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A Touch of Infinity
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
In one of those charming expressions of candor—which were to become so well known to the television audience—Dr. Hepplemeyer ascribed his scientific success less to his brilliance than to his name. "Can you imagine being Julius Hepplemeyer, and facing that for the rest of your life? If one is Julius Hepplemeyer, one is forced either to transcend it or perish."
Two Nobel Prizes before he finally perfected the hoop attested to the transcendence. In acknowledging them, he made liberal use of what the press came to call "Hepplemeyer Jewels," as for instance: "Wisdom obligates a man to perform foolishly." "Education imposes a search for ignorance." "The solution always calls for the problem."
This last was particularly applicable to the hoop. It was never Dr. Hepplemeyer's intention to bend space, and he pinned down the notion as presumptuous. "Only God bends space," he emphasized. "Man can merely watch, observe, seek—and sometimes find."
"Do you believe in God?" a reporter asked eagerly.
"In an ironic God, yes. The proof is laughter. A smile is the only expression of eternity."
He talked that way without any particular effort, and acute observers realized it was because he thought that way. His wife was an acute observer, and one morning at breakfast, as he cracked a three-minute egg and peered into it, he explained that everything returns to itself.
It rather chilled his wife, without her knowing why. "Even God?" she asked.
"Most certainly God," he replied, and for the next two years he worked on the hoop. The Dean at Columbia cooperated with him, cutting down his lectures to one a week. Every facility was placed at his disposal. After all, it was the Hepplemeyer age; Einstein was dead, and Hepplemeyer had to remind his admirers that while "Hepplemeyer's Law of Return" had perhaps opened new doors in physics, it nevertheless rested solidly upon the basis of Einstein's work. Yet his modest reminders fell upon deaf ears, and whereas The New York Times weekly magazine supplement once ran no less than six features a year on some aspect of Einstein's work, they now reduced the number to three and devoted no less than seven features in as many months to Hepplemeyer. Isaac Asimov, that persistent unraveler of the mysteries of science, devoted six thousand words toward a popular explanation of the "Law of Return," and if few understood, it was nevertheless table conversation for many thousands of intrigued readers. Nor were any egos bruised, for Asimov himself estimated that only a dozen people in the entire world actually understood the Hepplemeyer equations.
Hepplemeyer, meanwhile, was so absorbed in his work that he ceased even to read about himself. The lights in his laboratory burned all night long while, with the help of his eager young assistants—more disciples than paid workers—he translated his mathematics into a hoop of shining aluminum, the pipe six inches in diameter, the hoop itself a circle of the six-inch aluminum pipe twelve feet in diameter, and within the six-inch pipe, an intricate coil of gossamer wires. As he told his students, he was in effect building a net in which he would perhaps trap a tiny curl of the endless convolutions of space.
Of course, he immediately denied his images. "We are so limited," he explained. "The universe is filled with endless wonders for which we have no name, no words, no concepts. The hoop? That is different. The hoop is an object, as anyone can see."
There came a fine, sunny, shining day in April, when the hoop was finally finished, and when the professor and his student assistants bore it triumphantly out onto the campus. It took eight stalwart young men to carry the great hoop, and eight more to carry the iron frame in which it would rest. The press was there, television, about four thousand students, about four hundred cops, and various other representatives of the normal and abnormal life of New York City. The Columbia University quadrangle was indeed so crowded that the police had to clear a path for the hoop. Hepplemeyer begged them to keep the crowd back, since it might be dangerous; and as he hated violence almost as much as he detested stupidity, he begged the students not to get into the kind of rumble that was almost inevitable when cops and students were too many and in too great proximity.
One of the policemen lent the professor a bullhorn, and he declared, in booming electronic tones, "This is only a test. It is almost impossible that it should work. I have calculated that out of any given hundred acres, possibly a hundred square feet will be receptive. So you see how great the odds are against us. You must give us room. You must let us move about."
The students were not only loose and good-natured and full of grass and other congenial substances on that shining April day; they also adored Hepplemeyer as a sort of Bob Dylan of the scientific world. So they cooperated, and finally the professor found a spot that suited him, and the hoop was set up.
Hepplemeyer observed it thoughtfully for a moment and then began going through his pockets for an object. He found a large gray eraser and tossed it into the hoop. It passed through and fell to the ground on the other side.
The student body—as well as the working press—had no idea of what was supposed to happen to the eraser, but the crestfallen expression on Hepplemeyer's face demonstrated that whatever was supposed to happen had not happened. The students broke into sympathetic and supportive applause, and Hepplemeyer, warming to their love, took them into his confidence and said into the bullhorn:
"We try again, no?"
