Millie gets shut down by the cops

Despite the passing of Labor Day, summer had not gotten the hint that it was time to pack up and leave. The sun shimmered in humid air, hanging slightly to the west now that lunch was done. Millie had a pink card in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. Her experiment didn’t need a thermometer, but she was sure that if she had one it would be somewhere in the nineties.

A blast from the air horn at the end of the quad shook her back into the moment. A second or so later, another air horn blast replied from a few hundred meters behind her. She stood on her tip-toes on the cement bench, squinting in the sunlight to see if the students were scribbling down their data. They seemed to be chatting more than they were writing. She waved to Aneesh, who was lazing in the shade off to the side of his group of students. Even from here, she could see him frown back at her. He pushed off the tree that was his brief umbrella, pointed to the students in front of him, and said, “Less chatting, more physics!” Even from her perch on this bench fifty meters away, she could hear his Indian-colored English whip the students into silence.

She raised the pink card high into the air again, and again came the air horn blast from the students in front of her. Again, moments later, came the response from an air horn hundreds of meters behind her. Millie put her pink card down by her side and waited while the students recorded their data again. In her brief moment of peace, she shut her eyes and thought about just how cool this actually was. This experiment, something of a ritual for introductory physics students at the Institute, followed in the footsteps of people like Galileo Galilei. His experiment, with two men on different hills flashing lamps at one another to try to measure the speed of light, was the failed and ancient equivalent of this attempt to measure the more humble speed of sound.

“Are you thinking about how fucking cool this is, Millie? Because you’ve got your eyes shut and that look on your face.”

Millie opened her eyes to see Aneesh standing a few feet in front of her. “What are you doing here? Who’s watching the students take their data?”

Aneesh looked over her shoulder and nodded. Millie turned and saw that a policeman on a bike had been standing behind her and that another couple of cops had just pulled up in a cruiser. They’d driven up the sidewalk from the roads flanking the quad and were now parked just meters from Millie, who was still standing on the bench.

“Oh, shit shit shit,” she said.

“Ma’am,” said one of the officers, who was wiggling a finger in one of his ears, “I’m gonna need you to step down from there and tell me what is going on.”

Millie hopped off the bench and approached the officer. Another car pulled up behind her. The two cars and the bike cop now had basically penned Aneesh and Millie in. Students crossing the quad were beginning to stop and watch.

“What’s the matter, officer?” Millie asked, squinting in the sun.

“We go a complaint . . . actually, we got several complaints . . . of noise on the quad. Are you making all that noise, ma’am?”

“Complaints? Yes, well, we are making that noise. These students,” she said, pointing at the group of students nearest her, “are doing this for a class and the horns are part of that.”

“You realize there are other classes going on, ma’am, and that we’re getting complaints that your horns are disrupting those classes?”

Millie didn’t know what to say. Professor Buck had been doing this lab this way every semester for 10 years, and nobody had ever complained before. She wasn’t sure where this was headed, but the five police officers now on the scene suggested nothing good would come of this.

“I teach for Dr. Buck, and he told me to do the lab this way. It’s the only way the students can collect this data.”

“Just WHAT are you doing with those horns?” another one of the police asked.

Aneesh chimed in. “We’re measuring the speed of sound.”

“Look you two, this is a use of the grounds. If you use the grounds like this, you gotta have a permit. You can get one from folks in Facilities, but you ain’t gonna get one on short notice today. You’re bothering a lot of people right now.”

“I came up behind one of those student back there,” the bike cop gestured toward the group of students further away, “and they blasted that horn and my ears are still ringing. At least the students have ear protection. What about everybody else?”

Millie realized that class was over, no matter what she did or said now. The police weren’t going to let this continue, there was no way to get a permit, and she was going to have to cancel the other two lab classes that day. All of them were measuring the speed of sound that day, and none of them were going to get to do it.

It was at this point that things got weird. “Ma’am, you gotta understand that 9/11 changed everything. People get jumpy. Lots of strange noises on a college campus. You can’t just go around making strange noises in broad daylight on a college campus.”

Millie shot a look at Aneesh, who was doing his best to not laugh. He managed to calmly say only, “No offense, sir, but it’s a little strange to be told to watch our noise level on a college campus.”

It was at this point that all police eyes zeroed in on Aneesh. It was also at this point that Millie realized the policeman in front of her had been keeping one hand on his sidearm this entire time. Strange air horn signals on the quad. A dark-skinned male involved. Millie’s heart started to race. Until now, it had been amusing but manageable. Somehow, in the last 30 seconds, a new line had been crossed.

