The Study of Anglophysics

byScott Alexander5y3rd Apr 20141 comment



Dear Dr. McCord:

Seven years ago, our research staff read with interest your work on Berkeleyan idealism. We were particularly fascinated by your seemingly outrageous claim that it might be possible for individuals to imagine mental worlds so strongly that they would take on a reality of their own.

At the time, as our laboratory had an interest in novel solutions to the overpopulation problem, we embarked upon a test project to see whether a parallel world could be imaged and then colonized by citizens from our own dimension. Using advanced science you could not possibly comprehend, we came up with a practical implementation of your idea. Dr. Michael Adwell, whom I believe you met during your time in Oxford, volunteered to enter the device we had constructed as our first research subject. We very briefly imaged an alternate world based on the contents of Dr. Adwell’s mind before the good doctor unfortunately had a grand mal seizure. He was disconnected from the device and rushed to the hospital, where he passed away several hours later.

Two years ago we revisited some of our calculations on the project and determined, to our surprise, that the world Dr. Adwell had created might still exist in some sense; that it had somehow managed to sustain itself separate from the doctor’s mental activity. We worked feverishly to construct a device that might let us interact with his imaged world. Six months ago we succeeded. The computational demands of the machine were immense, but after throwing the remainder of our budget for the year at the Kyoto Supercomputing Laboratory, we were able to rent enough processing power to translate myself and Dr. Lachlan Fairchild into the imaged world, which we dubbed “Adwellia” after our late colleague. Our superiors informed us that when the next fiscal year rolled around in four months, there would be enough money in the budget to translate us back home.


On first arrival, Adwellia seemed much like home. We landed on the shores of a small lake in what seemed to be a wooded area. Since it was getting dark, we soon set to pitching camp for the night. Our first unpleasant surprise was that the kerosene heater we had brought with us wouldn’t work, leaving us cold and disheartened. Lachlan collected some logs to build a fire, but our matches didn’t seem to work either. I remembered the seventh page of your paper, where you had posited that an imaged world would run on the same physics of our own world, since it would be bound by the expectations of the imager. Dr. Adwell had certainly understood enough chemistry to know that matches should start fires, but it seemed one of our most basic predictions had already failed.

I will not say whether we were more motivated by curiosity or by the bitter cold, but we tried dozens of different branches – small, large, young and green, old and rotting – and everything from dousing them in kerosene to the old-fashioned method of rubbing sticks together to create friction.

Finally, I succeeded in getting some branches from an old fir tree to alight. In relief, the two of us huddled close to the fire. But our curiosity was only heightened when we found the area near the fire to be unmistakeably colder than the surrounding air. Here our chill overcame our scientific spirit, and we decided to deal with the problem in the morning. We got into our too-thin thermal sleeping bags and passed a miserable and freezing night.

When we awoke, the fire had gone out, and in its place stood a pile of hats – twenty of them, to be precise. I would have called them fedoras, although Lachlan said the particular style was more popularly known as a Homburg. We debated taking the hats, but we had been thoroughly spooked. Instead we picked up our camp and journeyed south, where it looked like the wood was beginning to thin out.

Around midday we spotted smoke, and dared to hope we were coming upon a settlement. By evening our guess was confirmed, and we saw a village of conical adobe huts. We prepared to gesture our request to trade trinkets for lodging to the inhabitants – who were far too dark skinned to be European but who did not quite pattern-match to my memories of any particular human race. Imagine our surprise when we found they spoke English – though with abominable grammar. The headman introduced himself as Somon, and was all too happy to accept our trinkets in exchange for a nice warm hut to spend the night in.

We endeavored to learn more about these people in the morning, but by this time were tired enough to call it a night. We could not help inspecting the heating mechanism in our room, which seemed to be a mud bowl in which sheaves of wheat, small rocks, and little mud figurines that looked like people had been placed. Totally absent any visible mechanism, the setup was emitting heat – and what was more, a ball set in a track along the edge of the bowl moved continuously around in what seemed to all the world to be perpetual motion, making an annoying crackling sound as it passed over little leaves set in the rim. We had only a little time to exchange theories before falling into a deep sleep.

The next morning, the bowl was no longer warm, the ball had stopped moving, and the objects within had apparently transmogrified into a miniature wheelbarrow. This was strange magic.

The villagers were already were already up and about, so we found Somon and tried to get some better conversation in.

“We are scientists,” we told him “from far away, looking to gain a better understanding of how things work here.”

“Here in Mogonaw?” asked Somon, using what we later found was the name of the village. “Not well.” He smiled, showing very pearly teeth.

“We were hoping to set up a laboratory – a few metal huts and a big machine – maybe on the outskirts of town. We would pay you for food, maybe for help with certain things. We have many tools to trade, and lots of gold and metal.” Not exactly true – what we had was a portable nanofactory, translated in with us as an easier alternative to bringing supplies. But we could get tools or transmute elements pretty quickly.

“Is of course,” said Somon, with the delight of someone who had stumbled entirely by accident into a beneficial arrangement. “What will you be needing?”

