The Discrepancy

[The result of a challenge to write something on Dark Matter and Dark Energy using the title "The Discrepancy" - first time I've tried writing fiction in a long, long time.]

Victor Cherenkov ran through the tunnels, his boots slipping and sliding on sewage, his way marked only by grating-filtered moonlight highlighting small sections of tunnel every thirty metres or so.  Every so often a grating would scrape from its fittings and a searchlight would cast around, but they were getting further behind, and the urgent sweeps of light were becoming more lazy.

He eased off, ducking into a side tunnel, and disappeared into the dark. He kept his head low, both arms stretched out to the side, fingertips running along the walls, occasionally thrumming against worn metal ridges indicating distance and upcoming curves.  For four hundred metres, through a narrow winding tunnel, with nothing but residual trails in his eyes, he kept up a steady jog.

He turned the last "idiot trap" hairpin and the light began to rise, as he knew it would.  A dull red glow typical of the outer tunnels.  A slime on the roof was glowing gently - a man-made slime in fact, magnetically bonded to the metal roof and leeching power from nearby high voltage cables.  It glowed for decades before you had to repaint it, and if you removed some of it the slime would self heal, slowly creeping until it had joined the gap.  "Theft By Induction", it was officially called, back when people bothered putting a value on electrical power.  The joke was that because the law was still current, you could still be charged with it, thrown in a cell, maybe even subjected to battery.  You should not, the jester would invariably continue, offer resistance.

It was a dark joke.  The ideas that lived in these tunnels didn't get to see the light of day most of the time.  Above was a different place, different rules applied, and they didn't agree with the rules down here.  If the ideas came into contact there would always be a flash, which usually found its way underground.  So mostly, that meant hiding.

Above wasn't exactly evil, if you care to bandy such a word around.  It followed rules that were, statistically, those of a civilization at its peak.  Another dark joke was that the peak had lasted for a hundred years, and always would. The age of progress had stopped in the name of humanity.

The new system didn't allow change.  It was stable, that was the whole point, and some ideas rocked that equilibrium a bit too much, so those ideas had been quietly forgotten.  They weren't taught any more, omitted from textbooks, research funding was quietly cut to zero.  There is some evidence of expert system bots being used to promote stablity friendly online behaviour and to consign the awkward ideas to the realms of the crackpot, although it's difficult to tell exactly who wrote and released them.

Cosmology, Victor's subject, had stopped around 1975.  Spacetime, officially, was fully understood.

Quantum theory, to take another example, stopped in 2013 with the discovery of the Higgs boson and the completion of the standard model, and as both quantum theory and relativity were now "fully understood", they must both be separate systems, therefore no compatibility was required.  Power to the Large Hadron Collider, the device which "completed physics" was finally shut down in 2025, an event known as the Night Of The Broken Pencils.  Officially, at least, physics was finished.

It wasn't just physics.  All branches of science found themselves "completed". Economics, politics and philosophy became redundant in a world where the nothing really changed from day to day, year to year, decade to decade.  The world's major religions atrophied in the face of a world which professed to understanding everything of importance, and where true hardship and suffering had been reduced to a handful of rare cases.  Mathematics had a particularly curious cut-off point which could be traced to a single moment in time, and to a single place - David Hilbert's retirement address at the Königsberg conference of 1930.  This was the moment where Hilbert claimed that mathematics was complete in theory, that every possible problem had a mathematical solution in principle.

        "The true reason why no one has succeeded in finding an unsolvable problem is, in my opinion, that there is no unsolvable problem. In contrast to the foolish Ignoramibus, our credo avers: We must know. We shall know!"
For the world Above, this is where the matter ended.  Mathematics had continued, but had become mere stamp collecting, throwing existing theorems together to find new solutions, but with no great creativity or sense of self as a subject.  Hilbert's address was the footnote on the end of mathematics as an art. They never heard a young mathematician named Kurt Gödel, just a year out of his PhD, giving a paper the next day at the same conference which showed that mathematics could never be completed, even in theory.

But when Victor reached his thirteenth birthday his parents had sent him off to "boarding school", and he was immersed in something which had always been whispered about with a quiet reverence behind closed doors.  He had arrived in Edinburgh, a small rucksack over his shoulder, and was met at the airport by friends of his parents.  He had a brief glimpse of the city, a mish-mash of architectural styles with the imposing castle looming over the city center, and was then led down a small side street, through an ancient looking door, and took his last glimpse of sunlight.  Since then, for the last nine years, he'd lived underground where he'd been taught about the problems with physics - the observations which didn't tally with the official models, the alternative theories which might replace them, and the history of the work they were trying to preserve.  This was their primary goal, to keep one particular set of ideas alive.