“Sir, I need you to understand,” said the cop in front of Millie, “that you can’t use the grounds to measure sound without having the proper permit. You’re disturbing other classes, and this whole thing stops right now.”

“Don’t we already know the speed of sound?” asked one of the other cops.

Millie screwed up her face at him and was about to say something when he waved her off. “I’m just kidding,” he said, and broke eye contact.

“Take these students, pack up, and try to find another place to do this class. Can’t you go to an empty field or something? This is a city. You can’t just be making all this noise here.”

Millie gestured to the students closest to her, yelling “Pack it up!”

“Thanks, officers. Sorry to waste your time.”

“We’re on duty, ma’am. You’re not wasting our time.”

With that, the cops eased back and started to disperse. Millie looked at Aneesh and realized he’d gone stiff. He didn’t move a muscle until he was sure that the cops didn’t think him a threat anymore. Millie clapped him on the shoulder and said, “C’mon, let’s pack this up. I’ll call Buck, and let him know we got in trouble.”

“I don’t understand why this never happened before,” Aneesh said. “Buck says he’s been doing this 10 years without anybody making a stink.”

“Our lucky year,” Millie said as they walked back to the students.

Millie gets the Nobel prize

Author’s forward: I wrote this not because I agree or disagree with the choice of a particular Nobel prize winner. I wrote this because I was sick to death of the tone of the discussion about why Nobel prizes, in any field, are awarded. I’ve heard a lot of horrible things in the past few days. Much of it came from the mouths of people I respect. This is my own attempt to make sense of this moment and of the feelings and mis-givings of other people.

Millie gets the Nobel prize

“He only got it because he’s black.”

Millie looked uncomfortably across the room at the Duke. He was sitting in his cubicle, hands knitted behind his head and his feet up on the desk. A pile of books and papers lay neatly placed next to his feet, and his eyes were focused on the glass dome window in the ceiling of the Bullpen.

Since nobody said anything (in fact, the air had gone quite still), the Duke sweetened the pot. “I wonder when they’ll put him back in his collar and take him back to the plantation?”

At this, three chairs slid back very suddenly and Millie, without realizing it, found herself standing over the Duke threatening to break his jaw. The fury was so fast and so blinding, the two sets of hands that had pulled the Duke out of his chair and down to the floor paused. Millie’s fist paused. The whole room was still again.

“I was kidding guys, just kidding. I wanted to get a rise out of you. Rise risen, I say,” the Duke quipped, a half-smile gracing his lips.

The hands dropped him to the floor and Millie uncocked her fist. The air thinned a little in the Bullpen. It was Aneesh who spoke next. “What the fuck, man? What’s your fucking problem, you dumb shit? We’re trying to study for the goddamn mid-term and all you can do is slouch around spouting your white racist bullshit?”

“I already studied,” said the Duke. His half-smile got half-smilier.

The Duke was smart, so he always found himself with free time on his hands. This meant he got bored, and when he got bored he made up stuff to do. That something usually meant tormenting those around him, dragging them out of their studies, into a fight, and into that “B” they never wanted.

Millie knew this. It was why they had dated, why the Saturdays had been so much more fun than they were when she was just studying. But the Duke got bored with that too, and when he turned to tormenting her she had ended the relationship and moved her cubicle as far across the Bullpen as she could manage.

“This day is fucking ruined,” Aneesh pronounced. He walked across the room and slammed his books shut.

Millie tried to glare at him softly, encouraging him with a look to re-open the books. “No way, Millie,” Aneesh said out loud, “I am not going to waste my Saturday with this . . . ”

At this point, a string of no-doubt colorful Hindi came pouring of of Aneesh’s mouth as he pointed at the Duke. He then stormed from the Bullpen.

The Duke seemed proud of himself, so he got back in his chair and threw his feet back on the desk. “Seriously, guys, I don’t see why they gave the Nobel Prize for that claptrap. There are far more important things going on in this world that deserve recognition. This had to be a mercy prize.”

Millie took it upon herself to engage with the Duke, since she was also getting tired of this. “Just because it wasn’t in particle physics doesn’t mean it wasn’t important work, Thad.”

“They wanted to send a signal, Millie, that stringing a bunch of cable together and playing around with FPGAs is more important than fundamental physics. Signal received. You gotta admit, the color of his skin probably helped.”