“Well the first thing,” interrupted Lachlan, “is we wanted to know how your heating device works. The one with the wheat and the rocks. It was new to us.”

“You not have this in your village?” said Somon, with a frown. “Is not obvious?”

“No,” I said. “Where we come from, it’s not obvious at all.”

Somon brightened. “Your village,” he declared “not know true names!” He picked up a rock from the ground. “True name of this is…rock.”

We both nodded, mystified.

He grabbed a sheaf of wheat from a passing villager, who gave him a glare. “True name,” he said, “is…wheat.”

He said it with the same mystical intonation with which one of our colleagues back at the laboratory would announce a particularly earth-shattering result.

“Yes, okay,” said Lachlan, kind of miffed. “I actually think we do know true names of things. It’s the same in our language.”

Now it was Somon’s turn to be mystified. “Then…where is confusion?”

“The heating device,” said Lachlan, narrowing his eyes. “How does it work?”

“Is obvious!” said Somon, like we were idiots. “Wheat and rock and art become work and heat and cart. The work push little ball around. Then ball make noise, continuing reaction.”

“But…” I interjected, because it looked like Lachlan wanted to grab the headman and wring his neck “why do the wheat and rock and art become work and heat and cart.”

“Is true names” said Somon, and shrugged.

“Holy shit,” said Lachlan, at exactly the instant when I remained just as confused as I had been before. I stared at him.

“Holy shit,” Lachlan repeated. “This world fucking runs on anagrams. English language anagrams.”

Wittgenstein once said that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. Some say that mathematics is the language of God. Maybe that was why our world ran on math. Well, English had been the language of Dr. Adwell. It had been the lens through which he made sense of reality.

Maybe our hypothesis that his imaged world would run on the same physics of our own had been premature.

What if his world ran on English?

“The fire!” said Lachlan, who as usual was a step ahead of me. “Fir branches and heat. Fir plus heat becomes fire plus hat. So it removed heat from the atmosphere, and created fire and a hat.”

“Twenty hats,” I reminded him.

Lachlan was already deep in thought. “It’s all stoichiometry,” he started saying, almost faster than I could follow. “In our world, water is H20. H-O-H. Here, a fir tree has to be literally made of F-I-R. Twenty six letter-elements, forming a near-infinite amount of word-molecules. Suppose we burned three kilograms of fir branches…don’t know the molar weight here, but suppose each letter weighs the same and there’s one mole per kilogram, just bear with me. That’s one mole each of F, I, and R. So it must have absorbed some sort of four mole equivalent amount of heat…whatever that means…and then spit out three moles of hats and four moles of fire. Three moles of hats in this system would be three kilograms of hats, that would mean each hat weighs 150 grams…it all checks out! Somon! Quick! Show us how you make something else!”

Somon looked at him. The headman seemed as confused as I was, but for different reasons.

“Make…what?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Clothes, tools, anything.”

“My daughter Genea live in here,” he said, gesturing to a hut on the outskirts of town with some smoke coming out of it. “She is weaver.”

The “weaver” actually seemed to be performing some sort of complicated chemical reaction. She was holding beets over a cauldron that was bubbling up into a primitive fume hood, then throwing them into what seemed like a vat of tar. Water was running out a hole in one side, and on the other, a roll of cloth was getting steadily longer.

This time I got it before Lachlan. “Chlorine,” I said. “Chlorine plus beets plus tar becomes cloth plus brine plus tears.”

“That’s not right,” said Lachlan. “You’re missing an ‘e'”.

“No I’m not,” I said. “It consumes twice as much tar as chlorine or beets, and produces twice as many tears as brine or cloth.”

“I think,” said Lachlan, “that we had better get our laboratory set up sooner rather than later.”


This we did, at record speed. Not wanting to frighten the villagers – or expose ourselves to prying eyes – we set ourselves a kilometer south of town, on a cape overlooking a great sea. On the headlands of the cape was a small hill from which you could see for miles, and there we completed the week-or-so’s work of getting the nanofactory up and running. Its first job was to extrude us two aluminum Quonset huts, which became our homes away from home.

From our little encampment the ocean stretched on as far as we could see. I wondered if there were other continents on this world – figuring out its size really should have been one of our first priorities. But we were too fascinated by this world’s weird linguistic elements and reactions – anglophysics, we dubbed them – to properly investigate anything else.

The first and most obvious question was why everything wasn’t reacting all the time. How come every time someone touched a rock, the skin + rock didn’t become corks + ink? Just the air alone should have destroyed a wide variety of objects.

(“Oh, come on,” I told Lachlan. “The air doesn’t count”. Lachlan had then gone on to prove me wrong by getting the iron tools we had brought to rust, then proving the rust happened faster in moist air, and air that was full of dust particles. “AIR plus IRON plus DUST,” he told me “equals RUST plus IONS plus ARID. Things aren’t rusting in this world because of oxidation. As long as it can suck dust and moisture from the air, it’s rusting by Crazy Anagram Logic.” So the air definitely counted.)

The first thing we discovered was that nature abhorred non-words. AIR and DUST wouldn’t react on their own to become RUST and IA, because IA wasn’t a thing.

