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The Back of Our Heads

11th October 2017
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“Tush,” Katherine said. “How about people not wanting to smoke in the dark? Does that prove that the sense of taste depends on sight? I smoke. In fact, you might bring me a cigarette and an ashtray. The only reason most blind people don’t smoke is they’re afraid of fire.” She took the cigarette Phil brought her. “Thanks.”

“Aren’t you afraid of fire?” he asked.

“Of course not. I can detect a match flame at fifteen feet.”

“You ought to go to Duke University sometime and have Rhine take a look at you.”

“I did. All he said was ‘Hmm,’ and I joined the other statistics.”

There was silence for a while, interrupted at one point by a muffled “Damn!” from Phil peering into the electron microscope, and the warm sun lay across Katherine’s lap. Finally he straightened up and switched off the current. “Well, it’s there, all right,” he said, and got up and went to the couch and sat at her feet.

“What is?”

“The red shift.”

“Aren’t you confusing things?” she said. “You’re not in the observatory now, Buster; this is the lab. I thought the red shift was the recession of the distant galaxies … whatever ‘red’ is.”

“Quite right, Holmes. However, in this case, it’s the recession of the not-so-distant atoms. They are small-sized solar systems, too, in a way, and when I say ‘red’ I mean something I can only infer mathematically, because I’m not dealing with light in the ordinary sense.”

“You mean they’re receding?”

“Only in this context,” he said. “Motion is length over time; in this case, it’s length over hyper-time, so they’re still here in the lab.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” she said. “However, I should think they’d be receding into tomorrow.”

“They are, but into yesterday, and new ones from tomorrow are continually coming in to take their place. It’s like Fred Hoyle’s theory of the continuous birth of hydrogen.”

“You’re making me feel like my poor husband,” Katherine said. “I understand the necessity of hyper-time to describe the motion of consciousness along time, but what’s this got to do with the atoms?”

There was a knock at the door and Phil stood up, just as Doctor Russell Chalmers Farley came in without waiting for an answer. Phil and Katherine felt faintly embarrassed—there was scarcely any need to knock on the door to the physics lab; it somehow suggested that the door should be kept open when entertaining callers.

Doctor Farley was a handsome man of thirty-eight with a blond mustache that gave him the look of a Kipling colonial officer.

“Ah, there you are, Katherine,” he said cheerfully. “Hello, Kaufman. How’s the Research Magnificent?”

“It’s beginning to show signs of life,” Phil said. “I think I can detect a sort of fetal pulse.”

Doctor Farley blinked his pale eyelashes and smiled. He sat down at the end of the couch where Phil had been sitting and looked up at him. Part of his charm was that, when he talked to a man shorter than himself, he got below him and looked up. At his evening “sherries” at home, he had a way of deferring to the newest and least important visitor, who was thus raised to the temporary rank of philosopher, while Russell Chalmers Farley was reduced to the position of listener.

The role of humble servitor of the Truth was his most useful one—it had worked rather well with Katherine, and he had an adroit and imaginative way of expressing his ideas, which usually disguised the fact that they were generally borrowed.

They had met at a street corner in New York City where she was waiting for the sound of traffic to abate so that she could cross. He was on the opposite side, and with his extraordinary eyesight and intuition instantly recognized that the beautiful, odd-looking girl facing him on the other side of the street was blind. He was at her side before the light—and the sound of traffic—had changed, and said, “I hope you don’t think I’m being forward, but let me offer you my arm. Taxis have a way of making illegal turns sometimes….”

“You are very kind,” she replied, pulling him back from the path of a taxi making an illegal turn. “You have a very nice voice,” she said as they got to the other side. “I guess being blind makes one … forward!” She laughed and started to walk on.

“No, please wait!” he said, and caught up with her. “I wish you hadn’t said that. It can be taken in another way: that I am forward because you are blind. I should like to say that you have a very nice voice.”

She stopped and laughed again. “That’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever had said to me!”

“Do let’s … I mean would you let me….” He floundered, and laughed, too. “Can’t we have a drink together? Now?”

“I think it would be lovely,” she said.

Later on, he said to her, “You may think this impertinent of me, but you make me envy you. If I were braver, I should wish that I were blind. You actually see more than I do.”

Katherine was intrigued. She had been told this before, but always with mystical and pseudo-religious implications. This man, with the attractive voice and smell, had no trace of the mystic.

