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The Dayside : The Federal Bureau of Physics

By: Charles Day
25 July 2014

Since July 2013, the comic series FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics has been telling the story of Adam Hardy, whose job at the titular agency is to fix anomalies in the physics of reality.

When readers encounter Hardy for the first time, he's been summoned to the vicinity of a Los Angeles high school, where Earth's gravity has abruptly weakened and students are joyfully floating. To restore the gravitational field, Hardy and his FBP colleagues deploy a truck-sized device called a compaction and compression unit. The "C&C" mends the problem's source: a rupture in the spacetime membrane.

A detail from the cover of issue #10 of FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics. CREDIT: Vertigo

A detail from the cover of issue #10 of FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics. CREDIT: Vertigo

The reason the US needs the services of the FBP is spelled out in the blurb volume 1, which collects the first seven issues:

Quantum tornadoes. Localized gravity failures. Bubble dimensions. Inescapable vortices. The fabric of the universe is weakening, and the brave men and women who risk their lives to repair it work for the Federal Bureau of Physics.

To compound the drama wrought by misbehaving physical laws, the plot also involves personal and corporate treachery, along with Hardy's quest to discover how his father, a famous physicist whom Hardy never knew, died.

As far as I can tell, the series' author, Simon Oliver, does not have a physics background, but he does read physics books as part of his research for the series. In an interview published last year on the website Killray, he said, "Even if I end up twisting an idea for my own needs I like to have it rooted in a real idea or concept."

Of course, twisting the laws of physics is often the main ingredient in science fiction. But can such twisting profitably serve other ends?

Second Life physics

That question popped into my mind earlier this year when I encountered a paper on the arXiv preprint server about teaching physics through Second Life, a vast online virtual community. Although Second Life has a powerful physics engine to ensure that cars, airplanes, and other objects move in seeming compliance with classical mechanics, the author of the paper, Renato dos Santos of the Lutheran University of Brazil in Canoas, points out that Second Life's physical laws differ from Isaac Newton's. Those differences, Santos contends, can be used to teach students how physics works in the real world.

Physicists conduct experiments in our one, real world, but that restriction doesn't prevent them from speculating on what might happen if nature's physical properties deviated from their presumed behavior in ways that are not ruled out by the results of experiment.

Paul Dirac notably undertook such speculation in a 1937 Nature paper, "The Cosmological Constants." Troubled by the enormous values of certain physical constants and ratios, he wondered if they were in fact constant. If they varied slowly with time, their current values might simply be a consequence of the enormous age of the universe.

In a similar spirit, experiments are under way to determine if the electron has a dipole, if gravity deviates from its classically prescribed value on tiny and vast scales, if the speed of light varies, if the universe violates Lorentz invariance, if an antiparticle's inertial mass differs from that of its corresponding particle, and so on.

Those experiments might seem vain. Of course the speed of light is constant. Albert Einstein said so! But we should remember that some attempts to verify a phenomenon have ended up refuting it. Fifty years ago, James Cronin and Val Fitch sought to confirm that nature respects the combined symmetries of charge and parity. Their discovery that nature violates CP symmetry shocked the physics community, earned the pair the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics, and remains unexplained.

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