Einstein's place in the history of physics had little to fear from Professor Svenolius. Nor, for that matter, was Stephen Hawking's standing in academia in any way jeopardized by that of the good Professor. In fact, one could rapidly compile a rather lengthy list of those scholars and pedants who could sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that Professor Lars Svenolius would not upturn the apple cart of their academic careers.
It was not that Professor Svenolius was a fool (far from it), or that his reasoning was unsound. It was not even that Svenolius' career had perished for want of publication. It was more a matter of what he published. While Hawking and his contemporaries chose to explore and expand on the theories of Einstein, Svenolius chose instead to ponder... shall we say, alternative theories of universal cosmology.
It began, harmlessly enough for Svenolius' career, when he was still a student. Young Lars sat through countless astronomy lectures, all of which commenced with "It all began with a big bang..." or some variation thereof. It was becoming a mind-numbing experience for the young PhD candidate - a very dangerous thing in a study requiring a healthy imagination. Thus Lars began exploring his own slight variations on the lesser-known formulas of Einstein relating to obscure aspects of astrophysics. Svenolius' substitute theories, while revolutionary in their own way, related to subjects so arcane and complex that only the most sophisticated in the field understood the ramifications of young Lars' hypotheses. These rappings at the door of the temple achieved for Lars a recognition in the field, and indeed a certain modicum of respect among the gray beards, if only for his audacity.
However, perhaps unfortunately for the young upstart, this recognition inspired Lars to go yet further in his attempts to throw a wrench into the works of quantum mechanics. Despite the ever-increasing indignation of his colleagues, and ridicule of his theories, Professor Lars Svenolius continued to postulate increasingly radical views on the nature of the universe. If anything, Svenolius seemed to thrive on the controversy. In truth, the dubious attention the professor received soon took on a life of its own and Svenolius began to seek controversy for its own sake.
Whatever the professor's motives, it must be said that his work furthered the study of physics, in that it forced his colleagues, with furrowed brow and scratched forehead, to reexamine their findings before chalk turned to theory, and theory turned to law.
It must be noted that, over the years, Svenolius took some major gambles with his credibility in the interest of getting the collective goat of his fellow academicians. The sincerity with which the professor approached his work was first called into question almost two decades ago when he presented his then-latest hypothesis, with a straight face, at the annual International Conference for the Study of Quantum Mechanics. This hypothesis, when translated from its formulas and numbers, amounted to a statement that near speed-of-light travel could be achieved, despite ever-increasing mass, if the traveler merely carried sufficient quantities of helium (preferably in balloon form)... and wore really light clothes.
Of course, the final straw came with Svenolius' suggestion, in an article appearing in a widely distributed "popular" science publication, that Einstein's most cherished formula was actually simply severely misunderstood. According to Svenolius' article, the "M" in E=MC2 did not stand for "Mass" as such, but rather the M was intended to represent "Mass." ...that is, an abbreviation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
You see, according to the professor's article, in any equation solving for the value of energy, one must take into account the value of Massachusetts. And, of course, since the value of Massachusetts (factoring in fluctuations in gross product, population and real estate values) is ever changing - the value of energy can never truly be determined.
And so it came to pass that Professor Lars Svenolius found himself teaching introductory physics to an assemblage of rather dull-witted freshman at a small community college on Maryland's eastern shore. Though he occasionally published, and continued to irritate as well as inspire his rivals, Professor Svenolius found himself, year after year, largely consigned to expound his theories to less-than-eager pimply-faced eighteen year olds. Svenolius' students were ill-equipped to either challenge (or, in truth, even understand) his controversial theories, which had little to do with introductory physics, but which he taught nonetheless.
It was on a cool morning in mid-October that the professor came trundling belatedly into the classroom, both arms downstretched under the weight of an antiquated computer terminal. After tripping over the electrical cord, or some such other cable (practically bringing himself and the terminal to a premature end), the professor snugged the device down gently on a table facing the assembled students. While still wheezing from the brisk outdoor air, and unsuccessfully attempting to catch his breath, professor Svenolius proceeded to link the machine to its distant parent via a receptacle in the cinder block wall. This task complete, the professor stood erect with an audible crackling of his spine, slapped the top of the machine with a self-satisfied "thwack," and addressed his charges for the first time that morning.
"My young ladies and gentlemen..." began the professor, a little old chalk dusting off his professorial tweed jacket. "Today I ask you to indulge me," (as if they had some choice), "while I attempt an empirical test of a new theory I have been developing."
"After considerable thought, I have come to an astounding conclusion." His squinting eyes made one slow teasing pass from left to right across the faces of the students - faces too fogged with sleep and the alcohol of the previous evening to awaken with the interest the professor's statement was designed to elicit.
"I have reached the conclusion that our universe, at least as we know it, exists purely as a construct of some great cosmic computer. In other words," he raised his finger to express the profundity of his statement. "We exist purely in cyberspace."
"One day, so long ago," continued the professor, "a program was initiated which contained the fundamental concepts of matter and energy and the few basic rules which we now know underlie the nature of how they interact. Then, like a large Mandelbrot set, the universe merely began to play itself out, the programmed concepts of matter and energy randomly interacting with each other over time."
