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Geoffrey Hart

The Story Of Atoms

by Geoffrey Hart

In the beginning was the first scientist — the God Particle, GP hereafter. (Even in the beginning, scientists loved their acronyms, abbreviations, and clever wordplay, and GP was no different. And, of course, GP was ineluctably masculine, since back then, only men could be scientists. There being only one of him, that was less sexist than it might seem to modern sensibilities.)

Darkness was upon the face of the universe (for back then, there was only one), and GP looked upon it and saw that it was good: it had the simplicity of a really good Japanese watercolor, though, of course, such things had yet to be invented. Best of all, it left everything to the imagination, which was a more effective technique than overexplaining and overcomplicating everything. That was to come later, when universities were invented.

After a time — unquantifiable, because time was still a new thing, the paint still drying and GP not quite sure whether quantification was as good an idea as it had seemed at the time — GP began to feel just the slightest bit lonely. After all, what good was a universe if there was no one else to appreciate it? So in a fit of enthusiasm, GP created another being with whom to share the void. Let’s call her “GP Prime”, or “Prime” for short, for there would eventually be mathematics, mathematical tradition, and the notation it spawned. More importantly, of course, any good story needs conflict, and laying claim to first rank, first causes, and first publication was a primary source of conflict then, as it is now.

Prime was very impressed with the universe; there was, after all, nothing else quite like it. But after a time, she noted a certain sameness to it. With no light, there was only structure and symmetry to gaze upon, and though it was an admirable and symmetrical structure, it was a trifle… bland.

“GP, I think something’s missing,” she ventured.

“Why? It’s perfect and, by definition, cannot be improved upon.”

“While I concede, for the sake of argument, that perfection is perfect, I’m not sure it’s sufficient.”

“What would you add?”

“Hmmm… perhaps a little… light?” And there was light, a warm reddish background glow that both illuminated and concealed, and now the structure and symmetry stood out and could be more easily appreciated.

“But… But… It leaves nothing to the imagination!”

“Don’t over-react. It’s only a little light. Be still, and I’ll fix it.” And Prime created shadow, and GP saw that it was good.

“I like that shadow.”

“Thought you might. But why stop there? For example, all that structure is perfectly lovely, but what’s it all in aid of?”

“Well… us, really.”

“Why not try a little of this, instead?” And Prime created atoms, and GP saw that they were good.

“Huh. Never would have thought of that on my own.”

“Of course not. That’s why we have peer review.”

GP was a little miffed, but deeper down, felt something he’d never felt before. Intrigued. Despite his trepidation, he could hardly wait to see what Prime had up her (thus far, entirely metaphysical) sleeve. “What else have you got?”

“How about this?” And where once there were atoms, perfect and indivisible, now there were subatomic particles.

“Neat! Can I name them?”

Prime nodded, secretly pleased.

“Let’s call this big one a proton. And this smaller one an electron.”

Prime pursed her lips. “And just to shake things up, how about this?” And a third particle appeared.

“Ooh! That’s transgressive… it’s… unbalanced! What will you call it?” GP was, after all, perfectly willing to give credit where credit was due. Eventually.

Neutron. And here’s another cool thing:” Prime disappeared the electron.

“Wait: where’d it go?”

“Into the proton — and now it’s a neutron!”

“Put it back. I like having three different particles.”

“Very well.” The electron reappeared. “Hmm… then you’ll love this.” And suddenly there were a great many smaller particles humming with energy and bouncing off each other and vibrating and rotating and translating with their enthusiasm. “I’ll call them quarks, and… and…. This undeniably cute one will be Charm, and this one I haven’t completely figured out yet I’ll call Strange, and…”

Enough! Enough! My head’s spinning.” GP was beginning to regret having given Prime both a mind equal to his own and agency to use it.

“But if I subdivide the quarks into these littler things…”

“STOP! NO FURTHER!” GP regretted having to shout, but it seemed necessary to catch Prime’s attention before she got carried away. More carried away, leastwise. Things were still relatively simple, just the way he liked it, but he had a sense of foreboding.

