Category: Weird Science

A Love of Numbers

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.

The First Great Scientific Discovery of Victoria Bradley

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.

The Lost Secret of Time Travel

It was an ordinary Thursday when Emily discovered the secret of time travel. She had been sitting by a window, watching the rain, when she noticed a red umbrella moving along the sidewalk below. In a moment, she was transported into a memory.

The umbrella was the same color as the red geraniums that her grandmother grew in pots along her window sill. Emily remembered sitting backwards on the living room couch to watch the rain out the window, with the red geraniums on the windowsill below, just at the edge of her vision. The memory was sharp and powerful, but seeing it in her mind was not the same as time travel.

And yet, Emily could remember her grandmother’s house as though she was there. Mentally, she could walk the rooms as they were, even though it had been at least a decade since her grandmother’s death. The rooms were not the same now. The house was not the same.

However, Emily could remember just how her grandmother’s house smelled. It didn’t take much thought to remember the taste of the raspberries in the bushes that were once behind the house and were no longer there. In her memories, everything was still just as it once was.

Emily sat up in her chair, confused. Surely she couldn’t remember something so completely and well if it no longer existed at all. Something so solid and real that she could close her eyes and it was there, as real as anything she could see with her eyes open, was surely something greater than any other more ephemeral thought.

If it existed in the past, and she could visit it in her memory, surely memories held the key to time travel. But how could you physically visit a memory? If you remembered it perfectly would you somehow be able to step inside the memory?

If you remembered the memory perfectly enough to feel like it was real, would it matter if you were physically there again or not? Emily frowned and drew a geranium on the budget proposal she was working on. Then she erased it.

If you were really, physically there in the memory, would you be replacing your younger self? If you changed something, would you be stuck there? What would happen to the future, if it was already there, the same as the past? Would it change too?

And what about other times? Once you learned the trick of traveling through time, assuming you didn’t get stuck, could you travel there too? Could you learn enough about a historical time to create a memory to visit?

Emily filled out the budget proposal. When it was time to present it, She stood at the front of the conference room, and the room began to shake. Everyone dove under the tables. There were cracking and creaking sounds from all sides. Somebody screamed.

Without any conscious effort, Emily suddenly recalled sitting at her breakfast table that morning. She was sitting at the table in her pajamas, eating oatmeal with a little milk and raspberry jam. Eyes wide open, Emily recalled every detail of that moment.

She could no longer hear the creaking or screaming. She could no longer see the conference room. She was there, in that moment, eating the last bite of oatmeal.

Strangely enough, when she got up to rinse her bowl, she was still there, sitting in her chair. She watched herself walk away to get ready for the day without looking back. Uncertain of what to do, Emily hid in the guest room until she heard the front door close.

It didn’t take much research to discover that it really was six hours earlier. She’d gone back in time. Or she was in a coma somewhere. She pinched her arm. It hurt.

She got dressed, picked up an old purse and gathered all the change from the jar. Then she went to the corner store. Everyone could see her. She could see and pick up things that she hadn’t seen in her memory.

Grabbing a few apples, she headed to the check out. On her way, there was a display of odds and ends. She picked up a red umbrella.

Hours later, she walked along the sidewalk, protected from the rain by that red umbrella. She knew that this was the time she’d looked out the window, but there were no other red umbrellas to be seen. She entered a cafe further along the street and watched for another half hour.

There were no other red umbrellas. Had she seen herself? Was that proof of her time travel? What would happen if she tried to change something else? What would happen if she traveled back even further? She looked at the red umbrella, folded closed like a flower bud, and thought of red geraniums.

Emily disappeared that day, in the middle of the terrible earthquake that leveled the office building where she worked. Authorities assumed she died during the collapse or during the fire that swept the area soon after. The secret of time travel was lost to the world yet again.

But Emily still knew it, whenever she was.

Future Not-Telling

When Dylan looked into the mirror as he brushed his teeth, it wasn’t his face looking back at him. Stumbling backwards, he reached for the doorknob and took a deep breath preparing to yell for help.

“Stop. I won’t hurt you. I’m you from the future.”

Dylan stopped and looked at the mirror. “You aren’t me. You’re old.”

The man in the mirror winced. “Ouch. I was a mean little kid. I’m not old.”

Shrugging, Dylan opened the medicine cabinet, swinging the mirror towards the wall. He tapped around the back looking for a power supply or some kind of electronics.

“Don’t you want to hear about the future?” The voice called out from the other side of the cabinet door.

Dylan closed the door again and faced the man in the mirror. “Like what?”

“Before we begin, I do want to point out that I’m not old.”

“You have a beard.”

The man rubbed at his beard and frowned. “Beards are cool in the future, you know.”

“It doesn’t look cool. It looks old.” Dylan was pretty sure after all that this was not him from the future. He wouldn’t ever have a beard, even if other people said it was cool. He opened the cabinet again to figure out how the trick was done. He knocked on the back of the mirror.

“Dylan, Dylan, Dylan,” the voice said. “Stop that. I can prove I’m you. I’ll tell you something no one else knows.”

Dylan swung the mirror back partway, still holding onto the edge of the door. “Like what?”

“Um. I don’t know. Oh, wait. You dream all the time that you can fly. You have nightmares about carnivorous flowers. You cheat when you play solitaire.”