"Once the program was initiated with these few basic rules, the programmer simply stood back while the universe ran itself with a series of divine `DO' loops. (`And the Lord God said RUN... FOR... NEXT...STEP...') The programmed rules governing the interaction of matter and energy ultimately led to the universe as we now know it. Imaginary atom bound to imaginary atom, phantom molecule adhered to phantom molecule - applying simple subroutines that define what we call `physics,' to form the heavenly bodies and eventually, life forms like you and me."
After the professor's statements had sunk in a few moments, one student, more to humor the professor (and thus perhaps encourage him to move on) than out of any real interest, asked, "But Professor Svenolius, how could there ever be a computer with enough memory to contain this theoretical universe?"
"Well,..." replied the professor, thrilled that at least one person was listening to him, "we all know of the theory that our universe was once infinitely small and is constantly expanding. Perhaps the computer that created us was, those many years ago, quite small. Then, as time progressed and the universe expanded, the machine was `upgraded' with sufficient memory to house its larger creation."
"However, more likely, since the concepts of size and time are themselves merely byproducts of the creation of our universe, the computer that created us is not faced with those limitations. In the `real' universe (in which the computer that contains us exists), perhaps the game is played quite differently, with an entirely different set of rules and limitations."
"Professor Svenolius," interrupted the same student, his curiosity now genuinely piqued by the professor's philosophical ramblings, "you said something about an empirical test?"
"Oh yes, that..." He glanced quickly behind him to the still darkened terminal, then turned around to face it. He crouched to face its cathode ray tube and squinted as he searched for the "ON" switch. It toggled on with a solid "click" and he turned back to face his students as the machine crackled to warmth.
"I find philosophical puzzles boring and wasteful of one's time. `How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' `If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound?' `Is he a king dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a king?' - I say, `Who cares?' If a theory is not (at least theoretically) capable of ultimately being proved, of what good is it?"
"I believe this theory of mine may be put to a test. You see, I have, over my considerable years in this field," he said immodestly, "had an opportunity to study the hypotheses of many brilliant physicists. Some of these theories have affirmatively been proved, while the proof of others must await technology capable of applying their principles. I have however, assembled a collection of formulas related to the nature of the universe, in which I have great confidence."
"I have given extensive thought to how these formulas, developed independently by different physicists, relate to one another. I have found a manner in which two formulas, each of which has my full confidence, are quite incompatible. They cannot both be correct, though I know them both to be right. It is an incongruity which cannot exist in our universe."
"I have, ladies and gentlemen... " he whispered slowly to a now entirely attentive group, "found the flaw in the program."
He returned his attention to the terminal, now humming nicely and glowing with the solitary word "LOGIN:" The professor typed his name and pressed the "ENTER" key. After a moment, his password was requested, and was entered. The distant mainframe spat screens of familiar but unintelligible characters onto the screen in seemingly begrudging recognition of the professor's password. While the computer ran its login routines (deciding where the professor would print, should he choose to print, and what he could access, should he choose to access), the professor turned back to his students.
"I have written my own program, which includes a routine requesting the school's mainframe to equate and justify these two formulas - a task which I know cannot be performed."
Turning again to the terminal, he now was offered a prompt. He typed in "RUN SVENOLIUS PROGRAM 1" then pressed the ENTER key.
For several seconds nothing happened, as commands reached the mainframe and the mainframe began executing commands.
Then nothing happened in a big way.....
Forced to reconcile the incongruous equations the computer crashed and the professor's program locked up.
However, much more than that... Professor Svenolius locked up. In fact, in that instant... the entire class... the school.. the nation... the world came to a halt.
It was not a screeching halt. Not a violent, earth torn asunder, oceans sloshed, continents thrown adrift halt. Just a halt.
And so too did the solar system halt. Heavenly bodies that had rotated since time immemorial ceased to rotate, and cosmic revolutions came to a sudden peace. Throughout the galaxy, novas stopped flaring - their almost infinite quantities of flaming gas ceased violently exploding. Not that they were extinguished, but each of bajillions of flames simply stopped undulating and rested in instant equipoise.
This cessation of movement was absolute throughout the universe. Time stopped. The big bang stopped banging, and the ever-expanding universe simply ceased to expand. It all just... locked up.
It is unclear whether Professor Svenolius himself gave any real credence to his theory, or had given much thought to the possible consequences of his test. Perhaps he would have been neither surprised nor especially disappointed had the college's obsolete machine merely informed him that his equations had created an error of some description.
But it does not matter what Professor Svenolius thought at that moment, for it happened just the same.
Somewhere, outside our understanding of the universe, there was a sigh of frustration. Not a human sigh. Not a sigh in any way that you or I know a sigh. But a sigh nonetheless. Then, slowly, a proverbial hand reached (proverbially) and pressed a proverbial button.
It all began (again) with a big bang...
John can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Snail-mailed at: 4115 Ferrara Dr., Silver Spring, MD 20906
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