Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chapters 9, 10 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

 Click here to read chapters 1 &2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8

The Bet

Rose attended her father’s weekly sermon as a married woman, alone. It bothered her immensely that Adams refused to go. As time went on, she made repeated efforts to get him to open his mind to the divine nature within all life.
“How do you prove anything?” a pregnant Rose asked him. They were sharing a picnic lunch by the campus pond. “How do you prove that you even exist?”
“That’s simple,” Adams answered. “Because I am here, and I can make a recording of myself, and I can taste this sandwich.”
“How do you know it’s not just a figment of a wild dream?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he chided, lying back and closing his eyes as he chewed on the lunch.
“Maybe you’re not giving the idea a chance. Let me ask you this. Do you believe that life is completely random, or could you be persuaded that there might be some meaning behind it?”
“Like a plan?” he asked.
“Yes. Like a beautiful, choreographed plan.”
“Are you implying that my life has already been planned out? What would be the point of living if there was no free will?”
“I didn’t say that,” Rose replied. “So, you really think life is completely random?”
“Yes,” Adams said frankly, through a mouthful of food.
“Then why are we together? Don’t you think we were meant to be together?”
“I doubt there’s another person on this planet for me,” he said, placing his palm on her swollen belly and coaxing half a smile from her.
“Regardless of how well-suited we are, the one thing I would change about you is your stubbornness on this subject.”
“And I you, my dear.”
“Then it’s settled,” she said, standing up and tossing a stone into the pond. Splash.
“What’s settled?” he asked, squinting through the glare of the sun behind her.
“We’ll have a bet.”
“On what?”
“I will bet you,” Rose began, “that somehow, someway, I will convince you that life has a plan that is absolutely beyond the realm of random chance. I will convince you that God must exist.”
“How will you ever be able to prove that?”
“I don’t know, but I will.”
“Fine,” he said, almost dismissing the subject. “What shall we bet?”
“If I convince you...” She thought about it.
“Please don’t ask me to go to church with you.”
“Afraid of losing the bet?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? It’s a bet,” Adams agreed, convinced there was no way he could lose such a wager.


One night after work, we stopped at the Star Bar, and I introduced Adams to Sam. I ordered a beer for myself. When I saw Adams pondering his choices, I ordered one for him too. He sipped his while I downed mine quickly and ordered another.
“So you’re the scientist?” Sam asked him, placing another beer in front of me. “What’s it like working with all that high-tech stuff?”
“Sometimes, great fun. Other times, frustration to no end.”
Sam asked questions about the project, though it was clear she really wanted to know more about him. Adams tried to explain it in terms she could understand. Customers down the bar gave him funny looks as he spoke of subatomic particles and molecular alterations, but Sam hung on every word. She must have thought Adams wouldn’t be interested in a local barmaid, but she liked the attention of an educated man explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. He waved his arms like spinning galaxies as he attempted to explain the time leaps. Adams smiled and laughed more that night than I had ever seen. The project was going very well, and I knew he was thinking about how proud Rose would have been.
When we drove back to his place, an unfamiliar car was parked in the driveway.
“Wonderful,” Adams said, pulling up next to it. “Whitney’s home.”
“Your daughter?”
Whitney opened the front door as we got out of the truck. She jogged over to Adams, threw her arms around him, and held him for nearly a minute. She looked even better in person than in the photo, like a younger version of Rose with glasses. She had the same auburn hair and natural smile of her mother, and a slender, fit body. I had wanted to meet Whitney for weeks, but it was a surprise to be doing so without notice. I was embarrassed for having a buzz from the bar.
Adams introduced us. “Whitney, Jon Gruber. Jon, Whitney.”
Whitney shook my hand while keeping an arm around Adams.
I glanced at her hand and spotted a ring. Wondering if women were involved upon meeting them was becoming a bad habit.
“Whitney has just graduated from university,” Adams said proudly.“With honors, I might add.”
Whitney rolled her eyes as he boasted of her studies and grades. She finally interrupted him. “Dad, you’re embarrassing me. Is this the man who made the alterations upstairs?”
I beamed with pride. “I am he.”
“You do excellent work.”
“Thank you.”
“Can you join us for dinner, Jon?”
I couldn’t refuse. She was gorgeous even with no makeup, wearing a blue cotton sweater and faded jeans. She had shoulder-length auburn hair, big green eyes, a small nose and full lips.
We set the table together. I smelled a hint of vanilla on her, and I found it to be an unusual and pleasant choice of perfume. Whitney told stories about her dad performing experiments in the past and nearly blowing up the house. He asked about her old classes and professors, but she was more interested in finding out from me and Adams what was new with our work. Adams made little effort to answer most of her questions, making himself busy or seemed like he didn’t hear her.
A bowl of salad was passed around. Adams dug into it and asked, “How are your headaches, Whit?”
“They’re still happening. Not as frequently.”
I noticed she had put her hand to her temples a few times during the meal. “You get migraines?” I asked.
“Since my mom passed away.” I felt sorry for her, wishing there was something to say.
Whitney served us each slices of roast, then served herself. She offered us fresh, warm rolls that smelled delicious.
She looked at Adams inquisitively. “I feel like you have something to tell me. You’re being especially aloof tonight.”
“You’ve always had that,” Adams admitted.
She smiled and asked, “What are you really up to, besides celebrating at the bar?”
Adams waited until he finished chewing. I realized he hadn’t spoken of the project with her.
“You remember your mom’s idea?”
“Of course. The Universe Generator. Her passion.”
“We’ve done it,” Adams proudly announced.
“You’ve done what?”
“We’ve got it up and running.”
Whitney paused for a moment as if she couldn’t believe what she had just heard. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said finally, glaring at him. Adams put his hand on her arm. “I didn’t want to tell you until I knew it worked.”
“Are you kidding me? It actually works?!”
“It works beautifully,” he said. Whitney looked over at me.
“It’s really incredible,” I added.
“I can’t believe it! I need to see it!”

