By Chris Katsaropoulos
Luminis Books Copyright © 2012 Chris Katsaropoulos
All rights reserved.
Theodore sees now that he should have brought sunglasses, for even here, within the gaping, hushed volume of the convention hotel lobby, splinters of irretrievable light reach through the wall of glass that defines the reception area and make him squint, as he tries to focus on what his wife is telling him.
"The cooking class is at one," she is saying, "then I'm going to the spa for a massage." His wife Ilene, young enough still to make other men look twice. Yet enough of a wife to make him sometimes want to look away. "So I probably won't see you until dinner."
He had not realized until this moment that he has been jealous of her the entire journey. "You'll miss my presentation. That was part of the reason for coming here." When she had suggested two months ago joining him for his trip to present a paper at the New International Perspectives on String Theory Symposium in Santa Rosa, it had seemed like a good opportunity for the two of them to spend a weekend away, an expense account vacation to break up the tedium of a Midwestern winter. But he has not been able to relax and enjoy the trip the same way she has. When she ordered her second glass of wine on the plane and then her third glass of wine at dinner last night, the prospect of standing at the podium in front of a room filled with anyone who matters in the incestuous and back-biting world of particle physics made him balk and ask for a diet soda instead. And now she is telling him that she has planned to have a stranger kneading her naked back at the moment of his supreme triumph, when he delivers the conclusion of the speech that will cement his reputation as one of the leading thinkers in Perturbation Theory, an important but, in his view, still entirely underappreciated offshoot of String Theory.
"The main reason," she says, always able to discern the thinly-veiled insecurities that motivate his actions. "You wanted me to see you on stage. Performing." She touches him lightly on the forearm. "Not that I don't want to, I'm very proud. But I wouldn't understand a word you're saying. And this was the only time I could sign up for the class."
A ray of sunlight catches on the golden fan of hair that drapes her shoulder. As he contemplates these shimmering filaments of hair, they seem strangely detached from Ilene, they have become merely one more sleek, clean object in the lobby of the hotel, whose only purpose seems to manifest the wonder of the solemn late-winter light pouring in from the two-story windows. What a volume of light! Theodore often catches himself undertaking mental calculations regarding the physics of light as he watches it achieve one of its many visual tricks, transforming an item such as Ilene's hair or the cut glass vase on the registration desk into a display of pure sculptured form.
He knows, as a matter of fact, that there are 400 photons per cubic centimeter scattered throughout the entire universe, a suffusion of light permeating every ounce of space that exists as a remnant of the background radiation from the Big Bang. Even in the darkest midnight, we are literally bathed in light. And that thought, coupled with the tremendous intensity of the glare from the early-afternoon sun, leads him to one of his favorite thought-pictures, envisioning himself inhabiting a universe that is abundantly full rather than empty. It is natural for us to feel that we are moving through the open air, a vast empty sky or even a clear open space such as this lobby, but really we are more or less bathed in an ocean of energy, even the blank vacuum of intergalactic space filled with quantum particles that randomly pop in and out of being. There is so much energy all around us that he has to laugh when news show pundits blather on about the doom and gloom of the latest energy crisis and the price of gasoline hitting four dollars a gallon.
Everything is energy; it is only a matter of harnessing it. Every cubic centimeter of space has enough energy locked inside to power the city of Santa Rosa for a hundred years.
And this brings him back again to his favorite thought problem of recent days. He has been fiddling with the idea of how many photons can fit in a cubic centimeter of space — not how many are always there as a remnant of the background radiation, but how many can be crammed into a discrete volume of space? As the problem first caught his attention, he thought it would be a quick one to solve, but it is trickier than he might have imagined. He has been juggling it in his mind for the past week, and has thought about lobbing it at Pradeep Malawar, one of his friends at the Institute for Cosmological Physics, but he guesses that Pradeep will have a pat answer for it, cut and dried in the smug way so many of his colleagues have that they are right about all the basic premises of physics. So Theodore has kept it to himself, working it around in his head like a child's long-lost toy, playing with it from different angles.
Is there a limit to the number of photons that can pour through these big plate glass windows at any given moment?