“Whatever.” Dylan crossed his arms. “What do you want, anyways? It’s not like I’ll really become you anyways. Not now that I’ve seen how stupid I look with a beard.”

The man in the mirror stroked his beard again. “I told you, it’s cool. Wait and see.”

“So, why are you here? Do you need to warn me about something?”

“Hmmmm.” Old Dylan thought for a moment.

Dylan rolled his eyes. “Did you forget why you came here? Told you you’re old.”

Old Dylan pointed at him through the mirror. “That’s it. I’m not telling you anything. You get to suffer.”

“I thought I was you.”

“So?”

“So you’ll suffer too.”

Old Dylan smiled. “Yeah, but I’ve already lived through it.”

“But maybe you could tell me some stocks to invest in or something and we’d both be rich.”

“You’d just waste all the money before I could spend it,” Old Dylan said.

“That’s what you think.”

“I’m you too, so you think it too. Hah!” Old Dylan crossed his arms across his chest.

Dylan swung the cabinet door open and knocked on the back of the mirror.

“Knock it off, that’s annoying and loud.”

“You’re old, old, old, old, old old, old.”

“That’s it, I’m leaving.”

Dylan knocked on the back of the mirror a few more times. When he didn’t hear anything, he swung the mirror back in place. Old Dylan was gone.

Years in the future, when beards were actually cool, Dylan didn’t grow a beard. But he was interested in time travel. He studied it extensively, with the firm belief it would someday be possible. When he joined a team inventing a way to visit the past through mirrors, Dylan volunteered to be the first test subject.

He convinced them to allow him to check in on his younger self so that they could see the effects of visiting a past self firsthand. After a bit of reflection, he decided to grow a beard just for the occasion. He thought it would be best to complete the loop. Plus it would be funny.

“You can’t tell your younger self anything about the future, you know,” the lead researcher reminded him. “You signed an ethics agreement.”

“Don’t worry,” Dylan said. “I won’t tell me anything.”

Flashback Friday: Another New Invention

This story was first posted on June 20, 2017. I wrote three stories about Charles and Esther. This is the second one. I like all three, but this one is my favorite.

Charles grinned as he strode out of his laboratory. “Esther, I’ve done it again,” he said.

Esther looked up from her book. “Another new invention, Charles?” she asked.   “What does this one do?”

“This one is the best one yet. The world will never be the same,” Charles said. “Follow me as I reveal the answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries.”

Esther followed Charles out to the yard. It was evening and the hens had already gone to their coop to roost.   Charles opened the door with a flourish. The hens scolded him sleepily.

Charles pulled something out of his pocket. It looked like a flat microphone, or maybe a metal lollipop.   He held it in front of his mouth.   “Ok, ladies, I have a question,” he said.

The hens perked up and looked at him. It was disconcerting to see their silent unwavering attention. Charles smiled. “What is the most common flavor to you? What does everything taste like?”

He held out the microphone. Flappy, the most bossy of the chickens, leaned forward. “Corn. Everything tastes like corn,” she said.

Esther looked at Charles. “That’s amazing. A chicken translator. Ask it why it crossed the road.”

Charles frowned. “It’s a universal translator, and our chickens have never even seen the road.   Why would I ask them that?”

Esther laughed. “It’s a classic question. Just ask.”

“Fine.” Charles held up the translator.   “Why did you cross the road?”

He held out the translator and Flappy leaned forward again. “What’s a road?” she asked.

“Never mind,” Charles said. He looked at Esther. “See?”

Esther sighed. “How disappointing. I was sure they’d say to get to the other side. So, why were you asking about flavors?”

“I’m trying to discover the foundational taste. Everyone says everything tastes like chicken, but now we know that to chickens everything tastes like corn. What’s the next step?” Charles turned and strode away. Esther hurried to catch up.

Charles hurried to the kitchen and began opening and closing cupboards.   “What are you looking for?” Esther asked.

“Where do you keep the corn?” he asked.

“In the freezer,” Esther said.

Charles rummaged through the freezer and found a plastic bag filled with corn. “Aha!” he said. He held up his translator.

“They can’t talk to you,” Esther said.

“Why not?” Charles asked.

“They’re dead,” Esther said.

Charles dropped the bag of corn. He backed up looking horrified. “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve been feeding me dead things all this time?” he asked.

“You don’t really want to eat things that are still alive do you?” Esther asked.

“Good point,” Charles said. “You have the soul of a philosopher, Esther.” He picked up the corn, gave it a pat, and returned it to the freezer.   “So, where will I find living corn?”

“In a garden or field, I imagine,” she said.

“Esther, we’re going on a drive,” Charles said.

They drove around and finally found a field of corn just outside city limits.   It was nearly dark out. Esther sighed and followed Charles to the field.   “Charles, the corn will still be quite small,” she said. “Even if corn can talk, which I doubt, this corn may be too young.”

“Nonsense,” Charles said. “Help me look for an intelligent looking ear of corn.”

Esther pointed to a small ear nearby. “This one looks good,” she said.

Charles rushed over and held up the translator. “What is the most common flavor to you? What does everything taste like?” he asked.

After a moment, a small high-pitched voice replied, “What does taste mean?”

Charles smiled and put the translator back in his pocket. “There you have it, Esther. Corn is the foundational taste. I’d always wondered.” He started walking to the car. “I wonder what I should invent next.”

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