Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.
“True scholars often work in loneliness, compelled to find reward in the awareness that they have made valuable, even beautiful contributions to the cumulative structure of human knowledge, whether anyone knows it at the time or not.”
George F. Kennan
* * * * * * *
I. A DIVINE LENS
Fred Glidden walked his dog, Erdos, at the edge of the woods. The field had grown tall with weeds and flowers; darting insects buzzed and hummed as the pair made their way along the fragrant path. The Institute for Advanced Study lay beyond the man-made lake where someone had driven sturdy metal hooks into a couple of trees at the edge of the water.
He removed his turquoise, Mayan hammock from an old gym bag, and tethered it between the trees. Erdos, stretching his slim, muscular body in the sun, curled up beneath the hammock and slept throughout the afternoon, until it was time to return to their sparse dwelling in the housing development that was constructed as a hive for scholars at the opposite end of the forest.
Glidden would lay there for hours, as platinum fish leapt from the water in discrete flashes of light; often, he peered through the loosely woven hammock fibers, his eyes watching the world as if through a sieve; and, he would sort his thoughts in this manner, swaying slightly in his blue cradle above the lake. At the end of the day, his brain was a divine lens through which he was able to access his vision, consisting of a rare connectedness of all things, seemingly without previous relationship.
* * * * * * *
II. THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD
Davis Schroedinger was probably one of the few students in her class at the Twickenham School who readily admitted to having no real goals. She had been accepted early to Princeton, which happened to be the school at the end of her street. She had a broad, heart-shaped face, with Brazil nuts for eyes and pale yellow skin. Her hair was like blond wood, smooth and polished above slim shoulders. She spoke quietly and carefully as if she were explaining a passage of text she had finished reading aloud to you. Davis moved quickly, her mind and body, trim and efficient. She looked picture-perfect holding a tennis racket, but inside her was an introverted, mousy-haired girl in black-rimmed, bottle-glass spectacles.
She dismissed her standing as an exemplary student, for Davis believed that it was her obsession which truly distinguished her: She had an undivinable secret, and that secret was the secret of her obsession with, arguably, the “smartest man in the world.” She stalked images of him on the Internet, covering her walls with photos, posters, articles, and interviews.
Fred Glidden contained not a few contradictions. He was of a basically strong constitution; yet, he was also delicate and neurasthenic, gaining in athleticism by his compulsive, daily walking regimen; his head was a blond melon; his voice, an extraterrestrial amalgam of dolphin vocalese and dreamy alien drone; he’d won the MacDougal Prize and now resided at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he spun theories like cosmological cotton candy. He shared a proclivity for obsessive pursuit, (a lifelong pattern), with Davis Schroedinger; and now, included in this palette of various and shifting concerns, was a preoccupation with strings, superstrings, and all related phenomena.
* * * * * * *
III. SOLVING FOR LOVE
In Davis’ romantic fantasies, they lay side-by-side on her plaid stadium blanket under a willow tree beneath the Institute clock. Glidden was the key to all the unanswered questions; he was the only man whom she believed was capable of bringing everything together. Discussing the Theory of Everything brought her an indescribable feeling of completeness, a wholeness which encompassed a nearly sacred sense of luminous integrity.
Fred’s metallic monotone bathed her in a special light. As he continued to speak, always with his pinpoint-pupiled eyes laser-trained just beyond her, it was as if he were slicing through a quantum array of leptons and quarks; cutting through transcendent zones with the light-blade of his mind; ferreting out dimensions glimmering like hot and cold rubies; offering as transport, the scintillations of smooth, blue celestial filaments, quivering and blinking like fiber-optic flora; witnessing those temporal flickerings, as time raced, flashing through space, across a dozen centuries, pasts and futures co-mingling, separating, recombining, dissolving; Glidden, reaching through one dimension, to seize her pulsing heart; replacing it, seamlessly, in another.
