The Ogre, the Monk and the Maiden

In a new short story, Dame Margaret Drabble imagines a future shaped by discoveries at CERN, the international mecca for particle physicists.
Photo: TimeLife/Mansell.

The following is an excerpt from Collision: Stories from the Science of CERN, edited by Rob Appleby and Connie Potter, just published in the UK by Comma Press.

They were known at CERN as the Ogre, the Monk and the Maiden. Der Eiger, der Mönch und die Jungfrau. They hiked together, they skied together, they lived in the same on-site condominium. They worked together as an entangled threesome, and they are now sitting as a threesome round the vast turquoise heaven-reflecting pool in their silvery and lime green Peakstar Swimwear, drinking their beers and gazing at the icy mountains. They are in relaxed and happy mode, as they plan their outing for the next day, which is to be a public holiday. The nature of their entanglement is not clear to their gossiping colleagues, but by this point, sexual relations and gender identity, as well as particle physics, have become so complex and fluid that any imaginable or unimaginable permutations are possible. CERN is by and large a tolerant community, and almost anything goes. The trio is well liked. The Ogre was a fearsome figure, nearly seven feet tall, immensely strong, and a ferociously competitive tennis player: he brought to the minds of those with longer memories that tennis star of the early twenty-first century who died unvaccinated in his fifties of Covid-19 in the fifth wave of the Zeta Variant. There was something asymmetrical about the shape of his head that also summoned up the image of Victor Frankenstein’s Geneva-born monster. (Some unkindly folk nicknamed him Boris, which he did not like, although he was happy to be known as the Ogre.) He does not look like a sensitive soul, but he is. He is.

Victor Frankenstein was not forgotten at CERN (although Mary Shelley largely was) and Frankenstein’s name was still a watchword for scientific hubris, which journalists love to apply to any ambitious, outsized or jeopardous enterprise that dares to tempt providence. It had hovered ominously in the 2030s over the early planning stages of the FCC (the Future Circular Collider, now the Finished Circular Collider). Frankenphysics and Frankenphotons were invoked by those who knew nothing whatsoever about the science or scope or indeed limitations of the FCC, just as the word Frankenfoods had been conveniently coined in the 1990s by those who objected to GM Crops. Frankenstein’s ghost still haunts Geneva.

The FCC has been working well for the last couple of years, although its passionate advocates had many difficulties to overcome in its planning stages, not least concerning its funding, and there had inevitably been one or two blips during the lengthy and massive engineering project.

Some were caused by the devastating winter storms and avalanches and the unprecedented lake rise and flooding of 2045, which had suspended all engineering work for months. Another later weather-related incident, involving a rockfall on Mont Hilaire, had caused the FCC to be temporarily switched off, confusing the bewildered particles already in transit; it had also unfortunately (from the quantum physicists’ point of view) revealed the remains of a frozen Ice Man, the analysis of whose DNA was to push back the date of the birth of homo sapiens another twenty thousand years or so. This had held up operations for a further six months, as the archaeologists and the anthropologists had their way. This discovery recalled the unwelcome unearthing of the remains of a fourth century Roman farm and villa at Cessy, which had suspended and diverted work on its predecessor, the LHC, in 1998. If you dig too deep, there’s always a chance of finding something you really don’t want or need to see.

* Footnote: 2045, the year of storms, had also swamped the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset, as many had foreseen it might—why on earth, why on this most beautiful and one and only earth, had they decided to build a reactor on the bird-frequented shore of the second highest tidal range in the world, when they could have built a safer, cleaner, greener, cheaper tidal lagoon barrage just down the river in Swansea Bay?

All large projects have their detractors, and the size of the FCC had in those early days caused a lot of ill-informed commentary from those who wished it ill, and who resented the many billions of spesmili it was then projected to cost, which in their view should have been spent on public health, or space tourism, or armaments. (The spesmilo, a unit of universal currency first created and coined in Switzerland in 1907, had been reintroduced after the collapse of the euro in the 2030s, and the subsequent bitter entanglement of the dollar, the yuan and the yen.) The FCC was many times larger than the Large Hadron Collider, the track of which its great circle intersected – the LHC was a mere 27 or so kilometres long, and the FCC ended up at slightly over a hundred. (‘Or so’ and ‘slightly over’ weren’t the kind of calculations that the engineers used, fortunately, but in this context, they will do. And it’s worth noting that when the two ends of the circular tunnel of the LHC met, their alignment was ‘within one centimetre’: with the FCC, they met within thirty millimetres.)

