fiction29 Sep 2008 08:40 am

The day that I lost my funding for my solar observation project was the same day I first noticed that the universe had begun to contract.

The director of the observatory, Dr. Patricia Remini, came into my office herself to break the news to me about my National Science Foundation application. The letter from Washington, D.C., had finally crossed the Pacific to Hawaii, and the news was not good.

“They said that your proposal just wasn’t significant enough to warrant funding, especially given all the cutbacks in science. I’m sorry.”

I sat there for a minute, just staring into space. It was difficult for me to accept that this was happening.

“Look, Jack,” she continued. “The observatory can still afford to pay your way for at least another year. You’re doing fine work on classifying new binaries with that team from Georgia State, and you’re good with the graduate students.”

“What happens if I can’t come up with alternate funding for next year?” I asked.

“We’ll worry about that then. In the meantime, why don’t you forget about your own work for a while? Go home early; spend some time with your wife and kid. Or help out Daniel Kelly. What was that you got him working on?”

“Spectral analysis,” I replied. “He’s been practicing techniques by taking the spectra of galaxies. You know, checking the Hubble constant.”

She nodded. “Good. It’s especially important given the recent results from the Hubble Space Telescope. If the universe really is younger than we thought, perhaps you might find a clue in his data.”

She walked to the door, and then took one last look back at me. “You okay?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

Remini’s suggestion seemed like a good one, and I agreed that it would probably help me forget my troubles for a while. So I sought out Daniel in his office.

Daniel was one of my graduate students, and as such his office was just a small cubicle that he shared with four other graduate students. Daniel sat at his desk in the back corner, the only part of the room where the window allowed light inside. He was hunched over a paperback book and munching on an apple. I had to maneuver around a pile of abstracts to get to him.


He looked up and smiled. “Doctor Olmstead, hi! What can I do for you?”

“Patricia tells me you’ve got some spectroscopic data of various galaxies. I thought I’d take a look at it.”

“Oh, sure.” He reached into a drawer and pulled out a few photographic plates. “Here,” he said, handing them over. “I haven’t had a chance to look over them yet, but I don’t expect to find anything important. Still, you never know.”

I thanked him and took the plates back to my office to examine. Technology may improve, but the basic method of checking the expansion of the universe is the same from when Hubble himself did it in the 1920s. By studying the spectral lines coming from the galaxies, Hubble had discovered that almost all galaxies were displaying a redshift — in other words, the colors of the light coming from the galaxies were shifted over towards the red part of the spectrum. This redshift could only mean that the galaxies were moving away from us. It would be the ultimate hubris to assume that we were in the center of the universe, so the only logical conclusion Hubble could make was that the entire universe was expanding.

I checked the first plate, anticipating nothing unusual. What I found surprised me.

The hydrogen spectra had their colors shifted in the other direction — a blueshift. And that could mean only one thing — the galaxies were rushing towards us.

No one could ever accuse me of being unmethodical. Even though I found myself trembling at the importance of this discovery, I spent a full hour studying that plate. I measured the shift over and over, ran it through my calculator, and still got the same result.

Then I took it back to Daniel.

“Daniel,” I said as I barged into his office, “you’ve got to see this!” I almost tripped over the piles on his floor.

“What is it?” He had finished his apple and was studying some textbook.

I smiled. “We’ve just made one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy! Look at that plate!” I tossed it over to him.

He studied it briefly, and a puzzled expression appeared on his face. “So?” he asked, passing it back to me.

“Don’t you see what that is?”

He took another look. “It’s one of the spectra I took. What about it?”

I felt exasperated. “Study it carefully. That’s a blueshift! We’ve discovered that the universal expansion has come to an end. The galaxies are starting to come back together!”

Daniel’s eyes lit up. “That would explain why the universe seems younger now than it did in the 1930s.”

I contemplated just what this would mean as Daniel studied the plates more closely. Could the lifetime of the universe really be half over? Was it possible that we had just won the Nobel Prize? A strange blend of shock, fear, and excitement ran through me, but then Daniel turned over the plate and relaxed, a disappointed look on his face.

“Professor Olmstead,” he said, “I hate to let you down, but this was a spectrum I took of Andromeda. Of course it’s a blueshift — Andromeda’s our neighbor galaxy. That one is moving towards us.”