Prime took a deep breath (now that there was something to breathe) and pondered a moment. “Well, if you don’t want more smaller things, how about larger?” She banged two atoms together, and there was a brilliant flash of light.

“What was that?”

“I call it fusion… bang enough little things together and you get bigger things. Bang a few of those bigger things together, and you get even bigger things. I’m going to call them elements.”

“And what if I were to break them apart again?” And GP did, and there was even more light. “Ouch! That stings.”

“I’m going to call that fission. And if you’re going to break the things I make, then you’d best take care.” There was no doubting it; a note of petulance had crept into Prime’s voice.

GP attempted a placating tone. “Nice. What else can you do?”

“Well first, let’s make the light a little more steady. There.”

“Wow. I’m going to call those stars. Because you’re a star performer.”

Prime managed to conceal her wince; it helped that GP wasn’t really paying attention to her, gaze focused on his universe. “OK, good. Now how about these?” Large clusters of atoms came together and began circling the stars.

“Nice. I’m going to call them planets… because… um… they move.”

“You like moving things? How about these?” More atoms came together and started orbiting the planets.

Nice. I’m going to call them moons. But stop: no further. Let’s enjoy what we’ve created before we needlessly recomplicate.”

Prime sighed. We? Even then, before academic review committees and departmental politics, authorship was an issue. “But why stop there? There’s so much more we could create.”

GP, entirely missing how Prime lingered over the we, tried to reassert his authority. “Because it’s my universe, and I say so.”

“That’s easy enough to solve. Here!” And suddenly, where once there was a single universe, now there was a multiverse. “You play with this one, and I’ll play with that one, and when we’re done, we’ll compare notes and see who’s done the better job of putting things together.”

GP tried to push stars and atoms and planets and moons and other things back together into the simple, elegant simplicity he’d created, but Prime, though younger, was not naïve. She’d known this would happen, and the harder GP tried to put things back the way they’d originally been, the harder her multiverse strove to create more of itself.


Prime chuckled. She hadn’t realized just how much she resented being told what she could and couldn’t create or modify or play with. “Don’t like that, huh? Well try this:” And around one of the older stars, on the surface of a planet with a single moon, more clusters of atoms came together and rose from the earth. Some were happy to stay in place; others were restless as the moons and planets and stars themselves, and moved about.


Prime doubled over in outright laughter as GP grew apoplectic. The new things began making their own new things, some like themselves, some not. I’ll call that evolution, Prime said to herself. See how he likes that.

GP tried, with increasing desperation to put things right; Prime knocked them astray again. And so it went through the aeons. Each time GP put the genie back in the bottle, Prime gleefully tugged loose the cork; when GP vacuum-welded the cork to the bottle, Prime invented wormholes; when GP constrained the wormholes to atomic diameters, Prime created quantum tunneling.

Which brings us to the present, the end (for now) of this story of the early days of atoms, and — if you’ll forgive me — the moral of this tale. The multiverse is an endlessly messy place, and it’s not yet clear whether this is a good thing. But it’s what we’ve got, and we’ve got to make the best of it. Occam’s razor tells us we mustn’t ignore the true complexity, but that we must also not complicate things unnecessarily. If we keep trying, someday we’ll achieve an understanding that’s no more complex than necessary. And perhaps that will satisfy GP and Prime enough that they can shake hands, agree to disagree, and get on with figuring out what it’s all in aid of.



Geoff Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 60 stories thus far. Visit him online at

Philosophy Note:

The eternal struggle between man and woman seems to be built into the physics of the universe.

Barbarians At The Gates: A Parable Of Dueling Philosophies

by Geoffrey Hart

“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

Thomas Sowell

History is not a precise science. It deals in many unquantifiables, and documentation is often scant or contradictory. The collapse of Western civilization in the late 20th century or early 21st century (records have been lost and start dates are unclear), a pivotal moment in human history, is a textbook example of how such knowledge is profoundly contextual, and how myth often overtakes fact through the passage of the years and loss of context. Historians therefore disagree over precisely when the loose collection of tribes known to history as Economists, or by their pejorative nickname, the Quants, first invaded the peaceful western lands that resulted from that tumultuous period known, for reasons that elude scholars, as the Great Brexit. There is nonetheless broad agreement that this world-changing event occurred in several phases as different tribes of barbarians swept across the broad plains inhabited by the Brexitans like a hurricane of conflicting ideologies.