Victor checked his watch, a thin band around his wrist with dimples that popped up allowing him to read a binary representation of the time with his fingertips.  Quarter to ten.  He picked his pace back up to a sprint...after all the time messing about in the top tunnels he had lost track of time.  He was running late for his viva.

With less than a minute to spare he reached the main hall.  It had originally been the arch of a bridge, but over four hundred years the residents of the city had constructed their homes alongside it, building upon makeshift building had slowly covered both sides of the arch until it had, to all intents and purposes, become "underground".  Now it linked in with the old city vaults, long-abandoned cellars and large forgotten and disused sections of the sewer system to become a sprawling underground city.  The hall was the biggest space in the network, the high vaulted ceiling and bare stonework caused acoustics that lent more than an air of cathedral.  Victor's supervisor, Wilson, caught his eye and gestured to the center of the room, where there was a single chair, desk and a freshly cleaned blackboard.  In front of him sat his inquisition, three unknown faces who had been called in from goodness knows where to prevent any chance of favouritism.  A few hundred faces were lost in the gloom as he made the slow walk to the chair, quietly trying to get his breathing back under control. A viva was something of a spectator sport - some joked a bloodsport, an analogy Victor wasn't entirely comfortable with at this precise moment.

The first few questions were, traditionally, easy enough.  A few simple tests to put the candidate at their ease.  Victor confidently derived Newtons law of gravity from the conservation of angular momentum, fell back on first principles for a trick question involving a hot air balloon and a bungee jumper, and even enjoyed the question on the Leidenfrost effect with its attendant "practical", a piece of showmanship for the crowd which involved Victor dipping his (thankfully rather sweaty) hand into the supplied crucible of molten lead.  It was a trick he'd heard of but never tried before, a test of faith in science.  The sweat on his hand evaporated on contact with the molten metal, providing a vapour layer which conducted heat very poorly, protecting his flesh from the heat for a crucial few seconds.

This was what many had come to see, and Victor could hear a large section of the crowd quietly shuffling out as he retook his seat.  From this point everything became more challenging.  They spent half an hour discussing General Relativity and the resolution of various paradoxes, and more than an hour on quantum theory, covering the same ground three times using different mathematical techniques, some more suited to the tasks in hand than others.  Finally, three hours in, they reached the meat of the examination and Victor's speciality, "The Discrepancy", a subtle breakdown in the official theories which occured when you included observations first made in the late twentieth century.

There were in fact two Discrepancies, known as The Pull and The Push.  The first was initially spotted in galaxies, specifically the way they rotated.  Kepler's laws, first formulated over five hundred years ago, were still good enough to tell you exactly how galaxies should spin, you could be more precise if you wanted to by using Einstein's relativistic version, but for the slow, stately waltz of a galaxy Kepler's inverse square law was perfectly sufficient.  The only problem was, it didn't work.  As you moved outward from the centre the speed the stars orbited at should get slower and slower, in the same way that the planets orbit the Sun more and more slowly as you work your way outward.  But there was something wrong with galaxies.  Once you got about halfway out the stars didn't slow down, as Kepler's maths said they should, they simply continued to orbit at the same speed.  Something was clearly amiss.

The Push was even odder.  Since the middle of the twentieth century it had been known that the universe was expanding, the space between galaxies was constantly increasing.  In fact, this was the origin of the Big Bang theory - if you ran an expanding universe backwards then it was natural explanation, at some point in the past (nearly fourteen billion years ago it turned out) then everything must have been crammed together in a hot fireball of matter.  The clincher had been the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the wisp of heat left over from the fireball, permeating every bit of space.  The problem was that the universe wasn't just expanding, it was accelerating.  The expansion was speeding up.  Not by a huge amount, there was no pressing need to worry, but the data was quite clear, something was pushing the galaxies apart, faster and faster with every passing hour.

The Pull and The Push had originally been called Dark Matter and Dark Energy respectively, as these were thought to be the most likely explanation - an as-yet unobserved type of matter which only interacted through the gravitational force, and some vague, hand-wavy field of energy gradually stretching the facbric of spacetime thinner and thinner.  After a few decades searching, however, it had become clear that the most obvious solution might not be the right one.  The matter stubbornly refused to show itself in any form, dark or otherwise.  The energy, likewise, seemed to exceptionally good at hiding from any experiment that humanity could devise.  The only place that they actually seemed to exist was in equations - two simple corrections to make the equations match reality.  Yes, it was a fudge, but that was the point of science, to find out what fudge was made of.