I grabbed the plate out of his hands and checked the label on the back. It read M31. Danny had labeled it with the Messier number for Andromeda. He was right; Andromeda was in fact moving towards us, with a velocity unrelated to the expansion of the universe.

I felt like an idiot. I mumbled an apology to Daniel, who took it in stride, and returned to my office.

At the time, it seemed like an error, a crazy mistake, but if I had thought a moment, I would have checked some of the other plates as well. Instead, embarrassed at the way I had announced my “discovery” to Daniel, I put the plates on top of one of the piles of charts, papers, and printouts that covered the surfaces of my desk and chairs, and drove home. Marsha was supposed to be cooking something elaborate for lunch.


I didn’t think about the plates again until a few months later, when Daniel came into my office in the late afternoon. He looked haggard, as if he had been up all night making observations.

“Professor,” he began, “we need to talk.”

I had been going over a list of candidates for possible binary stars from my friend at Georgia State, but the tone in Daniel’s voice told me that what he had to discuss was a little more important.

“Sure, Daniel. What is it?”

He looked very uncomfortable. I would have offered him a seat, but piles of papers sat in all of my chairs.

“I’ve been worried about funding…” he began, and then trailed off.

“What’s to worry about? I can still afford to pay you.” Which was true; graduate students are the cheapest part of a science budget.

“No, that’s not it. It’s –”

“Are you worried about next year? Because if so, you don’t have to. Something else will come up, I’m sure.”

“That’s just it, Professor Olmstead, I can’t be sure.”

“Daniel, what is it you’re saying?”

He shifted in his posture, looked at his shoes, and said, “I’ve decided to switch to Michelle Haller’s group. I…I hope you don’t mind.”

I was stunned. More than that, I was crushed. I had brought Daniel Kelly into the observatory last year, pulled him in despite a record that was not exactly superb, and this was how he was paying me back.

“I see,” I said as evenly as I could. “Desert the sinking ship before it takes you down with it.”

“Oh, no, Professor, that isn’t it at all!” Daniel looked horrified. “I can’t believe you would think that. It’s just that, well, Dr. Haller’s group is doing some work on black holes that I think is a little more — well, more what I want to study. This has nothing to do with — with anything else.”

“Yeah, right,” I muttered under my breath. Aloud I said, “Okay, Daniel, if that’s the way you want it.”
He mumbled a “thank you” and retreated from my office.

I got up to stretch and contemplate the situation, and I noticed Daniel’s plates sitting on the top of a pile. I picked them up and shuffled through them.

How dare he desert me like that.

I lifted the photographs and was about to toss them in anger when I spotted something odd on the top plate.

I took a closer look. The spectrum displayed looked very similar to the one I had studied a few months ago. Too similar. I pushed a pile off my desk and onto the floor so I would have a clean surface to work on, took out a ruler and a calculator, and checked the spectrum.

I was looking at another blueshift. Could this be possible? Surely this was the same picture I had examined before.

Carefully, I turned the card over to see what label it had. NGC224. Not M31. Not Andromeda.


For a week or two after that, I ignored Daniel’s plates, leaving them buried in the bottom drawer of my desk. I didn’t want to think about them, and I had that collaboration with Georgia State to take up my time, anyway.

I was so concerned with getting that paper done on time that I actually spent a few nights sleeping in the office. I would go home for lunch, so I could see Marsha, but when I did she complained about how I was neglecting both her and Ricky. This particular afternoon, we had just had a major argument in which I tried to explain to her the importance of the work I was doing. I figured I would make it up to her after the paper was published and she could see the importance of it to the astronomical community as a whole.

I had just put the finishing touches on that paper when the phone rang. “Hello?”

“Jack? This is Katherine Sandgrund.”

She was my collaborator at Georgia State. “Kath! How are you doing? I’m just finishing up the latest paper now.”

“That’s what I’ve got to talk to you about.” Her voice sounded hollow.

“What’s wrong?”

She was silent for a moment, and then said, “It’s our data, Jack. It’s off.”

“What do you mean, ‘It’s off’?” I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Well, you know those new binaries we thought we had discovered?”

Thought we had discovered? You mean the ones I’ve just finished our paper on?”

“Yeah, those. I don’t know how to tell you this, but our first analysis was done incorrectly. Those stars aren’t actually binaries. They’re single stars, like everyone always thought they were.”

