Saturday, September 30, 2006

It Use to be a Joke.

smoken' gun
Originally uploaded by svandyke.
I can no longer recall just exactly what Pop told me to do. I was 12 or 13 and probably we had spent the evening with him explaining atomic orbitals to me, or the structure of the alkanes versus the alkenes, or the benzene ring. He may have simply said try to think something through to the very end. See if you can discover something. I was to report my “discovery” the following evening. The area of inquiry was left to my own choosing.

Perhaps the question that I posed to myself was, “What is it that you truly believe?” I do recall that I lay in bed that night trying to discover one thing of which I was “100 percent sure.” Of course, discrimination of a true absolute required very stringent testing. So first, I devised a test system for my beliefs. In my mind’s eye I suspended a revolver hanging in black space. The barrel, six feet away, pointed directly at my forehead. I then proposed to ask myself something like, “Do you really believe in God?” and pull the trigger. If I was 100 percent sure of X or Y or Z, the bullet would stop mid-flight and drop straight to the ground. Otherwise, I had had it. In this manner I tried to test as many things as I could think of from my life. In actuality, I don’t think I ever put any proposition to the test. I’d think about things first, and I always found a caveat. That was my discovery. I couldn’t think of a single thing that I believed to be absolutely true.

This seems a rather negative result, so I was really not prepared for Pop’s enthusiastic response the next night when I reported, “I’m not 100 percent sure of anything.” Well, great answer! It turns out that this idea was the essence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - a major discovery of physics- that Pop started explaining in greater detail. And I kept bursting in with questions, still amazed by my accomplishment.

Soon, Mom came over to see what was causing all the excitement.
“Mom, Mom, I made a discovery in physics all by myself!”

“Oh Honey, how wonderful! What is it?”

“I can’t be sure of anything!” I was so happy. But something was happening to Mom. Her face was melting into this distorted expression. She started crying.

“Don’t ever, ever doubt that I love you with all my heart! How could you doubt that?” she had pulled me into a crushing hug by now. I pushed her back to arms length.

“I considered that actually. And I do think that you love me. But, I really can’t rule out the possibility that maybe you are just being nice to me so I’ll take care of you when you’re old.”

It was not the right thing to say to Mom just then. But in the years to come, it became a good story. It became a joke.