“What about AI?” asked Lachlan. “Why not rust plus an intelligent computer?”

At the time, my answer was “Shut up! The world might hear you!” I would later learn this was not nearly as funny as I thought.

But at the time, we made quick progress. Simple materials and short words seemed to be most stable, with complicated or abstract concepts rarely forming spontaneously – which, at least, answered our AI problem. And reactions usually wouldn’t happen at all without sound, which seemed to play the same role in this world that heat did in our own. Lachlan had suspected this almost from the beginning – that the crackling leaves underneath the ball had provided the sound-energy to continue fueling the reaction that kept us warm that first night. But it wasn’t until we heard the cacophony of a village festival that we knew we were on the right track.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!” I had yelled at Somon, over the din of drums and cymbals and screaming villagers.

“MAKING BEER!!!” Somon answered.

It had turned out that the villagers used pee and bran to produce beer and pans, but that the reaction went unpleasantly slowly unless they shouted it along. The shouting was, of course, egged on by the beer they had already produced, which sort of made it an autocatalytic reaction if you squinted. They offered us some of their beer, but even though I knew things worked differently here my standards were a little too high to drink beer literally made of pee and so we returned to the lab. On our trip back, Lachlan pointed out that all of the villagers’ iron tools had been carefully taken inside during the festival, so that the noise would not cause them to rust.

Our next big discovery was a week later. I woke up at 7 AM with Lachlan pounding on the door of my aluminum hut.

“OMAR!” he was shouting. “TAKE A LOOK AT THIS!”

Sitting on his palm was a one inch tall man, naked and hairless, looking terrified. He looked like he would have run off if there was anywhere to run to.

“What in the…?”

“I found a volcanic vent, up in the hills to the west. There was a source of methane. I broke it down into HEAT and MEN. But there wasn’t enough MEN to form someone full sized. So I got this.”

“Lachlan, you’ve got to help him!”

Lachlan gave a grunt, as if annoyed to be reminded of the ethical implications of his work. “How?”

“Can you speak language?” I asked the little man on Lachlan’s palm.

In response, the man screamed. I took that as a no.

So I dragged Lachlan down to the village, where I woke up an annoyed Somon. “Somon,” I said. “We found a way to break methane into…”

Somon’s eyes went wide. Then he got angry. “No methane!” he said. “Is taboo! Will…”

He saw the homunculus in Lachlan’s palm. With a deft motion belying his age, he yanked the little creature away from Lachlan and snapped its neck. I gasped. Lachlan looked annoyed.

“Is TABOO!” shouted Somon, with an anger I hadn’t seen in him before. “These things! Not men! No speech! No mind! Must not make! Little man is taboo! Methane is taboo! If you make little man, no longer stay with us!”

I calmed him down, promised we wouldn’t be doing any more experiments with methane, said we were new here, didn’t know what we were doing. I asked him for more advice, asked him about any other taboos. He seemed irritated, assumed we should know what they were, seemed to think less of us with each question indicating our ignorance. Finally we gave up and made the long trek back to our laboratory.

Our next few weeks of experiments were less bloody, but still exciting. Suppose we took a mop and the guts of an animal, and shouted at them until MOP + GUT reacted to POT + become GUM. Would the pot be the cooking implement, or would it be marijuana? For that matter, why shouldn’t it be a top, the child’s toy? Why shouldn’t the gum form a mug, fit to drink coffee from?

In our first experiment, we surrounded our apparatus with pans and food, and were unsurprised to find we ended up with cooking implements. We repeated the experiment, but this time surrounding the apparatus with bongs, tobacco, and other drug paraphernalia – this time we got marijuana. We wanted to get a playful child to see if we could produce tops, but news of our work with methane had gotten out and spooked the villagers, and they were understandably unwilling to let us borrow one of their children.

The third experiment was in my opinion the key to this entire process. This time we surrounded the apparatus with pans and food, but both Lachlan and I concentrated very very hard on marijuana, and talked about marijuana with each other while the loudspeaker the nanofactory had extruded blasted sound at the reactants, and sure enough, we got marijuana.

Somehow our expectations were guiding the physics in a way that the letters themselves couldn’t. I started to wonder what had become of poor Dr. Adwell. Was the god of this world a deist, who had created it shortly before dying in a hospital ICU in a very different planet? Or was he in some sense still here, still actively guiding things?

The reaction that rusted iron started to seem more and more suspicious. What about that ARID? In our experiments, making adjectives had been almost impossible, requiring more sound catalysis than any noun we had encountered so far. But ARID seemed to form of its own accord. What if Adwell somehow remembered that iron was supposed to rust, and privileged that reaction as the sort of thing that ought to go on? What if the reason everything didn’t implode upon itself was Adwell ensuring that everything in his imaged world happened according to some plan?

Then our proof that we could alter our results through concentration and careful priming would take on a whole new meaning.

Did reminding God what chemical reaction we wanted change experimental results?


“We’re going about this half-assedly,” Lachlan told me one morning our sixth week in Adwellia. “All of this looking for clever anagrams is taking up too much of our time, delaying us in supremely great work. We need to do this analytically. Get a bottle of As, a bottle of Bs, so we can create whatever the hell we want.”