Many attempts had been made to stall or sabotage its creation, by property owners, by religious doom mongers, by journalists gleefully predicting black holes, by romantic souls fearful of the impact on the historic landscape, by skiers worried about their ski slopes, by the proponents of rival colliders in other countries. There were even some serious Cambridge-based quantum physicists who argued that the journalistic notions of the black holes or vacuum decay that the new collider might create were not without foundation: it was calculated by some that the chance of a collider disaster ending the known universe was about level with the chance of a punter winning the UK lottery, which to some (presumably to most of the punters) didn’t seem very long odds, although with rather more at stake. But common sense (if that can be applied to anything to do with the often counter-intuitive nature of quantum mechanics) prevailed and the testing of the geology of the molasse and moraine and limestone had, as we know, continued.

A long-sustained act of resistance took the form of the ingenious legal attempts of an old woman, Madame Longuenesse, living just over the French side of the border, who claimed (rightly) that she owned the land under her farmstead right to the centre of the earth, and that nobody had the right to infringe her subterranean property. The farm had been built in 1816, as the date carved above its stone lintel proclaimed, and in her view it was good for another century. (The Swiss own their land only to a shallow depth, but the French own it to the core: it was not for nothing that that great Frenchman Jules Verne had stirred the imagination of generations with his Journey to the Centre of the Earth.) Living so close to the French-Swiss border—on the surface, indeed, she was within easy walking distance of Switzerland—she was well versed in the intricacies of Swiss and French property law, having fought previous battles about inheritance, stray cows, and invasive vegetation.

Madame Longuenesse had finally been talked out of her opposition by her great nephew, who happened to be an engineer who had worked on the successor to the James Webb telescope, the Vera Rubin, and who managed to persuade her that Jules Verne himself would have loved the FCC. Ferdinand spoke to her of the glories of the universe, of the thrill of the largest in search of the smallest, of the journey back to the primal soup of the Big Bang. She had listened, sagely, staring out at the meadow where her last cow Jonquille calmly grazed. They were all gone now, Gentiane, Paquerette, Violette, Mauve, Narcisse, Colchique, Coquelicot and Perce-Neige; the pretty douce soft-eyed Jonquille was the last of all her herd. And Mme Longuenesse had finally conceded that she didn’t really want to stand in the way of progress. She wasn’t interested in the utilitarian by-products of knowledge such as smarter smart phones or better MRI scans. She was too old for that kind of thing. It was knowledge itself that appealed to her, though she had difficulty in comprehending how it would manifest itself.

She liked the notion of Quark Gluon Plasma, that hot primeval liquid that had filled the universe for the first microsecond of its existence, and tried (unsuccessfully) to get young Ferdinand to explain to her whether QGP was a hypothesis or a known reality. Apparently, it was both. Like waves and particles. She took to calling her signature soup, a primeval vegan mix of carrot, chard and endive, by the name of QGP.

'We are for the dark,’ she would say from time to time. ‘We might as well know what it is made of. It might illumine us. I will die before anyone sees it, if anyone ever sees it, but it will be there for me, and I may see it in the new dawn.’

She also decided she really did not want to block or hold up the discovery of what dark matter was really made of. So she withdrew her opposition, called in her lawyers, allowed the tunnellers to continue to tunnel and the sappers to sap, and became quite interested in dark matter. ‘We are for the dark,’ she would say from time to time. ‘We might as well know what it is made of. It might illumine us. I will die before anyone sees it, if anyone ever sees it, but it will be there for me, and I may see it in the new dawn.’

Her great nephew was awarded the Prix Isambard Pictet for his diplomatic efforts, though those efforts were not mentioned on the citation, which more discreetly applauded his notable contribution to the field of supermagnetic engineering. The award came with a very pleasing diamond, emerald and golden enamel medal. He gave it, respectfully, to his great aunt, who wore it regularly on her trips to the meadow and the village and her occasional excursions across the border to Geneva and Lausanne. Ferdinand was very fond of his Tantine Aurore, who had told him many stories of the myths of the mountains when he was a little boy. She had told him of the Devils of Derborence, of the Fairies of Fafleralp, of the helpful little red-collared frog of the Jura, and of the Forest of the Three Pathways. She had told him of the Seven Sleepers who had slept for a hundred years in a cave of ice, and awoken to another world. She was not very interested in the notion of cryopreservation. She was on good terms with mortality. But she liked the story of the Seven Sleepers, and so did Ferdinand.

