Time: 10:00 am
Location: Dakshin Gangotri Research Station (70.7500° S, 11.5833° E), Antarctica, Earth
Harish Ramakrishnan –
A biting wind pierced through my chest as if it was trying to penetrate through my heart. No amount of training back in India would have prepared me for such conditions. Stepping out of the research station without my North Face Himalayan Parka was a bad idea. As I entered the research station, I saw my two colleagues Dmitri Sergeyevich and Liang Wu. It has been 17 days since we landed here for a collaborative research initiative but as of yet, none of us have had any major breakthroughs. NASA had sent Dmitri to conduct research on Microbial Dark Matter. He was a seemingly quiet man mostly kept to himself. Liang was researching the reversal of geomagnetism and he refused to talk about anything other than his research.
And I am sent by NCAOR to conduct Geological research for the Indian Scientific Expeditions to Antarctica (InSEA). We have three other assistants helping us in our research, but they are new recruits and are often-homesick.
Hence, most of the time we were by ourselves. My thoughts were the only things keeping me company. The sun never set here, so the days felt longer than ever. We would each take a few hours to sleep but I wasn’t able to as loneliness overwhelmed me as I thought of my vibrant and loud home in India, where I was surrounded with love. In every direction there was a vast canvas of white with some barren rock along the way. The silence seemed to be louder than ever.
Going to Antarctica, for me, came with mixed feelings. I remember reading about the massive, ice-covered continent as a child. I was extremely intrigued by the idea of going there. Growing up in Northern Russia, you learned to weather the cold, but you grew to hate it. My deep passion for Physics, and later Quantum Mechanics helped me land a job with NASA. I finally had the opportunity to leave the biting cold behind. My line of work, however, demanded me to look for dark matter in exciting locations. One particular site of interest was Antarctica. NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) detected cosmic rays from the ice sheets of the continent. High-energy neutrinos whizzing around in a loop that goes within the ice, and back out again. These rays are the cause of widespread perplexion, as they threaten to rewrite the Standard Model of Particle Physics. These rays might change our understanding of the universe.
I am stationed at ‘Dakshin Gangotri’, India’s research station on Antarctica. NASA and the Government of India signed a resource-sharing agreement to further research ties between the two countries. As a result, ANITA is stationed here. I have on my team three timid junior researchers, helpful but aloof. My colleagues are reserved, and I prefer it that way. Solitude and quiet help me focus on my work. I’m somewhat acquainted with Dr Harish Ramakrishnan, a geologist from India. My other colleague, Dr Liang Wu, hasn’t spoken to me about anything apart from the weather. I hear from Harish that he is here to study the reversal of the geomagnetism of the Earth. Vague, but none of my concern.
This morning, the three of us had to reach locations not too far away from each other, so we decided to pool the snow-mobile. Liang was originally reluctant to join, but he eventually saw our point. Driving the snow-mobile was a challenge. The ice provided no grip, and you felt like you could just glide off the continent. Vast, flat expanses of ice made it that much easier to lose your way. Five minutes into our slow uneventful ride, we passed through a long tunnel. This tunnel, carved out of the thick ice around 30 years ago, stood as a testament to the spirit of exploration. Although in awe of the sheer scale of the tunnel, I felt oddly nervous this morning. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t realise when I let go of the wheel and the vehicle swerved into a wall of ice.
My two colleagues and I had been on our way to our respective research locations, in that dainty looking snow-mobile, for the past three hours. Dmitri and Harish had insisted for some reason that all of us travel together since our destinations were close enough. The Russian insisted on driving, very conveniently so, even after we had to stop because of a loud noise that came from somewhere inside the snow-mobile.
When I was first assigned the project to research the reversal of geomagnetism of Earth in Antarctica, I was unamused, to say the least. It has been a year and a half since I started writing investigatory reports on this phenomenon for the Polar Research Institute of China, but without any massive breakthroughs. The loss of the intensity of the geomagnetic field of the planet in the last 3,000 years has been the cause of much concern for scientists across the globe. For the said reversal of polarity to occur, the magnetic field would be required to weaken by at least 90% to the threshold level before rising again. When the field decays and recovers its strength, it puts us at risk at large; it may or may not lead to the malfunctioning of electronic devices throughout—so basically back to the stone age.
