(Just for fun and your entertainment – or not - Okay I was bored and began thinking about the scientific community. Sheesh! Can't a man be bored!)
The building was a nineteenth century cottage, sitting innocently amongst low rolling hills of tufted grass; the white cotton balls of trawling sheep rambling across the slopes like organized Brownian Motion as they bounced off the scatterings of granite boulders.
The distant bleats of the aimless flock sounded mournfully with the haunting cry of a lone crow settled on the top of a gnarled oak which clutched to the echo of its youth, the whole bringing a sense of expansion beyond the confines of the human mind.
A place, you could say, where the great mysteries of the universe could not only be mused upon and be given to profound abstract thought, but were also inclined to leap out at you from behind the nearest boulder and give you a right scud around the ear.
Having parked in the rutted driveway, I approached, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation, the cottage itself.
The cheerful blue paint was peeling from the window frames and eaves, the rain pocked glass shrouded by net curtains that seemed to have more in common with deep water fish rather than a mark of privacy. Moss trailed in tatters from plastic guttering that looked as if it contained its own unique habitat and was no doubt listed somewhere as a SSI, while the dense vegetation in the water butt in one corner was probably an evolutionary offspring of the bromeliad and a protected species, the entering down pipe cracked and squeezed by a rising predatory vine of some sort as it made its slow climb to botanical freedom.
The only sign of human occupation was the laminated piece of paper stapled over the doorbell. ‘Out of order’ it proclaimed in big thick red letters of a marker pen, the script firm and concise in bold gothic, while underneath in fading squiggled biro – as if an afterthought – it said ‘Please knock and wait. Your arrival will be noted and logged for future study’.
With a slight sense of unease at these words, I rapped heavily on the door, the sound seeming loud and harsh on this warm spring day, the crow fluttering skyward at the noise, its wings beating into a gentle breeze that sighed over the grass in rippling waves of gravimetric proportions.
Just as I thought I’d made this journey for nothing, that the cryptic words on a phone had been a grand joke, the door rattled and opened very slightly, a wisp of white hair and a single eye peering round the edge.
I pulled the piece of paper from my pocket and read the words I’d been told to say.
“Relativity is not bound by time, it a merely waiting for a ‘bus.”
“And what number would that be?” came the reply from behind the door, the voice aged like mature whiskey in an oaken barrel.
“The 43A,” I replied, “changing at Greenfield Gardens depot for the number 19.”
The eye and hair disappeared. “Greetings, Mr. Interviewer. Please come in.”
The door opened a few more inches and then squeaked to a halt. There was a brief curse and then long fingers turning white pulled at the edge for a few seconds before disappearing.
“Um… You’d better give a good shove from your side,” said the voice rather sheepishly. “Damn thing sticks like glue this time of year.”
After a considerable amount of strain on my part the door ground open, the linoleum floor of a gloomy hallway showing the curving marks of the door’s resistance like tread from a set of slick tires on a dragster.
Come in, come in.”
I entered the hall, taking in my host as I did so. From the floor up it was brown shoes, brown slacks, a not-so-white shirt beneath a not-so-white long open lab’ coat, a worn face and the fringing wisps of white hair running round a rising dome like the high tide mark on a desert island without the obligatory palm tree.
Before introductions could be formalized, we both leaned into the front door, grunting with the exertion as it protested once again with high squeals and a grinding noise. Then, with a final give and bang it shut, the latch snapping down, our mutual looks of triumph and hand slaps on shoulders creating a bond that could have been written on the beaches of Normandy or in the trenches of the Somme. First contact had been successfully made.
The handshake was strong and firm, the fingers solid with a surprising grip, but it was the faded blue eyes that pulled you in.
The veins like an ordinance survey map on the hands said old, the furrowed wrinkles on the face said old, the white wisps of electrostatic charged hair said old… but the eyes said; you’ll have to get up earlier than I was born to pull one over me, matey!
“Professor Henry D’lithe,” I said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. My name’s Adam Kline from the Uppington Observer. We spoke on the phone.”
“My dear fellow, Henry will do just fine. Now! If you’ll follow me.”
I was led into what would be a living room if there had been space to live in it, light filtering through the windows and nets with considerable effort.
The walls were stacked with books; the floor was piled with books; the large table and sideboard were groaning under the weight of books, and where they were no books there was reams of paper, all covered in the hieroglyphic scribbling of a man who not only knows his lambda but is jolly well going to use it.
One again we worked together, this time to unload the two armchairs that gloinged and gloinked as pressure was released from springs that had been almost compressed to a singularity.
Then, with a faint patina of sweat now riding my brow, I gratefully sank into one of the excavated chairs.
“Would you like a cup of tea? Or a coffee?” enquired my host. “You’ll have to excuse the mess. I just don’t have the time you know.”
“Thank you,” I nodded. “Tea would be fine. Milk with one sugar please”
Fifteen minutes later I was sipping on a surprisingly good cup of tea, and complimented my host to the fact.
“O, it’s all in the leaves you know,” said the professor with a dismissive wave of the hand as he sat opposite me with his own cup. “The temperature variance is merely a side issue to quality. The rest is pure osmosis and the differential obtained from spout to teabag.”
I decided not to enquire further and just enjoy the tea.
For a brief moment we savoured the brew, the silence of the room offset by the faint ticking of a clock on the wall, a small pendulum cutting the seconds down to size with each swing.
“So,” said the professor finally. “What is it you wanted to know, Mr. Kline?”
I searched for a space on the floor, but Henry anticipated my need and pointed to a stack of books on my right almost level with the arm of the chair.