Madame Aurore Longuenesse was a late convert to the potential glories of the FCC, but the Ogre, the Monk and the Maiden had been enthusiasts from their youth. The Ogre had loved the idea of its creation since his childhood. His somewhat lopsided head and broken nose were the result of an early skiing accident near his childhood home of Denver, where he had collided at grande vitesse with a tree. The ensuing months of enforced inactivity in traction in hospital had given him ample time to study, and he acquired a lasting interest in quantum mechanics. He had always been good at mathematics and physics, and the new fields of exploration were tempting to him. He lay back on his bed and gazed at a never-ending display of bursts of particles exploding across his vast Ceiling Screen, the earliest from the strikingly beautiful neutrino-detecting bubble chamber of Gargamelle at CERN, which had been operating in the 1970s, long before he was born, but whose images had not yet been surpassed for aesthetic quality.

These had been followed by tracks from the LHC, by footage of the memorable confirmation of the Higgs Boson (with Peter Higgs wiping a tear from his eye), by images that were invoked in support of supersymmetry theory, and by pictorial predictions of the future discoveries of the FCC. When he was back on his feet again, a visit to the many miles of the new linear accelerator in Texas (the TEXLA) had sealed his destiny, and he had set his heart on being posted to CERN, the Mecca of particle physicists, where he could combine his unabated passion for skiing with his passion for particles. He was a happy man when he arrived at CERN, and made the acquaintance of the Monk and the Maiden. He felt he had been reborn.

The Monk had come to particle acceleration by a different route. He was that rare creature in the polyglot multinational society of Switzerland and CERN, a Swiss citizen with a Swiss ancestry stretching back to the dawn of the republic. His family was not placed among the hundred great and wealthy families of the Genevese aristocracy, but it went back a very long way. His ancestors included Calvinist theologians, Voltaire-befriending children of the Enlightenment, many rural pastors and a few early Alpinists. He boasted that one branch had taken part in the anti-Savoyard Escalade of 1602, an event which was still commemorated every year. He too, like the Ogre, liked to ski, but he also liked to climb, often recklessly. He had scaled the North Face of the Eiger several times, and had trodden in the footsteps of that great pioneer, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, physicist and mountaineer, whose statue to this day stands at Chamonix.

The Monk was a symmetrical man, with a precise and orderly mind, who claimed that the watch-making genius of the Swiss flowed in his veins, where it mingled with the theological passions of the Reformation. He was a much tidier man than the sprawling Ogre (aka Milan). He had a bald brown head and a well-trimmed tonsure, in contrast to the Ogre’s tufted dishevelled uncombed locks. The Ogre was a very hairy man, and the Monk (whose real name was Theo) was a very smooth man. He was also, perhaps surprisingly, a serious gambler, and would have been seen in the casinos more frequently, had his companions not restrained and diverted him. He had had some notable successes, in the past, at the tables in Monte Carlo, and he was too good by half at poker, though he always lost on the horses.

Appropriately, he was tormented by god and metaphysics and predestination, and thoroughly enjoyed discussing these matters with anyone who would take him on. Some said he should have been a philosopher, not a physicist, and his first degree had indeed been in Physics and Philosophy at the University of Neuchatel. He was interested in the notion that you could become a billionaire by playing Quantum Russian Roulette, in the MWI (Many-Worlds Interpretation) of quantum mechanics, although he did not, of course, believe in MWI. He said he believed (though of course, he could not prove) that every particle since the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe was following a predestined course, and that human attempts to understand or to intervene in that trajectory were utterly irrelevant. The observer made no difference to the observed. On the other hand, he argued that it was our human duty to attempt to follow the trajectory, back to the first millisecond of the first Bang and on to the final Bang. God or Fate had required it of us, and so had Theo’s ancestors. Free will there was not, and never had been, not for men or for women, not for eagles or for cows or for particles. Duty was all. Stern Duty, who preserves the stars from wrong, as the poet of the northern lakes had put it. God had thrown the dice, and the fallout was final. It’s just that it hadn’t happened yet. And the Maiden? The Jungfrau? Ah, she contained multitudes. Even in this international age of the 2050s, she embodied more nationalities than most. The Ogre was a fairly simple, far from unusual and genetically identifiable mixture of American and Eastern European, and the Monk, as we have seen, was proud to be more-or-less pure Swiss. But the Maiden’s lineage stretched back to India and Guyana, to the fens of Cambridgeshire and the redwood forests of California, to the falls of the Zambezi, to the now-submerged Pacific islands of Polynesia. And she had inherited the beauty of each nation, of each continent. She glowed with an unearthly light. The Ogre and the Monk were her bodyguards. She was rather too fond of reciting poetry, in a mellifluous but somewhat boringly incantatory voice, but this was her only blemish.