Instinctively, his mind tells him yes, because there is a limit to what can be measured, and also because if you squeeze too much energy into a particular volume of space, you will form a black hole. However, individual photons can have a wide range of energies, so when you go to the lowest energy level, you can greatly increase the number of photons you cram in. Another problem: When you smash a lot of photons together, they form a collective entity that cannot easily be redivided into unique parts again. In some ways, the problem is a bit like trying to determine how many drops can come from a glass of water, or how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Theodore knows that thinking about this is silly in a way — this should all be very basic, the kind of thing Pradeep would never bother to consider because he takes so many of the fundamentals for granted. But when Theodore lets his mind wander like this, probing the margins of elementary premises, he sometimes stumbles upon a new way of looking at things that brings him a hint of insight on a totally different problem, perhaps even one that is pertinent to his research. As his mind wanders, he watches a young boy, maybe seven years old, hurl a football along a perfectly calculated parabolic arc across the lobby towards another boy, who from the looks of him must be his brother, the ball zipping upward to the point at the top of the curve where gravity overtakes the forward acceleration of the ball and begins to drag it down. Even at this age, the boy innately knows the perfect amount of force to apply from his arm and hand flinging forward and also the perfect angle and direction to launch the ball, in an instant taking into account the drag applied by the molecules of air, and also the lift from the spiraling rotation of the ball, which helps keep it afloat longer.
In the next instant, the ball lands in the outstretched hands of the other boy, the brother, his fingertips clutching it, holding on. And that image, of the ball landing safely, along with the intrusive thought of his research, nudges Theodore into a vague realization that he is missing something.
Yes, he is missing something. His notes, for the presentation, two college-ruled sheets of paper filled with scribblings that only he could read or understand. He has been dreading the presentation now for weeks, and those pieces of paper have been his crutch, a distillation of everything he wants to tell the ballroom full of his colleagues about the work he has been doing for the past six years, including all the key formulas that culminate in the breakthrough that is the reason for his paper getting published — and the professional accolades that will come with it. The computer slides he has created to embellish the talk are some help, but they don't have all the detail he needs.
Without those notes, he's sunk.
He pats himself on the front of his thighs, to check whether the notes are in the pockets of his slacks, but he feels nothing but the tautness of his quadriceps on one side and his plump leather wallet on the other. He reaches inside his sportscoat and checks the vest pocket, but it holds only his cell phone and the key card to their hotel room. He tries to place his hand in the outside pockets of the jacket, but these are still sewn shut, so rarely does he dress formally, even to this extent, without a suit or a tie, his shirt collar open to the first button.
"What is it?" Ilene has become accustomed, over the years, to his episodes of panic when he discovers he has lost something. It barely warrants a mention from her.
"My notes," he says, glaring at her as if she might have taken them. "I must have left them in the room." He looks around the lobby of the hotel for a clock, but can find none. Why is it that there are never any clocks in large public places? A momentary curse lifted against the unthoughtful designers of the hotel rises to his lips, then passes away unsaid. "What time is it?"
Ilene checks her watch and seeks to reassure him. "No hurry. You have eighteen minutes." But she also cannot resist this opportunity to get a jab in. "Maybe you should wear a watch." She studies hers again as if she has just discovered the wonder of its efficient functioning. "You're always late. Don't you care about time?"
"I do," Theodore says, "in a conceptual way. I'm fascinated by it."
This is not a problem, he thinks, seeking to adopt Ilene's confident attitude about the situation — there is always plenty of time. He glances at one of the flowers propped against the rim of the glass vase and thinks he can see the petals move, just slightly, unfurling their tender lavender tips as if grasping at the light of the sun. But perhaps he is only imagining this — they are not real. It must be only a current of air disturbed by the two football-playing boys as they run past that has caused the flowers to move.
"If you don't have them, they must be in the room." Ilene releases a heavy sigh that seems to enfold all the exasperation of living with someone as willfully impractical as her husband over the years. "Want me to run up and get them?"
"No, I'll go." He does not want to ruin her trip, even if it means ruining his. She has had her heart set on this class, the massage, an afternoon of indulgence. "I have plenty of time. I think I know where I left them." Yet even as he says this, a slippery feeling of dread starts to build within the pit of his stomach. He has no idea where the notes are, and without them he must rely on his own very shaky memory to supply the details necessary to fill an hour and twenty-five minutes of empty time in front of an audience of his peers. He has never liked talking to more than a couple of people at once, so he clings to the memory of what an undergrad professor of his once said upon completing a very brief fifteen minute lecture and letting the class out early to enjoy the remainder of the spring day: "Tell them what you're going to say, say it, then tell them what you said." It seems like a sound method of public speaking, one he has intended to follow during his preparation for the meeting, but without his notes it may be impossible for him to do.
