And London was no more

“In the far deeps of space there are…textures. Complex configurations of elementary fields and topological defects in space-time. ‘Non-trivial solutions’, as we say. And they have what you can almost call an awareness, a sentience – the evidence has been piling up for a decade or more now. No-one wants to discuss it openly because it’s so damn weird. But it’s undeniable. There’s complex adaptive behaviour, communication even…no-one’s had the balls to publish yet, but everyone within the field is talking about it.” – Dr. Elizabeth Worthing, Dept. Of Physics and Astronomy, UCL 2012 was an exciting year for interdisciplinary research at University College London. Collaboration between particle physicists, extragalactic astronomers and computer scientists is scarcely a new phenomenon, but when scientists from these disciplines begin working in earnest with archaeologists, it tends to raise eyebrows. The curious chain of inquiry began when a doctoral student in the college’s astronomy group began writing algorithms to analyse data from a variety of radio telescopes around the world. She was initially investigating variable quasars in an attempt to elucidate the complex and extreme dynamics of these distant and long-vanished objects, but it soon became apparent that the complexity of the emissions in some parts of the long-wavelength band were far beyond anything that had previously been measured or predicted. By itself, analysis of these emissions would have made a good thesis, produced a couple of interesting papers and perhaps inspired one or two subsequent PhDs, but Elizabeth Worthing discovered features so puzzling she decided to ask if anyone in the Computer Science department would be interested in collaborating on the analysis. As luck would have it (or so it seemed at the time), a young Russian postdoc named Grigori Ivanov took an interest in her work and, having been in search of a worthwhile grant proposal, was delighted by the prospect of conducting exciting research with someone outside his own field.

Having applied for and been granted a postdoctoral position immediately following her doctorate, Worthing continued to use data from radio telescopes trained on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, looking at quasars at redshifts of up to 8 as they were just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This kind of in-depth investigation of the emission spectra of such distant objects was groundbreaking, but neither she nor Ivanov had any idea just how startling their discoveries were to be. The first clue that something totally unforeseen was going on came from the remarkable degree of correlation between the emission signatures of the quasars, which was much higher than anything that could be expected by chance. Fourier analysis of the emissions in the long-wave radio band appeared to show a power spectrum radically different from any known astrophysical source, in fact different from any known natural radiant object. Bizarrely enough, the signals seemed to be fractal in nature, each successively smaller frequency window displaying the same degree of complexity as the larger window it was taken from.

It was at this point that Worthing began to become aware of a nagging feeling which her every scientific instinct strained to suppress. The correlation between the emissions of certain of the quasars appeared to lag by a time factor equal more or less exactly to the distance between them, multiplied by the speed of light. Of course the quasars were, even at that early stage of the universe, distant by thousands of light-years but the correlation could nonetheless be reconstructed by extrapolating the evolution of the signals, gathered over a period of several years, over time periods orders of magnitudes greater. This, in concert with the incredible complexity and degree of organisation exhibited by the signals – as demonstrated by Ivanov’s algorithms, which revealed them to have an informatic depth similar to a man-made analogue radio broadcast – pointed to a conclusion as inexorable as it was unthinkable: the signals could only be a form of communication. Worthing and Ivanov could have been forgiven for doubting their own sanity at this point, but even as they presented their results in the most scientifically objective and unsensationalist way possible at the usual round of annual conferences and symposia, they became aware that other research groups had stumbled upon tantalisingly similar findings.

Astronomers at Jodrell Bank had begun to become aware of something totally new and unexpected in ultrahigh-redshift radio emissions as long ago as the late ’90s and supporting evidence had been found since then by teams at MIT, Cambridge, Manchester, the École Normale Supérieure, Fermilab’s Astrophysics Division, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg and a handful of others around the world. The London pair’s unspoken initial suspicion that they’d made some error in their calculations or had encountered a bizarre instrumental artefact had by this point evaporated entirely. They were at the forefront of something wholly new to science and potentially revolutionary in its implications.

At this point it will be instructive to examine events that happened roughly simultaneously in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology – a department which, it hardly need be said, did not regularly engage in collaborative research projects with astrophysicists. The chain of events that led to the disaster began when a Master’s student with a keen interest in the factual basis of folklore decided to investigate the so-called London Stone, an undoubtedly ancient monolith associated with the city since Roman times and, by the early 21st century, somewhat incongruously displayed behind a small iron grille at 111 Cannon Street in the heart of the City. The distant past of the Stone is murky; it is said to have been part of a much larger stone which marked the point from which the Romans measured all distances in the province of Britannia, while popular myth links it to Brutus of Troy and King Arthur. So much for legend. The student in question was studying archaeology and not mythology, after all, and after lengthy negotiations with the City of London Corporation, was allowed to physically investigate the Stone in an attempt to validate his personal theories of its origins and nature.