She was particularly fond of Percy Bysshe Shelley and of William Blake and Byron. The Ogre used to groan when she got going again on the Tyger’s Fearful Symmetry, and the Monk deplored her devotion to Shelley’s atheistic and vacuous ramblings about Prometheus and the Alps. But they didn’t mind the thought of seeing the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, and reluctantly, when cornered, conceded that Blake had been endowed with true prophetic vision. He would have comprehended the workings of the FCC in an instant. Shelley, however, was a step too far. They liked it when she quoted Baudelaire, because his verses had a good resonance. There was a poem about the tomb of Icarus that she particularly admired, and she persuaded them to like it too. (There had once been a sterile-neutrino detector called Icarus, which, though decommissioned long ago, hadn’t come to as bad an end as its name might have foretold.) Like many quantum physicists, the Maiden (or Jaz, as she was commonly known) was also keen on Jorge Luis Borges and his Forking Paths, a useful quantum analogy, to the extent that she kept circulating his very short story on the ‘Inexactitude of Science’ by any means that occurred to her, which included, embarrassingly, projecting its subversive title by Quantolitebeme on the night sky on the Ogre’s birthday.

A map as big as the world, an accelerator as large as the cosmos—these are projects doomed to failure, and maybe one day the shattered mineshafts of the FCC will bear witness to the abandonment of hope, as did the tattered ruins of the Borgesian map, which lay in the distant deserts and mountain ranges.

Already, some were arguing, a much much larger, more powerful collider than the FCC would soon be needed. An accelerator as big as Switzerland itself…

Switzerland, the cradle and the crucible.

Jaz, as one might have guessed, came to CERN and particle physics via linguistics, an unusual but by no means unique route. Her first degree was in PPL (Particle Physics and Linguistics), taken largely remotely at the Saussure Institute, and she had gone on to dedicate her PhD to the problems of the interface of language and quantum physics – the seeing of the invisible, the speaking of the inexpressible – and the metaphorical language in which scientists are obliged to clothe their communications with the outside world.

Most of those associated with CERN were multilingual, although English was still its official language, and yet, as the decades rolled by, language itself was becoming less central to thinking. People thought in equations, in numbers, in particles, not in words. They conversed in the Esperanto of Equations. Ferdinand de Saussure, the great grandson of the Alpinist, had seen this coming, although he hadn’t lived long enough to witness its full flowering. His algebraic notations, way back in the nineteenth century, had greatly resembled equations, his symbols were more algebraic than phonetic, and, like a classical physicist, he had tried to reduce language to its smallest indivisible parts. He too had tried to look back to the dawn of time – well, not of cosmic time, but of human time, human culture, human association, human speech. He had tried to gaze back beyond Sanskrit and to imagine the first sounds made by humanity. The lost world of ‘our earlier and purer selves’, as his diligent chronicler put it. The first sounds of the as yet undiscovered and unfrozen Ice Man. (At one point Saussure was almost persuaded that he was listening to the language of Mars and the Martians, a language even older than Sanskrit, uttered from human lips.) He had a romantic spirit, which meant that he was forever unfulfilled, forever thwarted, forever underpublished.

(Particle acceleration isn’t really a destructive desire to knock atoms to pieces. It’s not like breaking up an expensive Swiss watch to see what it’s made of, though some have made that comparison. No. It’s a search for the new, not a destruction of the old.)

(Particle acceleration isn’t really a destructive desire to knock atoms to pieces. It’s not like breaking up an expensive Swiss watch to see what it’s made of, though some have made that comparison. No. It’s a search for the new, not a destruction of the old.)

