Elizabeth frowned at the data that poured across her screen, a numerical record of the impossibly small. But there was nothing exotic or terribly remarkable about the collision products that scrolled past, just a series of transverse, elastic proton-antiproton collisions.

The very existence of these pbar particles, the antiparticle of the humble proton, was unnerving to most people but not to particle physicists like Elizabeth who tended to regard them as lovely puzzles, loyal pets, or stubborn children. On this cold Midwestern night, it was the pattern in the behavior of these ordinary particles that had her up. She looked at her watch and thought to herself that 3:16 in the morning was not a prudent time to solve this particular riddle. 

For a year now, Elizabeth had been the lead of the trigger team for the gigantic matter-antimatter collider that was located at the Swiss-French border. This meant long nights, odd hours, and a crushing responsibility to make sure the trigger was in working order. She was responsible for the software that took a snapshot of individual collision events in the particle accelerator. The software applied a series of algorithms to determine whether the first impression was interesting enough to be worth writing the state of each segment of the entire detector to the collaboration’s cloud. Doing so would take so much time that tens of thousands of events would be ignored before the machine could return its attention to the long wait for interesting events.

The beam was running at the low testing energies they used to calibrate and validate the design of the electronics, and Elizabeth did not expect anything out of the ordinary to show up in these data. The whole point of running the beam at this setting was to prevent anything unexpected from being produced while the team upgraded the overall luminosity of the experiment—the number of particles in each of the countercirculating packets of protons and antiprotons was designed to be larger by a factor of a hundred than had ever been achieved before. Once each packet was focused down to the tiny reaction volume at the center of the huge detector, there would be many more opportunities for the rarest-of-the-rare reactions that they all hoped would point the direction out of the intellectual wilderness they had been wandering these last forty years. Some theorists had spent entire careers predicting what would come next, freely speculating on all manner of outlandish possibilities, and with just a little more beam energy, just a little more time looking for those tiniest of needles in the tiniest of haystacks, perhaps one of those rare events would finally stamp some theorist’s work as having the winning lottery numbers.

But this particular pattern had her concerned. Elizabeth had been looking through the data from the last major calibration upgrade, back when her doctoral supervisor had been a junior scientist, long before her adviser had earned a tenure appointment. The observed probabilities for the low-energy collisions were spot-on, which was not surprising at all. However, when she looked at the time dependence of those p’s and pbars coming off exactly perpendicular to the beam direction, there was a suggestion of an odd stutter. During one microsecond, there were lots of particles, but during the next tenth of a microsecond, there was nothing. On and off, at what looked to be random intervals.

Superimposing her current data with that of her adviser revealed that those periods with no signal really were silent. This was dead silence without even the background noise she expected from the extensive Monte Carlo simulations she had used to create the calibration benchmarks. And, for a frustrating (and amazing) ten seconds or so of data, it seemed Elizabeth’s times of on and off data were exactly correlated with the ten-year-old data.

Elizabeth was not looking forward to letting her supervisor know that there was potentially a systematic error in the detector software, especially an error that must have been there for decades and could well erase the tenured appointments of dozens of faculty members, cause the retraction of hundreds of scientific papers, and cause some funding agencies to take an extra hard and painful look at the whole enterprise. I need to talk this over with Mary before I do anything, she thought as she closed her connection to the workstation.

It was a typical midmorning at the coffee shop named for the Florentine patrons of renaissance Italy. There were boisterous students enjoying a breakfast of pizza and furtive postexam BYOB. There were professors reading and sipping coffee, oblivious to the clank of cutlery on ceramic. And there was the subtle equilibrium of odors that had become embedded into the substance of the place—decades of smoke from cigarettes and woodfired ovens, the accretion of scents from the men and woman who had gathered to share thoughts and drinks. All manner of ideas had been born at and been borne by the tables at this neighborhood institution, delivered to the world in eager laughter, sometimes in subdued jottings on a lonely napkin. In this quotidian yet strangely hollowed space, Elizabeth was meeting a fellow graduate student that morning for coffee—a weekly ritual for the two friends.