A tiny piece chipped off the base of the stone and taken back to the College for mineralogical review revealed a startling discovery: the monolith was not, as most literature on the subject claimed, a piece of limestone but appeared to be of a previously unknown species of metamorphic rock which showed evidence of having been repeatedly exposed to very high temperatures and then rapidly cooled. But this was nothing compared to the subsequent chemical and isotopic analyses, which sent shockwaves throug the archaeological and mineralogical communities. The Stone was clearly of extraterrestrial origin, in so many words – and more than that, it was radically different in composition from any known meteorite. Preliminary results of the analysis, which of course had gone far beyond anything the archaeology student had hoped to discover, were presented at a colloquium attended by much of the Institute’s faculty and student body as well as experts in the field from a number of other British universities as well as some journalists and the usual representatives from local folklore societies. Crucially, though, there were also a few students from other of the college’s departments, including a PhD student working on stellar atmospheres who was a friend of Elizabeth Worthing’s. The student was especially intrigued by diagrams of the spectroscopic structure of emissions from the fragment of the Stone produced when it had been bombarded with x-rays; the incredible level of detail, speculatively ascribed to a novel electron spin resonance effect, reminded him of nothing so much as the Fourier-transformed radio emissions of Worthing’s ultra-distant quasars which he’d seen in a recent seminar.

Up to this point, we know with reasonable certainty what happened from the testimonies of certain visiting academics who were involved to a greater or lesser degree with these research projects; however, reconstruction of events from this point onwards becomes rather more hazy, and relies almost entirely upon records of emails stored on servers located outside London, which consequently survived the catastrophe. News of the strange correspondence between radio emissions from the edge of the observable universe and the unguessed properties of a mysterious ancient monolith in the centre of London had spread like wildfire through the academic community and the wider public beyond. The London Olympiad was drawing to a close and some sections of the press, in full ‘silly season’ mode, fastened onto the story with varying degrees of journalistic integrity. Reactions varied from cautious excitement to accusations of incompetence or charlatanry to, inevitably, a slew of activity in the more ‘fringe’ areas of the internet, with bloggers and commentators veritably fizzing with far-fetched theories and occult speculation. This, some said, was the ’2012 prophecy’ coming true – but then, hardly a day went by that year in which some moderately unexpected event wasn’t heralded as a harbinger of the End Times. Worthing, Ivanov and their colleagues and supporters around the world responded to the encouraging messages, ignored the nay-sayers and crackpots and pressed ahead with what looked like being a fruitful new avenue of research with the archaeologists. The final ingredient fell into place in the autumn term of that year when the astronomer and the programmer, prompted by increasingly fascinating results coming from new types of analysis on the fragment of the Stone, turned to their colleagues in the particle physics group for help. It may be said, without fear of hyperbole, that London’s fate was sealed at this moment.

The decision to utilise the expertise of particle physicists, as opposed to the more obvious choice of researchers in mineralogy, inorganic chemistry or condensed matter, was prompted by an unprecendented signature turning up in a study of the Stone’s magnetic properties. Incredibly, the stone seemed to have a smattering of magnetic monopoles embedded in it; these particles, up to that point purely hypothetical objects, had been the subject of experimental searches for decades and had turned up in a place no-one could possibly have foreseen. Worthing was especially excited as monopoles had been predicted in some cosmological models to be in effect tiny ‘knots’ of spacetime, in other words topological defects left over from the Big Bang. The Stone, wherever it had come from, must have passed through a region of the universe where, in distant past aeons, such particles had existed in abundance. And in some bizarre way which no-one could yet elucidate, this must be linked to the fantastically complex and correlated radio emissions from the long-dead proto-quasars. Could topological defects of the kind that gave rise to the monopoles be at work in the churning, roiling hearts of these mysterious objects? How could any species of rock – if that was indeed the correct term for the singular substance that composed the London Stone – have formed at such an early phase of the universe, surely long before the formation of the first planets and asteroids, when (as conventional cosmology had it) elements heavier than lithium scarcely existed?

The answers to these questions were not fathomed and they never will be. On October 8th, as students and lecturers began the new academic term, a further sample of the Stone was placed in a test facility – a relatively low-energy electron beam previously used to calibrate detector components for the one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider. The aim, as far as can be made out from the participants’ correspondence, was to investigate how the monopoles would behave in an external magnetic field when bombarded with electrons, with tiny magnetic fields of their own – but as none of those involved in the experiment are now with us, details are likely to remain vague. Witnesses who were on the outskirts of the city around 11am describe seeing a strange black cloud that seemed to emerge from central London and rise into the sky, spreading as it did so, somewhat in the manner of the mushroom cloud from a thermonuclear explosion. The inner regions of the cloud were shot through with indescribable colours that flickered and danced, and the bizarre apparition was accompanied by a low seismic rumble and a hot wind that came rushing out from the direction of the cloud shortly after it first appeared. Finally, the cloud appeared to consolidate itself and as the rumble and the wind reached a crescendo, a vast pillar of darkness rapidly rose into the sky, blocking out the sun for several minutes, and finally was gone. Radio transmissions around the world were disrupted and data from radio telescopes, when later analysed by astronomers who had been in contact with Worthing and Ivanov, contained odd spikes which, when corrected for redshift, bore a striking resemblance to the signals from deep space that had been the seed of the entire tragedy.

With the disappearance of the great black pillar above the city, the vibrations ceased, the remaining clouds slowly dissipated and communications were gradually restored. Terrified onlookers from the suburbs crowded towards to the city, trying to make out familiar landmarks amongst the thinning vapours as well as what seemed to be ordinary dust and smoke, but none were to be seen. Instead there was a vast, roughly circular crater, as if a multi-megaton weapon had been detonated above the city. The crater began a few miles inside the M25 and was at its deepest, with diverted water from the Thames already forming a large lake, in what used to be the Bloomsbury area. And London was no more.


2 Responses to “And London was no more”

  1. sufi lala Says:

    nice one tea, had to be done!
    suf x

  2. routemasterflash Says:

    Cheers Sufi, glad you liked it. 🙂

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