This time Millie decked him. The Duke went down and his chair flipped over on top of him. She marched out of the Bullpen and ran down the stairs to the Mathematics department. This was her hiding spot, where she went for tea or coffee whenever she wanted to escape her insufferable peers. Too many physics graduate students all fighting for attention from the top faculty wore her down. Mathematics was her escape.

She wandered down a half-lit corridor into the lounge. Day-old donuts sat in a box off to the side. She flipped open the pink lid and pulled out a stale glazed. A hoddle of coffee invited her, so she pulled a community mug down from the small shelves above the sink and drained some of the jet fuel into the cup.

She settled into one of the orange couches in a corner of the Mathematics lounge. The room was an open square, occasionally used for small seminars but mainly intended as a big space for casual meetings and studying. Windows, stretching from floor to ceiling, adorned one of the walls. Furniture was scattered throughout the room, mostly 30-year-old sofas arranged in U-shapes. Coffee tables were arranged in the open space between the couches, providing a surface for feet, or books, or cups of coffee.

Millie leaned back against the couch. The lounge lights were dimmed and she stared out the windows across the city. Math and sciences were located at the top of a hill. The campus stretched out below the hill, and from this fourth-floor vantage she could see down the campus and into the city beyond. A gray ceiling of heavy clouds hung over everything, a reminder of the unstoppable rain that portended the coming of a miserable winter. The dim lights, the gray and sunless sky, provided a calming mood. Anyone looking for her wouldn’t see her sitting in this corner, and she was content to just remain in the corner and be ignored.

“Millie,” came the heavily accented voice of her friend, Aneesh. She turned her head slowly and saw him standing in the middle of the room behind her. A community mug was in his hand, a stressed look adorning his face.

“Sit down, Aneesh,” she said, and she gestured to the couch.

He plopped onto the couch and set down his coffee on the table. “That little fucker really pissed me off,” Aneesh said, putting his feet on the table and leaning back into a musty old pillow.

“Do you think he was right?”

Aneesh gave a very sudden and sickly look. “No, Aneesh, what I mean is: did that guy really do Nobel-prize winning work? I just can’t wrap my brain around it.”

Aneesh relaxed. “Does it matter?” he asked.

Millie didn’t quite know how to respond to this. She sipped her coffee. “Well, I mean, the Nobel is a really important prize. It’s THE prize, Aneesh. Below that, all other prizes are ribbons at the county fair.”

“Really?” Aneesh asked.

“We ARE talking about the same Nobel prize, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, Millie. Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. Alfred Nobel. Isn’t one for mathematics. I know the one.”

“So why don’t you think it’s important?”

Aneesh smirked. “Why do YOU think it is important, Millie?”

Millie didn’t like it when Aneesh turned the question back on her. She frowned. Aneesh laughed. “Seriously, Millie, I think it is more important to understand why you consider it so important before I explain why I am not taking it so seriously.”

“Well, it’s the most prestigious prize that recognizes work in physics. Isn’t that enough?”

Aneesh smiled again. “I agree, but what makes it important to you?”

“I’m a physicist,” she said without hesitating, “and I want to win one.”

“So the prize is for you?”

“What do you mean, ‘for me?’ I don’t think I’m going to win one for my graduate thesis, if that’s what you mean.”

“What I mean is, when the prize is awarded you really think that it’s important for us, the physicists, the people getting the prize?”

Millie didn’t understand  where Aneesh was going with this. She took a gulp of her coffee. “Just get to the point, Aneesh.”

“What I mean is, Millie, there is all this pomp and circumstance about the Nobel prizes. The Academy makes these phone calls at some God-awful hour here in the U.S., letting some sleepy academic know they’ve won a trip to Sweden. The press eats it up. There’s all the glitz and glamor. The royal family hosts the winners, they are paraded in front of a huge crowd months after the results are announced. They spend the rest of their lives serving on committees, giving public lectures, and bouncing from place to place evangelizing past glories. And you really think the prize if for the WINNER?”

Millie thought about this. “Millie,” Aneesh said, “a Nobel prize winner barely gets to set foot in a laboratory ever again, unless they’re running the damn thing. They’re so busy worrying about talking to people, meeting with Senators, showing up at state dinners, adding scientific color to gatherings and scientific merit to petitions, and asking for money they will rarely do meaningful work again. The Nobel prize robs the winner of any semblance of a real research career again. They do good for others, but they have little hope of ever doing good for their own scientific needs ever again.”

Millie digested this. “So, what’s the punchline, Aneesh?”