“Let me tell you a fable to illustrate what I mean,” he went on. “There was a man who was born blind, and he went to work as a coal miner because the darkness was no hindrance to him. One day while he was working alone in an unlighted gallery, his sight was miraculously given to him…. He shouted out in amazement and awe, and the other miners came stumbling to him in the total darkness.

“‘What is it?’ they cried. ‘What’s the matter?’

“‘I can see!’ he told them. But they were puzzled, for they had brought no lights.

“‘What can you see?’ they asked. ‘There is nothing to be seen here in the dark.’

“‘I see black!’ he said. ‘In front of my face is blackness—however, at the back of my head, I’m still blind and I see nothing.'”

Katherine was delighted. “I’m not quite sure I understand.”

“Why, to the blind there are no shadows,” Farley said. “Another drink?”

“I think it would be lovely,” she had said, and since she could see no shadows, she had begun to fall in love.

Doctor Russell Chalmers Farley looked up at Phil and smiled. It was a charming smile and it was as genuine as a guaranteed, ten-carat, real, honest-to-goodness zircon. “As Katherine has probably told you,” he said, “what you are doing is completely over my bowed head. I am enormously impressed and at the same time unable to comprehend.”

“I find it hard to comprehend, too,” Phil Kaufman said. “And I suppose that’s what leads me on.”

“Well, the thing is,” Farley continued, “Washington seems to have gotten wind of it, and you know how they are. They don’t like things to be over their heads.”

Phil Kaufman looked at him in astonishment and sat on a lab stool. “I don’t understand. How can they possibly be interested in what I’m doing? It’s purely theoretical research.”

“Surely you don’t deny that Lisa Meitner’s researches began by being theoretical? And look what they led to. The point is, Kaufman, that I have been informed that we are about to receive a visit from a man from the A.E.C. He’s arriving here sometime this afternoon.”

“But that’s absurd! I’m not doing anything to atoms. I’m merely examining them!”

Katherine frowned when he said this. Phil knew better. Worse yet, so did she.

“When the A.E.C. hears of somebody working in atomic research,” Farley said, “they want to know what’s cooking. I hate you to be subjected to this, but it won’t do any harm to be polite to the fellow and let him, as it were, look over your shoulder.”

“I’m damned if I see why I should!” Phil said. “What does he expect to do? Classify me?”

Farley laughed placatingly. “I know it seems high-handed, but I think we all ought to remember there is such a thing as Security.”

“Security, my foot!” Phil said. “It was that kind of demented thinking that caused Germany to lose Lisa Meitner! And Einstein.”

“What strikes me as rather odd,” Katherine said, “is their sending someone here on a Sunday. When did you hear about it, Russ?”

“A little while ago. On the phone.”

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

“He was very polite and apologetic.”

“Quite typical,” Phil said. “It’s the velvet-glove touch.”

Farley looked at his wristwatch. “He won’t be here for a while, so I wish you could brief me about the inwardness of what you are doing, Phil.” He’d never used his first name before, and Phil became a little wary. “I know you can’t give me a ten-year course in advanced physics this afternoon, but—well, I’d like to know what kind of stand to take. I’ll be representing the university, after all.”

Phil Kaufman looked down from his perch on the stool at the earnest, kindly face and wondered what really lay behind it. So far as he could see, Doctor Farley had no reason to take any stand on the question at all, except to tell the A.E.C. man to go sit on a tack. If he wanted to represent the university, let him do it in the name of Academic Freedom. Phil glanced at Katherine. She was sitting very still and he had the impression that she was thinking about something else.

“All right, I’ll give it a try,” he said. “There’s an idea that’s been around for quite a while that there is an analogy between the stars and the atoms.”

Doctor Farley’s face lighted. “I believe I’ve heard of it. Back in the ‘twenties, by a man called Dunn, wasn’t it?”

Phil shook his head. “Twenty years earlier by a man called Fournier-d’Albe. He wrote a book called Two New Worlds, in which he suggested that the solar systems are actually atoms in some vast cloud of super-gas. Of course, this notion ignores the celestial absence of molecular structure—unless you count double stars as molecules—but it might be accounted for by assuming a high temperature. Then he said that the newly hypothesized Rutherford model of the atom was a sub-microscopic solar system, but he didn’t stop there.

“The atoms and their electrons, he said, were in turn made up of sub-atoms and were perhaps populated by sentient beings who looked through their telescopes and counted the atoms in their vicinity, no doubt arranging them into constellations. You can carry this imaginary process in both directions and as far as you like, but are we to decide arbitrarily that it goes on infinitely? Or is it like Einsteinian space, finite but unbounded?

