June 18, 2019
As a child I always believed there were two distinct ways to think about the future. Some choose to believe that the future could harbor great hardship, and in self preservation attempt to defend themselves from it. Others strive for opportunity, and find solace in their hope that the future is great.
I’d been proud to admit that my father was one of the latter. As the town's glassblower he always taught me to enjoy even the trivialities of life. He believed his work's beauty highlighted everyday things' beauty in people's lives. He dreamt of elevating even a single ordinary item to the realm of the beautiful. When people consider ordinary pieces of glass art, he hoped they would begin to find pleasure in daily minutiae they'd otherwise ignore.
The beauty of his work didn't put bread on the family table though. By night he would whittle light from the stars into a piece of hot glass, encoding everyday phenomena like the setting of the sun into the piece by changing how it distorted incident light. With this painstaking effort he blew magical glass that told soldiers how far their arrows would go and bankers how likely customers’ coins were to be counterfeit.
One day, many months after he'd seemingly lost his mind and taken leave from his duties to the town (andto our family) - he and his friend, the banker, got into an argument. You see, our world was stricken by something I'd until then only relegated to the realm of stories. Of course the farmers were the first to notice as the sky seemed to stretch, like a sheet of rubber tugged ever more taut day by day. Our sun stretched first from a coin into an egg, then into a pear, and then quickly began to project itself all the way across the sky.
Besides losing its shape, the sun also lost its brightness, and with this came not just existential terror but great material hardship. Most of the losses you'd expect. Farmers lost their crop. Children grew sleepless under the midnight sun. The days grew longer and longer as the sun stretched further. Neighboring villages looted our town shops fearing the end of time itself.
Other issues weren’t so predictable. The elderly had always been more susceptible to cataracts than the young. They were warned that if they spent too long in the sun for example, their eyes would gradually cloud over until they could make out only the coarsest of imagery. It was truly an unpleasant sight to see an old man, perhaps even healthy and youthful physically, blinded.
But now, along with the persistent auroras, and children born with mutilated features, almost all of the old were subject to this fate - irrespective of how long they spent outside. After a few weeks of this, my father, always a sceptic, took it upon himself to determine this "end of time" for himself.
One night he barged into my room, looking defeated and hopeless in a way I'd never seen him before. He told me he blew a piece of glass, like the ones he made for the soldiers, to predict the brightness of our sun. He'd run to the city capitol to tell the king that the sun had only 100 years left.The king, after brief contemplation, told my father off as a loon. Normally he would kill him then and there, but he forgave his lunacy for his utility to the townspeople. He promised him others wouldn't be as forgiving.
His attempt to confide in a fellow intellectual, the banker, didn't go as well as he'd hoped either. I know because his blind passions had long since lost him my trust, so this was the first of many times I eavesdropped on him. While the banker was duly fascinated with my father's discovery, they couldn't agree on how to proceed. They had struggled together financially for years, but in this hardship the townspeople were quick to entrust the banker with their wealth, so he thrived.
The banker excitedly pleaded with my father, could different methods perhaps help them understand this cosmic power? Wield it themselves? My father refused. This power, whatever it was, was clearly far beyond them, and very destructive. But the banker, ever rational, persisted - how could you predict the minutiae without understanding the underlying cause?
My father resigned himself to working in isolation and soon had stopped taking all outside orders. He told me he had his life's work ahead of him now, and he wouldn't let anything get in its way. As the king ordered him, he also feared for his life if anyone heard why he wasn’t working. Ironically, with this behavior he needn't say a word for the town to believe he'd lost his mind just the same.
My mother was worried but always supportive - after talking to her about finding a way to finance his project, he decided to ask the banker for a loan. After their last conversation months prior I was worried this wouldn't go very smoothly - that night I couldn't resist hiding in a corner of his workshop and listening in once again.
