Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The New World

The New World

It is June 1905. The eminent physicist Max Planck has just finished lunch and is now sitting down to read his mail. Outside, blue jays yelling, marking their territory. All around them, a heavy rain, carrying away the gravel roads, yet again. Inside, dust, books, and the smell of day old smoke. The volume of mail: high. The prospects for sun before the day is out: low.

Physicist Brian Greene, in his recent book The Elegant Universe, describes this day as the one in which “the accepted scientific order had been overthrown”(23). He spends a paragraph on the day itself, and then moves into a discussion of the young Einstein’s thought process concerning the travel of light. In doing so, he leaves the reader with a mystery. He gives the reader Einstein, but what about Planck? What happened to Planck on the day he saw his entire worldview overturned?

He woke up. He got out of bed and walked through numerous doors. Eventually, he made it to his office, where he sat down and got to work on some problem or another. At lunchtime, he stopped to rest. This is essentially what happened before he began opening his mail.

Planck feels wet and cold. He squeezes himself into a corner of his chair and then picks up an envelope. He slits open the side, and then sighs. Thomson. He reads a paragraph, then sighs again. I wish he would move on and stop living off the electron already. He puts the letter down and looks up. His eyes fill with the world as it appeared to a single mapmaker in 1507 and for a moment, he forgets the mail. He becomes lost among the meridians of the New World, unable to swim his way out from under the blue he knows is North America. Breathing in, he sees Amerigo Vespucci putting pen to paper, manufacturing his navigational history in order to get himself on the map. Breathing out, he looks down at the latest copy of the Annals of Physics and wonders if he, too, has been tricked into putting his good name behind the well-crafted lies of others. This proves, Planck says to himself, as he swings the next envelope across his stomach, that pickles and mustard do not go well together.

He discovers several sheets of circular paper stapled together inside the next envelope. Each paper has several lines, which converge at the center, and are covered with writing. He notices, too, that the letters of the words grow smaller and closer together as they approach the center. Before reading a line, he thinks Hendrik. He bends down to get the envelope off the floor and, upon reading it, has his suspicions confirmed. Turning back to the letter, he finds the beginning. Max. This is Lorentz. I have tried to reproduce the contraction idea for you in a letter, but I am afraid it failed. He laughs. A branch hits the window and falls. Planck looks up, sees the rain rolling down the glass, and realizes that this is physics. As he picks up the next envelope, he wonders why the Spanish had it so easy in the New World, while he, and the rest of the physicists, keep hitting the walls of the Old World over and over again.

Bored with the side of the envelope, Planck begins, this time, by making a slit at the bottom. Then he lifts it to eyelevel, tilts it, and finds the contents stuck. Having had a long morning of formal meetings with stuffy university patrons, Planck decides to abandon his etiquette and go at it the way he imagines the poor do. He puts down his scissors, stands from his chair, and then tears the envelope in three. Sitting down, he begins reading. After a page or so, the first question that comes to his mind is who is this?

An hour later, Planck puts the paper down and looks out the window. Sun. I can’t believe it.

A few minutes later, he finds himself frantically searching the floor for the pieces of the envelope. He finds the address, somewhere in Switzerland, but no name. He picks the paper back up and scans it front to back. Nothing. He looks under his desk and finds an accumulation of dust to rival that of any barn, but no pieces of the envelope. Planck sits up and realizes that no one would believe him if he claimed the work as his own. Turning around in his chair, he thinks, I have to find that name.

Four hundred years earlier, the Spaniards were hopping from one island to the next, and getting the names right was the last thing on their minds. Bernal Diaz, who was there, is famous for his keen eyes and repetitive sentences. In his The Conquest of New Spain, for example, the statement “We called this place ______, and so it is named on the charts” is found in various forms throughout. Although the accuracy his work is often questioned, the truth of this statement is certain. Look at any map of North and South America today, and you will find the land heavy with the names the Spaniards threw out as they moved on through.

One such name is found on the tip of Mexico: “Yucatan.” Having finally made it the mainland in 1517, Diego Velazquez and crew attacked the natives and took what they could. The booty included two prisoners, promptly named Melchoir and Julian by the Spaniards. It is generally accepted that there was extensive questioning, probably by Velazquez himself, about the mainland. Above all, the Spaniards were alchemists of the word. Thus, anything the natives said instantly became a sign of gold. The one thing that did not translate into gold was the name of the land. The Spaniards came out of their meetings with the prisoners believing it was “Yucatan.” The prisoners came out of their interrogation having said nothing about the name of the land. What the Spaniards took for the name was in fact a discussion of the yucca plant, its cultivation and use in making bread.

However, the name “Yucatan” stuck with, among others, Velazquez, who most likely spread it to Cortes and the other Spanish captains. They, then, sent it back to Europe in their correspondences with the Pope, and with King Charles V. It is well known that, among the court of King Charles V, was one Gerardus Mercator, master mapmaker. Gerardus Mercator was famous not only for his maps, but also for his conferences on the state of cartographic thinking. King Charles, thus, often found himself waking to a convergence of eager cartographers and navigators. Each time this happened, the news would be spread all across Portugal and Spain. What began, then, as an error quickly became set down as truth on the world maps.