I sat there for a moment in silence. Then I gave a little laugh. “I guess the paper’s out of the question, then. It wouldn’t pass peer review.”

“Actually, Jack, we can still publish the paper. After all, the important thing here is the new interferometry method we used. The fact that the stars we picked turned out not to be binaries is minor.” Kath sounded like she was trying to convince herself as well as me. It didn’t sound like she was succeeding, either.

“Yeah, right. Well, I’d better go. I’ve got a lot of revising to do.” I hung up the phone without giving Kath a chance to say good-bye.

Damn it! All that work for nothing! I looked around my office for something, anything, to smash, and I started throwing piles of papers onto the floor and pulling textbooks off the shelves. It felt good.

I still wasn’t satisfied after a few minutes, and I reached into my desk drawers to continue the catharsis. But I pulled out Daniel’s plates, and I stopped short.

On a hunch, I shuffled through the plates, picked one at random, and checked it with a ruler.
It was another blueshift. Number three. An old saying popped into my head — once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action. It appeared that the universe was definitely contracting.

I carefully put the plates back and began to clean up my office. I briefly considered telling someone about my discovery, but who? Daniel wouldn’t believe it, and he wasn’t working for me anyway, something I still found hard to accept. My recent work wasn’t significant enough to give me the credibility needed for announcing the reversal of the universe’s expansion.

I decided to wait. I would be methodical, analyzing each and every plate, before announcing my discovery to the world. It would take a lot of time, time that I would have to spend at the observatory, but I needed to do it. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to worry about someone announcing this before me; after all, hardly anyone bothered to take galactic spectra nowadays.


A month later my wife left me.

Actually, she kicked me out of the house. I came home to find my bags packed and waiting for me in the driveway, and the locks to the front door changed.

I guess I should have seen it coming. I had been spending more and more time at the observatory, racing like mad to stay in one place, and Marsha had complained over and over that I was neglecting her and our son.

I had tried to explain to her that things weren’t going well at work, that I needed to spend more time at the observatory to provide for her, but she just wouldn’t listen. She went on about the messes I was leaving for her to clean up, the moods she thought I was in, and other irrelevancies. She even left a note taped to my luggage, claiming she was sorry but that she couldn’t handle the way I was acting anymore.

I banged on the door, pounding furiously, over and over. I yelled at Marsha to let me back in, to let me remain a part of her life. I cried and screamed, but to no avail. I found out her reply when a police car pulled into the driveway and I was ordered to leave or else the occupant of the house would press charges.

What could I do? I knew what this was really about — the horrible turn of events that my job had taken — but she wouldn’t admit it. I collected my emotions and drove off in a huff. Having nowhere else to go, I returned to my office. I slept there that night; it would take me a few days to find an apartment.

As I lay down on the floor to go to sleep, I noticed that one of the spectrograph plates had ended up on the floor. I picked it up to put it with the others, thought a moment, and checked it.
It was another blueshift. Number four.


“Jack, ol’ buddy, I noticed that you’re signed up for telescope time tomorrow night. Do you think I can trade you for my slot next week? I’ve got these observations that can’t wait…”



“Jack, we’re moving you into a smaller office. I’m sorry, but we’re getting a visiting professor from Europe and he said he needed the space. It’ll only be for the next few months…”



“Jack, peer review rejected our paper. I’m sorry. We’ll get the next one approved anyway, right?”



“Jack, it’s been a whole month and you haven’t sent any money to buy new clothes for Ricky! If you don’t give me what I need I’ll sue you for everything you have!”



Disappointment followed disappointment followed disappointment, with my life crumbling around me, until the day when I realized that it was time to reveal my discovery of the blueshifts to the world. That would finally secure my proper place in the history of astronomy.

The first person I went to was my graduate student, Daniel Kelly. He was sitting in his office, reading something unimportant. “Daniel,” I said.

He looked up. “Yes, Professor?”

“I wanted to discuss that data you took almost a year ago.”

“What data?”

“The spectra. The galactic blueshifts.”

“Blueshifts?” he asked. “You mean Andromeda?”

“No, I am not talking about Andromeda. Look at these.” I tossed a few of the pictures at Daniel. He deftly caught them.

“You were right that the first blueshift I saw was Andromeda, but I made the mistake of not checking the rest of the galaxies. They’re all blueshifted. And Andromeda’s blueshift is slightly more than it should be.”