“Simple. The Nobel prize isn’t for us. It isn’t for the scientists; it’s for the non-scientists. Think of the endless news stories and articles about the prize winners. Think about how much everybody talks about this stuff for a solid 24 hours after the announcements. The fact that the Academy makes the announcements over a period of days steals time away from movie stars, from sports teams, from politicians, from all the crap that people fill their brains with when they watch the news. They actually focus on science, on literature, on peace, for just a few days.

“Sometimes, the prize is so fucking controversial people actually waste their whole weekends arguing endlessly about whether or not so-and-so was worthy of the prize. People who have no idea what it means to do scientific research, to act on behalf of peace, to write a poem or a novel, will actually argue about whether someone who does these things is worthy of the prize. It’s amazing. I saw two old men going to blows over the Nobel peace prize when I was a kid. They were best friends but when that prize was handed out, they actually shoved each other around until they stormed out, never to speak again. Good God, Millie, this isn’t for us; it’s so that for just a few days people will fight about something that MEANS something.”

Millie hadn’t considered this before. “So do you see why it’s so important that the physics prize went the way it did?” Aneesh asked.

She did. “Yes, Aneesh.”

Aneesh jumped up from the couch. “Great. I gotta go finish studying for this mid-term, Millie. I’m gonna steal my books from the Bullpen and go hide in the library. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

With that, he was gone. Millie sat in the dim light for a while. Eventually, she decided that she, too, should study. As she was about to get up, she heard voices entering the lounge. “I am telling you, Price, it’s because he’s black.”

“Jesus, Bill. Next you’ll be saying that Maria Goeppert-Mayer got the prize just because she was a woman.”

Millie stiffened. She recognized the voices. These were professors in the math department. They had clearly come to escape meetings, deans, and colleagues for some light Nobel-prize-related conversation.

“Look, the guy didn’t discover something. He didn’t learn something. He built something. There were at least two other names on that list this year that were real discoveries, fundamental science of the highest caliber.”

“How do you know that?” asked Price.

“I have sources. Anyway, the pressure has been building to a crescendo for years to diversify the physics prize. This is just another CCD or integrated circuit, except this time they wanted to shake up the spectrum.”

“You know, we’re only arguing about this because there isn’t a math Nobel,” Price said, trying to change the tone of the discussion.

Millie decided to change it for them. “It’s not about whether he’s black, or really even what he did. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t do what you call ‘fundamental physics.'”

There was a pause. “Who said that?” Price asked.

They were clearly looking around the lounge but hadn’t seen where Millie was sitting. “It’s about the discovery he made, and how it changed communication. Because of him, because of what he did, the reality of a terabit internet connection to the home became real. Because of him, companies abandoned TV and moved everything to the net. They changed their business models, they streamed their content, they made billions of dollars, and they made it possible for anybody with  connection to watch anything they wanted any time they wanted. It was blindingly cheap for them to deploy and blazing fast for the audience.”

“But that’s not fundamental science, whoever you are,” said Bill.

“It really doesn’t matter, Bill,” Millie said with boldness, “because what matters is that people will stop and think about where those cheap HD movies come from tonight. They will hear about this on the news, or from a friend, or from some petty co-workers arguing about it over a water cooler. They will think for a moment that, ‘huh, this is possible because somebody cared enough to discover it. They got a prize for this. More popcorn, please.’ In the end, they’re the ones who have to care, because they will fund all of this – you, me, all this science. In the end, they should care more than us what the Nobel prize was for, or why it was given.

We should just shut up and do science.”

Millie off the Clock

Between the heroin addict and the beat cop with the concussion, pale and leaning over a bucket, Professor Erwin Biggle was immensely uncomfortable. The Discovery Channel was droning in the corner, airing some reality TV show about a bunch of surly fisherman gutting tuna or some other horrible thing. The heroin addict was rubbing his teeth, eyes closed and rocking slightly back and forth. “This is bullshit. This is bullshit,” he muttered, over and over every few minutes. The cop groaned, clutching an icepack to her nose and staring into the bucket.

The door at the end of the waiting room clicked open and a nurse poked her head through the gap. “Erwin?” she called, glancing around.

“Yeah, that’s me,” Biggle said, almost leaping out of his chair and striding toward the door. He felt bad that he was going ahead of the cop – she’d taken a beating from some 300-pound, seven-foot brute who broke his restraints – but she’d arrived late and the ER seemed to be doing things in order. As for the heroin addict, Biggle was glad to be ahead of him and just as glad to be away from him.

