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Don Hucks’s fiction has appeared here, there, and elsewhere and has been nominated for this, that, and the other.

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Love and Advanced Mathematics

Don Hucks

I built a little universe in my basement. Nothing fancy. Just a cute little thing I could call my own. I made it out of some old subatomic particles that had been collecting dust in a couple of drawers in the kitchen and another under my desk. It was the first weekend in March and we were doing a little spring cleaning, and I put all the ones that were fit for use in a big Mason jar and I threw out the rest. Pam was going through the closets and putting together a garage sale.

“I bet you could get ten dollars for those things easy,” she told me.

I told her I wasn’t quite ready to turn them loose.

“I mean it. Just slap a sign on the jar. Ten dollars for the whole lot. You’d be surprised.”

I told her I had something in mind. A project, I said.

Here’s what you should know about Pam: she possesses boundless patience and doesn’t judge lesser mortals. On top of which, she’s a sucker for a good project.

I promised she could see it when it was done, and she said she could hardly wait.

So I set up a folding table down there in the basement, and I covered it with an old sheet we throw down whenever we paint, and I emptied the jar on top of it. I sorted the particles by size and color and shape and so on. Then I doctored them up with some abstract mathematical concepts I’d been working on, and I started connecting them with a soldering gun and a twelve-in-one multi-tool that Pam had given me a few years back for our anniversary.

The whole thing took a little over a year, but that was just nights and weekends of course. I was still teaching high school chemistry during the day. And chemistry was one of the first things that struck me about that little universe. Once I had put all the pieces together—in the arrangement dictated by the equations—the system took on its own special brand of chemistry. I ran a couple of rudimentary experiments, using some reagents I borrowed from beneath the kitchen sink. As best I could tell, this new chemistry was identical to the old-fashioned chemistry we’re accustomed to, only its Periodic Table of Elements was upside-down and backwards. Hydrogen and helium, for example, were exotic heavy metals, whereas plutonium was ethereal and common as fleas. It was the damnedest thing.

It was beautiful to look at, though, and I could sit there for hours just watching it twinkle and swirl, awesome and full of enigma, one big amorphous blob of pure unlimited potential. And best of all, it had that new-universe smell.

So I’ve got this neighbor who built his own universe, too. The guy across the street. He got the idea from me of course. There was a party next door—that’s next door to me and catty-cornered from him. We were watching the Super Bowl and devouring this spectacular assortment of junk food they’d prepared—every bite guaranteed to take five seconds off your life and worth every minute of it. Anyway, it was halftime and there was a lull in the conversation, and I just casually mentioned what I was working on. Well, next thing you know, the guy across the street wants to give it a try. He catches me out front, sweeping the sidewalk—I’ve got this Bradford pear that drops berries by the bushel all winter—and he wants to know if he can have a look at my universe. Says he’s been reading all about theoretical cosmology online. Thinks he’s got some fresh ideas on the topic. I should mention he’s one of these guys who has to glom onto whatever it is you’re doing, just to show he can do it better. It was the same with the salsa garden, and the battle of the bands, and the run for governor as an unsanctioned write-in candidate.

“Sure,” I said, and I led him down to the basement and let him have a look around. I gave him a few pointers—you know, what to watch for, what to avoid.

For a couple of months he kept ambushing me on the lawn. He’d materialize when I was taking the mower out of the garage or weeding the flowerbeds.

“My galaxies are getting this little bulge around the middle,” he’d say. “Have you seen that?”

“Gravity,” I’d tell him. “It’s normal.”

Or he’d say, “It seems to be losing weight. There’s a whole bunch of mass I just can’t account for.”

And I’d say, “Dark matter. Nothing to worry about.”

Or, “I’ve got this one spiral galaxy that keeps getting stuck and won’t spin.”

And I’d tell him, “Just spray a little WD-40 on it and it’ll be fine.”