Those historians who cling to the discredited doctrine of environmental determinism propose that the Quants were driven from their former lands by a warming climate, a theory that is justifiably scorned by modern theorists. Social historians point out, as did leading philosophers of the era, the lack of evidence for such a driving force, though perhaps that evidence is concealed beneath the waters that consumed the coasts of eastern North America and Eurasia. Instead, they propose the Quants were driven from their native societies by a relentless accumulation of social pressures created by their endless bickering, which led to vigorous intellectual debate and a proportionally high body count. So the Quants fled, bringing their logical positivist philosophy into direct conflict with the more sensible Brexitan theology that recommended peaceful coexistence and cooperation, with occasional forays into coopetition with their frenemy states. This clash of cultures inevitably created conflict between the Brexitans’ blind faith in their Pax Brexitannica and the Quants’ blind faith in their mathematics.

Whatever the merits of each proposed explanation of the serial invasions, the sequence of historical events and their consequences are reasonably clear. First came the Hayeks, emerging from the dark woods of their blackly forested eastern homeland. They came singing, at great length, of dwarves and golden rings, their male warriors accompanied by burly blond shieldmaidens who fought every bit as fiercely as their men. Each invader bore two throwing axes, which doubled as debating tools and tools for felling trees to construct the temporary camps they built to protect their goods while they ravaged the countryside. Historians believe that these camps acquired their name (laagers) from the prodigious kegs of pale amber beer that fueled the invaders’ aggression, but which slowed the invasion whenever they were forced to pause their assault to brew more because supplies had run low. Their taste in beer appalled the gentle Brexitans, whose phlegmatic nature was undoubtedly encouraged by their languorous parliamentary debates in a chamber hung with red tapes and the many mellow wines they preferred to sip while debating.

The Brexitans, who were a sedentary agricultural people, had never met axe-wielding barbarians before, and being unprepared for such vigorous debate, were quickly overwhelmed, their hastily repurposed agricultural implements having proven singularly ineffective debating tools. Waves of refugees fled westward to escape the onslaught—and ran straight into the second wave of barbarians.

The second wave originated around the same time the Hayeks began to establish their new home, when the Keynesians invaded from the west, arriving at the storied shores of the Brexitan lands on overpriced, yet technologically impressive, landing craft that bore nimble swordsmen on horseback. Upon clearing the beaches of defenders, the horsemen immediately began raids with the goal of freeing the Brexitan markets. By capturing goods and departing before the villagers could respond to their lightning-quick raids, they liberated the Brexitan–Hayek society from the burden of production by selling these goods back to the original owners at a handsome profit. Although this stimulation of demand seemed (paradoxically) to have improved the economic lot of the Brexitan­–Hayek culture, the barbarians were broadly resented, not least for their insistence on drinking a weak beer the Brexitans disdained and the Hayeks openly mocked. This led to spirited debate wherever the two tribes came into contact, swords and axes both reaping a red harvest. (Here, we use red in the sense of bloody, rather than in the traditional historical sense of unrepentant socialism, whose waves had crashed upon the Brexitans and receded several generations earlier.)

The third and most intimidating of the tribes were the Friedmans, who were clad in powerful and impenetrable logic that turned aside the staves of the Westerners, the axes of the Hayeks, and the swords of the Keynesians with equal ease. They rebuffed those futile prods with crushing swings of rhetorical bludgeons mounted on long staves that kept them at a safe distance from the commoners they preferred to oppose, while still delivering crushing logical blows to the slow witted or unwary. The origins of this tribe are unknown; based on what little evidence has been gathered, they appear to have sprung into existence, sui generis, in a storied western city, Chicago, famed for its winds, which may have inspired the blustery Keynesians.

