TIME AS A BRAID OF OUR LIVES
Robert R. Chase
My wife used to explain to her friends that I have always been adrift in time. This is less dramatic than it sounds. Like everyone, I live in the present and look forward to the future. However, my memories are usually no more precise than to distinguish between the near past and far past. Ask me how long I have been taking pills for blood pressure and I will probably say ten years, but it could just as easily be fifteen or more. I can usually remember in detail stories I have read or movies I have seen, but it is only with difficulty and utilizing something akin to Holmesian deduction that I can remember the circumstances under which I read or saw them. It is almost as if I apprehended them outside of time, straight from the Platonic substrate, as it were.
Meg was never like that. For her, time was a rigid matrix imprinted directly on her brain. Because of her, I never missed an appointment or a payment. But there were disadvantages as well. Her mother died on February 27th. For years afterward, February 27th would be a dark day. On that day, she seemed to experience the loss anew.
She would be darkly amused to learn that October 3rd has become that date for me.
Now that she was gone, I kept track of bills by writing the due dates on the envelope and filing them in order. Notes on a calendar took care of other obligations. Much to the surprise of some people, I was actually able to handle the basics of running my life.
My daughter, Tina, was one of the most surprised. She visited every weekend and regaled me with stories of bureaucratic snafus at her exotic government R&D agency. Her ostensible reason for visiting was to cook me a decent meal and give me some company. Both were undoubtedly true reasons, but from the way she looked at the papers on my desk and the tenor of certain questions she tried to slip oh so casually into conversation, I could tell she was looking for signs of everything from depression to Alzheimer’s.
“Look,” I said finally. At that moment, a commercial came on the television and the sound volume increased, even though I was pretty certain the FCC had a rule against that. This was the one where two guys walk into a bar and ask for a beer, but the bartender says he has never heard of beer and offers them some sort of lemon lime alcopop instead. I grabbed the remote and muted it.
“Look,” I began again, “I’m always glad to see you, but don’t you want to spend your weekends with your friends? What about that guy, Jimmy, that you were dating?”
Tina gave an operatic sigh. “Jimmy is such a momma’s boy.” Then she laughed. “And what a momma! I didn’t tell you about the dinner I had with her three months ago. She was boasting about the humane way she raised Jimmy and didn’t I think corporal punishment was the most barbaric thing in the world. I told her about how you always claimed to be the meanest Daddy in the world, and that if it hurt you more than it hurt me to get spanked, that would be because you weren’t doing it right.”
“I never spanked you,” I said. “You were a well-behaved child, most of the time. I never had to.”
“One time,” she said, holding up her index finger. “I had been throwing a fit about something, I can’t even remember what. When you’d had enough you gave me a ten second countdown. I paid no attention. At zero, you swept me off my feet, placed me on your knee, and paddled my rump.”
I shook my head, vainly seeking a corresponding memory. “Did it hurt much?” I asked.
“I don’t think it hurt at all,” she said. “What it did was humiliate me. I was upside down, my dress was over my head, and I was being spanked. Physical pain was completely unnecessary.”
Saying that I was the meanest Dad in the world, that I intended a spanking to hurt her more than me, that certainly sounded like the sort of thing I would say, and spanking was unquestionably the sort of thing I might have done under appropriate circumstances. Only I had no memory of actually doing it.
“Anyway, Jimmy’s mom looked like she was about to get sick. She was convinced that you were Hannibal Lecter and that I had to be suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder.” Tina looked at me closely. “You really don’t remember this?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Hmm. Well, you know what I’m going to say—“
“Loss of memory being one of the first signs—“ I chimed in.
“And I know what you’re going to say, so let me just cut to the chase. I have an interview lined up for you. He’s one of the scientists who we have on contract, only I’m pretty sure the work he is doing on his own is much more interesting than what he is doing for us. You should be able to sell it to one of the science magazines.”
“Tina, thank you, I know you are trying to help me. But what’s the matter with an old man just enjoying his retirement? I don’t need the money.”
“You don’t,” she agreed. “You need the work. You go to the gym two, three times a week. That’s good. You need to do the same thing for your mind.” She tapped her head. “Use it or lose it, right?”
“You are going to nag me for my own good until you get your way,” I said. “Just like your mother.”
“I learned from the best,” Tina said. “Here’s the name and phone number. I’ve already told him to expect your call.”
