, such an inverted hemisphere was used to host forums. In the bygone times, scholars would sit on it to discuss mysteries of the universe. Because of the intrinsic instability, attendees must carefully distribute and regulate their mass distributions, or the structure will tilt and give everybody a fright. The Agent never explained if there were any symbolic meanings to this shape, but people presume it may be a hint of the non-equilibrium nature of the universe, alongside its instability.
On one side of this inverted dome, there is also a long ramp made out of sand. On it, people could walk onto the Altar. In the Agent’s home world, there was no need for this ramp. In the days before they underwent conversion to become pure energy, his species had large transparent wings, and could fly onto the Altar directly. This ramp is a modification intended for the over three hundred humans below. Here, they will trade their lives for some knowledge of the universe.
Three days ago, when Professor Ding Yi’s trade offer was accepted by the Agent, the development of things worried the world at large. In less than a day, hundreds made the same request. Apart from staff members of the International Nuclear Science Centre, there were scientists from all across the globe. At first only physicists and cosmologists, but then joined mathematicians, biologists, and academics in other fundamental sciences, some even came from backgrounds of economics and history. These people offering to trade their lives for truths are all forerunners of their respective fields, the elites among the elites. Half of them are Nobel laureates. It is fair to say, that the best human science has to offer, are now gathering around the Altar of Truth.
Strictly speaking, the desert upon which the Altar stands is no longer a desert. The grass planted by the Agent three days ago propagated quickly, and the band of grass has already doubled in width. Its irregular edge now extends to the base of the Altar, around which stands tens of thousands of people. Apart from the self-sacrificial scientists and news crew from around the world, also present are their friends and families. Two days and two nights of efforts in vain to turn their beloved scientists around have been mentally and physically taxing, but some are still trying. Alongside them are numerous government representatives, and over ten national leaders. They are also attempting to keep their countries’ top scientists.
“Why did you bring the kid along.” Ding Yi asks, staring at Fang Lin. Behind them, and oblivious to the goings on, Wenwen is playing on the grass. She is the only happen person in this large and gloomy crowd.
“I want her to watch you die.” Lin says coldly. Her eyes are pale, and her eyes look blankly into afar.
“You think this can stop me?”
“I do not have hopes, but I think it’s enough to convince our daughter not to be like you.”
“You can punish me, but the kid …”
“Nobody can punish you, and don’t you pretend what is about to happen as a punishment. I know deep down you are on the way to the heaven of your dreams!”
Ding Yi looks into the eyes of his lover, “Lin, if this is what you think, then you have finally understood me.”
“I know nobody. I only know rage.”
“You are of course entitled to be mad at me.”
“I am mad at physics!”
“But without physics, humans are still a dumb animal getting by in forests and caves!”
“Look at me, am I any happier than them?”
“But I am happy, and I wish that you can share my joy.”
“Then let our kid share it too! Let her see her father’s end. This should be enough to keep her away from the drug called physics when she grows up.”
“Lin, when you call physics a drug, you’ve known its nature from deep down. Look, in the past few days you understood how many things, had we reached the same page earlier, we won’t have such tragedies today.”
The national leaders all stand on the altar, trying their best to persuade the Agent to abandon the deal, and refuse the scientists’ demands.
The US president says, “Sir, I hope I can refer to you as such, all the best scientists on earth are here. Are you really about to destroy the science of our world?”
The Agent replies, “it’s not that bad. Another batch of scientists will soon emerge to take their place. The urge to explore is in the blood of all intelligent life.”
“So, as an intelligent life form yourself, you can really bear to execute your fellow scholars?”
“These are their choices. Their lives are their own, and of course they are entitled to choosing to trade them for causes they deem sublime.”
“This we do not you to remind us,” the Russian president joined with agitation, “it is not an unknown concept for our kind, to trade one’s life for a sublime cause. In a war last century, over twenty million chose to do the same. But, the problems is, right now, the scientists are trading their lives for nothing! Only they can obtain and enjoy those pieces of knowledge, and after that, you only allow them ten more minutes to live? They are all profoundly perverted by their pursuit of the ultimate truth, perverted, and I think you know this.”
“What I know is, they are the only normal people on this planet.”
The world leaders express that they do not understand what the Agent meant.
