Printed in Kindle under the title
THE ARTIST ASTRONOMER
The radio beam traveled far and saw the Earth a giant
friendly face with the city lights of New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Paris
like a thousand sparkling eyes, and the Himalayas a long interesting nose,
the continental drift a wide and welcoming grin, and the radio telescopes
dotting the surface of the Earth like a thousand patient ears. It poured
over the planet like an intelligent rain knocking at the door of humanity
to let it in. With the dishes of radio telescopes constantly draining the
sky for meaning, the signal finally trickled through their metal mesh into
the electronics of the system, emerging on the screen of a couple of
radio-astronomers as a benign sinusoidal spaghetti which they labeled PSR2100+09,
"I'll be damned!" exclaimed Meni.
His hands lying very symmetric on his desk, he brought his face close to his Sparc-20 workstation and squinted through his thick framed glasses.
"Look," he said to the man sitting next to him, "is this periodic or what?"
The man rolled on his octopus legged chair to the front of Meni's console and to appease him declared, "Yeah sure," then added, "so what?"
Meni remained fixed on his monitor, pleased with himself and at one with his environment. Using both hands, he caressed his keyboard a few times as if it were the head of a grinning animal decked with a hundred teeth marked Q, W, T, Enter and Shift. Each time, his fingers started from the center and moved outward, the right hand perfectly synchronized with the left. The man smirked and pointed his gaze to Meni's hands.
"It's got to be tip-top symmetric, doesn't it?" he said.
"Tip-top," Meni responded as he adjusted the position of his glasses onto his glabella, the point where nose and forehead meet.
A short silence befell the room and the two humans let the computer hard drives, the laser printer, the fluorescent bulb, and a small fan pivoting in the corner do all the talking. Meni Mendel's oily black hair, parted on the side, clashed against his partner's short well-groomed curls, and his stout slouching body was the nemesis of the other's slender physique and perfect posture. Meni brought his face closer to the monitor and waited for his colleague to join him, but the other man was already rolling back to his side of the desk.
"Did you hear," he said propelling his chair with his feet as if it were a paddle boat, "about the guy who found some periodicity in the redshift of a bunch of quasars he was observing?"
Meni twitched then twirled his ergonomic chair to face his co-investigator, Jonathan Finkelstein. Periodicity is the cocaine of the scientist. It's an event or a number that keeps recurring at regular intervals, it's a pattern, and what is science but the pursuit of patterns: in climates, in ocean currents, in human behavior, in the fabric of space. The universe is filled with patterns if only we deemed to look. Meni peered into Finkelstein's eyes, searching for something. Good faith perhaps. Here they were at three in the morning digressing from the pattern of the century.
"Well," Finkelstein continued, "turned out the periodicity of the quasars came from the coffee pot." He waited for some reaction but got none. "So this guy, sitting perhaps on the same chair as you are now, would go and boil himself some water every twenty minutes to stay awake."
The astronomer noticed a furtive glance from his single audience toward the electric coffee pot that sat behind him on a tall file cabinet. Just a minute earlier he and Meni had wrestled with one of the drawers to remove a couple of star charts.
"Yup," he went on, bringing his hands to the back of his neck and reclining comfortably in his seat, "that's the one. Every time the guy plugged it in, the surcharge created a glitch in the electric circuit to which, as we all know, the radio detector is also connected."
Finkelstein paused for a minute, waiting for something to appear in his colleague's eyes. Revelation perhaps. Finally, he straightened himself up in his chair and rotated back to face his computer screen, but not without adding, "To make a long story short, my dear Dr. Mendel, a couple of months after this Dr. so and so came out with his great periodicity find, some smart ass graduate student published a paper in the Astrophysical Journal, 'Predicting Coffee Habits from Quasar Periodicity'. And let me tell ya, I don't want anyone deducing my hang ups from our pulsar survey."
The room returned to its previous muteness with the computer drives humming and the faint hammering of Finkelstein's keyboard in the background. Meni Mendel remained nailed to his chair like Christ on his cross. Even he was supposed to have had an instant of doubt. Who was Meni not to have one then? He uttered very rapidly, almost in a machine-like intonation the syllables ass and hole which bounced off Finkelstein without even registering. The man had heard it all right. So what? He had made his point. Artifact is the antichrist of science. It biases the experiment. Ruins a reputation. Destroys a career. Page 99 in volume 1 of the Illustrated Encyclopedia Scientifica describes it more subtly as 'an object, substance, or effect introduced by some external agent or action'--like a coffee pot. It creeps in, unbeknownst to the scientist, distorting facts into two headed monsters, bending theories into pretzels and all this, ironically, by the scientist's own hand.
