Monday, February 22, 2010

Chapters 3, 4 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

A New Routine

From that afternoon on, I rode my bike to Webster’s house in the mornings and caught rides with him. He told me to spend the first days doing general clean-up to get the place workable. I pulled the remaining equipment out of containers. I dragged the cardboard, plastic and foam outside, then loaded it into the truck for many trips to the dump.
I helped Adams receive the final deliveries and used a dolly to move heavy things in place. Over the next few days, I finished the drywall, textured and painted. Then I placed lighting fixtures and rolled out and tacked down the carpeting.
Once the place had some order, I helped Adams install the wiring for the electronics that would be involved. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just followed their advice. During that time, I spoke constantly with Jim. He sounded so human that it was hard for me to think of him as a machine.
I asked Adams as we drove home one night, “How can Jim sound so much like a person?”
“Didn’t think a computer could talk?” Adams asked, his eyes fixed on the road.
“Neither did I when I was your age. Jim represents forty years of A.I.”
“Artificial intelligence. He has the ability to learn, not just perform tasks.”
Adams explained that he had spent his career working for a company called Maxwell Enterprises, figuring out ways to get computers to think. He designed Jim to be able to control his features, yet he had no programmed way to know how. Originally, he just watched Adams work. Eventually, he repeated sounds and then engaged in dialogue with Adams. Then he listened to training tapes.
“The growth rate of Jim’s understanding is about a hundred times faster than humans,” Adams told me.
By the time I met Jim, he was an expert on mathematics, chemistry and astronomy, at the age of three month s. He was also becoming ever more knowledgeable about his hardware and the equipment that would be connected to him.
“Yet you’ll need to be patient with him,” Adams warned me. “Emotionally, Jim is still a child.”
So many things were new to him, that he constantly asked me questions. When I first started working there, Jim would perk up as we arrived. His green light would intensify as he’d ask me what I had done each night after work.
“I went home, Jim,” I’d answer without interest.
“What else did you do?” No details were too boring for him.
“I ate dinner.”
“What did you eat?”
“I can’t remember,” I’d say, trying to end the conversation.
Then the “why” questions would start. “Why did you do this?” and “Why did you do that?”
“WHY are you so interested?!” I asked.
“Because... I just am.”
How could I explain that my private life was just as boring as his?
Many nights when Adams and I began to leave the lab, Jim would beg us to stay. He’d yell and get angry, not understanding our schedules. He had training discs and games, videos and music, but he preferred our company. Sometimes Jim used sleep mode to zone out until the next morning, though it appeared he needed very little real sleep.
I figured Jim liked me for two reasons. For one, I was someone other than Adams, someone who spoke differently and used slang. Then, as Jim realized I was the low man at the jobsite, he enjoyed a sudden sense of superiority.
“I need those secondary monitors hung right away,” Jim said once, like a drill sergeant.
“I’m working on it.”
“Not those, the ones for the far wall!”
“Have you been watching army movies?” I asked.
“Your job isn’t to ask questions. It’s to follow commands.”
“They’re not even connected yet. What’s the rush?”
“We don’t want to get behind schedule! Everything is waiting on you!”
I let him have his fun. He liked to bombard me with directions and then interrupt whenever I asked a question. For weeks, I humored him.
I spent much of my time following his wiring directions for the video set-ups and recording devices.
We had over a hundred video monitors to install. Adams showed me their design and layout. They would be placed on the walls in the control room, covering nearly every square inch. They would also be hooked up to internal cameras and to Jim’s hardware. We installed them one at a time, while relaying them to the cameras within the egg-shaped cavity: the huge, empty space chamber where the simulation would take place. Adams checked and rechecked every connection in a painstakingly slow operation. After days of setting up monitors, we had a sea of screens covering the walls of the lab.
“Why do we need so many viewing screens?” I asked.
“A monitor for every camera,” Adams said.
“Why so many cameras?”
“Hopefully, we’re going to have a lot to look at. Solar systems, moons, comets...” I felt like Adams was going to add, “if it works.” Those were three words we rarely said, but I thought of them frequently.
“How exactly is this going to work?” I phrased the question.
“Are you familiar with subatomic particles?”
“Not really.”
“There are pieces of matter much smaller than atoms or their components. These quarks and leptons are fascinating little things.”
Adams told me that his wife, Rose, had done as much experimentation with subatomic particles as anybody. The more she studied them, the more she realized that quarks and leptons were bizarre entities, and they possessed intriguing abilities. Over time, she discovered a function within one type of quark—the ability to copy itself. She constructed the outline for an experiment run on hydrogen, a way of super-copying quarks that would multiply almost infinitely. The outrageous explosion of pure matter would be, in her theory, a reproduction of the great singularity that began our universe.
“The great singularity?” Jim asked.
“The point of time we believe the universe started,” Adams said. “At that moment, there was only a pinpoint of infinitely dense matter.”
I set the pliers down and raised my hand in objection. “But this whole concept doesn’t make any sense! Everything in the world was as dense as a pinpoint?!”
“Everything in the universe,” Adams corrected me. “This is The Big Bang Theory.”
“I guess I’ll never get it,” I shrugged.
Adams asked me, “Can you imagine a grain of sand?”
“Of course.”
“Double it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Two grains of sand.”
“Double it again, and keep going.” Adams leaned against the wall and checked my math.
“Four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two...”
“Sixty-four,” Jim interrupted. “One-twenty-eight, two-fifty-six, five-twelve, one thousand twenty-four...” Jim continued with speed and enthusiasm.
“Showoff ,” I said.
“Forty ninety-six, eighty-one ninety-two, sixteen three eighty-four, thirty-two seven sixty-eight...”
Jim quickly got into the millions, and Adams interrupted him. “Hold on, Jim. Now imagine those grains of sand sharing the same space.”
“That’s what makes it so dense?” Jim asked.
“Density like one trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion tons per cubic inch,” Adams said.
“What?!” I asked.
“A one with seventy-two zeros behind it, tons per cubic inch.”
“In a tiny little spot?!”
“But that’s the craziest thing I ever heard!” I argued. “I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this in front of Jim.”
“Jim’s going to be hearing about it from now on,” Adams said.
Jim let us speak without interrupting, though his green light pulsed. Sometimes the only way to get Jim to be quiet was to talk about him.
I had to explain to them that I really did not get it. The Big Bang Theory made absolutely no sense. How could all the matter in the universe, every planet and star, all the zillions and zillions of tons come from a microscopically tiny spot? What could be more farfetched than that? I couldn’t even imagine the contents of the lab fitting into a microscopically tiny spot, let alone the contents of the universe.
“I’d sooner believe in people flying,” I said.

