Saturday, October 3, 2009

59. Praseodymium


Absolute Zero

"Praseodymium, when alloyed with nickel to form PrNi5, responds to being magnetized by getting colder. This property has made it possible for us to come within a thousandth of a degree of absolute zero," the physicist said.

"Cool!" her daughter replied. It was take-your-child-to-work day, and she'd never seen the lab before.

"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that." The physicist tapped a machine that looked like the mother of all death rays. "This is the magnetic resonance focusing unit. It directs five-point-three teratogauss of magnetic force on that tiny little speck of praseodymium there."

"Neat-o! How much is a teratogauss?"

"It's—don't touch that! You're fine where you are, but if you actually touched the cold spot, it would suck all the heat out of you in a nanosecond. You'd shatter like ice. That's what happened to Gregor."

"How awful!"

"Well … he was only a grad student. Still, the paperwork to get a replacement was hideous."

"Hey, look at this—you don't have the power on this thing set to maximum. What happens when you crank it all the way up?"

"Theoretically, it would plunge the target's temperature down below absolute zero. Beyond perfect motionlessness into a kind of negative motion."

"What does that mean?"

"Nobody knows. Some theorize that it would create a new, incredibly small pocket universe. Others think that it would create a tiny pinprick in the stuff of space and cause the entire universe to burst like a balloon. The odds of either one happening are about even. So we don't dare—"

"Let's find out!" The girl spun the rheostat all the way to the right.

"Oh, my Gawd!" Her mother leapt for the MRF unit's kill-switch.

For the briefest of instants, a high ringing note and a pale and sourceless light filled the lab. The ghosts of a thousand potential worlds radiated out from the speck of praseodymium as it plunged down through absolute zero and into the nameless realms beyond.

Then the scientist's hand slapped down on the switch. The magnetic force died. The world returned to normal.

"You …" The scientist's skin was as grey as ash. "You might have destroyed the universe!"

"Aw, Mom. Where's your spirit of scientific inquiry?"

The girl's eyes were glowing. As a scientist her mother was, if truth be told, merely a competent professional. The daughter, though, was the real thing. A fifty-fifty chance of destroying the universe seemed to her a small price to pay for knowing which result would occur.

She determined then and there that when she grew up, she was going to re-run the experiment and find out.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.


  1. Yikes! My son I've worried about, with his wanting me to help him build ravening mechanical Ankylosaurs. Now, I've got to worry about my daughter, taking aim at med school while still in high school.

    If only someone would post a story about Neodymium. Now, that's an element...

  2. There's a story for each element, Technovelgist. Neodymium can be found at