She laughed at herself, all too conscious of her own folly; but, it was also as if she were laughing at a kind of universal joke, a “cosmic joke” as people are wont to say; an ineffable and monumental jest, one which was equally serious and always brought her back to herself. Her strange obsession with Glidden was more a matter of a play of hybrid energies, heterotic rather than heteroerotic (she enjoyed wordplay), not really a sexual thing at all, but a quirky, romantic manifestation of her fascination with the vibrations of clockwise and counterclockwise closed strings, existing in separate dimensions and uniting in one. Beautiful. Irresistible. Symmetrical. Compact.
Beyond physics, mathematics, philosophy, and religion, Fred Glidden had solved for love. Everything else in her life became for Davis, longitudinous, a bleak Flatland, an emptiness stretching out before her, barely occupying time or space.
“There must be more than this!” she thought, dangerously; for her life had become a rocket pitching ever-higher through the fluctuating, passionate chaos which characterized her soul. Despite all of this, she was still profoundly cognizant: There had to be a connector; a Higher Truth, which wed all disparate forces.
In her daydreams, they walked together beneath the sun, across a shimmering ‘scape of Unified Fields, until Glidden and Schroedinger finally approached the place where superstrings begin, in that wilderness at the very twinkling of Creation. As they looked into each others’ eyes, Erdos began to bark.
* * * * * * *
IV. PARALLEL WORLDS
Davis’ parents lived their own lives. Her dad was a corporate executive who worked for Morse and Frankenthaler in Manhattan. Her mother wrote specialized textbooks (“Used as supplements to actual literature” read the Fast Track profile in Learning Curve Magazine) for the Olympiad (Cultivating A Classic Mind™) Gifted and Talented Programs. Brandon and Patricia Schroedinger, of course, knew nothing about the goings on behind the closed door of their daughter’s room. They respected her privacy, probably because they associated it with study; her quiet time, which she had always required plenty of, was her own.
“Hey, Dad,” Davis nodded to her father, passing the kitchen on her way upstairs, “have you seen my green jacket? I tossed it on the chair by the little table in the foyer, last night.”
“I left it on the landing, right outside your room, thinking you’d grab it on your way out this morning. Didn’t you see it as you came downstairs?” Her father put down The New York Times and looked at her over his reading glasses. “By the way, what are you having for breakfast these days? The orange juice seems to last for an entire week. Aren’t you eating here in the morning, anymore?”
“No time.” she said. “I usually get a roll and coffee at Frist Hall before the Bio seminar. We’re meeting across the green, and it’s super-convenient.”
“Okay, honey. Did you see the article from the Science section of the paper that I left for you on the dining room table? I didn’t get the opportunity to read it, but it’s something about string theory. It looks like something you might enjoy.”
“Uh, thanks, Dad. I’ll check it out later. Really tired. Think I’ll just go upstairs, and turn in for the night. Carl Fischer and I had something at the cafeteria, and then I rode my bike over to the U-Store.”
“You know. That guy from my AP classes at Twick who came over last Saturday with the DVDs.”
“He’s okay. Goodnight, Dad.”
“Goodnight, then. Sweet dreams.”
V. BEYOND STARDUST
Davis threw her books down on the desk under the window. Crawling beneath her covers, she found herself once again considering changing her major, which up to this point, had been Biological Sciences. As she’d told Carl earlier, “I’m really more certain than I’ve ever been that the field of Biology is actually more of a life sentence than a Life Science.”
With her head turned toward the wall, she readied herself for sleep, or whatever might come next. For nearly a week now, she’d watched the strings perform their nightly dance. In her darkened room, Schroedinger could see them taking shape: Closed strings, open strings, inchoate, spaghettied formations, and clear, palpable threads.
She could sometimes hear the storied music of the spheres; could perceive the music speeding up to accompany the movement of the strings. Davis thought about the infancy of science, full of odd speculations about the nature of the universe, about the heavenly bodies, about the forces, about time. History was only, after all, time, yet, so much more. What was time, in isolation? Time was nothing, if not connected to motion, to space, to light, to mystery, to gravity, to all things relative to what could be perceived, measured, named, or, conversely, ignored, rejected, forgotten in the sometimes wondrous, but frequently distressing scope of potential human consciousness. She pondered consciousness. She thought about all the people she’d known, and felt depressed. Davis then, tried to catalog for herself, an entire alphabetical roster of the accomplishments of mankind, but became exhausted and faltered, compelled to stop short before “C.” The notion of accomplishment suddenly ceased to matter. After all, “C” was for carbon. What else could matter, in her finite life, beyond stardust?