He gave me an odd look, and then began to flip through the pictures. “Professor,” he said slowly, “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. These all look normal to me.”

“Daniel,” I said, “Listen to me carefully. I know it’s a hard paradigm to break, but you’ve got to see what I’ve found. Here –” I took the rest of the plates out of my jacket pocket save one and shoved them into his hands. “Study these more carefully. When you find the blueshifts, let me know.” With that, I left his office and returned to my own.

Despite the magnitude of this discovery, I had a lot of other stuff to deal with as well, most of it simply moving piles of papers around. First I posted a brief message to the Internet about the blueshifts, so I could stake my claim on this discovery, and then I got to work.

After a few hours, I felt hungry. My new apartment was near the observatory, and as I had been doing a lot recently, despite the fact that I wasn’t living with Marsha anymore, I drove home for lunch. It was a lot easier than having to make small talk in the observatory cafeteria. My Volkswagen Bug coughed when I parked it, and I idly noted that if it had mattered, I’d have to get it tuned up soon. It was a shame that Marsha had gotten the Buick, and I had been lucky to afford even this old car.

I picked up my mail before climbing the five flights to my one bedroom apartment, and sorted through it on the way up. There was the usual assortment of bills and magazines, plus a letter from my ex-wife. When I opened my door, I threw the rest of the mail onto the end table to join the month’s accumulation, but pocketed the letter.

I had to clear off the kitchen counter before making lunch, and it took me a few minutes to find an unopened can of tuna among all the open ones still in the cabinet. After eating a sandwich, I opened the letter and read it. The return address nagged at me; it had been mine for the ten years of our marriage. In the letter, as she had done on the phone recently, Marsha pleaded for alimony; not directly, of course, but she did go on about all the things she and Ricky needed.

It wasn’t going to matter anyway, not with the new discovery I had just made. I threw the letter into the trash and decided to take a nap before returning to the observatory. The bed was unmade, but I grabbed a sheet off the pile on the floor and used it.

When I awoke, it was much later than I had expected, getting close to night. Obviously, this was not a problem, as people can and do work all hours at an observatory, and so it was perfectly appropriate for me to return as night was setting in.

Once I was back at the observatory, I checked the replies to my previous Internet post. Most of them sounded desperate, claiming that my data must be off and in need of further checking. I had planned to do that anyway, but that meant getting more telescope time, which I had not been able to reserve for the past month or so. On a whim I checked the schedule.

I noticed that Daniel was scheduled on the main reflector for tonight, which would make my life a little easier. I found him just outside his office, talking with Cara, one of the other graduate students. I went right up to him.

“Daniel, I need to ask you another favor.”

He looked up, almost as if he hadn’t seen me approaching. “Can’t it wait?” I was surprised by his annoyed tone.


“See you later,” he said to Cara. She scurried away and he turned to me. “Okay, Professor, what is it this time?”

“I noticed you’re signed up on the telescope tonight. I’m taking my prerogative as your advisor and requesting that you let me use it instead.”

“My ad — ” He seemed shocked, although I knew I was within my rights. He looked down at his sneakers. “Professor,” he said quietly, “you’re not my advisor anymore. I’m working with Michelle Haller, remember? On black hole anomalies?”

“Nonsense! Remember that I pulled you in here; you’re working for me. Besides, this is far more important than classifying black holes. Do you still have the plates?”

“The plates? Is that what this is about?”

“You saw the blueshifts. I need to verify it tonight.”

Daniel stared at me for a moment before replying. “Professor,” he said softly, “there are no blueshifts. I checked all the spectra this afternoon, as you asked.”

I had to control my temper. “Stop denying it. The universe is contracting. Look!” I pulled the one plate out of my pocket that I had held onto and handed it to Daniel, but he didn’t take it.

“I’ve got to go start my observations,” he said. “Listen, maybe we can discuss this later, okay?”

I grabbed Daniel by the lapels of his shirt and pulled his face to mine. I looked directly into his eyes, which had opened wide. “You listen, Mr. Kelly. This is probably the most important discovery of the century and I’m not about to abandon it and let someone else take the credit. Do you understand?”

He nodded. I released him and headed up to the dome as he ran off.