The nurse took him to a bed in room 8, ordered him to strip and pulled the curtain. He clutched his abdomen as he undressed – the shooting pain by his ribcage didn’t like it when he moved, just a little more than it didn’t like it when he was perfectly still. When the nurse came back, he was laying on the gurney with his backside pressed against the cold sheets through the open flap in the gown. The nurse put a freshly warmed blanket over him, and suddenly he felt like a kid in heaven. Pleasant childhood thoughts rushed in – waking up in warm sheets, hot dogs at the park, train rides to see Nana in Baltimore. “OK, Mr. Biggle, we’re going to put in an IV and start a saline drip. We’re going to give you a little morphine for the pain and an anti-nausea medication for the morphine. It’s going to be about a half-hour before we can get an ultrasound tech to look at that gall bladder, but we’ll come back and check on you regularly. Do you have any questions?”

“Nope,” Biggle said, smiling and closing his eyes.

It was just a few minutes later when the IV was in his arm, the saline was flowing, and the morphine hit. For a moment, he could have sworn his brain stopped, and time stopped with it. A few minutes later, his head was swimmy but clearer, and he was resting comfortably. The stress headache from the anxious wait next to the addict and the nauseous cop fell away, leaving just the dull pain in his abdomen.

The nurse had pulled the curtain back before she left him to rest, exposing his bed to the view of the four other beds in room 8. A young woman lay in the gurney next to him, her eyes closed as she also rested. Biggle glanced over and saw her clothes folded neatly on the chair next to her. On top of the pile, a black tee-shirt mysteriously read “I look thin when you walk fast.” Biggle shook his murky head and turned away.

As Biggle started to drift off to a morphine slumber, the voice of his neighbor startled him awake. “I know you,” she said matter-of-factly.

“What?” he said, turning his head slowly toward her.

“Yeah, that did it,” she said as she got the full view of his face, “I know you. You’re Dr. Erwin Biggle. I saw you on Awakenings the other night.”

Erwin didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know this woman, but that was the price of being on TV; strange women, strange men, all suddenly recognize you. He tried to turn away and close his eyes, but she persisted. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

That set Erwin’s brain afire, despite the morphine. “What DO you mean, young lady?”

“Millie. My name is Millie. I mean what I said – you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Young lady . . . Millie . . . I am a professor of the philosophy of science. I assure you, I know everything I am talking about.” Biggle knew that last part didn’t come out quite right, but the morphine was working on him again and he almost didn’t care.

“There is no such thing as the clock paradox,” she said, her tone steady and certain and very insistent.

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Biggle said, “I am not well, I do not know who you are, and I want to rest.”

Millie paused for a moment, and in that moment Biggle was convinced he had won and began to settle into dope-enhanced satisfaction. “I am a graduate student in physics, I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, I am designing electronics for the EPIC project, and I shattered my finger in the high-bay today. There, now you know who I am.”

Biggle said nothing. He wasn’t about to get into a tete-a-tete with some smart-ass grad student. “I’m going to say it until you talk to me, Professor – you do not know what you are talking about.”

He couldn’t take it anymore. Biggle reached around, feeling for a call button. “They don’t have call buttons for people without life-threatening emergencies, Professor. And, yelling isn’t a good idea unless you want to be completely sedated. So, let’s talk,” Millie said, smirking.

“OK, fine. But I want you to know right away that I am a tenured professor and you are some snotty graduate student, so this isn’t going to go well for you.”

“Noted. You’re still wrong.”

“How am I wrong?”

“The clock paradox – there is no such thing.”

“You want me to recap, Millie? Fine – I recommend you pay closer attention the next time a professor talks. It’s quite simple – the EPIC program is entirely predicated on the theories of Albert Einstein. It will not work, because those ideas are fundamentally flawed. For instance, Einstein said that moving clocks run slower than stationary clocks. In a variation on Langevin’s formulation of the paradox, let’s say you have two clocks that are both standing still on Earth, and you synchronize them. You then put one of them on a spaceship and send it very far away at nearly the speed of light. From the earth’s perspective, the clock on the ship is moving and thus running slowly. From the ship’s perspective, the earth is moving and thus its clock must be running slowly. But when the ship returns to earth, it will find that the earth clock is further ahead, not behind it. That’s the paradox, articulated by the great man himself, and there you have it – it makes no sense, and so Einstein’s theories are flawed. Any reasonable person can see that it makes no sense.”