Though the Brexitan­–Hayeks were a peaceful society, they were hardly defenseless. In addition to their doughty peasants, who had belatedly learned to wield their staves and pitchforks and rakes and hoes with surprising effectiveness when suitably provoked, the Brexitans had a secret force of elite warriors they could call upon in times of crisis. These elite warriors, the Empiricists (or Emps for short), spent years mastering the skills of logic and the scientific method, and worked in cloistered monasteries known as laboratories, where they were instantly recognizable by their knee-length white coats. These coats had been carefully designed to shield them from fire, caustic chemicals, and even small explosions, and had proven effective in countless skirmishes and occasional pitched battles between laboratories with different prevailing central dogmas. Where these warriors were available in sufficient numbers, their ruthless application of empirical logic drove the Quants to their knees; many ran in terror before the Emps could close to within rhetorical range. But there were never enough Emps, and the Quant tribes easily circumnavigated the Emp forces and defeated them by cutting their supply lines. Without funding to support their forays into the field, the Emps were forced to retreat to their laboratories and conserve their resources against future need.

A fourth tribe of Quants, known as the Ecologists, had settled among the Brexitans shortly before the invasions by the more aggressively rhetorical barbarians. Etymologically, they were related to the Quants through the shared phoneme “eco”. The meaning of this term is lost to history. Some believe it translates as “dealing with numbers”; others suggest it to be an obscure Indo-Turkic word for troublesome nomads. Little credence is given to the theory that it related to cultivation of diverse gardens, as no archeological evidence has been evinced to prove these gardens ever existed. Unlike the fiercer Quants who came later, the Ecologists understood the importance of coexistence and diversity, which was no doubt why they fit in so well in the lands of the Brexitans. Unfortunately, they had embraced a life of quiet contemplation of nature, and were no match for their more vigorous relatives in the heat of battlefield debate.

Had there been enough advance warning, the Brexitans could have relied upon their elite hereditary warriors, the Dawkinses. The founder of this quasi-mystical order, motivated by a seemingly unquenchable desire to selflessly spread his genes, had briefly run amok among the Brexitan women and inseminated more of them than any historical figure had achieved, even the legendary Genghis Khan. Some historians estimate, based on recent genetic evidence, that nearly 10% of all modern Brexitans bear genes from this lineage. Irrespective of their founder’s amatory exploits, these soldiers were masters of the secrets of the heart, and used them to seduce their enemies into breeding with them. Over time, they would defeat their foes by, quite literally, becoming their foes and agreeing not to fight among themselves. (Making babies, referred to as “the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, was more fun in any event.) But growing babies into warriors took more than a decade, there were few pure-blood Dawkinses remaining, and the Brexitans’ time was short.

So it was that the Brexitans came up with a desperate strategy: they would give all their money to the Friedmans, in the hope that descendants of the other two tribes would turn on them. (Even if that didn’t happen, they rationalized, it would be good for the economy.) History had shown that epic battles among the three Quantic tribes tended towards the Hobbesian; that is, they were nasty, brutish, and short, even by the bloodthirsty standards of historians. The hope of the Brexitan government was that their troops, no longer outnumbered, would be able to move in once the dust settled and mop up the few surviving Quants, thereby restoring peace to their lands.

Sadly, their bold plan failed, as the Friedmans, who represented an estimated 1% of the total population of Quants, took the money and withdrew overseas to a mythical haven in the far west, known to students of mythology as the Cayman Islands, or by their shorter colloquial name, famed in song and story: Avalon. Though this greatly reduced the military pressure being exerted on the Brexitans, the remaining Quant forces were still too powerful for them to meet in open battle.

All seemed lost, until a new group of nomads entered the picture. They were known as Neocons, a word believed to comprise a portmanteau combination of the words neophyte (meaning naïve and inexperienced) and con (meaning an attempt to deceive). They were champions of liberty, though not to be confused with the Rands, who in turn are not to be confused with the randy Dawkinses. (You can see how ancient English makes life difficult for the intrepid historian, as there are many subtle linguistic traps into which the unwary may fall!) Neocons viewed any interference from governments as sacrilegious. Led by their general, the infamously subtle Ponzi, their scheme made short work of the other Quants, and became the de facto government of the Brexitan territories.

