Opening: An ingot of metallic hydrogen gleamed in the starlight, a narrow cylinder half a meter long with a mass of about a kilogram. To the naked eye it was a dense, solid object, but its lattice of tiny nuclei immersed in an insubstantial fog of electrons was one part matter to two hundred trillion parts empty space. A short distance away was a second ingot,apparently identical to the first, but composed of antihydrogen.
A sequence of finely tuned gamma rays flooded into both cylinders. The protons that absorbed them in the first ingot spat out positrons and were transformed into neutrons, breaking their bonds to the electron cloud that glued them in place. In the second ingot, antiprotons became antineutrons. Read more...
Capsule: From an exchange that occurs in the fourth section of this novelette:
“There's more to life than mathematics,” Joan said. “But not much more.”
Amen to that. Obviously, there's at least theoretical physics as well, given the start of Egan's fine space opera outing ... but, of course, Egan knows this and a whole lot more.
I really enjoyed the premise of this story: a technologically advanced society, part of the Amalgam, engineers (and how!) a trip to a cusp society to rescue ancient artifacts of a far older people that lived on the same planet and dedicated three million years to studying pure mathematics. Why did the ancient Niah become extinct, and what can be learned from their mathematical insights? The Seeker/Spreader dichotomy provides food for thought but I didn't buy into this simple dual classification, and I wasn't entirely convinced by Joan's final musings and course of action pertaining to it. I also would have loved to see some kind of link between the Niah's Big Crunch and the Cataract... But the technology and discoveries were definitely nifty enough to keep me entranced, and again there was a fantastic amount of carefully worked-out detail behind the obvious events of the story.
This piece is currently a 2008 Hugo award nominee in the "Best Novelette" category (Egan is competing against himself with "Dark Integers," which I preferred.)