Setting up a telescope to take pictures of spectra requires a bit of time to do, and frankly it is easier when there are two astronomers working on it, but I didn’t want to disturb anyone by asking for assistance. The light that you see through the eyepiece has to be redirected into a spectrometer, which breaks it up the same way a prism does. Then a picture can be taken of the spectrum that is produced. I figured that I would set up the spectrometer and take another set of photographs of the galaxies that I had asked Daniel to work on a year ago.

I opened the dome and pointed the huge telescope at the first galaxy I wanted to check when I decided that perhaps I should first take a look for myself. I knew that normally it was impossible to see the galaxies actually moving. Think about it — the galaxies are moving in the same direction as our line of sight, and they are very far away from us. Imagine trying to tell if a person many miles away is moving directly towards you or away from you, and you begin to get an idea of why we didn’t know about the motion of galaxies until we had their spectra. So I was surprised by what I did see when I climbed the ladder to the telescope.

Looking through the eyepiece, I could actually see the galaxies moving towards us. Everywhere I pointed the telescope, there was a galaxy careening towards me at thousands — no, millions — of kilometers each second. Here a spiral in Virgo, there an elliptical in Hydra, all coming together to one central point, getting larger and larger the closer they came. And as they came closer, they accelerated, just like a Hubble expansion in reverse. It was beautiful and horrible at the same time, realizing that I was in the center of this ultimate contraction.

I stared at the galaxies, transfixed for what seemed like hours on end, when I noticed that Daniel was standing at the door to the dome. Dr. Remini was with him, and she did not seem happy.

They came over to the bottom of the ladder, and Dr. Remini addressed me. “Doctor Olmstead,” she said, drawing my name out in that annoying manner of hers, “Mr. Kelly here tells me that you usurped his telescope time.”

“Oh?” I replied, still peering at the universe. “Did he tell you why?”

“Yes, he did. He also showed me the photographs that you claim back you up.”

“Then you can see why it is so important for me to take his slot. Daniel, why don’t you finish setting up the spectrometer and we can start taking spectra?”

I heard Daniel mutter something to Dr. Remini, but I couldn’t tell what. About a minute later she shouted up at me, “Olmstead! I insist you get down from there now! This nonsense has got to stop!”

I looked away from the closing in of the universe and at our esteemed director instead. “Nonsense? I don’t think so. The universe has started contracting. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.”

“The universe is not contracting, and you know it as well as I do.”

“Oh, it’s not, is it? Why don’t you come up here and take a look, like a true scientist?”

For a moment I thought Dr. Remini was going to explode, but then she seemed to calm down. “Very well. I’ll take a look.” She climbed the ladder to the platform, and I moved aside so she could put her eye to the eyepiece.

After only a few seconds, she looked back at me. “As far as I can tell, it’s not moving.”

I pushed her away and looked again. She was most definitely wrong.

“Can’t you see it?” I said, and I must admit I shouted. “They’re coming closer every second! The universe is closing in on itself! We’ve got to stop it from collapsing before it’s too late!” I grabbed Dr. Remini by the lapels and started to sob.


I write this now at a time when the universe is almost completely contracted, but no one heeds my warnings. While I had still been studying the galaxies and quasars that were hurtling towards us, Dr. Remini and Daniel had gone away and come back with others. Their denial of the inevitable end of creation was so intense that instead of being honored and praised for my one great discovery, I have been locked away in a tiny cubical room all alone. Where once I had a whole thirteen billion light-years as my domain, I now have barely thirteen feet in any dimension and a small window to look up at the stars. I can actually see them moving faster and faster, as they shift through the spectrum from red to violet, and into the invisible realm of the ultraviolet. Even the sun has shifted beyond yellow into the green, and is starting to approach blue. Soon it too, will appear to be gone.

Not that the fate of Sol matters much; my calculations tell me that the entire universe will cease to exist within a week.

I await the final collapse.


3 Responses to “Collapse by Michael A. Burstein”

  1. on 29 Sep 2008 at 10:30 pm SF Signal

    A Batch of Free Fiction Links…

    Here’s a bunch of links to recenty-free fiction, courtesy of eagle eyes over at QuasarDragon@Munseys: The Fire People by Ray Cumming (1922). Gwyneth Jones has posted an electronic advanced reader’s PDF copy of Spirit: Or, The Princess Of Bois……

  2. […] short story first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the online magazine Polu Texni – where you can still read it for […]

  3. […] Collapse by Michael Burstein […]

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