Davis Shroedinger believed that perhaps stress (or was it something more genetically sinister?) had finally driven her to the end of her tether. Her mom’s brother, James, who once worked as an aerospace engineer for NASA, and now lived on a collective farm in Vermont, hadn’t started having difficulties until he was in his late twenties. Was all of this madness? It was, evidently, way too late--or perhaps, she shuddered, too early--to worry about the present state of her mental health. And, wasn’t so-called “insanity” just part of the terrain?
* * * * * * *
VI. PROMETHEUS UNBOUND: A THEORY OF KNOTS
The strings hung in mid-air, dancing a bit, but, soon began thrashing about. In the corner of Davis’ room, above her white Victorian bureau with the patinated pulls, the strings were twisting and tangling, as if they had been suddenly cast into a celestial cyclotron with piped-in Baroque harmonies, racing into rapid speed-metal tone poems; music which encouraged the volatile choreography of the now wildly dancing strings. Davis sat up in bed, then swung her legs around until her bare feet were on the floor. Ducking her head, in case any of this was more corporeal than chimera, she walked to the window seat, and, tentatively, took her place there.
The turbulent strings were behaving in ways which she could not remember Fred ever characterizing in his lectures, which she stored on her iPod. Neither, had Dr. Newclair Weil--whose Culture Radio Band programs she’d listened to since junior high school--illustrated what Davis was now experiencing in her ordinary room. She recalled Prometheus Bound : “They were like the shapes we see in dreams; mingling all things aimlessly.” But, this was counter to what Aeschylus was describing, Schroedinger believed. The forms manifesting in her bedroom seemed to have purpose. One might describe them as ideation brought to life. Theory in motion. They appeared to possess a deliberate, evolving architecture moving steadfastly toward cohesion; and, in some inexplicable way, asking Davis Schroedinger’s help in their transition.
Was this what was called an altered state? No dream, fantasy, or hallucination could explain the epiphany unfolding before her. The glistening strings revealed themselves to Davis in their own elegant language. And, they still had a lot more to say!
A repetitious thumping resonated in Davis’ ears. The sound was that of heavy lumps of baking dough hitting a wall in measured spatterings; protoplasmic, cosmic dough, delivered with considerable thrust at increasing speeds. As the strings continued gaining momentum and mass, they formed knots above her bed, dropping to the floor as if they’d been scooped off of a baking sheet and hefted from a significant height, onto a giant plate. This plate was Davis’ patient yet quicksilver mind. The strings were no longer simply strings, closed, open, or otherwise, but knotted strings. In Davis Schroedinger’s bedroom, on a nocturnal, nearly silent street in Princeton, Conundrum Theory (or The Theory of Knots) was born.
Davis’ first impulse was to locate Professor Glidden, but he was, after all, a stranger. Her best friend and lab partner was the only person she knew whom she could call in the middle-of-the-night. Lifting her cordless phone from the night stand, she punched in the staccato numbers.
“Carl, it’s Davey. Pick up, if you’re awake. Hey, I’m not trying to scare you, but I think I’m on to something. The strings I told you about in class, last week? Well, they’re not just strings, they’re...well, they’re knots. Are you there, Carl? Please, pick up! The strings are knots!”
* * * * * * *
VII. THE EYE OF TRUTH
Davis Schroedinger was still writing in her journal, as the sun rose that morning. She wrote speculatively, with distance and humor.
What had filled up her life, her time, until it could hold no more, until it spilled out, green and lovely as the coming of Spring to the deep, viridescent woods of the Institute; a telegram from dimensions bearing silent witness, weary of their silence.
She had recorded all that she’d encountered; all of that which had reached out to her, unbidden: The beautiful, wild strings, often, trembling, ineffably fragile and infinitely fresh, hesitant in their beauty; at times martial, starkly certain, almost brutally real, to the point of grazing the boundaries of reality and dissolution; and, all too frequently, in Davis’ more tenuous states, they vibrated, flush to some ultimate edge of darkness.