“What about space?” I asked Adams later, as we stood in the egg shaped cavity placing and wiring dozens of camera set-ups. The cameras were like piercing rods. They could extend or contract while also moving side to side or up and down. “What exactly is... y’know, space?”
“It’s the void between elements of matter,” Adams said, grabbing the pliers from my belt to cut off some extra wire.
“How do you simulate that?”
“With the right electromagnetic field,” Adams replied.
“So is our own space electrically charged?” I asked, thinking myself very clever.
“Depends on how you look at it,” he said frankly.
I finally stopped trying to understand the concepts. I figured I’d get it in time, or perhaps I’d never get it. A job was still a job, so I put my doubts on hold and cheerfully did what I could to help out.
“When did you first start working on this?” I asked as I helped Adams wire a very large monitor to hooks on the wall in front of his desk.
“This whole idea was my wife’s,” Adams said. “I’d love to take credit for it, but it took her ages to get me to help.”
I knew that Rose had died a few years ago. There were pictures of her everywhere in his house. Her paintings hung on every wall. I knew she was an artist—now I learned she was a scientist as well.
I looked at the photo of Rose on his desk, a picture of her laughing as she swung back in the air on a rope swing. Her face was not striking, but there was a deep beauty to it. Her attraction came from within and expressed itself in spirited eyes and an easy smile. Sometimes Adams would get distracted from work and sit at his desk, staring at her photo. He’d extend two fingers and touch the image.
“When we married, she was outlining her theory. She designed the whole thing. I took time off to help.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“Car accident,” he said, returning to fasten wires to the monitor.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “Was anyone else hurt?”
“No. She flew off the road and rolled.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“A call from the hospital.”
“Who found her?”
“Don’t know. Someone just called for an ambulance.”
“Didn’t you want to know?”
“How would that matter?” he asked, looking at me.
I wanted to ask more about Rose, but I sensed it wasn’t appropriate.
“Actually, I’m a little jealous this was her idea,” he added, lightening the mood.
I had to ask him, “Why are you doing this? To follow up on her dream?”
“Maybe. Maybe there’s more to it,” he admitted. Jim’s light perked up.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jim added. “Why?”
Adams paused for a moment, as if he had to search for the answer. “Profound curiosity,” he said at last, almost looking through me. “I see it as the ultimate experiment. If I can create a universe... then what does it say about who created ours?”
Jim and I left it at that.


