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?”


“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.”

Would you like to comment? Please answer some quiz questions from the story.

We care about our comments. That's why we want to make sure that everyone who comments have actually read the story. Answer a couple of questions from the story to unlock the comment form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Spam Blocking by WP-SpamShield