The strings had called to her; to touch humankind through her; making of Davis an intermediary between sun and shadow-dappled, chiaroscuro worlds whose shutters were perpetually opening and closing, admitting light and darkness; the eye of truth never shut in sleep: An eye capable of conjuring visions beyond sight.
“Who can speculate on the effects that will be felt if The Theory of Knots is unleashed upon the world-at-large?” She continued writing, with wit and in earnest, to an audience whom she imagined was awaiting the information she was about to give them. “Once the strings are twisted into “pretzelines,” these delightfully inclusive, dense materials are capable of containing all things. The marriage of all theories, is in fact, “polypretzeline” and the knotted Über-strings demonstrate a relatedness, that is, one might say, infinitely applicable, and applicably infinite!”
“Can we doubt that Einstein would have experienced great delight in taking huge bites out of these theoretically succulent pretzels?” Schroedinger persevered, writing with a fountain pen in deep blue ink on pale pages, bound between covers of Andalusian leather in her private notebook: “The black squirrels in the sycamore and maple allée on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study will hurl pretzels in lieu of acorns at the heads of napping, would-be Newtons. The lone pretzel vender on Nassau Street will sell shellacked mementos to tourists and journalists, hot on the trail for these very newest string theory souvenirs.”
“Furthermore, I am happy to tell you, that my proud parents have consented to the honorary placement of a bronze 21st Century of Science pretzelform plaque above our front door; although, they are quite unhappy that their private house, a mere block from the university, is now being slated as a main attraction. Everyone is talking about this being the gateway to a soon-to-be burgeoning mecca: One of Princeton’s most popular destinations!”
* * * * * * *
VIII. WATER TO WINE
Suffice it to say, that in the scheme of things, Davis was never offered Einstein’s office, and Glidden and Schroedinger were never fated to meet, although she continued to stalk him during academic break, as he traveled the lecture circuit, vetting his new popular science book to the public: The Divine Logic of Strings.
Fred Glidden and Davis Schroedinger attended the International Conference at The Institute for Advanced Study, three days after Davis’ 19th birthday. The I.C., as it is called, is always somewhat like the curate’s egg, exciting, albeit somewhat tiresome, particularly when the focus shifts to controversy, which over recent years has often been String Theory controversy. Dr. Glidden gave his presentation to a polite uproar, and sat down, barely a row away from Davis. A gaggle of Polish mathematicians, seated together as if they were long-lost cousins, whispered loudly to one another.
Witold Czolde-Louie was almost snorting as he declaimed across the aisle to John MacLeod, a Canadian physicist from UCLA: “Ah, but he cannot know this. Can he not see the problems? It’s not realistic, my friend. A will o’ the wisp is what you have here. Neither orthodox science nor god will ever hear it. This is worse than heresy; it is fantasy! Addled empirical nonsense. A perverse notion, at best.”
“Well, Witold, at least he’s not targeting causality,” MacLeod replied, somewhat distractedly, “If Glidden had been Einstein, Niels Bohr would probably have asked him to not ‘tell God what to do.’” He continued, “You’ll recall that lunatic Symmetry fellow, Peter Kahler, who used to wander about, repeating his odd litany: ‘Wood to marble. Water to wine. Time into space. Space into time.’ I always thought it had a rather catchy rhythm.”
“Much like, I daresay, Feynman’s infamous bongo-playing.” said Czolde-Louie, actually snorting, this time.
* * * * * * *
IX. STRING CHEESE AND COSMIC PRETZELS
One might say that it was shocking, yet hardly surprising, when a small cardboard box filled with string cheese, Western-style string ties, and of course, skeins of kitchen string appeared outside Professor Hans Klingbomb’s office, heaped with excrement, which a few people thought might possibly have come from beneath the desk in a rather isolated study carrel in the Institute library, where Philip “Flip” Feldman was rumored to keep a makeshift chamber pot.