A little more time was spent exploring the more borderline theories such as "Modified Newtonian Gravity", where gravity only obeyed Kepler's inverse square law at fairly short ranges, but fell away linearly at galactic distances and beyond, and some more exotic ideas involving the universe being, in effect, a large scale computer simulation with some short-cuts built in that manifested as changes in long-range orbits.  These theories were all well and good for explaining away The Discrepancies, but ultimately fell down when you looked at the rest of physics - as soon as you beat down one problem with a tweaked equation, three more raised their heads.  Victor pointed this out, as he knew he was expected to.

"So", asked the chair of his examination, "would you care to explain what is actually going on?"

Victor sat quietly for a minute.  This was where it got nasty.

"No, I can't" he replied.  "I can give you a few untestable hypotheses if you wish, or I can claim that we've got something fundamentally wrong from first principles.  I can speculate for as long as you'd like, but I can't give you an answer."

"In that case Mr Cherenkov, what's the point of all this?  If we don't have the answers, and in the current climate can't hope to find them, what's the point?  Why should we continue to preserve knowledge that shows current science to be wrong, all in the name of science?  Does that not strike you as a little hypocritical and self defeating?"

Victor took a moment to think about this.  At this stage in the exam virtually everything was a trap being laid before him. 

"You're suggesting that pride and human achievement are at the center of science.  You may have a point, it's why we have exams and awards after all, but there's something more fundamental that we have to preserve.  Science is about looking at observables, the evidence in front of us.  We look up at the night sky and find that it does not follow Einstein's rules to the letter - this is not a mistake on the part of the universe, and neither is it a reason to throw out theories which have stood up to ever other test we've ever thrown at them.  Einstein may still be right, or wrong, but galaxies will still spin apart from each other in exactly the same way."

"We may have to accept at some point that the trick we've been using so far, Wigner's 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics', might fail.  It could be that we'll never have an explanation, just a series of fudged equations which seem to match what's going on but offer no further insight.  We may one day find a computer program that accurately simulates reality, but only because of a limitation in the programming, implying there's a similar limitation on the universe.  We just don't know, and that's the point.  We can all agree to add the extra terms to the equations, consider physics 'finished' and head up Above to join everybody else, or we can admit that we don't know and preserve that gap in our knowledge for another time when we can properly explore it.  In essence, sir, it's not about what you're sure of, it's about what you don't know.  The gaps are the important thing, all else is stamp collecting."

"Who are you paraphrasing?"

Victor panicked, his mind a blank.

"Ed Robertson?"

The chairman stood up and wandered across to him. 

"I think you'll find it was James Clark Maxwell, Doctor Cherenkov."

Victor was mortified.  Of course it was Maxwell, talking about chemistry in a rather derogatory manner.  How had he forgotten this?  It was the biggest blunder so far, and the kind that could wreck your chances of....hang on a minute....

"What did you say?"

"I said it was James Clark Maxwell, Doctor Cherenkov, as you well know, being a bit rude about our friends the chemists.  The Nobel committee got their own back though, awarding him the prize for chemistry."

"Doctor Cherenkov?"

"Yes, I think we've heard more than enough.  Congratulations.  You're now allowed to go Above as you wish, an identity will be provided for you, and once you've learned it I believe a trip to a pub is the traditional first stop."

The gentleman leaned forward, so close that Victor became uncomfortably aware of how hard his heart was hammering.  In a voice so quiet Victor could hardly hear it himself, a whisper...

"Personally I'd recommend the Blind Poet."


  1. Geoff, this is great. There's a real tension to both situation and presentation - viva - that reads brilliantly, and the contrast of above and below is so very well drawn in so few words. It translates so well into closed/open ideas, blind alleys, potential... And I strongly suspect I am missing a little of the humour by failing to understand the references. It's a page turner - held me pinned to the screen!

    Yes, there are things I would tidy a little - not formatting, that's great, but one or two habits I noticed repeated? I would suggest not reading for a week and coming back to it or getting someone else to read through and check? (Yes, I would if you like, but I am not a scientist.) Immediately: description in the same paragraph - "urgent sweeps of light were becoming more lazy" - urgent/lazy: both work well, but I'd rephrase not to contrast two extremes so closely. And tense - there was/there is in the same paragraph. But that's only really noticeable on a second read. First time through, the pace of the language is truly absorbing, and you're going to have to imagine the slight sense of shock when I say I *really* enjoyed your scientific fiction!

    "Dark Matter and Dark Energy using the title "The Discrepancy"" -


  2. Yeah - I'd not actually written fiction in any way for years, and I've always found that just letting a stream out and editing it later is the only way I can stop myself getting bogged down in the detail (seriously, even for that I was constantly checking things out of paranoia, you've no idea how picky physics geeks are about their fiction!)

    Still, quite chuffed about how it came out, it was one of those "world crystallizing in your mind" moments. It owes a hell of a lot to Stephenson's "Anathem" (, which is a vivid alternate world with all science education and research set aside from the everyday world in a monastic style.