Dmitri Solokov was one of several score scientists picked up when the United States went bargain hunting after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Defense Department did not want these suddenly out- of- work geniuses forced to peddle their wares to the regimes in Iran and Iraq and in virtually every case, the Russians preferred the land of the Big Mac to Baghdad. None of them had affected any segment of American science to the extent that Von Braun and company had affected the space program, but that would have been considered a bonus. It was enough to keep their talents from being utilized by terrorists. For more than two decades, DARPA had tossed Dmitri and his colleagues a grant every now and then in the hopes that equations on a whiteboard might eventually evolve into something that went boom. Every so often, it did.
I met Dmitri in the shiny University physics building where he taught graduate students. I nearly got lost on my way. My GPS system insisted I turn onto a bridge that did not exist. I managed to ignore it and made my way to the third floor, where a smiling department admin escorted me the rest of the way to Dmitri’s office. In most respects it resembled similar offices I had been in: offprints and journals in untidy piles threatening to collapse on the laptop computer that held pride of place in the center of the desk. One item stood out. A bronze samovar stood on an adjoining table. It looked old to my untrained eye, like a relic left behind on a beach after a storm. Its one concession to the last hundred years was an electric heating element that had been fitted onto the base.
Dmitri shook my hand, and indicated a surprisingly comfortable chair in which to sit. He pressed a cup of scalding hot tea in my hands and sat down across from me.
“Thank you for taking the time to see me, Dr. Solokov,” I began. “I want to make it clear that even though my daughter set up this meeting, it is in no way connected with your Government work. Feel free to throw me out at any time.”
That drew a big laugh. “No, please, I am Dmitri. No last names in America. Am very pleased by visit of awarded journalist. I read some of your work. Even when you get science .wrong, you clearly try to get it right.”
My smile, which had been expanding, grew a bit forced at that last comment.
“Tell me,” he continued, “how you come to be science journalist.” His blue eyes watched me closely, as if something more than polite conversation was at stake.
“I’ve always been fascinated by science,” I said. “When I was a young child, I always watched Mr. Wizard and the Bell Science specials with Frank Baxter and Richard Carlson.”
“But you do not become scientist,” Dmitri observed.
“I couldn’t do the math,” I confessed. “It’s all I can do to balance a checkbook, even with a computer program.”
“So, like Moses, you see the Promised Land but cannot enter,” he said.
“You could say that.” I had never quite thought of it that way.
“Well, I become scientist to see how things are, to know what is true and what it not. In old Soviet Union, truth is rare commodity and so very valuable.”
He held up both fists in front of his face, as if he were seizing the very fabric of reality. “So young, so foolish I was. My science could never prove that truth was good thing, or that good was meaningful term. Still, in very narrow area, science is king. Is tool that allows us to probe deep problems.
“My heart is with the deep problems. Many deep problems with quantum mechanics, so I work to understand. But when I come to United States, I find so many flee from real understanding. The equations work, they say. Who cares about poor dead/alive cat?
“I care! Puss is either dead or alive, or if both there must be more to learn about dead aliveness.”
Dmitri took a breath and seemed to gather his thoughts. “You think Einstein was smart?” he asked, frowning at me.
I blinked at the sudden change of topic. “The general consensus is that he was the smartest man alive.” Then, feeling a sudden need to justify myself: “I mean the whole annus mirabilis work, the special theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect–—the”
“No,” Dmitri said, in a tone which brooked no argument. “His teachers were right to consider him poor student. In 1905, in all of Europe and United States and parts of Asia, at least 100 scientists as smart or smarter.
“But Dmitri, you protest, if Einstein not the smartest, how did he make those Earth-, no, Universe- shaking discoveries.? What did he have that smarter ones lacked? I tell you. Courage!”
For an instant, I thought he was going to transform into Bert Lahr. He must have been aware of the Wizard of Oz connection, because he quickly repressed a smile.
“I am serious,” he insisted. “Once Michelson and Morley prove non-existence of aether—”
“Or that the Earth is stationary,” I murmured.
“Hah!” Dmitri’s laugh was explosive. “Yes, but to suggest that takes even more than my courage. So, first Michelson and Morley, then Lorentz and Fitzgerald explain with their contraction equation. From there is only hop, skip, and jump to special relativity. But only Einstein jumps. Why?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Because is absurd! Faster you go, thinner you get. But is not good diet substitute. Thinner you get, more massive you are. At end, you have infinite mass in two dimensions. And time has stopped.