This proved easier said than done. We got the nanofactory to extrude us a very complex apparatus, a centrifuge, and what we took to calling the “sonic ray” – a machine that made deafening noise along a very narrow arc and which could catalyze reactions much faster than shouting or drumming. It turned out to be the key to making far more complex products than we had previously attempted. But our first use was a plain and simple failure.

We had decided to start with granite, which we would break down into tin, rags, and the letter E. We would then centrifuge the decay products, with the three-letter tin and rags going one way and the pure E going another.

Nature, remember, abhors non-words. No sooner had we forced some E into a test tube than the tube itself transformed in a great explosion to gelatin and a tiny, near-microscopic donkey. E + GLASS = GEL and ASS. We couldn’t say we couldn’t have seen it coming. It could have been worse – I was just glad that Dr. Adwell’s ascended mind’s first association with the latter word was “donkey”.

We tried the experiment again with a zinc vial – zinc because it was implausible that there was an ZINC + E anagram lurking out there – and ended up with a mat of eels. Through this whole time, we had been debating the problem of ambiguity – who was to say that our granite was GRANITE rather than ROCK or even STONE – and the answer seemed to be that Dr. Adwell – or whoever was watching Upstairs – was mostly sympathetic to our efforts. Well, the sympathy ended when we started trying to isolate single letters. ZINC became METAL and thence EEL MATs.

Our effort with mud was even worse. We put a lot of time into making sure the mud we got was very clasically mud – not ooze, not muck, certainly not dirt. And there was no good way MUD + E was becoming anything. We turned on the device.

The Es disappeared. Seriously. Granite went into the centrifuge, tin came out, but there was no sign of an E anywhere, and rather fewer rags than usual.

“This is really weird,” I said.

“Thanks, Einstein!” said Lachlan. “I never would have figured that out without YOUR FUCKING COMMENTARY.”

I should have told him to calm down, but the experiment had upset me too. “Well it wasn’t MY BRIGHT IDEA to try to ISOLATE ALL THE LETTERS,” I said. “WHICH REMINDS ME! IF YOU THINK I’M GOING THROUGH THIS TWENTY FIVE MORE TIMES, YOU CAN GO FUCK YOURSELF!”

Lachlan swung at me, missing by an inch. I kicked him, right in the knee, and he fell into the experimental apparatus, knocking the whole thing over. Both of us went down with it. For a second, the sonic death ray shot straight at us – EEEEEIEEEEEIEEEEIEEEIE! and then its safety kicked in and it turned off. We sat there, stunned, bruised, in pain.

“Rage,” said Lachlan. “GRANITE becomes TIN plus RAGE. Holy fuck, we created an emotion.”

It had happened before, sort of. The wheat and rock and art, they had come together to produce work, which was an abstract concept. But it was still in the domain of physics. “Work” seemed like the sort of thing that could come out of chemical reactions, kind of like heat. But rage? This was something really new.

That night, we made the short trek into the village and asked Somon what he thought.

“Rarely,” he said. “Sometimes, when festival is very loud, strange things happen. Should avoid. Very bad. This is taboo.”

The next week, I knew something was up. Lachlan was missing our daily debriefings, not getting any work done. Finally I broke the most important unwritten rule of our little community. I went into his aluminum hut without knocking.

There he was, sitting with a blissed out look on his face. Beside his bed sat a miniature version of our experimental apparatus, complete with its own sonic death ray – he must have privately ordered it from the nanofactory, then deleted the records. It was reacting little tchotchkes from the village – dolls, balls, play swords – with our glass specimen jars. Tar was streaming into the waste bin.

I turned off the sonic ray. Lachlan awoke with a start. He seemed about as angry as he’d been the time we accidentally produced rage from granite, but this time I knew he had a less noble reason.

“What the fuck are you doing, barging in here like this?”

“You’ve gotten yourself addicted,” I said. “Addicted to joy.”

Lachlan didn’t deny it, as his TOY + JAR -> JOY + TAR reactor was right there.

“Look,” he said. “It’s been two months now, stuck in this stupid world. It’s going to be another two before the lab brings us back home. The villagers are crazy, physics runs on English, and the nanofactory can’t produce any entertainment that’s remotely entertaining. The letter isolation project is a failure, you no offense are one of the most boring people I’ve ever met, and when I try to get some of the village women to look at me they murmur something about taboos and give me the cold shoulder. Give me a break here, Omar!”

“Lach,” I said. “You’re neglecting your work. We still haven’t gotten anywhere near the bottom of anglophysics, let alone figured out the most basic stuff about this world like how big it is. You sitting here blissing out on raw linguistic joy isn’t something we can afford right now.”

“Fuck you,” said Lachlan, but he didn’t protest as I picked up his mini-apparatus and brought it to the nanofactory’s disassembler chute, nor as I reprogrammed the nanofactory to make sure all its records would be public from now on.