The following morning, Whitney arrived at the lab shortly after we did. We gave her the complete tour of the building and the lab. Adams described every aspect of the equipment, and I nodded along.
Right from the start, Whitney loved Jim. She quizzed him from mathematics to chemistry. He seemed to melt under her attention. His green light glowed when she was around, even when nothing was being said, perhaps because she was the first woman he had met. Adams had Jim put together a display on the monitors that took the viewer flying through the universe, stopping at breath taking vistas, from the colorful nebula clusters down to majestic, snow-capped mountains on certain planets. It seemed like Jim did everything a notch better than normal, as if he was showing off for Whitney.
“This is incredible,” she said over and over, amazed by the beauty of the celestial objects. I had almost forgotten how miraculous it was.
I sat in a chair next to her and shared the feeling of wonder and excitement that she was experiencing. After the demonstration, she turned to me with interest.
“And you’re a carpenter?”
“That’s right.”
“What did you study in school? Computers? Engineering?”
“Astrophysics?” she asked with an impressive tone.
“Never went. Your dad needed an assistant, and he knew me from working on his house.”
“Whoa, I figured you must be a real brain to be working with my dad.” Whitney sensed her words sounded insulting. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s okay. I know what you meant.”
Adams sat nearby and listened as Whitney tried to make sense of our pairing.
“But I don’t understand how...”
“Your dad tells me what to do, and I do it. Simple. He and Jim do all the tough stuff. I thought I’d be in way over my head when I first started...”
“You were,” Jim interrupted me.
I put my hand over Jim’s main speaker. “Don’t interrupt when people are talking, Jim.”
A muffled and sarcastic “Sorry” came through my hand.
“Doesn’t it amaze you?” Whitney spun slowly in the swivel chair, taking in views from dozens of monitors, each one focused on a galaxy, or a planet, or primitive life forms.
“Every day. I never imagined this when I first started.”
I couldn’t decide what was more interesting, the project or Whitney.
I found myself staring at her, trying not to get caught. Being near her reminded me that I hadn’t been on a date for a long time. The problem was, she was the daughter of my boss, who by that time, was also my close friend. I was still aware of the ring on her finger. I reminded myself of those red flags. I didn’t want to cause any waves with Adams, but here was this incredible person sitting next to me. My life was entering a period of transition, and I had no idea where that change might lead.
In the days that followed, Whitney came to work with us. She said it would be impossible to stay at home working on a post-graduate thesis while she knew what was happening in the lab. I thought it was a dream come true. I began wearing clean shirts every day.
“It’s a perfect fit,” she told me. “My thesis was going to be on the extinction of species. Now I’m thinking it can be on evolution.”
“Like turning a negative into a positive,” I said.
A third person made the data collection go much faster. Whitney immediately demonstrated abilities beyond mine. She could take one look at a planet and identify what stage of life it was in. She could say, “That one is in a Triassic period,” or “This has just entered a Permian period.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded impressive.
She also explained to me the concept of “ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.”
“What the heck does that mean?” I asked.
She looked at the expression on my face and burst out laughing. “Do you remember the term, from high school science?”
“Honestly? No.”
She stood behind my chair and put her hands on my shoulders. I melted as we studied the monitor, focused on a group of slimy, brown slugs eating the algae at the edge of a pond.
