‘Last fall I had the pleasure of meeting our guest presenter while in South Bend for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game. While I am sure that some of us were pleased with the outcome of that game’ – MARC’s founder paused as a ripple of laughter followed his remark – ‘I am doubly sure that others here are looking forward to the rematch this fall.’ Another pause for partisan laughter. ‘Be that as it may, my encounter with Ted Sandstrom, a professor of physics at Notre Dame, left a far greater impression on me than the game. Fellow board members and honored guests, I would like to introduce Professor Ted Sandstrom.’

The MARC director stood aside as Sandstrom approached the podium carrying a large Halliburton case.

‘They’re all yours, Ted,’ Sean said quietly as he clipped a wireless microphone to Sandstrom’s lapel.

Sandstrom looked over his audience. He recognized among the guests several wealthy Notre Dame alumni and a few of the regents. The presidents of both universities were seated together along the left wall. A sudden wave of nausea hit him, but it quickly subsided as he realized that this was no different from any classroom he’d ever been in. He was there to teach these people something about physics, and that was something he did very well.

‘Good afternoon. As Mr Kilkenny said, I am a physicist. More precisely, I am an experimental physicist, which means I like to test ideas to see whether or not they work.’

Sandstrom pressed a button on the podium; the lights dimmed and the Asian symbol for yin and yang appeared on the large, flat wall display.

‘In declaring that E equals mc squared, Einstein linked energy and matter together in such a way that the two are inseparable and, in some ways, indistinguishable. Matter is a manifestation of energy. If you label the left side of this symbol as matter’ – Sandstrom pointed to the black yang – ‘and the right as energy, then the region that I’m interested in is here.’

Sandstrom traced the S line that defined the border between yin and yang.

‘Here, in the boundary between matter and energy, resides the realm of quantum physics. This is where the classical physics of Newton and Galileo fall apart. The mathematical precision that we use to describe the motion of the planets is dethroned by an uncertainty principle that replaces absolutes with probabilities. In this thin edge, the distinction between matter and energy blurs.’

Sandstrom touched the podium keyboard again, and the image transformed into a horizontal grid, tilted slightly upward to show perspective. At random intervals two sections of the plane would distort, one spike warping upward while another went in the opposite direction. The warped areas would break free like water droplets and form gridded spheres that moved about briefly before being reabsorbed by the plane.

‘The plane you see in this illustration represents a negative-energy state. This condition exists only in a vacuum in which all matter has been removed. In this state, quantum theory predicts that fluctuations in this energy allow for the spontaneous creation of both matter and antimatter.’ Sandstrom pointed at the gridded spheres. ‘Theory also states that these particles disappear rather quickly, and being a balanced system, the net energy is essentially zero. This just shows, even at a quantum level, that you can’t get something for nothing.’

The gridded plane expanded and curled around on itself, forming a sphere.

‘One theory about the origin of our universe puts it in a negative-energy state at the start of the Big Bang.’

Sandstrom zoomed in on the gridded sphere just as thousands of tiny blue and red particles appeared inside it.

‘Now if matter and antimatter are created in equal amounts, then all these new particles should have collided with their opposites and annihilated each other in a burst of energy – leaving the universe a net zero.’

The red and blue particles quickly disappeared, and the gridded sphere collapsed into nothingness.

‘This outcome is true only for a perfectly symmetrical universe. Suppose that our universe was asymmetrical, and at the moment of the Big Bang, there was more matter than antimatter.’

The new animation showed thousands of red and blue particles racing around, each collision giving off a brief white flash. After a few seconds the gridded sphere held only blue particles. The view panned out as the sphere expanded until it evolved into a spiraling galaxy and then gradually changed back into the yin-yang symbol.

‘If this theory is valid, the question becomes: What caused the universe to be asymmetrical, allowing unequal amounts of matter and antimatter particles to be produced?’ Sandstrom paused briefly and looked over his audience. ‘At this point, I suspect that more than a few of you are wondering where I’m going with this presentation. So let me backtrack a bit for you. Eleven years ago Professor Raphaele Paramo and I began to investigate the effect of strong electrical fields on totally evacuated spaces. Our experiments had some very interesting results.’

Sandstrom tapped the keyboard, and a photograph of a laboratory, scorched and in shambles, filled the screen.

‘This one got away from us.’ A brief laugh rose from the audience. ‘Based on the theoretical calculations, the energies involved in this experiment should have been very low. As you can see, theory and reality were not in agreement. When we activated our test apparatus, an energy surge built up inside the evacuated chamber. The chamber quickly ruptured and a ball of lightning emerged. This coherent sphere of electricity floated around the lab for a few seconds before landing on an electrical panel. The explosion and resulting fire did significant damage to our lab. Fortunately, no one was hurt.’

The President of Notre Dame nodded, recalling the incident clearly.

‘We rebuilt our laboratory and began to probe further into the discrepancy between theory and experiment. Here is the result of that work.’

Sandstrom switched off the projector, and the lights came back up. He then picked up the Halliburton case, set it on the conference table, and extracted what looked like a twelve-inch hexagonal nut made of matte black metal. Centered in the top face, in place of a threaded bolt, sat a six-inch-diameter hemisphere of clear Lexan. Sandstrom set the device down on one side so those in the room could see into the transparent dome. Clearly visible beneath the Lexan cover were three nested rings of a gold-tinted metal. A bluish, semitransparent sphere sat in the center of the rings like a gemstone in a jeweler’s setting.

‘The blue sphere, the heart of this device, contains nothing – it has been evacuated as completely as current technology allows. Surrounding it are three rings of a room-temperature superconducting material recently developed at Stanford University. The rings provide the strong electrical field I mentioned a moment ago.’

Sandstrom then pulled two small, freestanding digital devices from the case and plugged them together in series.

‘These are standard watt meters that we use to measure the electric power on the input and output sides of the device. The calibration on both meters’ – Sandstrom paused as he plugged a cord from the first meter into a wall receptacle – ‘should be identical – which I am pleased to see is the case.’

Both meters registered identical 2200 watts. Satisfied the audience understood that both meters were operating properly, Sandstrom unplugged the cord, disconnected the meters, and reconnected them to jacks on opposite sides of the device. He then stood beside the table, holding the cord to the first meter in one hand.

‘According to the first law of thermodynamics, the total amount of energy coming out of a system must be equal to the total amount of energy going in. This phenomenon is known as conservation of energy, or the “no free lunch” law. It’s a good law that has proved itself time and again – until now.’

Sandstrom plugged the cord into the wall socket. The first meter jumped to life, registering the voltage that coursed through it like before; the second meter registered zero. Inside the device, the centermost golden ring began to spin. As it accelerated, the next ring began rotating, and finally the outermost ring joined in the orbital dance. The spinning rings created the illusion that the bluish globe was floating in a golden haze; then sparks appeared within the orb. The sparks increased in number and intensity until the vacuum within the sphere held a ball of brightly glowing energy. The audience shielded their eyes from the intense glare emanating from the device until Sandstrom took an opaque black cover from the Halliburton case and placed it over the Lexan dome.

‘It does get a bit bright,’ Sandstrom said sympathetically as several members of the audience blinked their eyes. ‘If you’ll please take a look at the meter measuring the energy output.’

Several members of the MARC board stood and moved closer to get a better look at the meter.

‘Is that thing registering correctly?’ asked an electrical engineer who’d made his fortune in the computer industry.

‘This isn’t possible,’ said another, straining to believe what her eyes were showing her.

‘That’s exactly what I said when I first saw the numbers. The energy output from this device is approximately

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