The Agent opens his arms and proceeds to hug the sky, “when the intricate and harmonious beauty of the universe fully expands in front of you, life is a small cost.”
“But they only get to live for ten minutes after seeing this ‘beauty’!”
“Even without this ten minutes, just being able to see the ultimate beauty unfold, is worthwhile too.”
The leaders exchange confused glances and shake their heads.
“As civilisation progresses, people like them will grow in number,” the Agent points at the scientists, “in the end, when the problems of living is fully resolved, when love vanishes as selves alienate or coalesce, when art wilts due to absurd pursuits of refinement and obscurity, the pursuit of knowledge of the universe will become a world’s ultimate and only reason of being. Then, the behaviours of your scientists today will be seen as fundamentally natural and moral.”
The leaders fall into silence for a while, trying to understand the Agent’s words. Suddenly, the US president begins laughing, “Sir, you are playing us as a fool, you are fooling the entire humanity.”
The Agent pauses, “I don’t understand.”
The Japanese PM weighs in, “Humans are not as foolish as you think. The logical fallacies in your speech just now, even a kid can notice!”
The Agent is confused even more, “I can’t see any inconsistencies.”
The US president sneers, “take one trillion years in the future. By then, the universe must have been filled to the brim with advanced civilisations. Judging by what you said, the pursuit of ultimate theories will become the shared value and moral standard of all worlds, and so all civilisations will agree to get together, to conduct a world-ending experiment to test and explore the unified theory at any cost, including their own lives. Are you meaning this will happen?”
The Agent stares at the leaders solemnly for a long while. His strange gaze brings shivers to the group of world leaders, some of which seems to have pondered upon something, “You don’t mean…?”
Moving towards the edge of the Altar, the Agent puts up a hand to signal the speaker to stop. There, the Agents speaks to everyone loudly, “you must be very curious how we obtained the grand unified theory, and I will tell you now.”
“Long ago, the universe was much tinier than it is now, and very hot. Stars have not formed yet, but matter has already precipitated out of energy, forming clouds of gas in empty space. Life has already emerged back then, they were a life form weaved together by quantum fields and thin strands of gas, they resembled tornadoes in space. This kind of life evolved like lightning, and quickly gave rise to a highly technical civilisation across the universe. When the nebula civilisation’s pursuit of the ultimate truth peaked, all worlds agreed in concert, that they conduct a high-energy experiment, at the risk of vacuum decay.”
“The nebula creatures interacted with their surrounding worlds completely differently from us. Because there are not enough matter particles to arrange, an individual would transform itself into the object it wanted. When the final decision was made, some worlds quickly evolved, becoming parts of a large accelerator. In the end, millions of such individuals arranged themselves, and formed a high energy accelerator that could reach world-creating energy levels. When the mechanism was switched on, blue flashes were seen in the crimson clouds.”
“They were deeply aware of the potential risks of this undertaking. They transmitted their measurement results out with gravitational waves as the experiment progressed. Gravitational waves are the only media of information that can survive a vacuum decay.”
“After a while into the experiment, a vacuum decay was triggered. A ball of lower vacuum energy expands from the size of an atom, into an astronomical scale in mere moments. Everything inside was destroyed, and the ball grew faster than the universe’s expansion. After a long time, the entire universe was destroyed.”
“After a long time, in an empty universe, the elementary particles that everything previously evaporated into have condensed again. Nebulas emerged again, but the universe was quiet. Not until stars and planets formed did life return to the universe. Then, the gravitational wave messages were still sloshing around spacetime, and the emergence of matter caused it to quickly attenuate. Right before it became too weak to be detected, the new universe’s first technical civilisations detected the signal, and decoded the information it carried. From these prehistorical data, the new worlds obtained the Grand Unified Theory. They also found out that the most important information for the theory to be constructed, was collected in the ten-thousandth of a second before the vacuum decay.”
“Let’s think back at the nebula world on the verge of its annihilation, because vacuum decay took place at the speed of light, all beings outside of it were unable to predict its arrival. Before being torn to shreds, each world was entirely focussed on producing and processing data from their accelerator. One ten-thousandth of a second after they collected enough information to construct the final theory, vacuum decay brought everything into oblivion. Please notice, the nebula creatures think at immensely high frequencies, and to them a hundred microseconds is a long time. It is possible that before their lives ended, they obtained the full unified theory.”