“Ontogeny is the development of an organism from egg to adult,” she explained. “Phylogeny is the entire history of a species. So as the embryo grows, it passes stages that look like adult versions of more primitive species.”
“Very interesting,” Jim said.
“Come again?” I asked.
“Before you were a baby, you were an embryo. At that point, you looked like an adult tadpole, for example. And when these slugs were younger, they probably looked like that too.”
A light went on in my head. “So maybe tadpoles or slugs were our ancestors way back in time?”
“Perhaps, way back,” Whitney said, still touching my shoulders.
“I’m not saying I buy it, but okay.”
Whitney helped me as I struggled with the difficult concepts. She enjoyed teaching me and Jim, probably because she had been the student her entire life. The project took off to a new level once Whitney arrived. Jim and I had a new pride about our work.
Every night as we slept, Jim scoured the universe for new planets. Within a few weeks, he had discovered hundreds of planets, many having primordial soup or basic life forms evolving. Over the course of several million standard orbits, these planets produced many interesting species of life.
We found electric beings in the Kappa galaxy, on planet 4 of the dz332 sun. They looked like blobs and lines of colored light. The atmosphere of Kappa 4, as we called the planet, was charged with radioactivity. Lightning flared through the sky, and thick clouds served as a canopy to the awesome display. The surface was hardened lava and water. The animals moved in spurts, not running or flying, but in electric jolts from spot to spot. They had photoelectric cells across their bodies, making them glow in fantastic colors. The smallest beings had vivid purples and blues. They moved like supercharged hummingbirds. The largest beings had a dull, red hue and moved slower, though they were still fast by our standards.
On another planet, Rho 6 of a double star yn662, the animals resembled plants that could slither around. Their skin was scaled in shades of green and yellow. Some grew to be enormous. We watched them inch from warm rocks down to shallow wading pools in the heat of the day, to cool off and soak up some water. They had no heads or mouth s.
“No heads since they don’t need to see, hear or eat to live,” Whitney reasoned. “No natural predators. They don’t need to kill or defend, so they’re also without defensive qualities.”
Adams agreed. “Their massive bodies and hot stars take care of their needs.”
They were host organisms for a number of small creatures that clung on to the lumbering animals. Rho 6 had many insects and small reptilians, though the mobile plants were the most intriguing beings.
Whitney found them amazing. “Imagine if we could adapt their cell structure,” she said. “We could get food directly from sunlight. World hunger would be a thing of the past.”
“Yeah, but what would happen to our stomachs?”
“Another useless organ, just like your appendix.”
I was more than happy to study other planets. On Sigma 2-c454, bubble creatures floated around in helium skies of orange, moving like hot air balloons. They traveled in schools like a pack of blimps. They glided gracefully, occasionally touching down on the surface and bounding back up high into the skies, opening their huge mouth s.
Whitney speculated, “They’re catching tiny bacteria in the atmosphere.”
I wasn’t so sure. “How could a creature that large live on bacteria that we can’t even see?”
“Same as whales,” Adams noted, jotting it down in his brown booklet.
The more we saw, the more bizarre we knew evolution to be. A few planets were composed of nothing but gases with no liquid water, yet spawned life anyway - creatures made of gas and electric charges. Life on some planets was so bizarre, we didn’t know how to categorize it.
And on other planets, like Alpha 17, we found forms of life that were surprisingly familiar.