A week after that incident I finally got the nanofactory, with great creaking and protesting, to extrude a small aircraft so I could explore the surrounding area. The villagers were delighted, having never seen anything similar, and several of them demanded rides – increasing our popularity a little after the methane debacle. When we were done appeasing the natives, I took off and started mapping Adwellia.

We seemed to be at the southernmost extent of an island about three hundred miles east to west and twice that north to south. The island was mostly forested except for the broken volcanic area nearby where we had gotten the methane and some hills further north. Four hundred miles east of us there seemed to be another continent or large island, but that was about the limit of my range and so I told myself I would explore the new land another day.

The distances allowed me to do some geometry and calculate the size of the world. Adwellia appeared to be a spherical planet about the size of the Earth. As far as I could tell it had one sun and one moon, and there were normal stars in the sky. It seemed to get colder further north and warmer further south, though I wasn’t able to fly far enough to confirm it had proper poles and an equator.

By the time I finished these explorations, about a week after they began, Lachlan had developed a new obsession.

“I can’t solve the letter isolation problem,” he admitted. “But someone else can. Someone like Einstein.”

“Great,” I said, sarcastically. “All we need is…”

Then it hit me. Surely he wasn’t that crazy.

“Yes,” he said. “Why not synthesize Einstein? Or some other brilliant scientist who’s more creative than we are. I’ve been going through the dictionary looking for proper combinations. It’s not that hard.

This proved optimistic, but the equation upon which we eventually settled was STONE + TIN + FORT = EINSTEIN + FIRE. The only difficulty was obtaining the fort, since the villagers here did not seem to be of a militaristic bent, but I had found some ruins further north during my explorations, and one of them did indeed seem to be an old stone fort, perhaps constructed by the villagers’ ancestors. I proposed we get a party of villagers to help quarry fort material, but Lachlan objected that they would probably just have some stupid taboo about it, so instead I landed there with the aircraft and laboriously ferried fort parts home in twenty pound increments, on my lap.

Once we had enough fort to stoichiometrically produce Einstein, getting the stone and tin was easy. But getting the reaction to work proved impossible. No matter how many physics books we stuck around our apparatus, no matter how hard we concentrated on the great scientist, the reaction spat out absurd things like ferns, nits, and a tooting sound – or forests, nits, and one ton weights, or a nose with a tit in the front, which trust me was really awkward and which we threw into the nanofactory disassembler chute as soon as we could, believe you me.

After about thirty tries, Lachlan announced that the problem was obvious. You see, we needed a capital E.

I grudgingly admit that, even after two months in a world where stone was composed of S, T, O, N, and E, the though that there were different atomic units representing lowercase and capital Es seemed absurd. But as always, my sense of impossibility surrendered to crazy reality and I figured that Lachlan was probably right. We needed a capital E.

Two days later, Lachlan showed up at the laboratory with a very suggestive looking sack.

“Lachlan, what were you just out doing?” I said, hoping the answer was anything other than what I knew it was going to be.

“Just grave robbin'” he answered. “I got us the corpse of a lady named Eder, who died of pneumonia yesterday. Don’t worry, no one saw me take it.”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “When they find the grave disturbed, who are they going to suspect? The other villagers, who they have known their whole lives? Or the mysterious strangers on the storm-wracked cape outside of town who have already violated their sacred taboos. Lachlan, you are a fucking idiot.”

“Maybe I am,” said Lachlan. “But if I’m so stupid, good thing we’ll have Albert fuckin’ Einstein around to help provide some brains for this operation.”

The new equation was EDER + TIN + SNAIL = EINSTEIN + LARD.

So God help us, we hired some villagers to collect snails for us, and when we had hundreds, we poured poor Eder’s bones into the reaction chamber along with the snails and some tin and started the sound.

And Einstein started to grow. At first he was tiny, smaller than the methane-men in Lachlan’s palm had been, no bigger than the snails that surrounded him. But as bones and metal and snails slammed into him, he grew bigger, all the while screaming and covering his ears as the sonic ray did its gruesome work. We saw him, child-sized, beating up against the glass wall of the reaction chamber, ever growing, ever screaming.

“You’re mad,” I told Lachlan. “We’ve got to stop this.”

“Maybe I am,” said Lachlan. “But think! Einstein! The greatest scientist in recorded history! Think what we could do! Revolutionize not only our study of Adwellia. But we could bring him back with us, get the lab to translate him as well as us. We could turn Adwellia into a genius factory that would revolutionize civilization back on Earth. Omar, this has to be done! The potential in anglophysics makes a Nobel Prize look like a tee-ball trophy.”

When Einstein was fully formed, and released from the reaction chamber, he attacked us. We subdued him, using weapons extruded from the nanofactory, and kept him in a cell. For three days we tried to talk to him, and he responded by screaming wordlessly at us and spitting in our faces.

I don’t know whether there was something theological going on – whether Einstein was just a homunculus lacking a true soul. Or whether it was just very simply that our Einstein was psychologically an infant, that no one had taught him so much as language let alone physics, and that Adwell or whoever was up there wasn’t going to assume we meant “the smart Einstein, who knows lots of stuff” in the way we wanted.