It began innocently enough, my father told him more about his work than he'd told me in months. There was simply far more to predict than the life expectancy of our sun. Sometimes the sky brightens still and the children born have birth defects. Sometimes the old go blind, but when half of them gain cataracts in a matter of hours, something else is to blame. For both, he believed the heavens were.
To make more progress he needed far more glass than he anticipated. From my perspective the banker looked quite pleased; over the past few months he grew increasingly wealthy. He agreed to a loan and my father was visibly relieved. The stress of leaving his family hungry, and starving the townspeople of his work, wore hard on him but in ways I couldn't then understand, mostly because I couldn't imagine why he decided to do so in the first place.
Just as the relief had settled in my father's brow, the banker revealed a condition. There had been other soothsayers, scriveners, etc. in town since the great stretch began, and all were eventually lynched when their predictions turned out too good to be true. I was relieved he seemed worried for my father's safety. So long as my father revealed his work to no one else, and permitted the banker to preside over his divinations, he was happy to support the work.
My father, stubborn as always, could not stand this condition. On principle he refused to keep information from the people. The banker patiently elaborated. He would only reveal predictions of hardship, because like with the other soothsayers - false prophecies of salvation would only weaken the people’s trust. My father of course argued that he wouldn't lose the people's trust because his machine simply would never be wrong.
My father usually meant well, but his unyielding morals in the face of practicality and the apparent generosity of his friend confused me. Could he have seen something in the banker I didn't? I only saw a man who'd fallen so in love with his craft he'd fallen out of love with his own family, but the banker may not be so innocently generous either. Even I had always viewed him more as my father’s partner in occasional debate than a friend. Just as he gained from the soothsayers' sporadic predictions of disaster, maybe he stood to gain from my father's work too?
The minutes that followed were a blur. The conversation grew to a heated frenzy as they continued, mostly as my father threw accusations of greed and censorship across the room. The banker, tired of arguing, moved to leave the workshop. But my father quickly realized he was driving his only salvation away and jumped to block his way. As he did, he stepped on an ember of hot glass, and subsequently fell over backwards into his furnace.
For a few moments I could only stare at the scene in shock. In retrospect what happened was inevitable. I watched silently as the situation escalated, the banker stepping carefully around the hot embers to escape the workshop in one piece, while my father’s rage blinded him from its own dangers. I’d reached the scene quickly enough that the banker was still there, and by this he was relieved - I later testified that he indeed had no deliberate part in my father’s death.
The day after the incident I returned home to a completely disassembled workshop. In its place stood an enormous glass sphere, nearly 30 meters in diameter. My father told only the banker what he was working on, and so he decided to memorialize the work. Decades later, the clouded glass sphere still stands, like a monument to the village elderly’s clouded eyes. People from far and wide visit to pay their respects - it served as a tribute to the creator's life. After all, before he lost his mind he'd been revered by the townspeople for his generosity and pleasant demeanor.
I saw something else in the monument though. The sphere is diffusely reflective overall, like a foggy mirror, but I was privy to an effect most never watched long enough to notice. You see, for certain sources of very predictable light, like the stars, the sun, any stationary lights, etc. it was instead completely opaque. That night as the sunset aurora set the horizon ablaze, I watched while the eye stood dark - resolute and unaffected by the sky’s fiery pink glow.
Decades more passed before the blossoming field of photometry came across the developments of my father. Through his work we discovered much about our world. We learned that the sun did not as some imagined stretch an arm across the heavens of its own accord, but that we were actually in the midst of a supermassive black hole. This black hole was responsible not only for the terrible consumption of our home star, and thereby the coming end of life on our planet, but also for the magical effects of my father's glass.
As the black hole consumed matter of all forms, it bathed our planet in a dense field of high energy electromagnetic radiation. This bath of radiation gave the elderly their cataracts, our sky its characteristic frequent auroras, and our glass its natural nonlinear, dynamic refractive index. His (literally) landmark work paved the field's way, and today directs most effort towards one of his pursuits in particular.
