CHAPTER I: A UNIVERSE IN AN ATOM
Author, Ray Cummings
"Then you mean to say there is no such thing as the _smallest_ particle
of matter?" asked the Doctor.
"You can put it that way if you like," the Chemist replied. "In other
words, what I believe is that things can be infinitely small just as
well as they can be infinitely large. Astronomers tell us of the
immensity of space. I have tried to imagine space as finite. It is
impossible. How can you conceive the edge of space? Something must be
beyond--something or nothing, and even that would be more space,
"Gosh," said the Very Young Man, and lighted another cigarette.
The Chemist resumed, smiling a little. "Now, if it seems probable that
there is no limit to the immensity of space, why should we make its
smallness finite? How can you say that the atom cannot be divided? As a
matter of fact, it already has been. The most powerful microscope will
show you realms of smallness to which you can penetrate no other way.
Multiply that power a thousand times, or ten thousand times, and who
shall say what you will see?"
The Chemist paused, and looked at the intent little group around him.
He was a youngish man, with large features and horn-rimmed glasses, his
rough English-cut clothes hanging loosely over his broad, spare frame.
The Banker drained his glass and rang for the waiter.
"Very interesting," he remarked.
"Don't be an ass, George," said the Big Business Man. "Just because you
don't understand, doesn't mean there is no sense to it."
"What I don't get clearly"--began the Doctor.
"None of it's clear to me," said the Very Young Man.
The Doctor crossed under the light and took an easier chair. "You
intimated you had discovered something unusual in these realms of the
infinitely small," he suggested, sinking back luxuriously. "Will you
tell us about it?"
"Yes, if you like," said the Chemist, turning from one to the other. A
nod of assent followed his glance, as each settled himself more
"Well, gentlemen, when you say I have discovered something unusual in
another world--in the world of the infinitely small--you are right in a
way. I have seen something and lost it. You won't believe me probably,"
he glanced at the Banker an instant, "but that is not important. I am
going to tell you the facts, just as they happened."
The Big Business Man filled up the glasses all around, and the Chemist
"It was in 1910, this problem first came to interest me. I had never
gone in for microscopic work very much, but now I let it absorb all my
attention. I secured larger, more powerful instruments--I spent most of
my money," he smiled ruefully, "but never could I come to the end of the
space into which I was looking. Something was always hidden
beyond--something I could almost, but not quite, distinguish.
"Then I realized that I was on the wrong track. My instrument was not
merely of insufficient power, it was not one-thousandth the power I
"So I began to study the laws of optics and lenses. In 1913 I went
abroad, and with one of the most famous lens-makers of Europe I produced
a lens of an entirely different quality, a lens that I hoped would give
me what I wanted. So I returned here and fitted up my microscope that I
knew would prove vastly more powerful than any yet constructed.
"It was finally completed and set up in my laboratory, and one night I
went in alone to look through it for the first time. It was in the fall
of 1914, I remember, just after the first declaration of war.
"I can recall now my feelings at that moment. I was about to see into
another world, to behold what no man had ever looked on before. What
would I see? What new realms was I, first of all our human race, to
enter? With furiously beating heart, I sat down before the huge
instrument and adjusted the eyepiece.
"Then I glanced around for some object to examine. On my finger I had a
ring, my mother's wedding-ring, and I decided to use that. I have it
here." He took a plain gold band from his little finger and laid it on
"You will see a slight mark on the outside. That is the place into which
His friends crowded around the table and examined a scratch on one side
of the band.
"What did you see?" asked the Very Young Man eagerly.
"Gentlemen," resumed the Chemist, "what I saw staggered even my own
imagination. With trembling hands I put the ring in place, looking
directly down into that scratch. For a moment I saw nothing. I was like
a person coming suddenly out of the sunlight into a darkened room. I
knew there was something visible in my view, but my eyes did not seem
able to receive the impressions. I realize now they were not yet
adjusted to the new form of light. Gradually, as I looked, objects of
definite shape began to emerge from the blackness.
"Gentlemen, I want to make clear to you now--as clear as I can--the
peculiar aspect of everything that I saw under this microscope. I seemed
to be inside an immense cave. One side, near at hand, I could now make
out quite clearly. The walls were extraordinarily rough and indented,
with a peculiar phosphorescent light on the projections and blackness in
the hollows. I say phosphorescent light, for that is the nearest word I
can find to describe it--a curious radiation, quite different from the
reflected light to which we are accustomed.