Our Einstein was a giant infant, not even an infant, a fetus that should never have been born. On the third day, by mutual consent, we stuck him in the nanofactory disassembly chute and resolved never to speak of him again.


That was the last time I worked together with Lachlan on anything of note. After that we retreated to our separate aluminum huts, acknowledging each other only when our paths crossed on the way to the nanofactory for some crucial part.

I found him creepy. He was creeply. And he thought I was holding back our research. Maybe that was true too. In either case, it was a terse nod, a couple of words, and the tacit acknowledgment that it wasn’t worth resolving our hostility in the month or so we had left before we were transferred back.

I spent that last month trying to build on my theory that Adwell’s mind was somehow working behind the scenes running everything. The catalytic property of the sound, I theorized, was its ability to get Adwell’s attention. It was a sort of “HEY, GOD, LOOK OVER HERE, WE’RE DOING SCIENCE, BETTER APPLY THE LAWS OF PHYSICS RIGHT AWAY”. I know it sounded bizarre, but my early experiments bore me out. Rapidly flashing bright lights seemed to speed reactions almost as well as sound. So did – because sometimes the simplest solution is the best – shouting “ADWELL! LOOK OVER HERE!”

With these advances, once again entirely new classes of reaction became possible. No longer were we limited to the highly reactive simple materials with short names. Long strings of words, complex abstractions, even adjectives came within our reach. It was exciting.

But once again, it was Lachlan who was really pushing the frontiers. One night he started banging on my door: “OMAR!” he shouted. “I DID IT!” When I went out he practically dragged me into his hut, which was nearly piled, floor to ceiling, with papers that turned out, on inspection, to be various IQ tests the nanofactory must have been carrying in its databanks.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I couldn’t create Einstein,” he said, referring to the still-fresh debacle – “so I decided to turn myself into Einstein! Look! I’m producing SMART. And it’s working!”

His sonic ray – now only a fraction of the power of my own multimodality parasonic device – was reacting smoke and carts into coke and, apparently, smart. A complicated system of tubes and centrifuges was catching the smart and binding it into a containment chamber linked to a helmet. Clearly someone was supposed to put it on.

“And you’re saying it works?” I asked.

“The IQ tests don’t lie,” said Lachlan. “I was 152 two weeks ago. Now I’m consistently getting in the 160s.”

Judging by the number of tests, he must have been obsessively checking his numbers every hour or so.

“Now,” he said, “I’m going to try that letter isolation thing again.”

I judged by the shouts of rage and frustration I heard over the next few days that it wasn’t working.

Two days later, Lachlan asked me if he could borrow my advanced parasonic ray. I refused. That evening, it went missing for about three hours before turning up on top of my desk. I noticed Lachlan now had one exactly like it.

I soldiered on. In between my experiments, I played a little game predicting what Lachlan was trying to synthesize by the objects he took from the nanofactory and the supplies he ordered brought in from the village. One day it was buckets of dew, carts full of animal legs, and an entire cage of live minks – my best guess was he was trying to get KNOWLEDGE, but I couldn’t get the stoichiometry to line up. Judging from his screams of frustration that night, neither could he.

The next week, it was load after load of potatoes, fence posts, and a tank of minnows. It took me half an hour to come up with OMNIPOTENCE, even though once I made myself start thinking like Lachlan it was obvious.

I started to become worried.

One day, three months and two weeks into our mission and only fourteen short days before we hoped the laboratory would re-establish contact, I went out for a sortie with the plane and came back to find a disaster area.

Our huts had been smashed open. The nanofactory had big dents in its aluminum casing. Inside, all my lab equipment had been broken, my papers thrown on the floor haphazardly.

I went into Lachlan’s hut. IQ tests everywhere. He was missing. So was his parasonic ray. I figured they had grabbed my partner in his sleep, before he’d had time to resist. In retrospect we really should have put up some defenses, but we hadn’t expected to need them.

The nanofactory was still online. It was pretty hard to break – especially if, as I suspected, the vandals were villagers armed with clubs and rocks. I told it to extrude me some overwhelmingly powerful weaponry. After making me wait an hour, it gave me a ring that upon threat would instantaneously unfold into a device that generated an invincible barrier around the wearer, plus a hand-held matter disruptor. Thus armed, I walked into the village and found Somon.

I didn’t have to bring up the subject of Lachlan. “Is evil man!” the headman told me, as soon as he saw me. “Broke taboos! Created life! Dug up grave! And today! Today was worst! Kidnapped my daughter, Genea! No more okay! Tonight gets beaten! Tomorrow dies!”

Raising my invincibility shield, I wandered into the public square. There, whipped bloody and tied to a post, was Lachlan.

“You kidnapped the headman’s daughter?” I asked him. I didn’t even give him the dignity of pretending to doubt whether it was true.

Lachlan smiled. “Genea. A perfect name for my reaction. I could have been a Genius, with a capital G.”

I don’t know if it was that smile, or the blood all over him, or the lack of remorse in his voice, but at that moment, I’d had it with Dr. Lachlan Fairchild. I lowered the matter disruptor.

