The last transmission

13 March 2021
13 Mar 2021

The first observed Anomaly was a small flicker. A singular quantum fluctuation. A “five-sigma event” – research-speak for about one in four million chance of happening. The spin of an electron neutrino flipping in silence. Physicists didn’t know what to do with the data, so they published it under a question mark. The press murmured echos of instrumentation errors and measurement mistakes that caused the faster-than-light neutrino kerfuffle in 2012. It was mostly brushed under the metaphorical carpet of the theoretical physics community.

The second Anomaly registered in the mind. Sudden changes in personalities and memories of a few dozen individuals around the world. A neurological bit-flip. Psychiatrists documented cases of sudden unexplainable changes in patients' personalities and memories. Some people lost childhood memories they used to recount every year, and those memories showed up in the minds of others miles and oceans away. Various religious communities interpreted the news in hushed conversations, but nobody knew what to make of it.

The third Anomaly was the one that finally hit the world. Architects and builders of skyscrapers began reporting that their blueprints were disagreeing with reality. Digits of pi were falling in precision. Once every few hundred measurements of a sphere, the decimal digits of Pi began to fluctuate, a 7 flipping to a 9, or a 3 flipping to a zero. Cracks developed in the finely polished parabolic mirrors spanning the world’s largest telescopes, and circular arches holding up multi-centennial bridges began to give way.

It was months before we finally worked out what was happening. I was there, a fresh PhD candidate in the high energy physics department at Fermilab. I remember when Martin called us up to the lab to show us the data. He was a hard empiricist, the type to sort the pizza menu by the calorie content before picking an order. It was 9PM, and I was three hours into my night shift of paperwork when he called us all up.

Martin was the head of supercomputing infrastructure at the lab, managing petabytes of statistical and experimental data collected over the lab’s nearly 60-year history. He had a chart pulled up on the screen, going up and to the right. Mostly up.

“These anomalies are stacking up,” he said once we all crammed into his small office. “I don’t think it’s instrumentation failure.”

Emilia piped in, “How do you know?” She was one of the new research scientists in the lab.

“The errors are uniform across all equipments, even the replacement detectors we swapped in a couple months ago. I think the errors are coming from something else, maybe something more fundamental.”

Silence. He continued.

“So I did some pattern matching, so to speak, with the data. And the anomalies usually fall into two camps – either high energy collision events above 800GeV or long-timescale experiments that run a few million nanoseconds long.

“These are the trends in the number of anomalies that – I think – are caused by some kind of, uh, overflow in physics. Sorted by energy density of the experiments.”

He gestured to the lines going mostly up and a little to the right.

“Overflows?” I asked.

Overflows. Right. Overflows happen when a number represented by registers inside a computer exceeds the magnitude or precision of the underlying bits representing the number. It’s a sign of a computer running out of room. A design flaw, perhaps, or a sign of old age of the software running in the machine. A program running longer than it was designed to last.

The machine, in this case, was physics. And the software was reality.

What followed this discussion were reports across the world of more and more unexplainable events. Loss of precision in fundamental natural constants, distant stars disappearing out of the night sky. But what finally got through the news cycle to the masses was that communication infrastructure began to draw higher power from the grid to compensate for increasing background noise in the universe.

The big tech giants tried everything to fix the noise issue. They laid new fiber lines across the Atlantic. They poured millions into designing better error-correction algorithms. But it was useless. Any data transmitted over more than a few miles began to show signs of deterioration – loss of precision in the stuff of reality. It wasn’t that signal was getting lost on the way to its destination, signal was just simply disappearing, helplessly and inevitably turning into noise in place as nature ran out of room to keep track of it all.

For now, we are holding things together by keeping to essential communications and saturating the bandwidth across multi-band networks. But we don’t even know how long that’ll last. After that, doctors say, our memories will go. There’s a wild speculative faction of cryptographers that say decentralized consensus based systems can keep us going, but I know too little to know how much to believe.

This is my last transmission out before I hit my messaging quota for the week. If you hear this, and if you can still make out these words in the noise, remember. Remember who you are. Hold onto the parts of you that keep you holding on. Go outside tonight and lay in the grass. Maybe even count the stars – at least, what’s left of them – before they also disappear, smeared out into white powdery noise across a night sky going dark.

Hold fast

Let it pour out