Guys, I’m feeling a little isolated over here.
Once there was an alchemist who was scanning through the real estate listings hoping to find the perfect home. Apartment buildings are not really well-suited to alchemy. People kept knocking on his door and interrupting his experiments to say things like,
“Can you stop all the sulfur smells and explosions? I just got the baby to sleep.”
He needed to get away from all the sleeping babies and grumpy telecommuters so that he could get back to his life’s work. And, if there was room for a garden so that he could save money on ingredients, that would be even better. He circled the most promising listings with a smile.
It took weeks of touring homes and meetings and paperwork, but finally the alchemist had a new home with a lovely yard that bordered on the forest. It was far from the center of town, and there were no neighbors close by to be disturbed by silly things like smoke or smells or loud noises. It was perfect.
Except that the previous owners said that deer lived in the forest and would probably come eat his garden. Luckily, he had a solution. He would grow a magic hedge around his property. The deer would be repelled by the magic in the hedge and stay far away from his garden.
During the terrible drudgery of house-buying, the alchemist had spent many hours concocting an extra rapid plant growth solution for his garden. He bought the seeds for the hedge from his favorite apothecary before he left town. Before he unpacked a single box, he dipped the seeds in the potion and planted them. He had a tall magical hedge in place by dinner.
The next morning, the hedge was gone. The alchemist raced outside in his slippers and pajamas and crouched down in the empty space, looking for clues. The hedge had been chewed to the ground.
Deer were supposed to be repelled by magic hedges. He must have been sold nonmagical seeds. What an outrage! He called the apothecary and complained just as loudly as a neighbor who was woken up at 3am by an explosion of twenty glass beakers.
Within an hour, he had new seeds, guaranteed to be magical. He dipped them in potion, planted them, and his hedge was in place by lunch time. In the morning, it was gone.
Perhaps it wasn’t the seeds, after all.
He used the last of the seeds to plant a third hedge. Then, that evening, he waited out by the hedge in the dark. When he heard chewing sounds, he shook the corked vial of light solution. It glowed brightly, showing his hungry visitors. They were much larger than deer.
Dragons? Why were dragons eating his hedges?
He went inside and pulled a few books off the shelves to read in the morning. The next day, after a lot of reading, he learned that dragons liked to eat magical hedges. Of course. It would have been nice to know that before spending a fortune on magical hedge seeds. But, how was he to know that there were dragons in the forest? The previous owner never mentioned that.
He hired someone to build a non-magical fence out of wood. The deer and dragons had plenty of wood in their forest to eat, so they certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to eat his fence. Sure enough, the fence was there the next day. And the next. And the next.
Once he was certain that the fence was going nowhere, the alchemist planted his ingredients and set up his workshop. He had so many ideas to try! It would take months just to go through the first pages of his notebook where he jotted down ideas.
The garden grew quickly and well. It grew so well, that he had more ingredients than he expected. The magical beets were especially prolific, and he had more than he could turn into potions or eat. He developed a new potion that turned beets into chickens. Soon he had a yard full of chickens that all wanted to eat his garden full of potion ingredients.
He hired someone to build a chicken coop. The garden recovered, the chickens laid boiled eggs, and he was able to get back to his notebook. The alchemist had time to experiment as much as he liked.
And then winter came. The garden stopped growing. The hens stopped laying eggs. During a particularly long storm, the road to town was blocked for weeks.
Deprived of the sun, the chickens finally turned back into beets. The alchemist ate them. It was a nice change from eating canned food and food substitute potions. When he ran out of firewood, he burned the coop. Then the fence.
Finally, the storm ended. Winter ended. The alchemist stepped into his backyard and looked around. No plants. No chickens or coop. No fence. He was back to the beginning.
Yet, he wasn’t. Not really. He had survived the winter. He knew what to expect. And, he knew what to do next.
He hired someone to build a non-magical fence out of wood. Then he called the apothecary to order some more seeds.
This story was originally posted on September 8, 2017. Where is the line where stage magic becomes real magic? I’m not sure. In this story, that line is especially hard to find.
Have you ever heard about the sculptor that fell in love with one of his creations? It’s perhaps more common than you’d guess. For example, there was a baker who fell in love with her gingerbread recipe. She built an entire house out of gingerbread so that she would never be separated from her dearest love. It didn’t turn out well.
Luckily, this story is not about her. Instead, this is the story of a mathematician who fell in love with a math problem. It wasn’t a particularly lovely equation. It wasn’t the theory of relativity or the Pythagorean theorem, or even Euler’s equation.
But it was a fun problem to spend time with. Sometimes it made him laugh out loud. He’d sit on the couch with a pencil and paper, pick a random number and start computing. If it was even, divide it in half. If it was odd, multiply it by three and add one. Repeat with the new number. Eventually, you always, always return to one.
His colleagues didn’t understand. “Isn’t it a little odd to spend all your free time with that one problem? You aren’t going anywhere or learning anything new.”