“You know,” I said. “That is it. I’m not even going to rescue you. You’re a menace.”

“You don’t have a choice,” said Lachlan. “I have a nuke. These people don’t understand the concept, but lucky we’ve got a genius like yourself. Let me go or I blow this entire planet sky high.”

“Even if you managed to extrude a nuke,” I said “which you didn’t, because I checked the nanofactory’s public records before I left – even then, nukes don’t work in this world. Nuclear fission isn’t an anagram of anything.”

“A metaphorical nuke,” said Lachlan. “I mean, I’ve figured out this world’s equivalent of a nuke. It’s very clever. Without the SMART, I never would have been able to think of it. I’ll…”

My best course was to immediately, like split-second immediately, raise the matter disruptor and shoot Lachlan. I could do it before he had a chance to react, and it would solve the whole damn problem.

Instead I took the worst course, which was to raise the matter disruptor, obviously intending to shoot him, and vacillate at the last moment because I’d never killed anyone before and I wasn’t sure I had it in me and instead of finding out my brain wanted to sit and ponder this for thirty seconds.

Lachlan took a ring off his finger and it unfolded it to reveal his parasonic ray. Then he furrowed his brow in concentration and it let out a screech.

I shot the matter disruptor. Man, post, and town square changed into their component atoms…letters…whatever.

The villagers ran, screaming. Some of them ran away from the explosion. Others ran towards the explosion, trying to see what had happened and maybe defend their homes and families. A few arrows and stones came towards me, causing my ring to near-instaneously unfold into a weird backpack-like device that placed itself on my back and surrounded me with a purple glow. The projectiles hit my new invincibility shield and fell to the ground limply.

I calmly walked through the carnage. I was heading back a kilometer south, back to the cape. I was going to extrude a larger aircraft, bring the nanofactory a few hundred miles away, and wait out the last two weeks of exile far away from this mob.

The ground started to shake. I realized the explosion had ended long ago, yet its deafening roar had not subsided.

I looked back to the town square and my blood turned cold. In the center of the blast radius, where not even dust should have remained, there was Lachlan’s skull, set in the biggest rictus grin I had ever seen.

I raised the matter disruptor and fired another shot. The skull disintegrated. But Cheshire Cat-like, somehow the grin remained, even larger than before, a smile without a substrate.

This was bad.

I started to run back to the lab. Cracks opened in the ground around me. The roar become worse. Was it just me, or was the sea getting closer?

Metaphorical nukes. A nuke was at the most basic level a chain reaction. Neutron produces energy plus neutron. That neutron produces energy plus neutron. That neutron and so on. You end up with a lot of energy.

I could see the remains of the looted lab now in front of me. It was on its elevated headland reaching into the sea, and I was afraid the rising water was going to cut it off and turn it into an island before I could get to it.

Sound drove chemical reactions in this world. Anything that could create sound had the potential to be a chain reaction if the reactants were common enough. You could get most of the letters of “sound” from…oh, that wasn’t good.

The cracks in the GROUND got bigger as the low-lying GROUND started to sink further beneath the waves.

I stared back at the village. It was almost entirely underwater now. Above it was Lachlan’s disembodied grin, now the size of a skyscraper, hanging in the sky.

Sound, ground. Grin. Sin. There. I had it. GROUND + SIN = SOUND + GRIN. The nuke. The ground was essentially limitless until the world was destroyed. The more ground was destroyed, the more people died, the more villages sunk under the waves. A sin. A reaction that created its own reactants. And sound. Created its own reactants and its own catalyst. Leaving nothing but Lachlan’s gigantic triumphant grin, hanging in the sky over the world he was destroying.

I groaned as a crack in the ground took the aircraft on its field. It teetered for a second, then fell into the onrushing waves. I ran through ankle deep water and at last reached the top of the headland. There was just a small area of land left, on the highest ground of the cape, with our two little partially-smashed huts and the bulky dented aluminum nanofactory.

“Extrude boat!” I commanded the nanofactory.

“Extruding boat,” said the display. “Estimated creation time with material on hand, two hours.”

“Cancel! Cancel cancel cancel!” I shouted, but the factory had gotten into its extrusion mode and wasn’t listening.

I ran into my hut. Most of my stuff was still broken. There was nothing that looked like a good flotation device, unless you counted my mattress. My reaction apparatus, my parasonic ray, and a few doodads.

I grabbed the ray gun and ran outside. Even on the high ground, there were wavelets lapping at my shoes. I had about a minute before I drowned.

“Okay,” I said to myself. “Time to figure something out. Time to create a boat.” And there was only one good reactant on hand.

OCEAN + …no, that wouldn’t work. SEA + …that was even worse. WATER + … I might be able to use water if I let the reaction consume my bones…WATER + BONE = BOAT + NEWER … no, even with the parasonic ray I’d never be able to catalyze a reaction that made a comparative adjective of all things. Maybe if I had an hour to think of some useful intermediates.

Okay, back up. You don’t need a boat. You can use a ship. Ship is…

My brain was in panic mode. It didn’t want to anagram SHIP. What it wanted was escape.

