I am looking for a short story which I read around 1982. I would have read it in a UK library book. I have no recollection of the appearance of the book. The library had a reasonably big collection of SF anthologies - e.g. it had a shelf of yellow Gollancz "Best Science Fiction of the Year" books. The book could have been fairly old even then.
The story followed the pattern of investigating possible consequences of a discovery. I do not believe that there were any important characters - or maybe I have just forgotten them?
The specific discovery was an invention which, somehow, separated (part of) the mass of physical matter from its atoms. The mass could then be attached to different atoms. In practise this meant that if one placed a heavy object on top of something, and applied the machine to it, then the heavy object would become lighter, but whatever it was sitting upon would become heavier. The object's mass would have fallen down. The total mass was always conserved.
Critically however since the mass was lowered the potential energy of the system decreased. The machine could capture this energy (presumably as electricity) and use it to perform other work. So in effect the machine generated electricity by allowing mass to descend but the atoms did not move. I think the story invented some kind of subatomic particle which was supposedly moving, and which carried the mass with it.
I remember three episodes:
- Initially it described someone (maybe the inventor?) using the machine to make a little money on the side. The character was hired to transport some heavy bulk material. He was in possession of a very old truck. He used the invention to power his vehicle, draining the mass from the goods he was transporting. This saved on fuel and reduced wight to carry. I think there was a remark that the stones on the roadway along his route became heavy. At end of journey he would bleed mass back into the load so the owner wouldn't think he had stolen some. He took the mass from something high up (a bridge? a water-tower?) and got into trouble when it became too light and started losing structural integrity.
- Later it says that the invention introduced an era of apparently free energy. Power companies were using it on an industrial scale, allowing vast amounts of mass to descend within mines. I seem to recall saying that power was so cheap that shops would set up heaters outside on winter's days. "The world had XXX to burn!"
- Finally of course it all goes disastrously wrong. I think we eventually got earthquakes or volcanos triggered by the large scale redistribution of mass on top of the earth's crust.
Does anyone know who wrote this and when? It is not Asimov's "The Gods Themselves" although it shares a similar theme.