Millie was quiet. Biggle felt satisfied – he’d not been able to articulate it so clearly on TV, with that religious zealot host so eager to hear his learned thoughts on how modern physics is all wrong. An eager host, hungry for the next killer sound-bite, interrupts and cuts through the argument. Here, in this ER bed with a grad student in learning mode sitting in the next bed, he was free to talk the whole thing out in one clean shot.

Biggle turned his head away from Millie and prepared to drift off to sleep, sure that she he’d cut out her tongue in that one, swift stroke. He was wrong.

“When they take you to get your ultrasound, they will put you in an elevator and take you down to a different floor. Let’s say you’re in the elevator, and suddenly you feel completely weightless. The attendant standing next to you is also weightless – his feet, pushing against the floor so he can stand, have now pushed him off the ground and he is free floating. What has happened? How do you explain it? Has the elevator suddenly gone into a free fall on its nearly frictionless guides, or has the earth’s gravity suddenly been turned off?”

“What?” Biggle said. He hadn’t expected this, and he turned his head back to Millie.

“Which is it? Is the elevator in free fall, or is gravity gone?”

Biggle stammered. “Why, the elevator is obviously in free fall. That’s the only reasonable explanation, of course!”

“How do you tell the difference, short of waiting for the elevator to hit bottom?”

“What?”

“How do you tell the difference?” Millie said more slowly and deliberately.

Biggle’s brain froze again, not from a wave of morphine but from cold, intellectual shock. He was a reasonable man, a man who had published dozens of papers on the philosophy of science and the implications of paradoxes in the course of modern science. Yet, here he faced his own paradox, and his brain engulfed it to dismantle it, dissect it, leaving him unable to get out a word.

Now Millie smirked, not out of smugness but having seen that light in Biggle’s eyes as a new idea entered his head and wouldn’t leave.

“How do you tell the difference?” Millie asked again, trying to get him to react.

“I . . . well . . . let me think,” Biggle stammered.

A few minutes of silence ensued as Millie rested with her eyes closed and Biggle’s brain chewed on the question. He was sure it was just the morphine, slowing him down. He was sure this was a trick question, and that there was an experiment that would tell the difference. Perhaps he could throw a pen at the wall – no, that would look the same if the elevator was in free fall, free of the force of gravity, as if gravity was just turned off and the elevator was actually standing still. A pendulum wouldn’t help, either. He thought about pictures of astronauts spinning and tumbling in the “vomit comet” and momentarily felt his own anti-nausea medication give up.

“You can’t,” he suddenly said, “you can’t tell the difference. Without a window to tell you what’s happening outside, you can’t tell the difference between free fall and somebody just switching off gravity.”

“How about if the elevator were in space, far from planets or stars and completely free of gravity? What if somebody fired a rocket on the bottom of the elevator, pressed you and the attendant against the floor, accelerating the elevator at 9.8 meters per second, each second? How would you tell the difference between that rocket being fired and somebody just suddenly switching on gravity?”

Biggle felt sucked into the riddle. “You . . . again, I don’t think you can tell the difference, short of hearing the rocket – but, I assume you want me to ignore that just like I should ignore the shudder of the elevator as it falls on rails?”

Millie nodded. “You know, Einstein articulated the clock paradox – he thought it just a curiosity – before he had that thought about elevators and gravity and acceleration,” she said.

“What does any of this have to do with the clock paradox?” Biggle asked, suddenly aware that he’d been distracted from his message with this pointless puzzle.

“Independent of this clocks curiosity, Einstein realized that his original ideas were too specialized, too narrowly focused on a small part of the laws of physics. He also realized how to complete his theories. I could waste your time with talk of time slowing down and space getting shorter, but let’s keep this close to home. The key is acceleration.”

Biggle couldn’t believe he was engaging in this, but he was so captivated by the riddle that he wanted to know where this was going. Einstein was a fool, he was sure, but Biggle himself was a reasonable man and this Millie had hit him with a little reason bomb. “What does acceleration have to do with anything?”

“Well, if you put a clock on a spaceship, even if you synchronize the clocks in orbit around earth and then put one on a ship already in space, you have to get that ship up to very high speeds to get it to get far away from earth. Einstein realized that his original specialized ideas, which dealt with clocks being compared between stationary places and places moving at high, constant speed, were incomplete. After all, how do you get up to speed? How do you get a spaceship to nearly the speed of light, relative to the earth, so that Einstein’s ideas even matter?”

“You . . . you accelerate.”