The sixteen stalwart young men lifted hoop and frame and carried their burden to another part of the quadrangle. The crowd followed with the respect and appreciation of a championship golf audience, and the television camera ground away. Once again, the professor repeated his experiment, this time tossing an old pipe through the hoop. As with the eraser, the pipe fell to earth on the other side of the hoop.
"So we try again," he confided into the bullhorn. "Maybe we never find it. Maybe the whole thing is for nothing. Once science was a nice and predictable mechanical handmaiden. Today two and two add up maybe to infinity. Anyway, it was a comfortable old pipe and I am glad I have it back."
By now it had become evident to most of the onlookers that whatever was cast into the hoop was not intended to emerge from the other side, and were it anyone but Hepplemeyer doing the casting, the crowd, cameras, newsmen, cops and all would have dispersed in disgust. But it was Hepplemeyer, and instead of dispersing in disgust, their enchantment with the project simply increased.
Another place in the quadrangle was chosen, and the hoop was set up. This time Dr. Hepplemeyer selected from his pocket a fountain pen, given to him by the Academy, and inscribed "Nil desperandum." Perhaps with full consciousness of the inscription, he flung the pen through the hoop, and instead of falling to the ground on the other side of the hoop, it disappeared. Just like that—just so—it disappeared.
A great silence for a long moment or two, and then one of Hepplemeyer's assistants, young Peabody, took the screwdriver, which he had used to help set up the hoop, and flung it through the hoop. It disappeared. Young Brumberg followed suit with his hammer. It disappeared. Wrench. Clamp. Pliers. All disappeared.
The demonstration was sufficient. A great shout of applause and triumph went up from Morningside. Heights and echoed and reechoed from Broadway to St. Nicholas Avenue, and then the contagion set in. A coed began it by scaling her copy of the poetry of e.e. cummings through the hoop. It disappeared. Then enough books to stock a small library. They all disappeared. Then shoes—a veritable rain of shoes—then belts, sweaters, shirts, anything and everything that was at hand was flung through the hoop, and anything and everything that was flung through the hoop disappeared.
Vainly did Professor Hepplemeyer attempt to halt the stream of objects through the hoop; even his bullhorn could not be heard above the shouts and laughter of the delighted students, who now had witnessed the collapse of basic reality along with all the other verities and virtues that previous generations had observed. Vainly did Professor Hepplemeyer warn them.
And then, out of the crowd and into history, raced Ernest Silverman, high jumper and honor student and citizen of Philadelphia.
In all the exuberance and thoughtlessness of youth, he flung himself through the hoop—and disappeared. And in a twinkling, the laughter, the shouts, the exuberance turned into a cold, dismal silence. Like the children who followed the pied piper, Ernest Silverman was gone with all the fancies and hopes; the sun clouded over, and a chill wind blew.
A few bold kids wanted to follow, but Hepplemeyer barred their way and warned them back, pleading through the bullhorn for them to realize the danger involved. As for Silverman, Hepplemeyer could only repeat what he told the police, after the hoop had been roped off, placed under a twenty-four-hour guard, and forbidden to everyone.
"But where is he?" summed up the questions.
"I don't know," summed up the answer.
The questions and answers were the same at Centre Street as at the local precinct, but such was the position of Hepplemeyer that the Commissioner himself took him into his private office—it was midnight by then—and asked him gently, pleadingly:
"What is on the other side of that hoop, Professor?"
"I don't know."
"So you say—so you have said. You made the hoop."
"We build dynamos. Do we know how they work? We make electricity. Do we know what it is?"
"No, we do not."
"Which is all well and good. Silverman's parents are here from Philadelphia, and they've brought a Philadelphia lawyer with them and maybe sixteen Philadelphia reporters, and they all want to know where the kid is to the tune of God knows how many lawsuits and injunctions."
Hepplemeyer sighed. "I also want to know where he is."
"What do we do?" the Commissioner begged him.
"I don't know. Do you think you ought to arrest me?"
"I would need a charge. Negligence, manslaughter, kidnapping—none of them appear to fit the situation exactly, do they?"
"I am not a policeman," Hepplemeyer said. "In any case, it would interfere with my work."
"Is the boy alive?"
"I don't know."
"Can you answer one question?" the Commissioner asked with some exasperation. "What is on the other side of the hoop?"
"In a manner of speaking, the campus. In another manner of speaking, something else."
"Another part of space. A different time sequence. Eternity. Even Brooklyn. I just don't know."
"Not Brooklyn. Not even Staten Island. The kid would have turned up by now. It's damn peculiar that you put the thing together and now you can't tell me what it's supposed to do."
"I know what it's supposed to do," Hepplemeyer said apologetically. "It's supposed to bend space."