“I am just sick to my stomach. I can’t figure out what to do. I am double- and triple- and quadruple-checking everything, but I just don’t know how this is going to go down,” Elizabeth almost whispered, speaking, it seemed, to both her friend and her mug of coffee. “Mary, I don’t know what to do.”

The two friends had gotten to know each other almost by default, as they were the only two women in their graduate student cohort. Elizabeth had found the graduate program surprisingly humane, with very little of the mine-is-bigger-than-yours one-upmanship common among the undergraduates she had studied with. In that first year, there was an abundance of genuinely interesting people to work with as they all struggled to figure out what they were doing there. Even still, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves always in the same study groups, always in the same classes. Perhaps a friendship was foreordained.

“Well, I don’t really have enough information to tell you if there is a real problem here or not,” Mary began. “But if this is an artifact of the code, it only affects low energies—way out of scale compared to the usual operating energy. So maybe it is a harmless bug?”

Elizabeth blew gently and sipped while considering this. “There aren’t any harmless bugs in the trigger. We are trying to measure rates and probabilities, and we can only record less than a tenth of a percent of the data that falls out of the detector. We could have missed something big, and what we have already found could be just a statistical quirk that the trigger causes us to see. I really don’t know how bad this will be for everyone.”

Mary reached for her friend’s hand. “It won’t be bad for anyone.” Elizabeth looked up and smiled. Mary continued, “OK. If it is an artifact, and it only affects the low-energy events spitting protons and antiprotons perpendicular to the beam, that is a tight target for a coder like you to zero in on. There can’t be more than a couple hundred lines in the trigger code that would even affect that at all.”

Elizabeth nodded in agreement.

“And what if it is not an artifact? What if it is real? A signal in what we expected to be noise? Can you imagine a bigger discovery? I don’t see what you are worried about, really. Everything is upside here. You did a test no one thought to do. You found maybe a problem, maybe new physics. This is all upside.”

While Mary was speaking, a phrase ran through Elizabeth’s head, Im Anfang war das Wort. She knew it was a German phrase, taken from Faust and quoted in a book she had read long ago, but she could not remember the author or the story. It was said by someone named “Fat” talking about existentialism, of all things. The author had also quoted the English translation, which is why it stuck in Elizabeth’s mind: In the Beginning was the Word. Why did that pop into her head just now? New physics—that was what they had all been longing for, for decades. Could it be that the word everyone assumed would be a shout had been whispered at such low energies that no one had thought to listen for it in the stillness?

“I knew I’d feel better after getting your take,” Elizabeth said. After a short pause, she chuckled. “Not that I feel better! I don’t. But I don’t feel so panicky, that’s for sure. Maybe I just need to calm down and do my job. And now, your turn. You had some special news, right?”

Mary’s breath caught, and then with a strange quickening, she jumped in, “I have something really weird here. Very strange. OK, so you know how your thesis is buried under a hundred meters of earth and is shoved into a hundred-odd kilometer long evacuated tube, and mine is sitting under one hundred meters of ice at both poles tuning in to a radio station that only plays the oldies, the oldest of the oldies?”

Elizabeth placed her cup in front of her, cradling it with both hands as she leaned forward slightly, nodding. Yes, she knew all about Mary’s work listening to the cosmic neutrino background, the oldest kind of signal that had ever been observed, the sounds, some physicists argued, of our universe’s very creation.

“Well, the sky . . . is winking at us.”


“The neutrino blackbody spectrum is superuniform with fluctuations around a steady hum that just barely accounts for early galaxy formation. To get data on just how uniform requires taking a lot of data, over years, and averaging it. Standard stuff. Average over days, however, and it all looks like noise at first, but I’ve found that there is a subtle modulation of the whole signal. It goes dark for seconds at a time; then it comes back brighter for a minute. Sometimes it repeats bits; sometimes it just looks random. I have to check a few things to make sure this is real, but the fact that the readings are from the whole sky means something was doing physics across the whole universe, way outside what causality would allow, and way early in the universe. Just too strange . . .” Mary trailed off. Then she added, as an afterthought, “In the beginning was the word.”