“Of course, this might as well be our self-comforting delusion. It is more likely they worked out nothing after gathering all the data. They lifted the veil of the cosmic mysteries, but they were destroyed the instant before they could look towards the final beauty. More respectably, they conducted the whole process fully aware of this possibility, to sacrifice the entire civilisation, to provide data of the ultimate mysteries to worlds in the distant future.”
“Now I hope that you understand, that the pursuit of ultimate truths is the final goal and endgame of all civilisations.”
The Agent’s lecture has led everyone standing on and below the Altar into deep thought. No matter whether this world agreed with his concluding remarks, it is certain that it will immensely influence the philosophy and culture of future humans.
The US president interrupts the contemplative silence, “sir, you paint a grim picture for life in the universe. Are all strifes and hopes in all our history, only amounting to the ephemeral moment of a moth flying into a fire?”
“The moth doesn’t find it grim. It enjoys a brief moment of light.”
“Humanity will not succumb to this twisted world view!”
“This is understandable. In our universe, the one reborn after the previous vacuum decay, civilisations are still just beginning. Each world has got their own ways of life, and are in pursuit of different goals. To most, the pursuit of the ultimate truth is not of paramount importance or urgency, and to risk destroying it all is not fair to most life. Even in my own world, not all members are on board with this. As such, we did not conduct any experiments using the grand unified theory that we possess, and constructed the risk management system across the universe, Still, we believe that as time passes, one day, all worlds will unite under the common goal of civilisations. Even now, even in a baby world like your own, some already share this goal. All right, time is almost up. If you do not wish to trade life for truth, please get off the Altar, and let up the people who do.
The leaders depart from the Alter, and offer their final plea for their scientists to stay.
The French president opens, “what about this, let’s put this aside and think it through. Let me accompany you all to experience a different kind of life, let’s relax for once, watch night fall in the bird songs of sunset, listen to nostalgic music under the moon, think of the loves of your lives while tasting wine … Then you will discover, that ultimate truths are not as important as you thought. I believe that compared to your ethereal and unfounded ‘harmony of worlds’, to revel in my kind of beauty is more enjoyable.
A physicist coldly rejects, “all lifestyles are sensible. We are not obliged to understand each other.”
The French president still has something to say, but the US president has already lost his patience, “stop, you are just talking to a brick wall at this point. Don’t you see this is a group of people completely devoid of responsibility? Can’t you tell how much of a shameless fraudster each and every one of them is? They used to say they conduct research for the good of humanity, but are only using public resources to fill their own twisted desires. To satiate their pursuit for the absurd beauty of the universe, is that different from embezzling public funds to hire prostitutes?
Professor Ding Yi makes his way to the leaders, smiles and pats on his shoulder, “Mr President, for as far has science as progressed, finally, somebody offered a good definition of it.”
Professor Matsuda Seiichi voices his agreements from not far away, “we’ve admitted to this since long ago, and state it repeatedly. Well, nobody believed in us.”
IV. The Exchange
The exchange of life and truth has begun.
The first group, eight mathematicians, make their way to the Altar via the long ramp. There is no wind over the surrounding desert, as though nature is holding its breath, and everything waits in silence. The rising sun stretches their shadows onto the desert, making them the only moving bit of the picture.
The mathematicians’ figures disappear behind the Altar, outside the view of people below. Everybody listens attentively, and the Agent speaks first. In the dead silence, his voice is articulate, “what is your question?”
A mathematician’s voice followed, “we want to see the proofs for the Fermat [sic, but it was proven in 1995] and Goldbach conjectures.”
“Sure. The proofs are quite long indeed, and there’s only enough time for you to see the key steps. The rest will be explained in text.” The exact mechanism via which the Agent actually passed on information to those humans, will become a mystery in itself over the days to come. From the footage taken from an aircraft in the distance, the scientists all stared into the sky, where there seemed to be nothing. A commonly accepted theory is that the Agent beamed some kind of waves straight into their nervous systems. That said, the actual situation is much simpler, the Agent projects information onto the sky, making the entire sky a display exclusive to people situated inside the Altar.
After an hour, a voice broke the silence on the Altar, “we have finished reading.”
Follows the Agent’s calm response, “you have ten minutes.”