You see, despite his accomplishments with the unnamed sphere, and his accurate predictions of macroscopic phenomena like the consumption of our home star, my father yearned to predict with more nuance. There were some phenomena with characteristic periods of a day, a minute, but for such predictions he'd need far more glass than he could ever blow himself. What's more, he’d never be able to do all the light whittling necessary by hand. His sphere was an attempt to solve the whittling problem - he’d developed an ingenious unit with the resources he had on hand, formed by a pair of his whittling glasses oriented in opposite directions, such that when light passed through one piece, the other piece would automatically whittle the light produced by another unit one layer below. One hundred such layers formed his enormous sphere, but it was soon discovered that he couldn’t proceed beyond that scale even with unlimited resources. The incident light on the surface of the sphere was significantly attenuated by traveling through the glass, and with a sphere any bigger it’d be too weak for its reflection to have any effect on the surface units. One could build smaller units, but they could only get so small.
More brilliant than I’d ever realized as a child, he’d faced this issue himself decades ago, and dreamt (in writing) of a solution: self-whittling glass. A material that he could form into razor thin layers and pack as densely as he’d like, to build a sphere with thousands or even millions of layers.
Today, I'm excited to finally culminate my father's work. Science and technology progressed very quickly once we were able to build computational gates with the glass. Decades after his death, we discovered/invented a glass with exactly the properties he envisioned. Under extreme pressure and heat from nuclear fusion, and impenetrable electromagnetic shielding, we were able to form a few micrograms of the material; and while it was quite useful for ordinary computation, we dreamt of finishing what my father started. Under the same conditions as initial fabrication we carefully formed layer upon layer of the material, a single atom thick, into a perfect sphere one micron in diameter.
This in itself was a marvel to behold. Remarkably, on our monitors at least, our microscopic sphere looked nearly identical to my father’s monumental one. It was diffusely reflective, with the same hallmark property of predictable opacity. We watched the monitor carefully as a light source placed in front of the sphere first shone brilliantly on its surface, then quickly acquiesced into a near perfect darkness.
We rejoiced! We'd achieved the ideal form, but the density wasn’t yet quite there. You see, no matter how small our sphere, the incident light on its surface was still weakened by its journey to the center, and then back out again. To achieve the predictive fidelity my father dreamed of, to have it predict more than just simple light sources, we needed to make the sphere so small, so dense, that light needn’t travel far at all to make its way through and back out again.
Why go through all this effort? Well, it didn’t take long for our best physicists to realize that by bending light so quickly and dynamically, and in a space so dense, we were essentially replicating the process by which the incident light was formed in the first place. This sphere, once bathed in light, sought by its own nature to minimize its free energy by minimizing light’s interference within it. And just as the path of light between ordinary refractive media takes the quickest path, seeming to reflect a knowledge of its own fate, peering into this sphere may tell us more than just the path of an arrow, or the age of our sun, it may reflect moments yet to come.
At first, we were pleased to discover that the image on the monitor was exactly as we expected. We sought to compress our sphere with the same inertial confinement technology we first used decades ago to birth our second sun, and shrink it did. Within moments it shrunk to a speck, just barely wide enough for our shortest wavelength optical devices to detect. Then, unexpectedly, our monitor turned the same stark black as the sphere did at full size. The blackness grew to consume most of the confinement space, then seemed to stop for a moment, as though it were contemplating how to proceed. A few of us stood, frozen and contemplative as well; others began to run.
I found myself seemingly frozen in time - like the darkness I beheld on the monitor, and like I was as a boy, staring at the spot on the floor where my father had stood moments before. I considered the inevitability of this moment just the same. My father had been so prophetic, his notes from those passionate few months of work reflected decades of our discoveries. Could he have anticipated this as well? Or was he blinded by passion like he was the night he lost his life? Did he see only what he wanted to, and was I blinded by the same?