When looking for things to post on Physics Today‘s Facebook page, one of the places I frequent is the arXiv eprint server, especially its section on popular physics. There, earlier this week, I noticed a paper that bears the intriguing title “Possible bubbles of spacetime curvature in the South Pacific.”
Written by Benjamin Tippett of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, the paper has an abstract that is even more intriguing than its title. The abstract begins,
In 1928, the late Francis Wayland Thurston published a scandalous manuscript in purport of warning the world of a global conspiracy of occultists. Among the documents he gathered to support his thesis was the personal account of a sailor by the name of Gustaf Johansen, describing an encounter with an extraordinary island. Johansen`s descriptions of his adventures upon the island are fantastic, and are often considered the most enigmatic (and therefore the highlight) of Thurston’s collection of documents.
As described by Johansen, buildings and other objects on the island were distorted, as if the geometry of the place was “all wrong.” To Tippett, who specializes in general relativity, the distortions could plausibly have arisen from the gravitational lensing effect of spacetime bubbles. In his paper he works out the properties of the bubbles. Unfortunately—his word—he concludes that
the required matter is quite unphysical, and possesses a nature which is entirely alien to all of the experiences of human science. Indeed, any civilization with mastery over such matter would be able to construct warp drives, cloaking devices, and other exotic geometries required to conveniently travel through the cosmos.
I’m far from expert enough to comment on Tippett’s mathematical analysis, but I have no reason to doubt its soundness. Tippett has published three papers in Physical Review D in the past three years: “Gravitational lensing as a mechanism for effective cloaking,” “Gravitational collapse of quantum matter,” and “Prolate horizons and the Penrose inequality.”
I can say, however, that Thurston and Johansen, whom Tippett presents in his paper as real people, are fictional. They appear as characters in H. P. Lovecraft’s 1926 short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” Cthulhu itself is a malevolent, grotesque, and powerful alien that lies dormant in an underwater city beneath the South Pacific, posing a threat to humanity if it wakes. Lovecraft’s description of the monster was so compelling that it has spawned its own fictional universe in which other writers have created, and continue to create, works—including the role playing game shown here—that extend and enrich Lovecraft’s original plot.
Tippett surely did not mean to deceive the readers of arXiv with his mix of fantasy and general relativity. Not only is Lovecraft’s story too well known, but Tippett, who belongs to a group of physics podcasters, described his paper on the group’s website on the same day that he posted it to arXiv.
I, for one, enjoyed Tippett’s playful piece. Indeed, given how many serious papers I have to read, it provided welcome relief.