Then for about six months he didn’t bother me, and I kind of assumed he’d gotten frustrated and given up. Until this one afternoon I was up on the roof stringing lights. It was a Sunday, and he came barreling across the street waving a handful of paper and babbling about his latest spectral data. Said he had evidence of primitive life in at least a half dozen star systems. I was skeptical. I mean it hadn’t even been a year since he started the thing. But I took a look at his spectrograms, and sure enough, it was all there: methane, molecular oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide.

Of course I congratulated him and told him that was great, but I have to confess it really got to me a little. My own project wasn’t showing the faintest tendency in that direction—and I had close to a twelve-month head start. As best I could tell, I didn’t have a single star that was anywhere near ready to support even a handful of planets, let alone biological evolution. They were all too hot or too small or too cold or too dim. Half of them had failed to congeal and couldn’t even mount a respectable gravitational field. How was it this guy—don’t get me wrong, he was bright enough, but he didn’t know the first thing about science: he was a software engineer specializing in small business applications—how had he managed to come up with just the right recipe and just the right math and just the right relationship of every part to every other part and of every part to the whole? I mean, the probability of stumbling onto that kind of thing by accident is a joke.

So after I’d finished putting up the lights I went down to the basement and sat my universe on the table and gave it a good looking over. I got out my multi-tool and I checked all the joints to make sure nothing had worked loose, and I used the mini-calipers to verify all the tolerances. I got down my notebook from the top of the closet, and I sat down there all afternoon and half the night going over the equations again. As far as I could see, they were perfect. Everything was tip-top. All of it just right.

I had realized already that it seemed awfully quiet down there, but I’d told myself not to worry. That these things take time. That this sort of work requires patience. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, of course, but my instinct told me it was too soon to panic. But when the guy across the street got off to such a whiz-bang start with that universe of his, I knew something was wrong. Really wrong. And probably something fundamental. So why couldn’t I spot it?

I stood there staring at the thing for about half an hour, just glowing the way it did, looking so pretty and so dumb, and I’m still not proud of this, but finally I grabbed it and snatched it right off the table and dropped it hard onto the floor. And I stood over it for a few seconds, just watching it sort of tremble, and I thought, take that.

But I didn’t say it out loud.

What I said out loud was this: “How perfect are you now?”

Can you imagine it? Actually saying that kind of thing out loud? To a defenseless universe you’d just thrown onto the floor? And for a defect that was obviously your own fault in the first place?

Like I said, I’m not proud of it. But that’s the way it happened.

And that’s when I figured it out. It was perfect, and that was the problem. Perfection, of course, is stable. Just think about it. A perfect thing, by definition, cannot be improved upon. There’s no such thing as more perfect. There’s only perfect and imperfect. It’s a simple binary proposition. So if a supposedly perfect thing were to change, it could only get worse. And we could only view this capacity for deterioration, retrospectively, as latent imperfection, and we’d have to conclude that the thing was never perfect to begin with. So there it was. I had made a simple and honest, but thoroughly naive mistake: in my desire to get everything just right, I had completely forgotten to throw in some error bars—randomness, indeterminacy, chance—the essential messiness without which no self-contained system could ever hope to evolve beyond the most primitive level.

I was elated at finally having grasped the problem, and I knew just how to fix it. I quickly whittled out a stochastic variable, which I derived from the mood of newly born photons emitted by the star XJ719 in the constellation Woody Guthrie. It was an easy choice: Woody Guthrie was my favorite constellation and XJ719 was extra bright and sat up high on the neck of the famous machine that killed fascists. (Technically the variable was a differential equation representing the weighted average mood of all the young photons at a given instant—in case you’re interested.) Don’t worry too much about what mood is. It’s a special property of subatomic particles in my universe. Particles can be happy, angry, sad, or confused. But that doesn’t really matter. It could have been anything. The point is just this: that the photons in my universe are extremely moody, and they change states thousands of times a second. I knew intuitively that working in such a flighty variable would have profound implications. To put it into practical terms, here’s just one example: it meant that anywhere in the universe, at any given moment, 2 x 3 no longer had to equal 6. It might be equal to anything between 5.9999999 and 6.0000001. Now, that may seem like a nitpicky difference to you, but extrapolated over all the 2s and 3s in a whole universe, that kind of thing can have a significant effect.