Historians, being historians, have drawn many lessons from the events of this turbulent period, and disagree bitterly over which lesson is most defensible. Some believe that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to be conquered by Economists. Dawkinsesians are too busy spreading their seed to be bothered much with history, which some take as a different lesson: that if you screw around too much with the economy, it will only end well for those doing the screwing. Neocon historians believe that no nation can long endure without a powerful and aggressive military. And Ecologists grumble that if only governments listened to them, utopia would lie within our grasp. But nobody listens much to them, which is probably a good thing.

The truth of this matter may never be discerned, for such is the curse of history: that so much of what we know must be inferred from scant evidence. Yet the true lesson, I feel, is this: that barbarians come and go, some fleeing with the family silverware and others teaching us how to get along with the real business of life, which is finding a way to enjoy life and someone to enjoy it with. Success in life, as in government, depends on knowing which type of barbarian one is dealing with.



Geoff Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 49 stories thus far. Visit him online at

Philosophy Note:

I’ve always been fascinated by how real historical events are transformed into myths and legends that retain only a superficial resemblance to the truth. The aspects that are retained tell us much about what cultures found sufficiently important to preserve. This story may have been triggered by reading The Mongoliad and musing about mass population movements and “the continuation of economics by other means”.

Food Webs: A Parable

by Geoffrey Hart

Those who survived the early days of the apocalypse received a short, sharp lesson: that there’s an ecology of interlocking food webs in nature, and just because you don’t know the rules that govern such systems, it doesn’t mean they don’t apply to you.

When the zombies began to appear, the government initially assumed it was nothing more than LARPing run amok — never mind the vigorous denials by LARPers once they got over their surprise that the government knew who they were. But as the body count — and the bodies — began rising, living corpses began accumulating in hospital ERs and morgues. It soon became difficult for the government to deny that something bad was happening — not that this prevented them from denial. The final straw came when the first members of the 1% started losing close relatives. Then the government sat up and took notice.

The National Guard was mobilized; then, when they proved insufficiently numerous for the task, the army. The lessons learned from SARS and the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 helped slow the plague’s spread, but it took precious weeks before the government understood that this situation was qualitatively different. With outbreaks like SARS and Covid-19, control could be achieved through curfews and travel restrictions. The first zombies were also one-percenters, though with a very different spin on the phrase, and like their wealthier namesakes, they ignored curfews and travel restrictions.

Whatever a zombie’s origin, stopping one required blasting them into tiny fragments. Explosive devices, improvised or otherwise, worked, as did shotguns loaded with buckshot. (Suggestions had been circulating for some time about adopting the same approaches for one-percenters in the original sense of the phrase. Whether that inspired the zombie control program, we must leave to the historians.) Unfortunately, though blasting a zombie into bits stopped the vector, it had little effect on the pathogen; on the contrary, dividing an infected corpse into a great many small bits just spread the pathogen faster. First-responders learned the hard way that the residues had to be incinerated, and quickly. It took time to scale up production of flamethrowers and incendiaries that would be safe for expensive property, not to mention for civilian use, yet still effective for crowd control. Only then did the surviving sanitation workers begin to significantly slow the plague’s spread.

While all this was going on, researchers were doing what researchers always do: competing to be first with the Nobel Prize–­winning solution: isolating the pathogen and figuring out how to block it. The winner — so to speak — was the Romero research lab at Columbia University. Unfortunately, in their zeal to win the race, they failed to follow containment protocols as scrupulously as might have been desirable, and dead scientists are ineligible for the Nobel. (The eligibility of living dead scientists remains a problem for future generations. And it looks like there will be future generations, if we’re lucky and careful.)

By the time the Romero lab’s notes were recovered from offsite backups — the lab itself having been sterilized too zealously by terrified National Guardsmen — several other labs had identified the pathogen — a weaponized, broad-spectrum strain of the entomological zombie fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis with a dash of bacterial quorum sensing thrown in for good measure. Once the geneticists got involved, the footprints of CRISPR technology were unmistakable, but whether one blamed the Iranians, Russians, North Koreans, or Earth First! depended largely on one’s position within the political spectrum; the available evidence provided no smoking guns. When the plague broke out in Russia, then Europe, no one was sure whether this was karma or just plain bad luck.