By my second month, I felt like I understood what was going on, or at least what we were trying to do. We were attempting a reproduction of The Big Bang at a microscopic level. Adams was hoping to create a brand new universe enclosed in a chamber the size of a small warehouse, by conducting a subatomic reaction that would create matter at a nearly infinite scale. Then it would be released into an electrically charged, simulated space arena.
To a large degree, nothing worked as planned. The simulated space was supposed to create its own realm of zero gravity. It took Adams weeks to get the bugs out of it. The magnetic field worked fairly well, but the egg-shaped cavity was not absolutely airtight. Tiny leaks in the chamber continuously presented themselves and needed repair. Many times, I put on protective clothing and spray-coated the cavity with a gluey gel, careful not to bump into the cameras.
Adams also faced problems with the mechanism that supplied and compressed the hydrogen molecules, then timing that up with the device that isolated the quarks. It was difficult for the devices to work harmoniously.
“Go figure,” I told Jim, mocking Adams for his eccentric yet optimistic nature.
“Yeah, go figure,” Jim said with a chuckle.
We enjoyed jokes about Adams getting in way over his head on the project. Adams let us have our fun. He knew how to quiet us when he wanted to.
“You shouldn’t be laughing so hard, you know,” Adams joked in turn. “If matter creation really gets out of control, an explosion like you couldn’t imagine might take place.” We stopped laughing. Adams continued, “It won’t matter where you are if that happens, so you might as well be at ground zero when we push the button.”
I knew Adams was kidding, that it was likely to be safe, though I never knew how seriously to take him. Surely he didn’t know exactly what was going on, though he often acted like he did. Adams was brilliant, but he ran into problems with every aspect of the experiment. Many weeks went by with slow progress and Adams scribbling notes in his little brown book.
Sometimes Adams liked to complain to Rose’s photo about what wasn’t working. He’d talk aloud to her as if she were sitting on that swing behind the glass, ready to answer. I began to pity him.
“What if it never works?” I asked him once, slumping in my chair at the end of a long and boring day.
“My investor and I will be out of a bunch of time and money,” Adams said.
“What if it does work?” Jim asked.
“It will be really cool,” Adams said, mimicking me.
Adams was set to the task. He never openly doubted Rose’s theory. He simply worked harder to deal with his setbacks. One by one, he addressed problems and made steps toward running the experiment. I admired his determination.

I finally visited the Star Bar after weeks away. The name was misleading, since no famous person was ever known to have been inside the place. It was a small and narrow bar with a couple of tables, a spot for some cheap booze. I used to be one of the more regular regulars, though lately I had been working too hard to stop in.
Samantha, the owner and bartender, was one of my only friends. Sam, as she preferred, had extremely dark skin and thick, black hair that was turning gray. She was middle-aged and full of life, buxom and strong. On a few occasions, I had watched Sam drag men from the bar and toss them out the front door, men who had gotten too drunk and out of line with her.
Her face lit up when I arrived. She poured me a beer. “Mr. Gruber! Haven’t seen you for a while. Got any new jokes for me?”
“Haven’t been working construction. Got a new job in a laboratory,” I said.
“That is a good one.”
Sam didn’t buy it until I went into all the details. She couldn’t believe I was an apprentice to a scientist. She loved hearing about it and especially of Jim, though she was most skeptical that he could sound human.
“And this scientist,” Sam asked, “is he married?”
“I don’t think he’s your type.”
“Single and employed is my type,” she said, pouring a couple of shots. “Bring him in sometime.”
“I will. We’ve just been working too hard.”
“Jon, don’t forget about us little people when you hit it big.”
“I doubt that will happen, but it’s as good a toast as any.” We downed a shot to my future.

End of current sample. Next chapters 4, 5 will be posted on Thursday Feb 25th.

No comments:

Post a Comment