I named my new variable Photonic Average Mood, by the way. If you didn’t figure it out already, that’s PAM, for short. Yes, I named my random variable after my wife. No, not because she’s moody. She isn’t. If you really want to know, she’s probably the least moody person at our mailing address, and that includes me, both cats and the dog, plus a troupe of wild rabbits and the occasional mole. No, I named my variable the way I did because it was going to transfigure my universe from a stark failure and a singular defeat into a pretty decent little place for somebody to call home. And when I thought about it that way, PAM was the first thing that came to mind.

Anyway, I flipped back to the beginning of my notebook, and I applied the variable to the first equation in the series. Of course this affected all the subsequent equations, and I spent the next eight weeks correcting all the figures. When I was done, I got out my tools, and I made the necessary adjustments, and I set the thing running again. And I could have sworn I saw, in my peripheral vision, just the slightest trace of a wobble in this one nebula over on the left. It only lasted about a tenth of a second, but that was long enough, and I knew what I had seen.

And I figured that was just the sort of wobble my universe needed. Things would get cranking now for sure. Life would be just around the corner. Amino acids were probably popping up already, and here and there a ribozyme or two, maybe even a proto-membrane. All I had to do was sit back and wait. They’ll be writing symphonies in no time, I told myself, and painting ceilings, and developing crude sciences, and inventing fire, and discovering the wheel—just the same as us and for all the same reasons.

And as I thought about it, my chest started to tighten, and the blood was pounding in my ears, and I started to hyperventilate. This had never happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened since, and I’m still not sure what exactly it was, but it felt a lot like other people’s descriptions of a panic attack, and I had this visceral, almost overwhelming desire to get my notebook down again and erase all those changes I had just made. To take back my magical PAM and stop everything, before it was too late. To freeze it in time, beautiful and immaculate, just like it was that first night, just after I had finished putting it together. The night I called up the stairs to Pam and told her she could come down and have a look.

I had put a piece of transparent string around this spiral galaxy on top and tied it to the light fixture beneath the ceiling fan and angled all the lights inward and down. It sparkled like crazy in that light, and Pam said it looked “just like Fourth of July, a million times over, all rolled into a single—what do you call those things?”

“M-80s?” I said.

“Is that the one that blows your hand right off?”

“As often as not.”

“Then, yes.”

She said she was glad I hadn’t put that jar in the garage sale, that it would have been a shame to let it go.

Then she put her arm around my waist, and after a second she said, “He would have loved it, you know.”

And I said, “Yes. I know.”

Then she said, “You remember that telescope? How he’d sit out there on the patio, just looking up at the moon?”

These weren’t really questions, of course, but I said, “Yes. I remember.” And I put my hand on hers, there on my hip, and I wrapped my fingers around it and squeezed.

Then we stood there just looking at that shiny new universe for a few minutes more, and she said she was going to bed. She asked if I was coming up soon. I said in just a minute and I let go of her hand, and she went up the stairs. But I ended up staying down there longer than I had thought I would, and when I went up, Pam was already asleep, and I slipped under the covers as softly as I could, and I curled up beside her. I tilted my head back toward the window, and I looked straight up between the blinds. But there was no moon. Or at least none that I could see.

Anyway, after I’d thought about that first night for a while and about a few other things that happened a long time ago, I decided to leave the eraser in the drawer and the notebook on the shelf. Decided I’d done my part and now it was up to the rise and fall of probability waves. Decided from here on out I’d just sit back and watch. And I decided if somewhere in all that glittering dust some exceptionally ambitious bits of slime decided one day to set themselves apart from the ordinary lumps of inertia and go to the trouble of constructing outrageously elaborate and impractical schemes for perpetuating their own idiosyncratic brand of self-conscious ridiculousness, I’d let them have their chance.

Poor bastards, I thought. They don’t know what they’re in for.

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