There has been a prominent and rapid drop in the intensity of the field in the South Atlantic region. This is now popularly coming to be known as the South Atlantic Anomaly, which is spreading fast. So well, here I am, stationed at Dakshin Gangotri, in what is said to be the most harshly hibernal climate, away from a place I am supposed to call home. These two seem to be the sociable kind, but I’ve never been good with small talk; having been preoccupied with my research from earlier than I can recall. It’s all that comes to me.
After what seemed like an eternity, we seemed to have finally reached our destination. It had taken us a full hour to figure out where we were. The GPS showed that we had reached our location but there was no sign of a base or station. So, we’d driven on. When I entered the research base, it was 13:07 by my watch, I noticed a silence that was uncalled for. Ironically, it seemed completely unorganized and highly chaotic. It was a mess to look at. I walked up to a roll-top desk, which was covered scantily by papers. I picked the one right at the edge, it read in bold font:
A protracted flip is hoped to occur within the next three months. The quantitative effect on the SAA extent area due to a constant dipole or quadrupole will be approximately the same with a reduction of the area around 50% smaller than the original one for the total temporal window.
For a good minute, I couldn’t believe what I had just read. I’ve been working on this for so long, and yet, I’d not been able to accurately predict the reduction ratio of the SAA. And today, I step into this place for the first time, and miraculously we have a definitive report? This is absurd. I tried to look for someone I could talk to about this. Who had written this report? Where did they get the data? How did they quantify the results? I had so many questions on my mind, but no one who could answer them. I flipped through the pages in my hand, and at the end of it, there was one thing enough to have left me speechless.
Submitted by Dr Liang Wu to the Polar Research Institute of China
Surely this was a mistake, but there was no way I could confirm. I called up Dmitri and Harish, to see if they could help me look for the other researchers at the base, they said there was no one at their stations either. We decided to meet up at the location where we had parked our vehicle.
As I reached the location, I saw they looked surprised looking down at their wrists for some odd reason. I checked the time, it was 12:59. I glanced at their faces with surprise, I think I had just seen the second hand ticking back.
The accident on the snow-mobile left us all in shock for a minute there. However, none of us were hurt, and so we carried on to our respective destinations. On reaching NASA’s ANITA monitoring station, I was taken aback by surprise. There was nobody there. I was supposed to meet with Dr Harold Cheung, head of the ANITA project to discuss some breakthroughs we made. I expected a certain satisfaction and elation from the people at the station, but today, there was nobody in sight. Odd, I thought to myself.
Some five minutes later, a young researcher came up to me and asked me who I was. I introduced myself but he didn’t seem to register what I said. Terms like cosmic rays, dark matter or even quantum physics baffled him. On asking him what his team is studying, he replied “Gravity. We’re trying to find out why things fall when you drop them”. I was shocked. Had the cold gotten to them? Is this how cabin fever manifests itself in scientists? Gravity had been expounded upon by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th Century! We’ve made such long strides since then that soon enough, the properties of gravity itself might change. I originally dismissed all this as a prank, but when I saw these researchers working with a feather and a 1kg weight, I felt a lump in my throat. Where on earth am I? What is happening?
My satellite phone rang. It was Dr Liang Wu. He sounded concerned, and he asked if there were any researchers at the base. Since nobody from my project was here, I replied in the negative. Harish also corroborated a similar finding. We agreed to meet at the same location from which we parted. I glanced at my watch. 12:58. How can this be? We left Dakshin Gangotri at noon, and it had easily been three hours since. My mind raced to find an explanation for all this. We decided to ride the snow-mobile back to the Indian base, and the three-hour ride back was mind-numbingly tense. All my research was coming back to me. There was only one possible explanation to all of this—We were (or still are) in a parallel universe.