Circulating in an already skeptical and contentious climate as a local academic rumor, it was unlikely that news of The Theory of Knots would be widespread; Conundrum Theory had yet to penetrate the hothouse walls of the Institute. Although many had heard the strange story of a Princeton undergraduate who spent sleepless nights conjuring cosmic pretzels, Conundrum Theory (The Theory of Knots) was more quixotic--likely folklore or (sub)urban legend; possibly a cautionary tale for hapless students with no substantive plans for their futures; or perhaps, an allegory for would-be prodigies who wander off the paths carefully engineered for them by those who would guide them--if only they’d heed, if only they’d yield to their well-meaning mentors.
Yes, if only; they might save themselves and society from their bombs, their caves, their renegade years as mercenaries, prodigal sons and daughters, canceling their subscriptions to family loyalties; those moving targets, the somber-sad alumni of mandarin madhouses, the drop-outs with 185 IQs delivering their screeds from maximum security prisons: One dark and final discourse carved into a bar of white soap with a single match.
This crime of seeing too deeply and too much. This felony of perception. This heightened sense of the connectedness of things. Life could be altogether too difficult without the places Davis was newly discovering, certain milieu where she would be welcome without explanation. There would be those refuges where she could hide in plain sight, right there in the big, wide, open world. And so, Davis Schroedinger, whose parents had given her a strong sense of herself, who had developed confidently into the kind of individual who possessed an adaptive gift for self-protection, became a Drama Major, parlaying her theory of knotted strings into a poetics of survival; limning the cosmological edge, as it were, without diving from it.
* * *
EPILOGUE: THE STRING’S THE THING
Davis Schroedinger graduated from Princeton with highest honors and a degree in Theater Arts. Her play, The Conundrum Theory (A Theory of Knots) was produced on campus at the McCarter Theatre and was compared to Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Streeter Chamberlain, the drama critic for the local newspaper, described the story as a cross between A Beautiful Mind and the mythological Finnish epic, The Kalevala.
“I loved The Kalevala. We read it together, in Vandersickle’s Scand Lit class. You’ll remember, that in the romantic tale, “Vainamoinen and the Talisman,” Vainamoinen eventually realizes that what he really needed all along was not what he had initially sought in his heroic quest,” says Davis to Carl, who is still jealous of all the recent attention she’s been receiving.
It is Sunday morning, and Davis and her friend, Carl Fischer are seated in the crowded P.J.’s Pancakes, across from the campus, waiting for their food to arrive. Etched into the table are several generations of students’ messages of love, of philosophers’ quotations, of singed hearts, and carved predictions and promises.
“I think,” says Carl, “that your work might be better described as the strange love child of a Girl Scout Handbook and a bag of Mr. Salty Pretzels, conceived in a drafty cinema multiplex during the screening of Unabomber: The Movie.” Fischer tries to compose his face in such a way as to look as severe as possible, but an irrepressibly friendly smirk betrays him.
“Ha, ha. Funny. You’ve never even finished reading the article,” replies Schroedinger, as their pancakes arrive “Listen to this,” she says, and picks up the newspaper and reads the final section of the review of her play aloud to him:
“Chamberlain writes: ‘Essentially, the storyline is as follows: A gifted teenager falls in love with a famous scientist and her passion for him drives her to discover the relationship between herself and the universe. As the plot unfolds, the universe becomes the true protagonist and the young girl is forced to trade the notion of her mortal love for insight into the intimate workings of a cosmos where all fields are finally united; are, in fact, configured in knots. Despite opposition, disbelief, loss, and tragedy, by the end of the play there is little doubt who the victor will be. For after all, Dear Reader, as we’ve happily known all along, The String’s the Thing!’”
“What do you think?” Davis asks Carl, who is painstakingly carving a message in small, block letters into the table with the sharp edge of a pen knife. “What will it say?” she finally asks, brushing away a few stray splinters of wood.
ALL OUR SCIENCE MEASURED AGAINST REALITY IS PRIMITIVE AND CHILDLIKE; AND YET, IT IS THE MOST PRECIOUS THING WE HAVE.
“It’s a quotation from Albert Einstein. I’ve always liked it a lot, and I thought that you might like it, too,” He grinned, without looking up, “I was sure that you would like it, Davis Schroedinger. Very much.”