This ease of transformation is what the eminent physicist Max Planck was thinking about just before he picked up the envelope from Switzerland. He did not know much about the conquest of the Americas, however he did know that the conquerors possessed something he wanted. Namely, the power to take matter, any matter, and extract truth from it. Yes, he knew that the explorers sometimes lied to the public about what happened in the New World. He even hated people like Vespucci, whose lies were solely for personal gain, and had nothing to do with the pursuit of truth. However, there was something about those lies that fell within the pursuit of truth. He knew, for example, that the Aztecs believed in ritual sacrifice. He also knew that the conquerors believed this practice was a sign that the natives were barbaric and godless. Being an enlightened man of the early 20th century, Max Planck was fairly certain the Aztecs were in the wrong. However, no matter how much he tried, he could not get rid of the thought that, somehow, they were also in the right. Back and forth between the conquerors and the natives he went, seeing each perspective, on its own, as right. This thought only became more certain after reading the paper from Switzerland. However, there was still the problem of the name, for which he knew, there was no answer other than to keep searching for it.

Having exhausted all the conventional methods of searching, Max Planck, eminent physicist, decides to be bold. He takes his pen, penholder, and paperclips off his desk. He removes the journals, sets them on the floor next to the bookshelf. The clock he sets in the window and the rest of the mail, he carefully stacks next to the open door. He then closes the door, rolls up his sleeves, and, in a single shove, overturns the desk. Dust flies everywhere. Planck shades his eyes and waits. After a minute or so, the dust settles and Planck looks at the floor. Scattered amongst the dust-bunnies are a few pieces of torn, yellow paper. Planck bends, picks one of them up, finds half of a canceled stamp on its backside. He bends down again, gathers the rest, and then sits down at his chair. One by one, he turns each piece over to see if there is any writing on them. Eventually, he throws two of them back on the floor, leaving two in his hand. Out of these, he begins to decipher the handwriting and make a name.

After awhile, Max Planck, eminent physicist, looks up. He notices the sun fading behind the furthest tree in the university courtyard. He should be getting hungry, but thoughts of food are nowhere on the map for him. He puts the two pieces of paper in his pocket and stands for the first time in over an hour. It had taken him about forty seconds to read the name on the scraps of yellow paper. The rest of the time he had simply sat, staring at the map of the New World, wondering how it could all be true.

Now, as he walks across the room, he feels his feet hitting the floor a little harder than before. Reaching for the clock in the window, he feels himself draw in a breath and then hold it for just a little longer than usual. He notices the clock feels a little heavier and, so does his arm. However, none of this can blind him in the face of his main thought. It is like a beam of light that he chases over and over again, but never quite catches up to. He conjures up every list of names, in every journal he has ever read, but none of them contain the one he has. He thinks also of the lists of students, whose names sometimes become attached to their professor’s work, but that too is a dead end. The name he had lost, and now found, is nowhere, and also, everywhere.

As he turns his desk back over, Planck thinks about the meaning of the word physics. In his mind, he draws a line across the present day, and leaves physics to wobble on the border. If he had been an explorer in the New World, he would have been Velazquez. The others knew too much, or too little. Their names are either much more prominent, or entirely gone from the planet. However, Max Planck, eminent physicist, was born in the 19th century, not the 15th. His New World is much bigger, and also, much smaller, than that of the Americas. He maps it by choosing, editing out whatever appears to be failure. Entire visions of the galaxy, as well as the minutest details of matter, come to rest in his hands. And yet, here he is, stumped by the work of a single man whose name he has never heard before.

Outside, the sun has disappeared, taking the squabbling birds with it. Unable to stand it any longer, Planck heads for the door and opens it. Down the hall, he hears footsteps, sees shoes going around a corner. Planck closes his eyes begins moving, knowing that he will have to find his way out on his own. He follows the sound of the other, lifting his still heavy feet and breathing fast. Finally, silence, and then the creak of a doorknob. Planck skids to a stop. Startled, the other turns, opens his mouth.

“Who’s there?”

Planck lifts an arm slowly, making a weak gesture of friendliness. He cannot say what he cannot stop thinking.
The man at the door sees a shadow move slowly across the wall, but hears nothing. He waits for an answer and then, after a minute, turns and heads out the door.

In his mind, Planck can hear the words racing around a single loop. He wants to hear another voice, but as the man steps across the threshold, he knows there will only be one left: Max Planck, eminent physicist. Like Diaz, he repeats a single statement over and over again. He hears himself shout Who the hell is Albert Einstein! and then he opens his eyes. Each time, he hears it rattle through the walls, sees them fall to the earth in rubble.

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Creative Writing the Dharma by nathan thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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