I told this to Harish, and he was shocked, to say the least. Liang enquired about what we were talking about, and I told him. He wasn’t as surprised as Harish, maybe owing to his reserved nature. I didn’t give it much thought, and we proceeded to enter the base. The three of us sat down; we were finding it difficult to process all that we had just seen. I looked at the clock on my laptop, 11:20. This presented a gutting realisation about this universe—all my progress is reversing itself. Harish asked me how we ended up here, and how to get back. A simple question that merited the most complicated of answers. There was evidence of such a parallel universe, courtesy ANITA, but we never thought too much of it as the cosmic rays could have been indicators to literally anything. The theory wasn’t as developed as I’d have liked it to be.
However, with whatever understanding I had of this phenomenon, I tried explaining to my colleagues what was happening. The cosmic rays were basically high-energy neutrinos zipping around in a loop—into the ice, out of it, around the Earth, and back again. We had never observed such high energy particles simply passing through objects, and hence, a parallel universe was speculated. The direction of the movement of these rays tells us how time flows in this universe; backwards.
All of us looked at each other, baffled. There was a sense of alienating silence; naturally, all three of us were confused. I was standing at a careful distance from the other two, and I noticed Dmitri talking in a hushed tone to Harish. His eyes opened wide, as if in a state of unfamiliar horror. Normally, I would have minded my own business, but today I felt the need to know what was going on. So, hesitantly, I asked Dmitri what they were conversing about. At first, I couldn’t register much of what he was talking about, some cosmic rays zipping around in a loop, the existence of a parallel universe? I refused to believe this. All three of us are men of science, we should know better than imagining our lives in a Sci-Fi novel.
The Indian seemed curious and asked several questions, to which Dmitri gave answers, which started seeming rational after I gave them a thought. I started connecting the dots, how the time had been moving backwards, how my report seemed to have been completed. We could be in a parallel universe. What followed next, was a thought that might seem foolish, but was a genuine concern of mine—I did not want to go back. The very thought of being away from the people in my circle, to the fact that here I seemed to have accomplished something in my career, struck me altogether at once. I generally keep to myself; my “home” is not somewhere I wish to go back to. Even back in China, I would spend nights together at the campus, in the labs, trying to evade the idea of home.
What my colleagues talked about next was how we could go back, and the feeling of restlessness grew within me. Call me irrational, call me dumb, I was determined to suppress whatever ideas they had. In a moment of impulse, I start contradicting all the ideas Dmitri proposed, all the theories he kept forth. I based it off my own research, I told them how the Earth’s magnetic field is responsible for shielding it against Cosmic Radiation. And since it is weakening with time, so as to cause a protracted flip of the polarity, we cannot rely on cosmic rays as an indicator of movement. I know it’s not going to be easy to orchestrate a change of the universe. It’ll take months if not years, to come up with an effective plan. Perhaps, they will have a change of mind by then.
A parallel universe?! My ears were ringing. It felt as if I was trapped in a really unfortunate dream. I started to panic. I was here to conduct Geological research and now all our knowledge about space and time has lost all meaning. Time is moving backwards? We’re somehow in the past yet in the future at the same time? Nothing seems to make sense.
Dmitri has some ideas about this but for some reason, the Chinese keeps contradicting almost as if he doesn’t want to leave. I miss my home more than ever now and I cannot imagine the possibility of not being able to see them forever. I was determined to go back.
Dmitri stated that if we fire a beam of subatomic particles down a long tunnel, and it passes through a powerful magnet and hit an impenetrable wall, with a neutron detector behind it, particles will transform into mirror images of themselves, allowing them to burrow right through the impenetrable wall. This would prove that the visible universe was only an infinitesimal fraction of what is out there and would lead to new doors of possible universes. But this was just in theory and would not be feasible in the current situation.
We have hit a dead end. No, I would not let this happen. After a brief minute of silence, I asked them if we could just retrace our steps and go back the way we came in. Even though it seemed like a very long shot, it was the only option we had.
So we all sat back in our snowmobile and looked at our compass to find our way back but the compass needle was just spinning out of control. We decided to trace our steps by trusting our memories.
We had been travelling for what felt like an eternity when suddenly a flash of light blinded us. We squint to see what lay ahead of us. Nothing but a barren desert of snow.
I looked at my watch.
And it remained.
Written by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju, Radhika Taneja,and Sanjana Bharadwaj for MTTN
Edited by Alankriti Singh
Featured image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN