January 0004




From an idea by Ropkind Scharf Junior.


Almost everyone has heard about Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist, and discoverer of LSD. Unfortunately, since he is a hero to all kinds of drug fiends, that is all anyone knows about him. The drug fiends go on about him and his discovery of LSD, to the exclusion of everything else, and so the straights conclude that Hoffman wasn’t altogether nice, and refuse to take any further interest in him apart from categorising him, not so much as a bad thing, as a bad subject of interest. C’est la vie.  

Another thing that almost everyone knows is that the world is full of lost cities, such as El Dorado, Mu and Atlantis. In fact there are so many of them, I cannot understand why they don’t get discovered from time to time, for example by people setting out on ordinary journeys, getting lost, and arriving at these cities by accident. Or by satellites photographing the world, and recording anomalous urbanizations that don’t appear on maps. I mean, doesn’t NASA employ people to check these things? However, the thing all these places have in common is that they were never found in the first place, or at least, if they were, things like detailed accounts of how to get there, and the identities of the original travellers are totally forgotten, so they might as well never have been found.  

The thin thread which unites Hoffman and lost cities, and from which our tale hangs is Elfloz, and I’m going to tell you about it.  

One day, Hoffman was busy in his lab, mixing different chemicals to see what would happen. Of course, he was a real scientist, so the chemicals were quite complicated. One of his trials, which received the number x-pcb 10111110111011000011110000110 (how many of you knew that Hoffman insisted on using the binary system every time he wrote a number, which meant that he had the world’s first seventy digit phone number?) produced an interesting lumpy organic reaction which swirled somewhat. He put it to one side to await developments.  

The next experiment turned out to be a chemical which had the potential to stain everyone purple, and this involved Hoffman in several months work, until he realized that a world full of purple people wasn’t necessarily a good idea. After that, there was the one that would make everyone speak backwards, and very fast, and another that would make everyone tell the truth all the time. Even Hoffman realized after only a few minutes that the last was really dangerous, but he had to spend a few weeks suppressing all records of it.  

Anyway, what with this and that, it was actually two years before Hoffman had another look at x-pcb 10111110111011000011110000110. He took it carefully from the shelf, and, fortunately as it turned out, decided not to shake it, but to put it directly under his microscope. He soon realized he had made something very beautiful. The chemical had become basically a shimmering transparent medium, with lots of little specks in it, some of which were exploding into angry red and black clouds, and these specks tended to form clusters. Around the specks, there often rotated other, smaller specks. He stepped up the power of his microscope (Ah! The quality of Swiss precision engineering!), and inspected one of these small specks. He found it was very close to a perfect sphere, and wondered whether there were any implications for the ball bearing industry. Then he realized it was partly covered with a thin film of water, and partly dry. He noticed there were some unusual aspects to the dry areas. Parts were yellow, and parts were green, and parts, apparently colder than the others, at what he chose to call the top and bottom of the sphere, were white. The green and yellow areas seemed to have little brown lines on them, which converged at a point. He increased the magnification of his microscope again, and found he had a collection of small structures, and, incredibly, little objects moving into and out of and around the structures! He realized that he had created a universe, and in it, at least one city.  

Hoffman’s next problem was to communicate with the inhabitants of this city. He tried shouting in the direction of the test tube, but the inhabitants merely retreated to their temples and began sacrificing animals. He realized that they probably experienced time more rapidly than we do, and tried shouting fast at them. The animals became bigger and more expensive. He tried recording his voice, and playing it back really fast, and they began sacrificing each other. He realized that they probably didn’t understand him, and tried singing to them, reasoning that the language of beauty might be universal, and they began sacrificing their children. Hoffman realized that he was following a mistaken course, and tried drawing a representation of pythagoras’ theorem on the back of a postcard, and holding it up in front of the test tube. In response, the inhabitants of the little city, who appeared to have reached quite a high technological level, sent out several tiny space ships, which evidently under-estimated the vast distance of several millimetres they had to travel, and all of which perished on the voyage. Also, Hoffman thought, he could see no reason to believe that they had understood anything of the nature of the glass which constituted the test tube, and of its implications for them. He briefly wondered whether we were in the same situation, and concluded that this wasn’t a proper scientific question.  

Hoffman then decided that he should abandon the attempt to communicate with the inhabitants for a while, and concentrate on finding out more about them, in the hope that this would enable him to discover an effective means of communicating with them. This was when he made his great breakthrough. He was studying one of the little lines which radiated from the city, and noticed nearby there was a small, flat vertical structure with symbols on it. He realized that this line was in fact a road, and that the structure had to be a sign with writing. Since road signs have a restricted number of possible meanings, he thought this could be a clue that would enable him to decipher the language and alphabet of his city. And I am afraid he really did think of it as “his” city. In fact, it was quite easy to decipher the sign. It turned out to be saying:

“The City of Elfloz welcomes careful drivers.” 

Hoffman was elated! Not only did he know the name of his city, but he realized tht he now had enough material to fill in the application forms for some really meaningful grants to help him study it further! But then, disaster struck! There was a knock at his door, and he turned round to see who it was. In so doing, his sleeve knocked the precious test-tube to the floor, and the contents spilled out. Using a special surgical wipe, impregnated with powerful antiseptics, he attempted to push the little puddle back into the test tube. He thought he had it all, and started searching the test tube for a second time for Elfloz with his microscope, but to no avail. Over the next few months, he scrutinized every fragment of the structure of the universe he had created, and could not find it. Maybe the particle which contained his city had rolled under his lab bench? He borrowed the vacuum cleaner from the cleaner’s cupboard, and sucked up all the dust from under it. He scrutinized every particle in the Hoover bag with the utmost care, but, again, without finding any sign of the City of Elfloz.  

Although this happened in 1962, the situation today is unchanged. The City of Elfloz may still remain in Albert Hoffman’s laboratory in the Sandoz building, and the laboratory is sealed off. From time to time, ambitious PhD students are allowed in to sweep a small area of the laboratory in an effort to find Elfloz, but so far without success. Other sages have speculated on the effects these traumatic events must have had on the inhabitants of the city, if it still survives. After all, they were given one brief and tantalizing sign of a massively powerful outside intelligence, and then subjected to a terrible shock. Unlike us, they can have no particular reason to believe in the benevolence of their great outside intelligence. And even if their fragment was undamaged, the universe around them must have seemed to be in turmoil. It must have been like living inside a plastic snow storm at the moment its owner decides to shake it. Some commentators think that they must have advanced from child sacrifice to self-sacrifice, but others argue that the shock was so terrible they would have gone far beyond this into some depravity that is completely unimaginable to us. Be that as it may, the City of Elfloz remains the world’s only truly lost city, and it is a shame that Albert Hoffman’s role in its discovery and subsequent loss is so little known.