He casts his eyes at Ilene, hoping she might somehow supply a resolution to his predicament, as she has done so many times before. Her green eyes look past him, over his shoulder, towards the street outside the hotel. She is taller than he is by several inches, and that has always been in his mind an indicator of the underlying basis of their relationship: He is always looking up at the sky towards her, and she is always looking down at the earth towards him. While he has been lost in contemplation of the intricate workings of interstellar space, she has raised the children, cooked the meals, and paid the bills. Today, her hair is flipped out at the ends in a style he has never seen before. In anticipation of this trip, she must have splurged on a new haircut as well as the outfit she is wearing, a gauzy blouse overlaid with rhomboidal patterns of green and yellow that remind him of the arabesque on the back of a playing card. If he delays her, she will be all dressed up with no place to go. Once she made the decision to join him on the trip, she must have been looking forward to it very much, planning what she would wear each day and selecting, after much deliberation, this particular outfit in anticipation of this afternoon. He does not want the trip to be a disappointment to her — one more in a series of disappointments.
After they married, Ilene wondered if it might be better for him to take a job at a large corporation, an aerospace firm perhaps, doing practical, applied science and getting paid handsomely for it. But he had been determined to carry on with his dream of uncovering the inner workings of the universe, peeling back, layer by layer, the laws of time and space and gravity that hold everything together and make it all work the way it does. He had a feeling, as had so many other young physicists of his day, that they were ninety-eight percent of the way to a final solution, a grand unifying theory that could boil everything down to a handful of equations, or even one very simple, eloquent equation, that sums it all up in a kind of primal algebraic ju-jitsu, like one of those children's toys that start out as a colorful geodesic sphere of interlocking plastic rods and can collapse upon itself into a single, unitary ball. So, he insisted on chasing the dream as a pure scientist and ended up at the Institute for Cosmological Physics on a research fellowship, earning less than many high school teachers, locking Ilene in to a life of making ends meet, cutting coupons and shopping for specials at the wholesale club, and trying to enjoy a trip to a physics conference now and then as if it were a real family vacation. Even though they are now well past the financial struggles of raising their two children, who have been comfortably launched into well-paying careers of their own, this intimation of the life he has inflicted on her magnifies the feeling he has of an impending doom. He reaches his hand out and touches the filmy fabric of her sleeve.
"Have fun at the class. This won't take long."
She brings her eyes back to him and grants him a smile. Though she has thickened at the waist in her middle age and her small-boned angel's face has acquired the puffiness of an extra chin when she looks down at him, the individual features he fell in love with, the pursed rosebud lips, the nose tipped up like a miniature ski jump, the startling green eyes, are still there. "You'll knock their socks off."
As he steps away from her, he glimpses the boys on the opposite side of the lobby, tossing the football once more in a semblance of a play they must be reenacting, and he remembers another number that brings him back to the problem of the photons. To know how many photons can fit into a cubic centimeter, you would have to put a time parameter around the answer, because photons are not static objects — a photon never stands still and it can only go at the speed of light. Like all other particles in the universe, photons have both wave- like and particle-like properties. He imagines his mythical cubic centimeter of space as a small transparent box being inundated from every direction by a series of waves of light, from a myriad of sources, like ripples in a pond, and so he would have to limit the duration of the thought-problem to some arbitrary amount of time, such as one second. And then he would be able to say that the wavelength of one photon is equal to the Planck length, which is the smallest possible length in the universe: 1.6 x 10 meters. The Planck length is the distance a photon travels in a Planck time, which is the shortest possible time in the universe. So, from here he can simply divide a cubic centimeter by the Planck length and divide a second by the Planck time, multiply those two numbers together, and voilà, he has his answer. The calculations would only take a couple of minutes to set up on a laptop computer.
Having reduced this problem to a set of easily knowable computations, he sets forth down the corridor that leads to the elevator that will lift him to his hotel room and his notes. He is reassured by the fact that everything is knowable — everything can be found.
This hallway is much dimmer than the main lobby, and it takes his eyes a moment to adjust. There is a quiet, muffled air here, away from the hubbub of people checking in or checking out and bellmen hoisting luggage onto their gleaming brass carts.
Then, as his pupils widen to allow a few more particles of light in, the problem of his little transparent cubic centimeter box comes at him again from another, more philosophical angle. The thought that enters his head is disturbing enough that he mentally holds it away from himself for a moment, a horrifying sight he must avoid seeing. Is it not true, according to quantum theory, that the probability wave of each photon fills the entire universe? So, when he looks at it from that perspective, the answer to the problem jumps from a certain discrete, knowable number all the way to infinity. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Antiphony by Chris Katsaropoulos. Copyright © 2012 Chris Katsaropoulos. Excerpted by permission of Luminis Books.
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