“This is physics? No, this is Little Nemo in Dreamland. Scientists shy away from serious consideration, not even knowing what they are doing. But Einstein, Einstein does not care. What can they do, keep him in patent office? He breaks through absurdity barrier and—surprise–—with special relativity everything makes sense.” He shrugged. “Almost.”
“You have discovered something as important as special relativity,” I suggested. “And as absurd?”
“Even more so,” he said.
He paused long enough for me to wonder if these stories were necessary for me to understand what he was going to reveal or if they were his way of getting enough nerve to break his own absurdity barrier.
“So, I am in United States, richest country in world, land of super-everything, hoping that super-conducting super-collider will open deeper layers of reality. But costs rise, Congress gets bored, program is killed leaving big hole in ground. No more grand advances by smashing atoms like kid in sandbox. New way must be found. I think: instead of breaking things apart, I will look more closely than anyone and try to understand unbroken parts. With my colleagues, I work ten years to create nanoscope. For first time, we see at subatomic level.”
He turned his oversized computer screen around so we both could see it. A remote eventually brought forth a series of images. In the first one, a hazy blue ring surrounded a blue circle, which enclosed a bright yellow-red dot.
“Actual wave function of hydrogen atom,” Dmitri explained. “Was breakthrough, to get actual picture but I need fourth dimension.”
The picture of the hydrogen atom was replaced by an array of atoms packed together like eggs. They were blurred so much my eyes began to water.
“Heat movement,” Dmitri said sympathetically. “We slow it down. And increase magnification.”
The atoms grew larger and spilled off the side until one dominated the entire screen. Then we were within the electron shell and the nucleus was growing before us. An occasional flicker had become noticeable. I was not about to complain. Getting a set of images this good was nothing short of miraculous and could make a decent story by itself.
“Is it tumbling?” I asked. The focus improved and I saw that it was not. Instead, the individual protons and neutrons were moving, shifting positions like swarming bees.
“This is a polonium atom,” Dmitri said, “the next to last stage in the radioactive decay of uranium into lead.”
Something darted off to one side almost too quickly to register, followed by another annoying flicker. “Emission of alpha particle,” Dmitri explained. “Two protons, two neutrons.”
“So now I am looking at a lead atom,” I said.
“No.” Dimitri froze the image. “I bring up pictures of lead and polonium nuclei. What we have watched is clearly polonium. And was polonium.”
“So a polonium atom decayed into itself,” I said, feeling like the dumbest kid in the class.
“Provide alternative explanation,” Dmitri said.
I thought for a moment. “Well, to have these images at all is an almost unbelievable achievement. It isn’t just the magnification at levels so far below the electromagnetic spectrum. You have slowed time down by a fact of a thousand? A million? At the same time, to insulate your apparatus from any slightest vibration and keep your focus on a single atom, that has to be one of the greatest engineering feats of the age.”
“So?” Dmitri was looking at the floor. His tone was carefully neutral.
“So I noticed a flicker that became more pronounced with increased magnification. There was one such flicker just after the emission of the alpha particle. That flicker must have been the result of some external vibration overcoming the damping system of your nanoscope. As a result the focus moved from the newly created lead atom to a nearby atom that was still polonium.”
“Very good. You, a mere liberal arts major, have in matter of seconds come up with the same explanation most respected physics Ph.Ds.”
I basked in a warm glow of self-satisfaction for about ten seconds until I felt the stiletto hidden in his words. “Only you think that’s wrong,” I said.
“There is no shift in the nanoscope coordinates. Sensor always points to exactly same position. No interruption in nanoscope operation.”
I shook my head. “During the flicker, the screen is blank.”
“Is because, for that instant, those coordinates are empty.”
I tried to absorb what he meant. “You are saying that reality is discontinuous.” I thought a few more seconds. “No, because if it were that simple, there would just be a gap and then the lead atom would appear where it was supposed to, not the old polonium atom.”
“This is rare occurrence,” Dmitri said. “Usually, atom disappears then reappears. Then I ask myself, how I know is same atom? Yet if has same atomic number, not ionized, all atoms look alike. I have idea almost too crazy even for me. I set computer to search thousands, tens of thousands of images, comparing before flicker and after flicker. And I find…
“I find polonium turning to lead, but without alpha emission. In same proportion as polonium staying polonium after emission. So, in macrocosm, all stays the same. Only when we look very, very closely, do we see problem.”
“Why should only some atoms do this?” I asked.
“Is all. We see difference only in decaying atoms.”