The cape! The cape could provide escape! The cape and the sea! The two things I had! And my parasonic gun was just strong enough to let me synthesize abstractions. I just needed somewhere to put that extra A.

WATER + A = AWARE + T. No, Nature abhors non-words, T won’t work. WATER + A = RAW TEA. No, adjectives took forever. WAR TEA? I wasn’t sure what would happen if I caused a war at this point, but I bet it wouldn’t be good.

A wave rushed over me and I rose to the top sputtering and gasping. I still had the parasonic ray. The water had almost covered the huts now. Borne on the receding wave came Lachlan’s stupid piles of IQ tests, now soaked.


On the one hand, Nature abhorred non-words. On the other hand, I couldn’t swim and was about to drown. I concentrated REALLY hard on the reaction, turned the parasonic ray to its highest setting, and shot a beam of sound and strobe light and repetition of the name “Adwell!” at the pile of tests and the rocky cape below.

Nothing happened.

The LOW CHARGE light began to flash on my parasonic ray.

It had been a stupid, desperate gambit. I’d already known I didn’t have enough energy to do a reaction that created non-words, didn’t know if that was even possible with any energy, and I had just drained my parasonic ray of almost all its charge I had made a terrible error.

“Error!” I shouted. “That’s it! Adwell! Error!”


As I fell under the waves, with my last breath and last bit of charge I fired off the parasonic ray one last time.

It’s not working I thought to myself. It’s not working and I’m going to die, lost under the sea, dead forever. I spent half a minute just thrashing about in terror before I realized that meant it was working.

The water was receding! A bubble of air was spreading away from me in all directions as the water was consumed! I was saved! Still terrified, but saved!

…then the water started closing in on me again. I didn’t know what what was happening. I’d done it, hadn’t I? Succeeded in creating a reaction that would get me out?

Success! That was the problem! If I had succeeded in creating a reaction, then firing the parasonic ray hadn’t been an error. The reaction couldn’t take place. The water closed in on me again. I was going to die.

The water started to recede. If the success of the reaction prevented me from having made an error, then the reaction wouldn’t work, and starting the reaction was an error, and so the reaction could take place. All this I saw clearly, as in a dream, from within my bubble of air.

The air bubble under the rising seas (sinking ground?) reached a size of about twenty meters, large enough to cover the cape and the two huts and the nanofactory, and then stopped, occasionally shrinking a little or growing a little, always seething, starting to burn with a weird energy.

From within the anglophysical terror clouding my mind, I recognized the problem as a novel version of the Epimenides paradox of self-reference, implemented on a physical substrate. If my initiation of the anglophysical reaction had been an ERROR, then I would ESCAPE, and it hadn’t been an ERROR after all. But if my initiation of the reaction had not been an ERROR, then I would not ESCAPE, and in fact it would have been an ERROR.

I had a vague memory that I had once discussed Russell’s Paradox with Dr. Adwell. I wished I could have remembered what he said.

The interface between air and water became turbulent, started to glow. I saw fantastic images projected upon it, weird fractal geometries, strange supersensory stimuli that somehow reminded me of Lovecraft’s references to the beckoning piping from the void behind space. All the while the TERROR grew, and the bubble began to vacillate wildly.

Then there was a great pop, and I thought for a second my air bubble had popped, but more correctly everything had popped, and for a second the things that were nothing like piping sounds became unbearable. Then I found myself lying, still terrified, on the floor of the translation chamber of our laboratory, the very same place where I had entered Adwellia almost four months before.


When I had recovered my senses and debriefed my colleagues, I devised three theories for what had happened there, on the cape.

First, that my reaction had been successful beyond my wildest dreams, the paradox had resolved in my favor, and I had ESCAPED not only to firm ground but to my own home dimension.

Second, that the paradox had been so confusing and unbearable for poor Adwell that he had expelled me from his consciousness, like a man brushing a bug off his skin, and having been kicked from his world I naturally defaulted to my own.

And third, that implementing a paradox on a physical substrate was really, really bad and I had destroyed Adwellia.

This last possibility ought in theory to be testable, but I was informed upon my return that the budget was tight this year and that the necessary supercomputing resources to search for Adwellia will not be available for some time.

I have been assigned to another project, and although my superiors have thanked me for my work in Adwellia, I am certain they do not believe a word of my report and have written the entire expedition – and perhaps their decision in hiring me – off as a loss. In their place I would not do otherwise.

But from your writings I gather you are a man of unusual intellect, and some of your speculations come uncomfortably close to the truth. I do not know whether you have pursued your interest in Berkeleyan idealism further, but if you are so gracious as to believe my story or at least keep an open mind, I would be interested in further correspondence with you about the implications of anglophysics for future imaged worlds and how the consistency of such images might be assured against paradoxes of self-reference and other threats to their integrity.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Omar Reyes, University of ________

PS: I hope you will be understanding when I say that I wish to restrict my future work in the imaged world field to a purely theoretical level.

[EDIT: I apologize to those who have read Universal Fire for this story. As a peace offering, please accept this lovely lampshade.]

[EDIT 2: HPMORPodcast has recorded an audio version.]