"I said that the hollows inside of the cave were blackness. But not
blackness--the absence of light--as we know it. It was a blackness that
seemed also to radiate light, if you can imagine such a condition; a
blackness that seemed not empty, but merely withholding its contents
just beyond my vision.
"Except for a dim suggestion of roof over the cave, and its floor, I
could distinguish nothing. After a moment this floor became clearer. It
seemed to be--well, perhaps I might call it black marble--smooth,
glossy, yet somewhat translucent. In the foreground the floor was
apparently liquid. In no way did it differ in appearance from the solid
part, except that its surface seemed to be in motion.
"Another curious thing was the outlines of all the shapes in view. I
noticed that no outline held steady when I looked at it directly; it
seemed to quiver. You see something like it when looking at an object
through water--only, of course, there was no distortion. It was also
like looking at something with the radiation of heat between.
"Of the back and other side of the cave, I could see nothing, except in
one place, where a narrow effulgence of light drifted out into the
immensity of the distance behind.
"I do not know how long I sat looking at this scene; it may have been
several hours. Although I was obviously in a cave, I never felt shut
in--never got the impression of being in a narrow, confined space.
"On the contrary, after a time I seemed to feel the vast immensity of
the blackness before me. I think perhaps it may have been that path of
light stretching out into the distance. As I looked it seemed like the
reversed tail of a comet, or the dim glow of the Milky Way, and
penetrating to equally remote realms of space.
"Perhaps I fell asleep, or at least there was an interval of time during
which I was so absorbed in my own thoughts I was hardly conscious of the
scene before me.
"Then I became aware of a dim shape in the foreground--a shape merged
with the outlines surrounding it. And as I looked, it gradually assumed
form, and I saw it was the figure of a young girl, sitting beside the
liquid pool. Except for the same waviness of outline and phosphorescent
glow, she had quite the normal aspect of a human being of our own world.
She was beautiful, according to our own standards of beauty; her long
braided hair a glowing black, her face, delicate of feature and winsome
in expression. Her lips were a deep red, although I felt rather than saw
"She was dressed only in a short tunic of a substance I might describe
as gray opaque glass, and the pearly whiteness of her skin gleamed with
"She seemed to be singing, although I heard no sound. Once she bent over
the pool and plunged her hand into it, laughing gaily.
"Gentlemen, I cannot make you appreciate my emotions, when all at once I
remembered I was looking through a microscope. I had forgotten entirely
my situation, absorbed in the scene before me. And then, abruptly, a
great realization came upon me--the realization that everything I saw
was inside that ring. I was unnerved for the moment at the importance of
"When I looked again, after the few moments my eye took to become
accustomed to the new form of light, the scene showed itself as before,
except that the girl had gone.
"For over a week, each night at the same time I watched that cave. The
girl came always, and sat by the pool as I had first seen her. Once she
danced with the wild grace of a wood nymph, whirling in and out the
shadows, and falling at last in a little heap beside the pool.
"It was on the tenth night after I had first seen her that the accident
happened. I had been watching, I remember, an unusually long time before
she appeared, gliding out of the shadows. She seemed in a different
mood, pensive and sad, as she bent down over the pool, staring into it
intently. Suddenly there was a tremendous cracking sound, sharp as an
explosion, and I was thrown backward upon the floor.
"When I recovered consciousness--I must have struck my head on
something--I found the microscope in ruins. Upon examination I saw that
its larger lens had exploded--flown into fragments scattered around the
room. Why I was not killed I do not understand. The ring I picked up
from the floor; it was unharmed and unchanged.
"Can I make you understand how I felt at this loss? Because of the war
in Europe I knew I could never replace my lens--for many years, at any
rate. And then, gentlemen, came the most terrible feeling of all; I knew
at last that the scientific achievement I had made and lost counted for
little with me. It was the girl. I realized then that the only being I
ever could care for was living out her life with her world, and, indeed,
her whole universe, in an atom of that ring."
The Chemist stopped talking and looked from one to the other of the
tense faces of his companions.
"It's almost too big an idea to grasp," murmured the Doctor.
"What caused the explosion?" asked the Very Young Man.