"I have four policemen who are willing to go through the hoop—volunteers. Would you agree?"
"Space is a peculiar thing, or perhaps not a thing at all," the professor replied, with the difficulty a scientist always has when he attempts to verbalize an abstraction to the satisfaction of a layman. "Space is not something we understand."
"We've been to the moon."
"Exactly. It's an uncomfortable place. Suppose the boy is on the moon."
"I don't know. He could be on Mars. Or he could be a million miles short of Mars. I would not want to subject four policemen to that."
So with the simple ingeniousness or ingenuousness of a people who love animals, they put a dog through the loop. It disappeared.
For the next few weeks, a police guard was placed around the hoop day and night, while the professor spent most of his days in court and most of his evenings with his lawyers. He found time, however, to meet with the mayor three times.
New York City was blessed with a mayor whose problems were almost matched by his personality, his wit, and imagination. If Professor Hepplemeyer dreamed of space and infinity, the Mayor dreamed as consistently of ecology, garbage, and finances. Thus it is not to be wondered at that the Mayor came up with a notion that promised to change history.
"We try it with a single garbage truck," the Mayor begged Hepplemeyer. "If it works, it might mean a third Nobel Prize."
"I don't want another Nobel Prize. I didn't deserve the first two. My guilts are sufficient."
"I can persuade the Board of Estimate to pay the damages on the Silverman case."
"Poor boy—will the Board of Estimate take care of my guilt?"
"It will make you a millionaire."
"The last thing I want to be."
"It's your obligation to mankind," the Mayor insisted.
"The college will never permit it."
"I can fix it with Columbia," the Mayor said.
"It's obscene," Hepplemeyer said desperately. And then he surrendered, and the following day a loaded garbage truck backed up across the campus to the hoop.
It does not take much to make a happening in Fun City, and since it is also asserted that there is nothing so potent as an idea whose time has come, the Mayor's brilliant notion spread through the city like wildfire. Not only were the network cameras there, not only the local and national press, not only ten or twelve thousand students and other curious city folk, but also the kind of international press that usually turns out only for major international events. Which this was, for certainly the talent for producing garbage was generic to mankind and perhaps the major function of mankind, as G.B.S. had once indelicately remarked; and certainly the disposal of the said garbage was a problem all mankind shared.
So the cameras whirred, and fifty million eyes were glued to television screens as the big Sanitation truck backed into position. As a historical note, we remember that Ralph Vecchio was the driver and Tony Andamano his assistant. Andamano stood in the iris of history, so to speak, directing Vecchio calmly and efficiently:
"Come back, Ralphy—a little more—just cut it a little. Nice and easy. Come back. Come back. You got another twelve, fourteen inches. Slow—great. Hold it there. All right."
Professor Hepplemeyer stood by the Mayor, muttering under his breath as the dumping mechanism reared the great body back on its haunches—and then the garbage began to pour through the hoop. Not a sound was heard from the crowd as the first flood of garbage poured through the hoop; but then, when the garbage disappeared into infinity or Mars or space or another galaxy, such a shout of triumph went up as was eminently proper to the salvation of the human race.
Heroes were made that day. The Mayor was a hero. Tony Andamano was a hero. Ralph Vecchio was a hero. But above all, Professor Hepplemeyer, whose fame was matched only by his gloom, was a hero. How to list his honors? By a special act of Congress, the Congressional Medal of Ecology was created; Hepplemeyer got it. He was made a Kentucky Colonel and an honorary citizen of Japan and Great Britain. Japan immediately offered him ten million dollars for a single hoop, an overall contract of a billion dollars for one hundred hoops. Honorary degrees came from sixteen universities, and the city of Chicago upped Japan's offer to twelve million dollars for a single hoop. With this, the bidding between and among the cities of the United States became frantic, with Detroit topping the list with an offer of one hundred million dollars for the first—or second, to put it properly—hoop constructed by Hepplemeyer. Germany asked for the principle, not the hoop, only the principle behind it, and for this they were ready to pay half a billion marks, gently reminding the professor that the mark was generally preferred to the dollar.
At breakfast, Hepplemeyer's wife reminded him that the dentist's bill was due, twelve hundred dollars for his new brace.
"We only have seven hundred and twenty-two dollars in the bank." The professor sighed. "Perhaps we should take a loan."
"No, no. No indeed. You are putting me on," his wife said.
The professor, a quarter of a century behind in his slang, observed her with some bewilderment.
"The German offer," she said. "You don't even have to build the wretched thing. All they want is the principle."
"I have often wondered whether it is not ignorance after all but rather devotion to the principle of duality that is responsible for mankind's aggravation."
Excerpted from A Touch of Infinity by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1973 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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