And yet, despite the increasing dominance of numbers, language stubbornly survived and people stubbornly persisted in expressing themselves in words, words, words. They coined new metaphors, they invented new nouns, new syllables. Quarks and antiquarks and beauty quarks, strangelets, gluons, muons, hadrons, prions and charms. They spoke of unscientific concepts like ‘forever’, and could not resist figurative phrases like ‘the battle of antimatter and matter’. They called some equations ‘ugly’, others ‘harmonious’. Jaz found all this challenging, although she had now abandoned formal linguistics for particles.

But what really attracts Jaz to CERN, apart from the companionship of her two beaux, is the cheese. The earthly reality, the local presence of Swiss cheese enchants her. Emmenthal, Gruyere, Raclette. Their very names are poetry. She has a great love, an embarrassingly great love of fondue. Having spent much of her youth in non-dairy cultures, the revelation of the melting delight of fondue was overpowering. The rest of the world was turning against dairy, in order to save the climate, but the patriotic Swiss had largely resisted this trend. Jaz also loved the astonishing variety of yoghurt flavours, all 137 of them (coffee yoghurt was her preferred blend) and she enjoyed the traditional dish of tripes à la Neuchâteloise at the Brasserie de Jura, but fondue was her favourite. (The Ogre had to look the other way when she ate tripe. He was squeamish about offal.) She ate so much fondue that her colleagues wondered how she managed to stay so slim. She worked out regularly and took a lot of exercise, accompanying Milan and Theo on their hikes and on the ski slopes, as we have seen, and now, as she sits by the shimmering pool to plan their day’s outing, she has already completed fifty lengths, and considers that she deserves the beer (the frosted, beaded, blond beaker of beer) that she is about to consume. For even physicists and linguists must eat and drink.

Einstein was particularly fond of eggs. He is said to have eaten several a day. He also liked porcini mushrooms. De Saussure was very keen on asparagus, which grew on his wealthy family’s extensive Swiss estates.

Milan, Theo and Jaz are planning an excursion to Theo’s historic hinterland, to the Alpine village where his great great grandfather’s family had spent their summers in a Le Corbusier-Zumthor inspired villa, La Maison Rose, from which could be seen the three snowy peaks, our three comrades’ namesakes. Theo has not visited for years, but has the fondest memories of it. He is looking forward to showing it off. A several times removed cousin owns it now, though he is not in residence: he is in the prospering city of Ramallah, attending a multi-faith conference on the history of the Tridentine Mass. (The religious climate fares better these days than the climate-climate. One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail...) The weather forecast is tolerably fair, but they are determined to set off anyway, in the morning, by autoped, along the raised superway, a handsome prize-winning project constructed from some of the ten million cubic metres of spoil produced by the FCC excavations, and marked by twelve green symmetrical, perfectly conical hills, known as the Twelve Apostles. They will then continue by human foot to their starting point at the metaphorical feet of the mountains. They have often meant to make a pilgrimage to this spot, and have seized upon the anniversary holiday of St Corine, which gives them a clear 24 hours away from the screens and the machines and the endlessly obsessive (and at times felt to be overwhelming and excessive) flow of data.

(Some of the data has to be junked, as no machine on earth could process it all. A machine greater than the earth, maybe, but not this machine.)

They are consulting an old-fashioned map, a printed map, a valuable family heirloom. Retro maps have come back into vogue, amongst the more dedicated walkers, and there are good reasons, apart from sentiment, for consulting this one now. There have been some unexplained irregularities with the GPS system in the neighbourhood, which the week before had led a couple of poorly equipped hikers from Basle (not savvy CERN employees) way off track and forced them to overnight, very uncomfortably, in a mysterious bunker from which they had been unable to get any kind of signal. They thought it was an abandoned CERN-related mineshaft, left over from earlier exploratory surveying for the FCC, and they cooked up some conspiracy theories about Chinese interference with the GPS. Some thought this was just an excuse for their lack of technological control of their own Apps, and for their stupidity in getting so badly lost. But rogue satellites were indeed known to cause occasional interference, and although the international community of particle physicists remained on very good terms, the same could not be said for the political leaders of the great powers, who were notably lacking in community and solidarity.