"I do not know." The Chemist addressed his reply to the Doctor, as the
most understanding of the group. "I can appreciate, though, that through
that lens I was magnifying tremendously those peculiar light-radiations
that I have described. I believe the molecules of the lens were
shattered by them--I had exposed it longer to them that evening than any
of the others."
The Doctor nodded his comprehension of this theory.
Impressed in spite of himself, the Banker took another drink and leaned
forward in his chair. "Then you really think that there is a girl now
inside the gold of that ring?" he asked.
"He didn't say that necessarily," interrupted the Big Business Man.
"Yes, he did."
"As a matter of fact, I do believe that to be the case," said the
Chemist earnestly. "I believe that every particle of matter in our
universe contains within it an equally complex and complete a universe,
which to its inhabitants seems as large as ours. I think, also that the
whole realm of our interplanetary space, our solar system and all the
remote stars of the heavens are contained within the atom of some other
universe as gigantic to us as we are to the universe in that ring."
"Gosh!" said the Very Young Man.
"It doesn't make one feel very important in the scheme of things, does
it?" remarked the Big Business Man dryly.
The Chemist smiled. "The existence of no individual, no nation, no
world, nor any one universe is of the least importance."
"Then it would be possible," said the Doctor, "for this gigantic
universe that contains us in one of its atoms, to be itself contained
within the atom of another universe, still more gigantic, and so on."
"That is my theory," said the Chemist.
"And in each of the atoms of the rocks of that cave there may be other
worlds proportionately minute?"
"I can see no reason to doubt it."
"Well, there is no proof, anyway," said the Banker. "We might as well
"I intend to get proof," said the Chemist.
"Do you believe all these innumerable universes, both larger and smaller
than ours, are inhabited?" asked the Doctor.
"I should think probably most of them are. The existence of life, I
believe, is as fundamental as the existence of matter without life."
"How do you suppose that girl got in there?" asked the Very Young Man,
coming out of a brown study.
"What puzzled me," resumed the Chemist, ignoring the question, "is why
the girl should so resemble our own race. I have thought about it a good
deal, and I have reached the conclusion that the inhabitants of any
universe in the next smaller or larger plane to ours probably resemble
us fairly closely. That ring, you see, is in the same--shall we
say--environment as ourselves. The same forces control it that control
us. Now, if the ring had been created on Mars, for instance, I believe
that the universes within its atoms would be inhabited by beings like
the Martians--if Mars has any inhabitants. Of course, in planes beyond
those next to ours, either smaller or larger, changes would probably
occur, becoming greater as you go in or out from our own universe."
"Good Lord! It makes one dizzy to think of it," said the Big Business
"I wish I knew how that girl got in there," sighed the Very Young Man,
looking at the ring.
"She probably didn't," retorted the Doctor. "Very likely she was created
there, the same as you were here."
"I think that is probably so," said the Chemist. "And yet, sometimes I
am not at all sure. She was very human." The Very Young Man looked at
"How are you going to prove your theories?" asked the Banker, in his
most irritatingly practical way.
The Chemist picked up the ring and put it on his finger. "Gentlemen," he
said. "I have tried to tell you facts, not theories. What I saw through
that ultramicroscope was not an unproven theory, but a fact. My theories
you have brought out by your questions."
"You are quite right," said the Doctor; "but you did mention yourself
that you hoped to provide proof."
The Chemist hesitated a moment, then made his decision. "I will tell you
the rest," he said.
"After the destruction of the microscope, I was quite at a loss how to
proceed. I thought about the problem for many weeks. Finally I decided
to work along another altogether different line--a theory about which I
am surprised you have not already questioned me."
He paused, but no one spoke.
"I am hardly ready with proof to-night," he resumed after a moment.
"Will you all take dinner with me here at the club one week from
to-night?" He read affirmation in the glance of each.
"Good. That's settled," he said, rising. "At seven, then."
"But what was the theory you expected us to question you about?" asked
the Very Young Man.
The Chemist leaned on the back of his chair.
"The only solution I could see to the problem," he said slowly, "was to
find some way of making myself sufficiently small to be able to enter
that other universe. I have found such a way and one week from to-night,
gentlemen, with your assistance, I am going to enter the surface of that
ring at the point where it is scratched!"