It comes to mind how the discovery of cold fusion and its rapid refutation came about. How a courageous group worked relentlessly on achieving perhaps the last great engineering feat of the Twentieth Century, on par with the Wright brothers' first flying machine, or the Aswan Dam riding the Nile, or the Apollo project which reached the Moon! And these pretentious scientists dared believe in themselves, in their ideas, in their research, in taking four nuclei of hydrogen and turning them into one of helium without even using huge reactors heated to Dantesque temperatures, but at room temperature no less. How daring! And how the physicists working on that experiment having finally detected helium, promptly shouted "Eureka, FUSION at last!", when in fact their laboratory had been contaminated with helium from a previous experiment. And so humanity's most human dream, that of turning ordinary metal into gold, had once again been revived and we called it fusion. Isn't it always about transforming matter in one form into matter in another? And what is that but playing God? Never mind that Einstein couldn't unify the four forces of Physics into one. Or that Newton couldn't transform copper into gold. Never mind. We go on trying, undeterred by the failure of our geniuses. The best scientist is the cold blooded bastard. There's no falling in love with an equation or feeling attached to some particular data. There are those who become infatuated with such and such a theory, but they are the lost souls of research.
Meni remained glued to his seat staring at the Y on his keyboard. To an external observer, he would have seemed like a beaten man, a false messiah whom Judas just uncovered. But when a physicist looks dreamy, bored, or like a wax figurine, it means deep inside he or she is running a marathon. It's all in the process. You ask a physicist 'Hey, isn't it amazing we went to the Moon?' and you'll hear the clickety-clack of the brain interpreting it as: there's a clown on the Moon waving a flag. Had it been useful to wave a flag in outer space, the space program wouldn't have been such an under-achiever since. There's really no point in having a space shuttle if it's just to play with a crystals growing kit from Toys-R-Us. You've got to shuttle between Earth and something, instead of Earth and nothing. What's the use of going to the North pole? To the South Pole? To the top of mount Everest? To the Moon? What's so good about being one hundred and five years old on one's death bed? 'What's great,' the physicist answers, 'is getting there.' And so at that moment the idea of an electric coffee pot being at the source of his discovery, of the intelligent signals he had detected in the pulsar data, seemed quite exciting to Meni. He chanted "TUT! TUT!" then tried to remember the last time he'd boiled himself some water or warmed something in the microwave, or turned the lights on in the corridor. He canvassed all the details he could think of, each one a runner in a mental race to truth. Which of you bastards, he asked himself, screwed my PSR21 data or did you? Meni rocked his seat back and forth a few times, producing a squeaking sound from the chair's springs and enervating his partner. With one keystroke, he made the spaghetti floating on his screen disappear and replaced it with a clean royal blue rectangle crisscrossed with yellow lines. He pressed the "F1" key and small white diamonds popped up all over the rectangular slab. With two more keystrokes, one on the L and the other on number 3, he fitted a sinusoidal noodle through the data, also called a third order Legendre polynomial.
Finkelstein didn't look back.
"What did you get?" he hollered.
"Rotation period for PSR21, one point four seconds--Dickweed."
"That's a slow baby," commented Finkelstein almost in a congratulatory tone.
"But is it real," Meni retorted, "maybe all pulsars are coffee pots in space?"
He paused for a second then followed with a couple of train-like whistles, "Hee-heeeee! Hee-heeeee!"
Finkelstein bowed his head, shaking it a bit. "Okay, you little weirdo," he said laughing, "show me."
No one else got away with calling Meni Mendel a weirdo. And Meni accepted it from Jonathan because he knew, with the certainty only time can forge, that it was meant a certain way, as a brotherly term of endearment. The two had met at Summer camp when they were twelve, been roommates in college, fellow students in graduate school. They were like siblings who would get on each other's nerves but who wouldn't take it from anyone else but each other. As things went, they ended up in different parts of the continent, Meni a research associate at The Johns Hopkins Center for Astrophysics in Baltimore and Finkelstein a junior scientist at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto. Now they searched the starry sky for pulsars.