“Right. And as you’ve just realized, acceleration – an elevator in free fall in a gravitational field or a rocket strapped to an elevator in the middle of space – is impossible to tell from the action of gravity. It’s like a person on a train who suddenly sees the train next to them moving. Is their train in motion going forward, or is the train next to you moving backward and you’re standing still? That little doubt in your gut about who is moving is Einstein’s special relativity. Acceleration resolves the question, because if your train suddenly accelerates more, you feel your back pressed against the seat.. Now, you know you are moving.”

Biggle was silent. Getting up to speed means acceleration, and a rocket has to accelerate to get to nearly the speed of light. His eyes widened without him even realizing it, and Millie went in for the kill. “So you see, professor, the astronauts on the ship with their clock have to accelerate to get up to speed, so they feel that acceleration as they do it. Sure, the astronauts don’t need to feel the acceleration to find out their clock is running slower – they are moving fast, so space is contracted and the distance to their final destination is shortened. Sure, they travel a shorter distance than people on earth think it is, and thus when they do their round trip they do it in less time than people on earth think it takes. But you seem like a man who likes to feel and taste things, so let’s face it: there is no paradox, because the people on the ship know that they have been moving – they had to accelerate, and that gave it all away. The paradox is no more.”

Biggle was silent and pale. Once, when he was a child sitting on an Amtrak in Penn Station, he had looked out a window at the neighboring train. He hadn’t felt his own train begin its gentle acceleration, it was so subtle and so slight. He was convinced the train next to them was moving backward, until suddenly the end of that train disappeared behind them and he could see the switch yard landscape in motion. A wave of nausea had overtaken him, his vision blurred, his brain scrambled to reconfigure to the reality of the situation. The train suddenly jerked and pulled him against the seat, as if to convince him he had been moving the whole time. He hadn’t thought about that moment in a very long time, lost in the span of so many other moments.

Millie was silent now, her eyes closed again. Biggle remained silent. He felt that moment again, that moment of realizing it was he that was moving and not the next train – nauseous, brain a bit scrambled as if a film over reality peeled away. In that old reality, gone only moments, he had blathered like a fool on a zealous TV program and railed against modern science. Now he saw that once, when he was child, the universe had tried to speak to him on that train, and he had not listened.

As if privy to his thoughts, Millie said, “You know, professor, I recommend you pay closer attention the next time the universe talks to you.”

Millie has a crisis of faith

Millie thought back to the time she’d messed around with that Duke kid, the one that strutted around like he was king of the penthouse but he was really just a thieving piece of shit who slept around for homework. It still wasn’t quite as disconcerting as this e-mail. She thought back to EPIC, those first years when everything seemed possible and nobody knew Aneesh was going to die. Somehow, seeing all the light of the present illuminating the shattered picture of the past wasn’t as disconcerting as this e-mail.

She closed the lid of her laptop and walked to the kitchen, where two-day old coffee sat in a four-cup grind-and-brew. She paused, snorted, poured a cup, and shoved it in the microwave. She was too old for free food at seminars, too old for getting drunk on alternate Tuesdays and sleeping through the physics meeting, but she was not too old for two-day old coffee. “Besides,” she thought as she leaned awkwardly against the counter, “if I don’t drink the coffee I’ll just hit the booze again.”

That e-mail really screwed her up.

While she waited for the microwave, she looked at the pile of mail, days old now, sitting on the corner of her countertop. She glanced toward her office, an immaculate and orderly world of papers and white-board math and neat shelves with physics books ordered by subject and author. She looked again at her kitchen counter, an archaeological dig site of crusty dishes and week-old mail, two-day-old coffee and dead flowers. She thought for a moment that two people lived here, and that maybe somebody else could deal with that e-mail; she thought for a moment that her OCD had split her into separate people, leading separate lives, in separate rooms.

Instead, she started pulling things off the mail pile until she found the letter she was looking for. Much like her bills, she hadn’t thought about this letter at the time. She had a dozen faculty applications out now; what was another confirmation letter, politely acknowledging receipt of her application? She’s tossed it on the pile and figured she’d get around to shredding it after the conference deadlines had passed, after she was done with her latest paper.

Millie tore the envelope open and clutched the letter in her hand. “Dear Dr. Braehouse,” she read aloud, “We are pleased to acknowledge receipt of your application. As of the sending of this letter, we regret to inform you of the incompleteness of your application packet. One of either your letters of recommendation, or your statement of faith, have not yet been received. Please see the enclosed checklist to determine what is missing, and please do your best to provide the material by the deadline printed at the bottom of the checklist.”