“What? What did you just say?”

“I just have the weird impression that this is not a process but a signal. Something with meaning. Maybe just a repeated word or a chant. Not that that is going to go in my thesis proposal. Way too unprofessional. But sitting up late last week at my workstation, looking at that pattern, all by myself, realizing what was on the screen—it was unsettling. It felt as if I were seeing a message, the first person to ever see this message.”

“I know,” she blushed a bit as her friend continued to stare, mouth agape. “This is crazy, but holding this to myself this morning, it just felt like the universe was relieved that the message had finally gotten through. I know what discovery feels like, but this was something transcending tracking down a bad rack-mounted preamplifier. I don’t know what this means, but I just felt glad.

Mary scooted her chair over beside Elizabeth and brought a folded sheet out from the bag slung over the back of her chair. “Look. Here is the signal, if that is what it is.” The sheet had a single graph with data points sprinkled sometimes above and sometimes below a solid line that went up, up, stayed constant for a while, and then plunged to zero. This pattern was repeated a number of times.

Elizabeth gasped. “This is your neutrino data?”

Mary nodded, with a small frown.

“The timescale here is in minutes?”

Mary nodded again, her frown deepening, her head angled slightly.

“This section here,” Elizabeth pointed to a section of five conspicuous spikes. “This is my detector data.”

“What now? Excuse me. What?”

“This is the same signal I saw yesterday in the collider data. It is the ghost of the signal I found in my adviser’s work. The scale is totally off, seconds to microseconds, and I have millions of events while you have hundreds. But I think these are the same datasets. Come with me.”

They gathered their coats and bags against the late March chill. It was cold but tolerable outside the coffee shop, with brilliant, clear sunlight. Skidding and sloshing in the gray-brown sidewalk slush, they made their way, past Kimbark, then Woodlawn, then University, past the great Library, and finally to the Research Institute. They made their way to Elizabeth’s workstation, the one festooned with the logos of obscure bands.

Mary borrowed a chair and rolled up beside Elizabeth as Elizabeth worked at the keyboard, calling up a graph. “Let me scale this bit of the time series,” Elizabeth said as she swept the cursor across a part of the graph, zeroing in on a burst of peaks separated by well-defined silence. “Hold your page up to the screen.”

Mary unfolded her page, flattened it across her knee, and held it up to the screen.

“What in the world? What the actual—what is this? Is someone making a joke, punking us both?” demanded Mary.

There was no need to run a statistical test. The signals were identical.

Elizabeth was stunned. Mary’s data, if the pattern was a communication, a word or a series of words, was literally left over from the very beginning of the beginning. Elizabeth’s data was from the immanent present and emanated from the smallest of the small. The same words, in the beginning and right now, there at the collider half the world away.

Miracle does not even begin to cover this,” Mary said.

Elizabeth thought about that. What made a miracle a miracle was not just the occurrence of some seemingly impossible event. Impossible events occurred all the time. What made such events seem impossible was our ignorance of the basic physics or the initial conditions. But ignorance does not make a miracle. It occurred to her then that a miracle required not just the impossible but some element of goodness, gladness, or care. She finally understood Mary’s sense that the neutrino data brought glad tidings. The certainty welled up in Elizabeth that a deliberate revelation of the connection between the beginning and the present had been given to them both. We share some good purpose in this, Elizabeth thought. We all do.

The two friends drew back from the monitor, and Elizabeth clicked the open window closed. They looked at each other slowly, both at a loss for what to say. Fear was in the air between them but not terror. The fear was of an uncertain next step, and there was hope too, but a hope tinged with urgency, a hope that asked something of them, for they were now responsible to bring this—whatever it was, or meant, this Wort—to the world.