Milan, Theo and Jaz did not expect to get lost, or to be stranded for centuries in a cavern like the Seven Sleepers, or even for months like the Devils of Derborence, but they liked the early twentieth century map, with its quaint and pretty little annotations of Alpine flowers and Swiss chalets and cows. They traced their route, and discussed what to put in their sandwiches, as walkers have been doing for centuries. They had a brief digression on the subject of dark matter, about which some CERN pundits were predicting a much-awaited five sigma breakthrough announcement within the next three months (or even next week), but on the whole their thoughts were with the light matter of this earth, with the visible matter of the world of the senses, and all else that makes this too much loved earth more lovely. Very lovely was Jaz, in her silvery green swimwear, so lovely that Milan and Theo did not notice a very small cloud in the blue sky, a white cloud as small as a mouse, which began to assemble itself somewhere in the region of Mont Blanc.

When they woke in the morning, the cloud had turned into a rat. They decided to ignore it.

They had an exhilarating spin along the superway, but by the time they reached the foothills, the rat in the sky was darker, and more like a bear – though not very like a bear, that’s just a fanciful fairy tale simile. It was a strange almost oblong shape, a cloud formation which they were unable to identify from their CloudApp. But the newest new-fangled Butterflywing WeatherApp wasn’t giving them any warnings, so they took to the pathway with their rucksacks (of feather-light fabric, weighted only with their sandwiches and their beer) and strode on. Theo, as they walked, told them about the old days when he had played in the meadow amongst the jonquils and the poppies with his cousins and his big sister Klara, now a neo-Jungian analyst in New York.

Milan and Jaz suspect that Theo is not overly fond of his cousin Jacob, the present owner of La Maison Rose, currently in Ramallah, of whom he speaks warily. They diagnose jealousy. Property and property rights are designed to breed rancour. Theo says Jacob is a bit mad: though, he adds modestly, who is he to talk? Theo has warned Jacob that he is planning to visit the house, as he doesn’t want to be accused of trespassing, and he assures his comrades that Jacob has given him the All Clear.

Theo does not much like Jacob, and finds his interest in ancient and arcane theological disputes irritating. But he is fond of his high-stepping sister Klara. The story of Klara is well known to Milan and Jaz, for she had written a sensational revisionist account of the relationship between the Swiss magus Carl Jung and the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli, based on papers discovered in an attic in a seedy lodging house in Zurich. They relate to Jung’s famous analysis of the deeply disturbed and (some said demonic) Pauli in the 1930s. (Those papers are now lodged in the archives at La Salle Pauli at CERN.) Klara had relied on Theo to set her right on Pauli’s groundbreaking postulation of the existence of the ghostly neutrino: her grasp of quantum mechanics was somewhat shaky, and she was in Theo’s view, a little too interested in the stories about the occult, the Kabala, the nature of archetypes, the magic number 137, and Pauli’s alleged effect on laboratory equipment – he was said to cause destruction wherever he went. Maybe Pauli’s ghost had been responsible for the bewildering of the hikers from Basle, they joked, as their three snowy mountainous progenitors hove into view upon the skyline.

Pauli’s sister, like Theo’s sister, had been a bit of a handful. One cannot choose one’s blood relatives. Well, one can nowadays, but it wasn’t so easy then.

It is a very beautiful building, La Maison Rose – elegant, minimal, geometric, with very fine views. The curiously flat back cloud still hangs high in the sky, looking rather like a tombstone or perhaps an anvil, but the mountains are bathed in sunlight. It is a very odd day, weather-wise. Access to the house is easy, done in a blink by Theo by iris recognition, and they can hear Cousin Jacob’s voice welcoming them from distant Ramallah as they cross the threshold. He won’t hang around, like a spectral presence, he assures them: he just wants to make sure all is well. If they switch on the screen in the room overlooking the lawn, they will find some data that might interest them. Enjoy, he says, in American mode.

He has come to sound very American, these days, says Theo, with a strong hint of disapproval. He doesn’t say more, because Jacob might be listening in.

They needn’t have bothered to bring beer: the fridge is well stocked.

Theo shows them round, pointing out who was who in the oil paintings of family ancestors, opening the many drawers of a little cabinet of curiosities to display butterflies and moths, little phials of brightly coloured mountain minerals, and watch-making implements from La Chaux-de-Fonds dating back centuries. It is time travel captured in a wooden box.