“I have asked myself this question and I believe the latter statement to be in a sense correct, but what does it mean? Well, it means that if you move further and further into larger universes, you eventually get to where you started. Not that Big is the same thing as Small, but that from wherever you happen to be, the ones in the direction—outward—look successively bigger, while the ones in the other direction—inward—look successively smaller. Now if there were some kind of super-telescope that could look beyond our universe of super-atoms, and beyond the next and so on indefinitely, you would find yourself staring up through a super-microscope at your own eye.”

“Get along with you!” Katherine said. “This is the pipe dream to end all pipe dreams. Tell us more.”

“Well, I’ll revise it to this extent,” said Phil. “It wouldn’t be your eye that you’d see, any more than you’d see your own face if you looked far enough across ordinary intergalactic space. You’d see the back of your head—or, rather, the other side of the Earth—provided there was nothing in the way.”

“And in this case it would be what?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Phil said, looking worried. “What is the equivalent of the back of your head—looked at along the direction of hyper-time? Could it be that what you saw would not be from behind, but from … inside?”

 

Katherine’s beautiful sightless eyes seemed to be turned inward, and she sat very still. Then she said, “You evoke something in my mind like the echo of a picture I once knew, and will know again.”

Farley looked at her sharply.

“You mean something in your subconscious?” Phil asked.

“Perhaps that’s what it is, and yet they say that you try to escape knowledge of your subconscious—that it frightens you. I am not frightened, Phil. I feel … expectant.”

“I’d feel more expectant,” he said, “if I were quite sure of what I was doing. The trouble is that while ordinary light could in theory show you the super-astronomy of the stars and planets that are made up of atoms consisting of our stars and planets, it won’t work the other way.”

“Why not?” Farley wanted to know.

“Wave length. As it is, we have to use an electron microscope to see the larger molecules; the wave length of visible light is too coarse-grained to show anything that small. So just try to imagine how impossible it would be to see the sub-atoms—infra-atoms—that I’m talking about if one had to rely on ordinary light! The electron microscope wouldn’t help, either. It would be exactly as though some gigantic, super-researcher were trying to look at one of our molecules by bombarding it with a shower of planets.”

“Then how can you see this ‘red shift’?” Katherine asked.

“I can’t,” he said. “I detect it by a kind of mathematical diagnosis. It’s an inferential process—as most forms of observation are, in modern physics.”

Farley was looking as intelligent as he possibly could, but it was plain that he was out of his depth. He had heard of the red shift, but he decided he had better not have it explained.

“There’s another thing,” Phil said. “The time it would take light to make the round trip of our Einsteinian finite universe would be so great—in the order of 4π x 108years—that not only would you not see your not-yet born self, but the Earth wouldn’t have been formed either. The light you saw would be that many years out of date. However, in this case the elapsed time would be hyper-time, and you’d be there in ordinary time.”

Doctor Farley got up and walked to one of the windows and stood looking out at the observatory across the campus. “Am I to understand then,” he said, “that you are trying to formulate a new atomic theory?”

“Not in the sense of in any way modifying the accepted one,” Phil said. “If I’m right, it will merely be a new way of looking at the Universe as a whole, and it won’t have the slightest effect on anything.”

“I should have thought,” Katherine said, “that being able to see inside one’s own head would have all sorts of interesting effects.” She got up. “I’ve got to get back to the house. We’ve got people coming to dinner, Russ, and I’d better get things organized. Are you coming?”

“I’ll be along in a little while, Katherine,” he said. “I want to hear more of what Kaufman has to say.” He refrained from guiding his wife to the door because of long habit, and again sat down on the couch. After the door closed, he and Phil listened to her sure footsteps going down the corridor. They looked at one another a little guardedly.

“You know I’m on your side,” Farley said when they could no longer hear Katherine’s footsteps. “Surely you know I don’t like this any more than you do, Phil.”

“I suppose you don’t.”

“You won’t mind very much if I ask you a favor, will you?” Farley said. Having asked a rhetorical question, he seemed to be illogically waiting for an answer. Phil was unaware of the chess game, but wondered uneasily what was coming.

“Will you please leave her alone?” Farley said.

“I—” Phil started to say, but Farley held his hand up, palm forward.

