11-2 fiction2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.2 (Spring 2011)


short story


courtesy of artrenewal.org


A Theory of Everything

Syd Amit

Ah, not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge! In for ever knowing, we are for ever blessed; but to know all, were the curse of a fiend.      Edgar Allan Poe, The Power of Words

Professor Suraci is admiring the sunset. He is sprawled on a lawn chair on the roof of Boltzmann Tower, home of the physics department. The roof is his sanctuary, his Walden. He comes here to relax, contemplate, and get away from it all. Here, it’s just him and his thoughts. The only annoyance here is the ugly chimney of the incinerator the biophysics graduate students use to dispose of mice. He can live with that; the solitude is worth it.

Today he came here to celebrate his triumph. He finally did it — he found the Theory of Everything. He tied together general relativity, quantum theory, particle physics, and cosmology. He explained the Universe’s birth and its fate. He resolved all apparent paradoxes and pesky inconsistencies that have been plaguing physics for decades. It’s all here, crammed into one messy composition notebook.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t even that hard. Once he discovered that the genetic code and elementary particles can be described by the same Lie algebras, everything fell into place like cosmic dominoes: the Lie algebras explained protein folding, which turned out to be a nanoscale analogue of galaxy formation. From there, it was quite easy to explain dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity, and cosmic inflation. From Planck scale to galaxy clusters, it was a downhill slope: every discovery made the next one easier, until all of the Universe’s secrets unraveled.

Now it’s just a matter of putting it all in a nice LaTex file and sending it to some big-shot journal. Then there will be a long review process. Colleagues will ask questions and seek clarifications; some will raise petty objections; those who are particularly envious will be picking at his grammar. But he knows he got it right. Everything fits, meshed together into a cohesive, stand-alone theory that explains everything.

Then what? A Nobel Prize, for sure. Lunch with the President. First-class, all-expenses-paid lecture trips around the world. Endorsement deals. Universities, streets, and fellowships will be named after him. He’ll take his place in history as the greatest scientist of all time. Best of all, he’ll have the endless satisfaction that comes from knowing that he solved the toughest riddle Nature could conjure up. From now on, life is nothing but fame, money, and good times.

But there’s something on his mind. Something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s because he despises attention and celebrity, and he didn’t get into science for the money anyway. He is of the old school, of a time before science became a game of big money and even bigger egos.

But the fame and attention are not enough to discourage him. If he wishes, he may publish his theory, retire, withdraw from mankind, and let the party go on without him. What’s really bothering him is that his theory is a dead end. It’s a theory of everything, leaving nothing else to be discovered. Surely some lesser scientists will show that his theory applies in places he’s never thought of, like English professors who find yet another Hamlet motif in David Copperfield. But for him, and for any other real scientist, that’s the end. The Theory of Everything will consume its subject matter.

How can he live with that? He was brought up in the Socratic tradition that learning is a lifelong pursuit. He considered his research to be an infinite chess match, always exciting but with too many pieces for any side to mate. He couldn’t imagine Nature would resign so suddenly.

Now he’s too old to learn a new game. He can always find a hobby or learn a new language, but after you’ve formulated the Theory of Everything, it’s rather difficult to get excited about pottery or German grammar.

He is reminded of that famous pole vaulter who insisted on improving his world record one centimeter at a time, so that he can collect the cash prize over and over again. One big jump, one staggering world record, would have ended is career. Wouldn’t it have been better for Professor Suraci to have done the same, to have taken one small step at a time, instead of solving everything at once? Has he jumped too high?

When he was six, his father tried to get him to take an interest in science, telling him that solving problems is exhilarating. But what if there are no more problems to be solved by the time I grow up, asked the naive child. There will always be open questions, his father reassured him.

Now he knows his father betrayed him. There are no more open questions. He solved them all.

He thinks of Gabriel’s Horn, that mathematical solid that has infinite surface area but a finite volume equal to pi. With all its dimensions and apparent intricacies, this is what the Universe turned out to be: infinite and daunting on the outside, finite and guileless on the inside. What a letdown!

And now, after a lifetime of abstract thought, he realizes that cogito ergo sum doesn’t sound that sophisticated any more. That was easy for Descartes to say; he had plenty to think about. But what if I have no more thinking to do? Who, or what, am I? Am I anything at all?

The sound of footsteps on the staircase behind him jolts Professor Suraci out of his meditation. Trine, the department’s perpetual post-doc, reminds him that the particle physics journal club started five minutes ago. It’s time to go, mumbles the old professor to himself as he picks up his notebook and follows Trine. He stops by the chimney and waits for Trine to descend the narrow staircase. Then he takes one more look at the beautiful sunset, throws his notebook into the chimney, and jumps.

Mr. Amit is a graduate student in mathematics at Boston College.  This is his first published short story.