Vague hints of conversations emanate from from the Altar. Only short fragments can be heard clearly, but they are enough to carry the joy and excitement of the speakers. It is like a talk among travellers who just saw a light ahead, after being lost in a cave for years.
“… this is brand new …”
“… how is this possible?” “… I had intuitively …” “… Gosh, if only …”
As the ten minutes nears its end, a voice rises from the Altar, “please accept our sincere gratitude.”
A bright light flashes. As it fades, eight plasma fireballs lift off from the Altar, and swiftly elevate into the sky. Their luminosities dwindle, turning orange from a bright yellow glow, and disappear in the blue sky one by one. The entire process unfolds in silence, and, as confirmed by the aircraft above, only the Agent stays in the Altar.
“Next.” He announces.
Under the gaze of thousands of eyes, eleven more walked onto the Altar.
“What is your question?”
“We are paleobiologists. Please tell us the reasons the dinosaurs went extinct.”
The paleobiologists begin gazing into the sky, but they use less time than the mathematicians before. Soon, someone proclaims, “we know now. Thank you.”
“You have ten minutes.”
“… so this is how the puzzle fits together.” “… I will never have thought of this in my dream…” “… are there wilder things than …?”
Then the flash appears and fades. Eleven fireballs rise and dissipate above the Altar. Group by group, scientists ascended to the Altar, and perish in scintillating glows of plasma at the end of their exchanges.
Everything proceeds with palpable solemnity and gravity. Under the Altar, the dramas of abandonment, pleading, and farewells — which many people previously expected to take place — do not occur. People around the world watch this quietly, their hearts in awe. Humanity is undergoing the largest collective awakening in recorded history.
The day has gone by, and half of the sun has sunk below the western skyline. The setting sun coats a layer of golden glamour onto the Altar, and physicists make their way to the Altar.
Physicists make up the largest group yet, there are eighty-six of them [the translator wants to go to, within the story logic]. Just as they begin walking on the ramp, the silence that lasted all the way since sunrise, is broken by the sound of a child.
“Dad!” Wenwen runs out of the crowd standing on the grass, up to the ramp, into the physics group, and up to Ding Yi. She holds Yi’s leg, “dad, I don’t want you to become a fireball that flies away!”
Yi gingerly lifts up his daughter, and asks, “Wenwen, can you tell dad what is the most miserable time you can remember?”
Sobbing, Wenwen thinks for a few seconds, “I grew up in the desert, and … I always wanted to visit a zoo. Last time when dad brought me to a conference in a big city, you brought me to a big zoo. But your phone rang not long after we walked in, and you were called back to work. The zoo required children to be accompanied by adults at all times, so I had to go home with you. Dad, this was my most miserable memory, I cried the whole time when we flew back.”
Replies Ding Yi, “my kid, you will have time to visit that zoo again. Your mum can bring you there. Your dad is in front of a big zoo right now, and in there are things I have dreamed to see for so long. Furthermore, if I did not go this time, I wouldn’t have another chance …”
Teary eyed, Wenwen gazes up at her father for a while, and nods, “so … dad should go.”
Fang Lin walks up to them and leads Wenwen away from Yi’s embrace. She says, while staring at the Altar up ahead, “Wenwen, your dad is the worst father in the world, but he really wants to go to that zoo.”
Professor Ding Yi looks at the ground, and asks, almost pleading, “yes, Wenwen. Dad really wants to go.”
Lin gives him a cold look, “you heartless elementary particle, go, finish your final collision. Remember, I will never allow our daughter to become a physicist.”
As the group turns around and prepares to resume their ascension, another woman’s yelling brings the physicists to a standstill. “Matsuda-kun, if you walk one more step, I will kill myself in front of you.”
The speaker is a petite Japanese girl. She is standing on the grass near the entrance of the sand ramp, and points a silver pistol against her temple.
Matsuda Seiichi turns around and walks up to the woman. Looking into her eyes, “Izumiko, do you remember that cold morning of Hokkaido? You gave me a puzzle to test for my love for you. You asked, if you are disfigured in a fire, what I should do. I said I will stay by your side for my entire life, but it was to your dismay. You said if I truly loved you, I should blind myself, so I only keep in my heart the perfect version of you.”
Izumiko’s hand still clenches to the gun, but her eyes fill with tears.