“Where do the changed atoms come from?”
“Ah. I think about this. Schroedinger thinks only about cat. I think about all. Each of us observes, collapses wave functions, creates reality. But do we create same reality? Maybe yes, maybe no. If no, is most time close enough, no one can tell. Maybe sometimes, you and I have different memories. We make jokes, say we get old. Only, what if both memories equally true? We move everyday through thousands of alternate realities, lying so close together we can never tell difference. Almost never.”
It was nearly four o’clock. Dmitri had to teach a seminar. We arranged to meet the next day to complete the interview. I drove home thinking about how I would write the article. It would be all too easy to make Dmitri sound like some kind of wacko. He had been too nice a guy to treat that way. I decided that I would write the fairest first draft I could and submit it to him to see if he was really resolved to commit professional suicide.
The odd thing was, part of my mind believed him.
I phoned Tina when I got home and told her that the interview was going well. It took until the end for me to bring up the real reason for the call. “Our discussion yesterday brought back an odd memory,” I said. “Do you remember, I guess you would have been in junior high, a time you came home in tears saying that none of the other girls liked you, that even your best friends pretended they had no idea who you were?”
There was a long pause, so long that I feared I might have triggered something still too powerful for her to deal with. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I know I went through some pretty tough times, drove you and Mom half crazy, but I don’t remember anything like that.”
We said a few more words, I promised to tell how the interview concluded tomorrow, and we hung up.
Tina did not remember. I remembered, though. Some of the hardest times being a parent occur when your child is absolutely heartbroken, and sometimes you can’t even tell why. Tina had cried for so long, and the explanations, when she could speak, made so little sense that Meg, who had seen too many stories about teen depression leading to drugs and suicide, had seriously begun to wonder about her mental health.
Tina said nothing about it the next morning when she went to school. It was Saturday evening before Meg questioned her about it. Tina just looked at her funny and said she was being silly.
Children are resilient. They can bounce back from some things that would shatter adults. Or maybe they are just better at repressing unpleasant memories.
To my own surprise, that night I fell immediately into a dreamless sleep.
The next day, having learned its lesson, the GPS conducted me directly to the University and to a closer parking lot than the one I had used the day before. The department admin stopped me as I went by her office.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but Dr. Solokov left orders that he is not to be disturbed.”
“By me?” I asked. “I have an appointment.”
“Especially by you,” she said. “He asked me to give you this note.”
Yesterday I spoke freely about mere speculations. Your interest indicates that you were taking these fancies much too seriously. Publication of such thoughts could destroy any career I have made in your country. Therefore, I believe it best for us to have no further contact and I ask you as a gentleman to publish no account of our conversation and to destroy your notes.
I read with growing incredulity. My Dmitri would never have made such a request.
I was back in the car before the shock began to wear off. Indeed, my Dmitri would never have written that note. But another Dmitri, only slightly different…
In the final analysis, we accept those theories, whether of physics, psychology, or economics, which make the most sense of the life we are living. For much of my life, I have felt like a traveler in a strange land. The inhabitants are mostly friendly, some things seem familiar, and I have learned how to make my way tolerably well. But there is always that sense of inexplicable sadness, of strangeness, of being an exile.
At one time, I thought Augustine was right. “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” That may indeed be the ultimate answer. But there may be an intermediate answer as well.
If anyone is reading this, you may be thinking that I have missed the most important implication of Dmitri’s theory. Somewhere in the maze of worlds that lie alongside my own, Meg lives! Perhaps, but I have no way of directing myself there. And if I did, would I not find another self living happily with her? No, success in such a quest would be much worse than failure.
Besides, I’m an old man. In a few years, Meg and I will be together again or the whole thing will have been a meaningless farce from the beginning. That is one of the many things I do not know.
I do know, however, that when Tina comes to visit me again, I will open the door wide and say “Welcome home, stranger.”
Food for Thought
Some experiences are nearly universal. We have a feeling of nostalgia for times we can only dimly remember. We have the feeling that we are always strangers. We find that our memories don’t quite match with reality. What if our memories are good and it is reality that shifts? Our friends seem suddenly different and they make the same complaint about us. Suppose both are correct? There seems to be a contradiction between a determinate past and a future that allows free will. Suppose both are equally indeterminate?
About the Author
Robert R. Chase is Chief Counsel of an Army research laboratory. He has published three novels, about two dozen short stories in Analog and Asimov’s, and an article on the intersection of religion and science fiction in First Things.
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