“Just pop your cup on there. It’s only Paley. He always had too much time on his hands for my liking anyway. Aha, ahahaha.”
I put the cup down and pulled the tools of my trade from an inside jacket pocket, being my notepad and Parker pen, while failing miserably to see the joke.
“Profes…. Henry, what my readers would like to know is, well, what’s it like being a scientist? What is it you actually do?”
“Well know,” said Henry, putting his own cup on another pile of books before sitting back in his chair, resting his elbows on the arms and interlacing his fingers over his chest. “That’s a very good question. What is it, as you say, that we scientists do…Hmm?”
He sat in thought for a few moments, mentally arranging his answer.
“We are in the business, if you like, of scientific study, or, if you want to put it another way, to study things scientifically. It is down to us scientists to find out…” He counted on his fingers.
1)What something is.
2)What it does.
3)Why it works.
4)Why it doesn’t work anymore.
5)What to do with the parts left over when you’ve put it back together again.
7)The universe and everything in it.
He seemed about to continue, then, realizing he couldn’t remember the first point, decided that seven points were enough.
“That!” he emphasized, “Is what we scientists do.”
“I see,” I said, jotting it down in shorthand. “So, let us take point one. What something is. Can you elaborate more on that?”
“Indeed! Take an orange for example. What is an orange? Well, we’ve worked out that it something that is round, grows on trees in warm places, has a very distinct orange colour, and, most importantly, tastes like an orange.
Now, if it was say, green with pips in, it would possibly be an apple, or even a very large grape. And, if you stretched it and made it yellow, it could well be a banana. Needless to say we’re very thorough on this point. However, you must realize that classification of fruit is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
For instance, if we went around saying that an elephant was a cat, it could cause severe problems in the family pet department you understand. Or, indeed, if we were to tell the layman that gravity is safe and your friend, who knows what the public would be jumping from - or into for that matter.
You must let your readers know that we, in the scientific community, take our responsibility of defining what things are very seriously indeed.”
“Thank you, Henry. Now, point two. What it does. I assume this is observation and study in its natural environment.”
Henry laughed. “Tut tut tut… no! That’s not the way at all. Your readers are lacking in the field of scientific study I feel. First we must remove it from its natural environment, subject it to extreme stress, and then, and only then, can we comprehend its interaction with the world we live in.
One example I might add is the prod test. This involves extending the index finger and giving it a gentle poke, which we then incrementally increase on the prod scale through heavy tap up to a vicious dig. If you still have an index finger at the end of the test, well, obviously it is not dangerous, nor does it eat index fingers. Two results for one test.”
“I see,” I replied, noting it down. “And point three. Why it works.”
“Well, that’s an easy one really. If it didn’t it would be dead or broken. We have a simple test for that. The national grid induction. Basically we pump sixty thousand volts through something and you soon work out whether it’s dead or broken. Of course, the test is rather final, but the first jolt is normally enough to get our results.”
“Thank you. Now, point four, why it doesn’t work.”
“Ah, now that’s simply because we’ve applied point three. Next question.”
I dutifully jotted it down. “Point five. An interesting one here Henry. What to do with the parts left over.”
“Well, to be honest there is still some debate over this. Some feel they should be reintegrated into the whole – very ATM I must say though – while others advocate the spare parts drawer – but still slightly ATM there too.
But the general consensus is to sweep them under the carpet with your foot while whistling loudly. This one is gathering pace and could possibly be dogma by the end of the year. We can only hope.”
“Okay, Henry. Now, point six. Invention.”
“Indeed. It is up to us in the scientific community to invent things for the general public. What most people don’t realize is that it is our duty to make new things for them to play with. We use a highly technical term and call them gadgets! Of course, not all things work first time and need to be adjusted or slightly modified in some way.
As was the case with the solar powered flashlight and the C4 mousetrap, but we expect these setbacks and adjust accordingly. Though, I must say, the demise of Professor Wilkins as he baited the mousetrap was a sad day for science I can tell you. We never did find that bit of cheese.” Henry sighed. “It was White Cheshire as well.”
“A sad day indeed, Henry. But, if I may continue. Your final point. The universe and everything in it.”
“O that one” Henry shrugged. “We worked that one out years ago, but we found to our horror that the average layman actually understood what we were talking about. We were shocked! Shocked I tell you.”
He shook his head with the sheer depravity of it. “We were this close…” he held his thumb and finger barely apart, “…this closeI say to calling it a day over the whole thing. Just cancelling science completely and shelving it as a bad idea.
But, as luck would have it, or a low probability statistic I should say, some new boys came along and started talking about quantumtivity and relativity and something called silly string or entangled rope.
Well, save our bacon or what. Now the public hasn’t got a damned clue what we’re talking about, and that’s just the way we like it.”
He tapped his nose. “Just between you and me Mr. Kline. Science is for scientists. Not just for anybody wondering in off the street. Good Heavens, no! So you wouldn’t understand it even if I told you.”
“Well, I think that wraps it up Henry. Thank you for your time. You’ve been most helpful and I’m sure my readers will find your words most interesting.”
“The pleasure was mine, dear fellow. It’s my duty as a scientist.”
I stood by my car, another fight with the front door leaving a dull ache in my shoulder. But, I had got the interview, the elation driving the pain from my thoughts.
Before I had thought that a scientists compliments a test tube the same way an arsonist compliments a Bunsen burner – but now I knew different. The world was in the safe and responsible hands of the scientific community.
With a deep breath to life I smiled happily and got in my car…