“My dear chap, you are one of the most sensitive and kind people I know. But you are a little thoughtless. You imagine that, because Katherine is blind, you are doing her a favor by—by giving her companionship. You feel that her interest in the world can be furthered by your interest in her. This is not the case. I ask you please to leave us alone.”

“Us?”

“Yes. You put me in the embarrassing position of having to say that we are very well as we are. I know that Katherine is impressed by your—your mind, and I know that your sympathy is well-intended, but it is misplaced. She needs no sympathy.”

“Why not?”

Doctor Farley spread his hands, a gesture usually meant to substitute for words. “Do the strong need sympathy?”

“I think so,” Phil said.

Doctor Farley smiled. “Well, then, think of me as the strong one—the one who needs sympathy as the guardian of something precious. Will you give me your sympathy?” He smiled still.

Phil realized that when the A.E.C. man came—when any pretext presented itself—Doctor Farley would throw him to the wolves.

“Katherine is not in love with me,” Phil said.

“But are you with her?”

“No. At least … I don’t know.”

“Then you are.”

“Aren’t you being a bit old-fashioned?” Phil said.

Farley had abandoned his usual pose of sitting and looking up. He looked down at Phil—in fact, he looked down his nose and past his blond mustache.

“I mean,” Phil went on, “I think Katherine ought to be the one to decide whether she wants to go on seeing me.”

“And I disagree.”

“And I,” Phil said, “shall stop seeing her when—and only when—she wants me to! I refuse to be ordered around like this. We’re not doing anything wrong!”

“I think you’re forgetting—”

“I’m forgetting nothing!” Phil interrupted. “You’re acting as though I were having an affair with your wife, and you’re trying to pull rank on me! I don’t intend to be browbeaten and threatened!”

“I’m not threatening you, my dear man,” Farley said, his eyebrows raised. “I ask you as a favor, that’s all. I think I know my wife’s—mind better than perhaps she does herself. And certainly better than an outsider can.”

“And you regard me as an outsider?” Phil’s voice was loud.

“You know perfectly well what I mean!” Farley replied angrily. “You are not her husband and consequently do not know—”

“I know her a damn sight better than you do, you stuffed shirt!”

Like most blond men, Farley became red very easily. At the moment, he resembled a tomato with yellow hair. “Why, you little—”

Really!” At the sound of Katherine’s voice, they both swung around. They had been making too much noise to hear her return, and she stood at the open door. “Isn’t this a bit undignified?” she said. “I could hear you outside.”

Farley was breathing heavily. “What brought you back, Katherine?” he asked, finally.

She walked past them to the psychiatrical sofa and sat on it without answering the question. She looked as though her mind was on something else—and then, suddenly, startled and intent.

Yes! I am here….

Neither Phil Kaufman nor Russell Farley heard her—they were intent on avoiding one another’s eyes, but they would not have heard her anyway.

  1. You were right. He knows where the Unity is—if not what it is, yet.
  2. Oh, he will.
  3. Are you so sure? And will you at last admit that we are right? Unification—it’s the only way … now.
  4. (she has her face toward the electron microscope; her blind eyes seem to probe it) One cannot impose it on them. What kind of unity can come from imposition?
  5. And are things to go on as they are?
  6. No, it’s too late. Things have already changed….
  7. The history of Man has been the history of his integration—from families to tribes, to communities, to city states, to nations, to hemispheres, to—what next? Is it to stop here, and the hemispheres to beat each other down to the tribal or family level?
  8. You will be destroyed in the process.
  9. We? In the process of unification?
  10. Of course.
  11. And you?
  12. I’m always being destroyed.
  13. Ridiculous. Unification can scarcely destroy the Unity.
  14. If you unite with Disunity?
  15. The decision has been made: Absorption.
  16. By whom? Of whom?
  17. The joining of the collective subconscious to the mutually antagonistic egos of all men. Freud of Vienna had this as a goal—you told us that yourself and I quote it back to you.
  18. Or the reverse—men’s mutually antagonistic egos in combat with the Unity?
  19. We will take that chance. Now watch—look at the world around you and you will see a dominion of universal brotherhood, the moment Unification is imposed!
  20. I will look, but is that what I’ll see?
  21. Now! Look!

She looked at Phil and then at her husband, who looked back at her questioningly.

“You were going to say something?” he asked.

She shook her head, and he shrugged his shoulders.

“This business I’m working on—” Phil began, and hesitated.

“Oh, yes. That reminds me,” Farley said. “How’s the Research Magnificent?”