She crinkled the paper in her hands, a little angrier now as she realized that the e-mail wasn’t a joke, and had in fact been right about a paper copy of the same information having been sent several days ago. She felt anger, yes, but somehow her head didn’t clear from the rush and the world got a little fuzzier. Anger always used to make things clearer, but this time it failed her. As the microwave bell chimed, she tossed the letter in the garbage.

The papers on Millie’s desk were ordered from oldest to newest, furthest from her laptop to closest. “Study of angular distributions of leptons from photon-photon collisions at EPIC”, one title read, and the next simply said, “Discovery of anomalous high-mass spin states”. They went on, five papers in all, a testament to everything she’d suffered for in her time at EPIC. Her laptop was lit with LaTeX and half-edited PDF files, her current paper the result she would turn into unstoppable leverage for a faculty position.

She couldn’t shake the e-mail, or the letter. Ever since the Fifth Great Awakening, private institutions in the South had started adopting some unadvertised policies about faculty hires. She had been encouraged to apply anyway, especially because a third of the institutions in EPIC were from Awakening states. She was told by all her colleagues that you just go ahead and apply, and her work would speak for itself. She had been told to submit a statement of research interests and a statement of teaching interests.

A statement of faith was all she lacked. That’s what the e-mail said, what the letter said. “Why does this even matter?” she muttered, sitting down in her chair and bracing her palms on the laptop to get to writing.

She stopped before she even started, and leaned back in the chair. “It matters,” she muttered again, and she took her hands off the laptop. She thought back to the conversation she had with Trent Buck, the ex-patriot Brit with the wild yellow tie, a tenured faculty position, and all the songs of praise in the world to sing of Millie.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to apply to our collaborating institutions in the Awakening states?” she’d asked, looking at the list of places she was going to have to send applications.

“They have a lot of positions to offer, Millie, with all the private money they get. They have named chairs, the best students, privately furnished labs. You’d be crazy not to apply, and they’d be crazy not to leap at the chance to hire a top-rate physicist like you.”

“Look, Trent, I understand they have a lot of positions and I understand that many of them are in EPIC and they know me. I worry.”

“Worry about what?”

“About the changes in the schools in those states. I worry about the Evolution walk-outs, about the blocking of ED theory from high school textbooks because it’s ‘Not any better established than Intelligent Design, which scientists claimed was too immature to teach in school.’ I worry that I’ll have to find a job someplace else when they toss all the physicists out. I just want to get work done.”

“Don’t be daft. This will all blow over. You need a job, and there are good ones there. I know people. I’ll make calls, you’ll send your application, and all of this won’t matter in a few years.”

Tonight, it mattered. Tonight, Millie was expected to write a statement of faith, a statement affirming her belief in Christ and in the power of Christ in her everyday life. She needed to speak to the power of the Bible and the way in which God’s work informed her study of nature. She needed to do all of this because, the e-mail said, she would be shaping the next generation of Christian leader and they wanted to have affirmed Christians in their faculty. They wanted good role models, and good teachers, shaping the views of their students.

They weren’t going to give a job to the woman who found the first evidence of just how many extra dimensions there were, about how many parallel universes could be lurking just out of sight of our own. They weren’t going to give a job to the woman whose work was called “Deeply offensive to the unique creation of God, setting aside the watchmaker in favor of an uncountable number of randomly arranged watch parts, one of which happens to make a working watch” by a certain ex-Senator, now an aging leader of the Great Awakening movement in the South. They weren’t going to buy that this physicist, this Millie Braehouse, was somehow deeply religious and a literal adherent to a King James interpretation of a certain book.

“It doesn’t matter,” she tried to tell herself again. There were plenty of other schools with plenty of other faculty jobs, and they didn’t require a religious test.

Deep down, though, it mattered. Sure, she’d get some great job at some great institution. That didn’t change the fact that the tree was cracking. A wedge was pressing again, pushing harder against the trunk of the tree, settling into the tiniest cracks and separating society from the reason on which it depended so deeply for its progress. Once, it had been just the biologists fighting to keep their heads above the religious fervor of the pre-Awakening. Now physicists had offended those same people, people now firmly in political control across a great swath of the land, and their irrefutable discoveries had been tossed out along with the tree of life.

She put her hands back on the laptop and started writing. As she did so, she thought back to something Aneesh told her after the Evolution school-walkouts started in the first days of the Awakening. “Millie, there’s going to come a time for each of us when our work is seen as shit, because it challenges somebody’s convenient interpretation of God. The trick is to remember that all we do is discover the crap that God left behind, and if they think it’s shit then they should stop burning scientists and take it up with Him.”