Alpha 17 of the star hh987, was the seventeenth planet in the orbit of a blue-white star in the Alpha galaxy. It was the first planet we found that had complex levels of life in the oceans, on land and in the sky.
Its air contained large amounts of nitrogen and oxygen. Its landmasses contained silicon, iron and aluminum. It had a moon roughly one-tenth its size, which created high and low tides. The distance to its small, hot star provided temperate zones, with ice caps on the poles and more tropical areas in between. It had an orbit around its sun that was faster than standard, yet it maintained a degree of rotation and gravity that was close to standard.
“All of these factors increase the chances for complex life to evolve,” Adams said. “The more pleasant a planet’s atmosphere, the more likely life will flourish.”
The life forms reflected the cool and dim atmosphere. Plants were tough and sharp. Animals had long hair, big eyes and coatings of blubber.
The continents on Alpha 17 contained vegetation zones beneath windswept hills of ice and rock. The mountains appeared like the spines of a herd of beasts running west to east. Exposed rock and snow along the ridges suggested long-term wind and glacial patterns. In the lower elevations and around the coastlines, vegetation and animal life were abundant. Exotic and common-looking birds filled the skies, and the seas were full of fish and amphibians.
Alpha 17 was the first planet we found that had mammals. After several time leaps of about a hundred million orbits, a variety of mammals had evolved. Large rodents lived in burrows on the shoreline and ate fish. Others reminded us of boars. One of the most common species on the planet looked like giant pigs. We found them by the millions, filling the lowlands and feeding on grass and reeds. The giant pigs were the food source for a number of predators, who looked like bears and felines.
“Mammals stand apart,” Whitney said, admiring a family of felines on Monitor One. “They give birth to live young. The parents care for the offspring together. The young ones like to play.”
“Is that what they’re doing?” Jim asked, commenting on the rough and tumble antics of the small cats.
“They’re learning survival skills that they’ll use later when hunting,” Whitney told him.
“Because it looks like they’re hurting one another.”
“They’re not,” Whitney reassured him. “They’re learning. Community rules exist with mammals more so than other beings.”
“Community rules?” I asked.
“The head male is in charge. The females raise the young. Hunting is a group effort. They work as a team in everything they do.”
We watched the big cats execute a planned attack on a herd of giant pigs, which was wallowing in the marsh. The cats made a charge and isolated a young and helpless victim. We marveled at the carnivores’ teamwork as they carried out the strike, though Whitney empathized with the victim of the attack.
We also documented groups of primates, the smaller ones living in the trees and the larger ones on the ground. Adams and Whitney were ecstatic after finding primates on Alpha 17, almost speechless. It took a couple of days for the effect to really hit me. I went into a numb stage without realizing it. I lost my interest in other life forms and just wanted to observe them.
Though they were as primitive as monkeys and apes, they were quickly developing into intelligent beings. Females managed the family while males fed and fought for breeding rights. The little ones played acrobatic games of tag in the trees. They roughhoused in the mornings and later groomed each other for ticks. The larger ones peeled and ate the green off the reeds, sharing with the smaller ones. I saw intrigue in their eyes as they witnessed the world around them. I felt the bond between parent and child as the elders nursed, comforted, and taught their offspring what they needed to know.
“Do you realize what we’re watching here?” Adams asked me.
“The evolution of intelligent beings.”
Whitney brought in pictures of artists’ renditions of our possible ancestors. We noted similarities between them and our subjects from Alpha 17. The main differences were slightly more hair and bigger eyes, but otherwise they were very similar.
That was our routine for the first month of Whitney’s arrival.
We scoured the universe for planets with life, then we identified and categorized it. Once that was done, we did time leaps of anywhere from several thousand to a few million orbits and went through the same routine, with Jim constantly finding new planets to add to our collection. Adams was right. The universe was teeming with life because the building blocks for it were everywhere, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. With so many planets out there, the only trick was to keep looking. Since Jim took care of that, there really was no trick at all.

“So pleased Whit is here to see this. Her birthright, I suppose. Alpha 17 actually has primates, and I pinch myself as I write that. Been lagging with the rest of our logs, but who can blame us?”
- From p. 55 of Webster’s journal.

 Click here to read chapters 1 &2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8

No comments:

Post a Comment