Matsuda continues, “so, my dear. You know deeply how important beauty is in our lives. Now, the final beauty of the cosmos is in front of me, how can I not take a glimpse at it?”
“One more step and I will shoot.”
Matsuda Seiichi smiles, and voices gently as he turns, “Izumiko, see you in heaven.” The physicists make their way up to the altar. The sound of a gunshot and the collapse of a supple body compels no one to look back.
The physicists arrive at the top of the Altar. In the centre, the Agent greets them with a smile. Suddenly, the clouds at dusk all disappears, the setting sun disappears, the desert and grass all disappears. The Altar levitates amid infinite empty space, the night before creation, with not a single star.
The Agent lifts his hand to gesture at a direction. There, the physicists notice a golden speck of light. From a point, it grows to become something with area and shape, people can see it’s a spiral galaxy. The galaxy continues growing to exhibit its immense complexity and grace. Even closer, people notice that all stars in this galaxy are numbers and symbols. Their arrangements produce formulae and equation, like rows of golden waves in the sea of stars.
The grand unified theory silently and slowly moves above the physicists.
… when 86 fireballs lifted off from the Altar, Fang Lin collapses onto the grass. She faintly hears her daughter asking “mum, which one of those is dad?”
The last to ascend the Altar is Dr Stephen Hawking. His electric wheelchair slowly drives up the ramp, like an insect along a tree branch; his frozen figure sunken into the wheelchair seat, like a candle about to melt in heat. The wheelchair reaches the top, and drives up to face the Agent. It has been a while since the sun has set, and stars have begin appearing above the Altar. The desert and grass begin to blend into each other.
“Doctor. What problem do you have?” Inquires the Agent. He doesn’t show particularly more respect towards Hawking compared to the rest. With the signature nondescript smile, he listens to the synthetic voice,
“What is the universe’s purpose?”
No answer appeared in the sky. The smile disappears from the Agent’s face, just as a fleeting hint of panic emerges in his eyes.
“Sir?” asks Hawking.
Silence still. The sky is empty, and normal. Behind filaments of thin clouds, the universe’s ocean of stars fades into view.
“Doctor, the exit is behind you,” the Agent says.
“Is this the answer?”
The Agent shakes his head, “I mean you may go back.”
“You don’t know?”
The Agent nods in agreement, “I don’t know.” At this moment, he is, for the first time, no longer merely a caricature of a person. Waves of sadness wash over his face, they manifest so vividly and powerfully, nobody can say that he is not a person — a person extraordinary, for being too ordinary.
“How can I know?” He murmurs.
In an evening fifteen years later, on the grassland formally known as Taklamakan Desert, a mother and a daughter are talking. The mother is in her early fourties’, but silver strands has dotted her hair. Her aging and tired eyes are full of sorrow. The daughter is a slender teen, crystalline starlight reflects in her clear eyes.
The mother sits down on the soft grass, longingly glances at the fuzzy horizon, and says, “Wenwen, mum never stopped you from going to the same physics department both your dad and myself studied, or when you decided to pursue a PhD in quantum gravity. You can become a theoretical physicist, I am even fine if you make this your only purpose of life. But, Wenwen, please don’t cross that line!”
Wenwen looks up at the sparking Milky Way, “Mum, can you imagine that all this comes from a size-less singularity billions of years ago? The universe has long crossed that line.”
Fang Lin jolts up and grabs her daughter’s shoulders, “kid, please don’t.”
Wenwen sits still, eyes still staring at the sky.
“Wenwen, are you listening? What’s wrong?” Fang Lin shakes her daughter, whose attention is still fully absorbed by the stars, and she asks, “mum, what’s the purpose of the universe?”
“Ay. No —“ Lin collapses back on the grass, and covers her face while she sobs, “Kid, please, please don’t be like that.”
Wenwen finally takes back her gaze, and reaches to comfort her mother. She asks gently, “mum, then, what is the purpose of life?”
This question is like a block of ice, and suddenly cools Lin’s scorching hot heart. She glances back at her daughter, and looks back into the distance. Fifteen years ago, in that direction, an Altar once stood. Even further, the Einstein Equator once bravely crossed the desert.
A breeze brings waves on the grass, like an energised crowd under the starry sky, singing silent songs into the entire universe.
“I don’t know. How can I know?” Fang Lin murmurs.