widely known, but there's a town up in the mountains where the people
who run things live. They are the ones who set the rules. They write the
formulae. They fix the constants. Xenon is inert because of their whims.
Inertial mass equals gravitational mass because they said so—they
had other plans originally, but these turned out to be such a pain in
the ass that the whole elaborate scheme was dropped.
From a distance, their houses look like igloos:
one hundred and thirty-seven whitish mushroom shapes poking up among the
flatirons. Closer inspection reveals that the igloos are geodesic domes,
hundreds of triangles locked together into a Fullerene hemisphere. Moving
closer still, one sees that the domes are made of paper. The power of
the electrostatic bonds within the paper has been increased by the people
who run things to improve the tensile strength (they're a bit games-mad,
given to playing sports wherein some fundamental law or constant has been
altered, and the risk of an errant ball from a game of low-gravity baseball
striking a house is very real). As this is a mountain town, it snows often,
but this is no problem: the boiling point of water has been lowered drastically
in the space immediately above their houses so that precipitation flashes
harmlessly into steam before it hits the paper.
There is one way in and out of town- a road
that winds between the igloos and down the mountains, eventually hooking
up to a spur that takes you into Nederland. It is a curious road. In the
morning, it's gravel, and the going is slow by bicycle unless you have
fat tires or have manipulated the workings of friction. By the evening,
though, foot and bicycle traffic have turned the road into a Roman-style
stone-block affair, complete with majestic unmasoned keystone bridges
crossing the mountain streams. The people who run things have reversed
the Second Law of Thermodynamics for the road, and it tends towards greater
order. Throw a random handful of cards down onto it, and they'll land
in an orderly-stacked deck, more often than not grouped by suit and sorted
in ascending value.
Every night the road is ripped up by Eddie,
the town drunk. He goes out just after dark with a sledgehammer and a
temporary restoration of the Second Law. He tells anyone who'll listen
that he has to do this so that they can at least attempt to show a little
respect to the conservation laws. The rest of the people think he's being
silly, but they tolerate him. Eddie's harmless.
Things are usually tranquil in town, but
there are occasional flurries of activity. In the early 90s, for example,
in the days just after two guys in Utah had gone public with a claim that
they had achieved cold fusion. The town resembled an anthill after being
blown open by a firecracker as the people who run things scurried around
to see if they'd dropped a decimal point somewhere or overlooked some
loophole. Things calmed down only after they re-checked everything and
were sure that the error wasn't on their side. The subsequent shameful
retraction from Utah generated many smug nods in the geodesic domes.
A greater crisis came a few years later
when the particle colliders at Fermilab and CERN stepped up their searches
for the Top Quark. The people who run things realized rather late in the
game that they'd never bothered to nail down a mass for the Top Quark-
they had been meaning to, but it was always a project for next weekend.
And now they were paying for their procrastination... while they'd never
worked out the specifics, they'd always had a general range in mind for
the Top's mass, and they were horrified to discover that the Fermilab
team had already scoured that area with a fine-toothed particle counter.
Bedlam ensued. Where were they going to
put the damned mass? At the rate the Fermilab team was moving, every conceivable
value would be ruled out in no time and the standard model of particle
physics would be cast into serious doubt and theorists the world over
would no doubt begin disemboweling themselves. Recriminations flew as
the people who run things turned on themselves, chastising each other
for letting serious decisions go unresolved while half the town sat around
watching "Becker" and the other half was caught up in working
out the rules for ten-dimensional soccer. Eddie roamed up and down the
town, forsaking his street maintenance, besottedly howling that the conservation
laws were finally having their day and that he'd been right all along.
And then cooler heads prevailed. Someone
pointed out that if they hurried up they might have time to get the Top
fixed at the very highest possible mass; and even if they didn't make
it and the Fermilab team moved too fast, it would still be better to be
working than to be yelling at each other. So an all-nighter was pulled,
several kegs of beer were consumed, and all of the details of the Top
Quark were established just in time for the formal discovery. An unusually
sober Eddie stood up and suggested that they think about a more rigorous
review process to make sure that an oversight like this never happened
again, but he was ignored. Instead, by way of celebration, the people
who run things trooped over to Ward, a mountain town out past Nederland.
There's a guy in Ward who stands in his yard naked but for a kilt and
his tattoos, boxing any and all comers right there on the grass for a
small fee. Any time the people who run things have something to celebrate,
they do so by making their way over to Ward and watching the action. Even
One night, I happened to hear Ray Bradbury
on NPR talking about how he always came up with weird story ideas during
the foggy period in the morning when he was starting to wake up but wasn't
quite conscious. I shrugged it off, but the next morning I had this weird
vision of geodesic domes in the mountains and a road that repaired itself.
This story represents the first time
I have actually made use of the two and a half years I spent as a physics