“It’s beginning to show signs of life,” Phil said. “I think I can detect a sort of fetal pulse.”

Dr. Farley blinked his pale eyelashes and nodded. He sat down at the end of the couch where Phil had been sitting and looked up at him. “Well,” he said, “I just thought I’d drop by and see how you were doing. I’ll never be able to understand it, though.”

“I was going to say, do you think the A.E.C. might conceivably be interested?” Phil said. “After all, it is sort of vaguely connected with atomic stuff.”

“I can’t imagine why they would be,” Farley said, and glanced at Katherine. She had gotten up and was standing at the window.

“The sun’s going in,” she said, “and it looks as though it may rain. I’ve got to get back to the house.” She turned around with a smile. “How about having dinner with us tonight, Phil? We’ve got some people coming who’d like to meet you. Don’t you think that would be nice, Russ?”

Dr. Farley didn’t look as though he thought it would be nice at all, but he said nothing, and neither did Phil Kaufman.

“If you’re coming, you’d better straighten your tie,” Katherine said. “It’s under your ear, as usual.”

Phil reached up absently and pulled at it with one hand. “Sorry.”

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” Farley said. “I think I had better say what I have to say now. Better to have it out, before things go any further.”

“Before what things go any further?” Phil asked, with a trace of belligerence. “Of course, if you don’t want me for dinner—”

“Wait!” Katherine said in distress. “This isn’t…. But it should be….” She looked from one to the other and smiled a tentative, hopeful little smile. “We don’t have to go on with this, do we … now?”

“What do you mean, ‘now’?” Farley said, his face becoming red. “I think it’s high time I got this off my chest. Katherine, I don’t believe in letting things drift. I want this out in the open!”

(Oh, but this wasn’t the way things were to be! This is all wrong—what can have happened?—There was no answer.)

Phil’s face was pale and he started for the door. “I guess I’d better leave you two alone.”

“No!” Farley said abruptly. “I want you here! I want you to hear this. Well, Katherine?” He turned to her again.

“I … I can’t answer you,” she said miserably.

“You mean you are in love with him, don’t you?” Farley said, with a kind of angry triumph. “All the time, behind my back, you—”

“Dry up, Farley!” Phil said, coming back from the door. “And stop acting like a bully!”

“Why, you—”

The telephone rang, and Katherine picked it up.

“It’s for you, Russ,” she said, and handed it to him.

“Yes?” Farley snapped into it. “Put him on.” He listened for a few moments and his eyes traveled to Phil. “All right,” he said. “When do you want to come?—I see. Well, I’ll arrange to have him here. Three o’clock tomorrow, then. Right. Good-by.” He hung up. “You were right in one respect,” he said to Phil. “That was a man from the Atomic Energy Commission and he wants to have a look at what you’re doing. He’ll be here tomorrow and I shall expect your full cooperation. Sorry, but it can’t be helped.”

Phil looked at him steadily for a moment. “So that’s your way of getting back at me,” he said. “Academic freedom means a lot to you! Of all the cowardly, spineless, rotten—”

Farley’s face was now dark red and he held up his hand. “That’s enough from you!”

“What the hell does he want to come nosing around here for?” Phil said. “My research is purely theoretical—”

“You yourself suggested they might,” Farley reminded him. “And don’t forget Lisa Meitner’s work was theoretical, and look where it led!”

“Very cute!” Phil said. “In fact, Jesuitical! What I’m objecting to is having you dump me in their laps! I know your real motive—it stands out a mile!”

Farley’s neck veins became noticeable, but he kept himself in control. “You tend to overrate your position here.”

“Ha!” Phil said. “You can’t bear me in my position of the man your wife loves!”

Farley’s control went and he rushed at Phil and grabbed him by the collar.

Stop it!” Katherine cried. “Stop it at once! Are you going to act like a pair of apemen? I’m not in love with Phil—I like him very, very much, but it’s you I love, you ox!” She pushed and pulled, and they came apart like a bread sandwich, and she got between them. “For heaven’s sake!”

“I’m sorry,” Farley muttered, and looked ashamed of himself. “I wasn’t dumping you into their laps, Kaufman—I had no choice. If I’d objected, they’d have got just that much tougher.”

“It’s okay,” Phil said dispiritedly. “I guess.”

“Oh, forget the whole thing, you two,” Katherine said. “Come on, well be late for dinner.” Taking their arms, she led them out onto the campus.

 

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