“And yet no one knows if there’s an exception to the rule. Isn’t that mysterious? Maybe I’ll stumble across it someday. It would be like the discovery of penicillin. I wouldn’t want to miss out on that because I stopped looking.”
His friends didn’t understand. “Why are you spending so much time writing down that whatever-it-is? You should spend time with us. We’re your real friends, not that stuff.”
“The Collatz conjecture has never let me down,” he protested. “It’s always there for me. It’s dependable and loyal, and yet it still surprises me along the way. What else would I want from a friend?”
“But can the Collatz conjecture make you chicken noodle soup when you’re sick?” they asked.
“No, but I can buy soup at the store. Where can you buy loyalty?”
His mother didn’t understand. “But darling, numbers can’t listen to your problems. Aren’t you lonely?”
The mathematician sighed. “Numbers are excellent listeners. They never interrupt, and they are very reassuring. The Collatz conjecture constantly tells me that everything will work out in the end. It’s always there for me. How could I be lonely?”
His dog didn’t understand. It was jealous of the numbers and tried to eat them up. He didn’t have a dog for long. Luckily, it was much happier living with his mother, anyway.
And while the mathematician grew old, his beloved Collatz conjecture remained timeless and constant. One day, the mathematician had to face the facts. Someday, he would die, and his favorite math problem would go on without him, and it wouldn’t miss him at all.
He looked down at his most recent string of numbers and sighed. How loyal was something that didn’t really recognize your existence to begin with? His love for the Collatz conjecture was one-sided.
The mathematician looked around at his empty house. He contemplated his empty calendar. He looked down at the page full of numbers. “Collatz conjecture,” he said sadly. “I will always love you, but I don’t think this is going to work. Can we remain friends?”
And the mathematician, older and wiser, learned that being friends with people was rewarding in ways that being friends with a math problem was not. Even if sometimes it was more difficult and confusing. Luckily, the Collatz conjecture was still there to reassure and console him when times were tough.
He lived happily ever after. Unlike that poor baker. I won’t say that math is always superior to baking, but in this case, maybe it is.
This story was originally posted on July 1, 2017. I often feel like I’m in over my head and just doing the best I can. I think everyone sometimes feels that way, even wizards.
Let me tell you the story of my first great scientific discovery. I was very young, but already, I felt the call of science.
Did you know that balloons aren’t hollow? I know. Shocking, right? You look at a balloon and you’d never know. I mean, look at them. You can look right through them. It looks like there’s nothing at all inside. And yet, they aren’t hollow.
Unfortunately, this is difficult to verify. You go to open it up and * pop * no more balloon. Every single time.
This was very frustrating for me as a little scientist.
And what’s more, did you know that little pieces of balloon are dangerous? That’s right, and not just because little babies or animals or starving people might try to eat them and choke on them.
If you handle them wrong, they can snap at you just like broken rubber bands. It’s really, really painful. Ask me how I know.
One snapped at me.
I know, I know. I need a better story. Give me some time and I’ll think of one. It will be full of danger and drama and all of that.
How long will that take, you might ask? Well… It depends on how good the story is.
Back to my discovery. When you are small and ask people what’s inside a balloon, they tell you nothing. But it’s obvious that something is there, because something escapes when the balloon pops. Something is stretching out all of that rubbery plasticky stuff.
If you keep asking, some one will finally tell you it’s just air. At least, that’s what happened to me. And that was confusing. Because balloons seem to be hollow.
Have you ever seen a hollow log? Air goes in and air goes out, but the log doesn’t pop. And if an animal moves in, the log is still hollow.
After incessant questions, I learned that hollow logs are hollow because there is usually more wood in the middle of a log. A hollow log is a wooden log without wood in the middle.
Air isn’t balloon, it’s air. So even a popped balloon that has nothing in the middle anymore isn’t hollow. It’s a regular balloon without air.
This led to the obvious question. Are balloons hollow bouncy balls? The connection seemed obvious. I’d cut open bouncy balls before. They’re solid bouncy-ball-material all the way through.
Balloons seem to be similarly bouncy, as long as they stay away from sharp things. They are brightly colored and shiny. They sort of seem to be made of the same things as bouncy balls.
However, after experimenting with the broken pieces of yet another bouncy ball, I learned that the little pieces of bouncy ball don’t stretch. Not even if you leave them out on a flat rock all afternoon on a sunny day.
Balloons are not hollow bouncy balls.
What are they? Rubbery plasticky bubbles, that’s what. Something that wraps around air for a little bit, but can’t hold its shape for long.
That was my first great scientific discovery. I think I’m the proudest of that one. It changed my life. The success led me to start investigating so many other things. It led to my career as a scientist.
Of course, the world knows me as the scientist who made time travel possible. But I think of myself as Victoria Bradley, the girl who discovered that balloons aren’t hollow.