We are only looking back over a few centuries as we explore the Maison Rose, but even as we gaze, the Vera Rubin is capturing images billions of years old, from the dawn of time. The unimaginable is manifesting itself more fully, day by day. What will Vera see, what will she show? Is she speaking to the FCC, is the FCC speaking to her, as they join in their pursuit of the dark matter that the bodily Vera Rubin was the first to acknowledge?

Of course they speak to one another. They can communicate now without human agency, the telescope and the accelerator. They have joined forces, they seek the same revelation. They were begotten by the human, but they no longer need the human.

Of course they speak to one another. They can communicate now without human agency, the telescope and the accelerator. They have joined forces, they seek the same revelation. They were begotten by the human, but they no longer need the human.


Three is the number at the core of the universe, or so, over the millennia many have argued. So there are three endings to this tale.

The First Ending

As the Ogre, the Monk and the Maiden switch on the screen to see what surprises Cousin Jacob had prepared for them, behold, darkness covers the earth, and all the known universe. There is nobody left to record this, and we will never know why it happened on this day, and not earlier or later. But we had all known it was coming, so it is a fitting ending, in its way. Nothing lasts forever. Forever is not a word. The game is up. Rien ne va plus.

The Second Ending

Cousin Jacob, knowing Theo’s gambling predilection, has set up an on-screen Many-Worlds option, and they cannot resist spinning the wheel, and they are never seen again. This isn’t a very good ending, because none of our three friends believes in multiverse theory or in time travel, and they should not be subjected to a fate in which they have no intellectual stake.

(Moreover, we didn’t think Jacob was clever enough to do anything like that.) But ‘never seen again’ has a good ring to it, and in this version of their story their huge spectral forms are seen for centuries to come, haunting the icy slopes of the Alps, as did the tragic lonely ghost of the poor monster created by Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. They become myth, they become legend. Maybe their bodies will be discovered, many thousands of years hence, down a sinkhole, miraculously preserved. Saint Milan, Saint Theo, Saint Jaz.

The Third Ending

In the third ending, they watch a tedious exposition of why we should still be interested in the niceties of the Tridentine Mass and the Counter Reformation. Milan and Jaz express surprise that the word Tridentine has nothing at all to do with the number Three, but derives from the Alpine city of Trento on the River Adige in Northern Italy. At least they’ve learned something. (Theo, of course, had known this all along.) They thank Cousin Jacob politely, pack their rucksacks, and make their way happily back to CERN under a brightening sky, where within the week, an impressive revelation about dark matter will be revealed. We can’t reveal it here, because it hasn’t been discovered yet, and the equations would be far too long to fit into the story. They would need a story as long as the Texla, as long as the equator, and anyway, you probably wouldn’t understand them, and neither would I, your unreliable, ignorant and earthbound narrator. But revelation is on the way, and everybody at CERN will rejoice, including our three foot soldiers. In this story, all ends well.

A Fourth Ending?

For myself, I prefer a shadowy ending, a peaceful ending. Pauli posited the need for a fourth quantum number, and interested himself in the debate between Johannes Kepler, who favoured three as the fundamental number of the universe, and the Rosicrucian Robert Fludd, who favoured four. I don’t understand any of that. All I know is that in my version, the fourth version, I can see Tantine Aurore, leaning on the wooden gate to her meadow. I can feel the grain of the warm weathered wood of the gate. Behind her is the house where she was born, the house which was built in 1816, in the year of the great summer storm that literally engendered Frankenstein and inspired Byron:

From peak to peak, the rattling crags among

Leaps the live thunder! Not from one lone cloud,

But every mountain now hath found a tongue

And Jura answers, through her misty shroud,

Back to the joyous Alps who call to her aloud...

But all is calm now, and we can see and feel that it is springtime, and the jonquils are in bloom. The fields are white with jonquils as with snow. She is speaking softly to her herd. To Gentiane, Paquerette, Violette, Mauve, Narcisse, Colchique, Coquelicot and Perce-Neige, and the pretty douce soft-eyed Jonquille. Yes, they too are there, and they too have played their part. Quarks and antiquarks, beauty quarks and strangelets, gluons, muons, prions, hadrons and charms. Gentiane, Paquerette, Violette... ♦

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