Some time previously:
I am sitting in a chain restaurant, drinking my 10th or so glass of water of the night. It would perhaps be more scenic if I was at a family ice cream shop, by the side of the road, drinking a home-made milkshake in the sun. Since it is 3 AM, this isn't a possibility, and perhaps being inside a corporate restaurant, eating food that is micromanaged by some people in a non-descript office park in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska gives me a chance to make a comment on American society. But since that is a comment that has already been made, I just concentrate on slowly drinking my water. The two other people at the table still have food left, which they eat at an uninspired pace. For some reason that I don't know, I feel like ordering dessert, even though I am full. It is cold and dark outside, perhaps I have an instinct to fatten up against the vagaries of night.
On the way here, I did pass more picturesque places to meet. Crossroads that might have been roads that went somewhere dozens of years ago, when market towns were important. Out of the green, we would suddenly open up into an intersection where there was some improbably selection of businesses: an ice cream store, a post office, an appliance repair shop, and a building that was once something but is now boarded up with a swaying roof. I would wonder what the stories of these towns was like, when traveling five miles into them could be the highlight of some farm family's week.
And now they sit outside the highway, where those same farm families (if there were any farms left), zip back and forth 100 miles without thinking about it.
My two companions are looking at me with some question. I think I may have lost the thread of the conversation. It is 3 AM, I have been traveling. But I am a professional, and I should be paying attention. Elyse is looking at me grumpily, whether that is because she is usually grumpy, whether she is mad that my attention has drifted off, or just an artifact of the black eyeliner on 3 AM eyes is something that even my renowned sensory prowess can't tell me. Malachi has just said something that he thinks is clever, and is looking like he needs a cigarette. Malachi doesn't smoke, but he still looks like he needs to. Although Elyse and Malachi are both, like me, adults, we are replaying the adolescent drama of a late night at Denny's, and the same edge of overeagerness to manipulate the conversation is popping up in Malachi that must have been there when he was a 16 year old drama geek. Elyse is also manipulating the conversation, with eye rolls and dissatisfaction. I don't know how I am manipulating the conversation.
Of course, we are also living in a time where adolescence becomes as prolonged as the service at a 24 hour chain restaurant. As soon as we realize that it is time to go, we realize that it is dark and cold outside, and time to get refills on the coffee, order some pie, and stare out the window.
And with all of this sillyness, we are here tonight on some serious business.
I return to paying attention. Malachi is talking about the partition problem
. I am familiar with the problem, as could be any smart six year old. The partition problem is the problem of how many ways it is possible to sort x number of objects into a group. If you have three objects, you could have one group of three, one group of two and one group of one, and three groups of one. As you add more objects, the possibilities of different groups grow. It took quite a time for a formula for what this number is to come about, and it wasn't a polite formula either. The formula looks like the type of nonsense that a cartoonist would scrawl on a blackboard to designate SCIENTISTS AT WORK. Part of this sprawling equation was the number pi. Malachi was doing what a lot of smart people do when they can't take the time to learn the skills of math: commenting on the philosophical meaning of this.
“Okay, suppose you have...intelligent tree people
. On Mars
.” Malachi is saying.
“No air or water on Mars, how could you have trees?” asks Elyse.
“They are hypothetical intelligent tree people. On Jules Verne Mars.”
“Not that close to Jules Verne Mars. But this Mars has a sky. And rain.”
“Now, suppose they grow very slowly, have no sense of space, and communicate through vibrations. “
“If they are communicating through vibrations, don't they have to have a sense of where those vibrations come from? Isn't sound dimensional?”
“It is for us. Maybe it isn't for them.”
“How does that happen.”
“It just does. This is a Jules Verne Mars, remember?”
“I can take the sky and water and even the smart trees, but how can they have vibrations without a sense of space”
Now, that brief bit of conversation was actually quite different than as reported, because it was a long series of languid comments, interspersed with the random shuffling around of salt shakers and sugar packets, as if there was some obscure form of Go
played with condiments to underscore the philosophical debate. But at Elyse's last blocking of Malachi's explanation, he had to harshly blow smoke out of his nose
in irritation. Or at least, he would be blowing smoke, if he smoked, and if it was allowed to smoke in restaurants in the last decade. Even I felt for him: Just accept the premise.
“Lets say for the sake of argument...”
“Yes, lets” I offer my support.
She rolls her eyes in agreement.
“Lets say for argument that they have somehow worked up the answer to the partition problem. They have no concept of space
. They just know that when they have spent hundreds of years analyzing the different way that these drops drop on them, the answer doesn't make sense without this number: 3.14159
... etcetera. This number keeps on coming up, but they have no idea why. How would they ever be able to understand that this number has some type of intrinsic relation to this property called 'space'?”
And although the argument, from top to bottom, was the type of thing that adolescents had hashed out at 3 AM in so many chain diners, I knew what I had to do.
“I will take the job” I said to them, nodding.
I celebrated, with no pun intended, by ordering a slice of pie