The mechanism of the disease’s spread was, as is often the case, devilishly simple: Fungal spores blown on the wind were inhaled or entered the body through undercooked food or a wound. They incubated overnight, leading to a raging fever, and by late the next morning, the host was brain-dead or nearly so  — and very hungry. Given the anaerobic nature of the host environment — a living but non-breathing corpse — the fungus had to survive in a metabolically inefficient manner, and therefore needed enormous quantities of energy to function and reproduce. Thus, it drove its hosts to obtain more and ever more food. About the only good consequence was that the enormous energy expenditure made the zombies easy to detect at night; with infrared scopes, they blazed like beacons.

A fortunate side-effect of this macabre infection was that it diverted the host’s metabolism towards feeding and reproduction, and away from anabolism and immune responses. As a result, the host quickly began to decay. Each zombie gradually slowed down as its muscle fibers stopped functioning, leading to rapid depletion of its energy reserves once it could no longer catch and pull down living prey. Finally, when its decayed limbs could no longer drag it along the ground in pursuit of prey, the zombie stopped moving. But as soon as its host became immobile, the fungus shifted strategy towards reproduction, and the host quickly sprouted fruiting bodies. Spores released onto the wind, or consumed by carrion birds and spread via their feces — or by their bites, when the fungus infected them too — renewed the infection cycle. Bites and scratches that broke the skin also worked, and were far more common in the early days of the plague, before we’d learned to find secure refuges and keep the zombies beyond arm’s length.

The spread would have been slower for a non-windborne plague. Sure, you could wear a facemask to exclude the spores, and that worked for a time. It kept me alive long enough to write this. But survivors had their needs too: you had to take your mask off some time, whether to eat, to visit the dentist, to make love with your spouse or a convenient stranger in defiance of death — or just to breathe freely when the claustrophobia the masks created or confinement to our homes overcame the drive towards self-preservation. If you were unlucky, you woke one day as a zombie and had a few minutes or perhaps an hour to realize the horror of what was happening to you. Or perhaps you woke with your loved ones staring hungrily at you out of feverish, already-decaying faces right before they sank their teeth into you. Fungal diseases were notoriously difficult to treat, and this one had been engineered for immunity to the available antifungals, making treatment next to impossible.

The government found a solution. It was the Fish and Wildlife Service, operating with — ironically — a skeleton staff after yet another round of budget cuts, that proposed it. They understood intimately that everything in nature has something that eats it. In this case, they noted that wolves were highly efficient carnivores and had worked wonders in areas such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where they’d been released. Captive breeding of wolves was a proven technology, and unlike most other large predators, wolves were happy to consume dead meat if their preferred prey weren’t available — as was the case when they were released into the country’s plague-stricken cities. Moreover, their immune systems were sufficiently robust to handle the kinds of pathogens that naturally infected the corpse of (say) a moose that had sat out in the sun for the several days it took a pack to consume it. If the wolf cubs were raised on zombie flesh, then once they were released into an urban environment, they recognized the zombies as a food source, and quickly became highly efficient predators of zombies.

Within a year, thousands of wolves had been released into the worst-affected cities, where they rapidly began thinning the zombie population and breeding more wolves. An unexpected benefit of this approach was that, as was the case with their traditional prey, the wolves favored the slow-moving zombies, which were easier and less risky to bring down; this also slowed the spread of the plague by preventing the living dead from progressing to the decay stage, when fruiting bodies would form. There was still no progress on developing a vaccine or an effective antifungal, but at least the rate of new infections stabilized at a survivably low level.

The government had hoped the cities would become livable once more, but they’d reckoned without an inconvenient consequence of their desperation to implement any control mechanism that could give them a fighting chance. Of course, those of us who lived outside the big cities could have told them what was going to happen: at some point, thousands of starving wolves that had been trained to consider upright bipedal organisms as their natural prey would run out of the food they’d been trained to hunt. Then, wolves being clever dogs, they would find a replacement.

But that was a problem for another day.



Geoffrey Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 24 stories thus far. Visit him online at