We gave them everything – maps of gravity waves NASA collected from satellites stationed at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, results from a particle accelerator the size of Kansas that smashed together protons each with as much energy as a supersonic jet, and unlimited time on supercomputers.
Teams of mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers were on call to assist in analysis and investigation. We even provided meals, medical care, concierge service, and enough money to retire comfortably in order to minimize outside distractions.
The six we chose were the best theoretical physicists in the world. One had taught herself General Relativity in grade school. Another built a working cyclotron in the family garage at age thirteen. The FBI arrested the third for posting a method to defeat public key encryption online and then the government mysteriously withdrew the charges. The others had spooky abilities such as traveling to a strange country and emerging fluent in that country’s language two weeks later. With no deadlines and no pressure we put them in a room and asked them to complete the theory of everything.
Six months later one went insane, two committed suicide, and another stopped speaking. The fifth gave away all his possessions, traveled to India, and became a naked wanderer. The last, Gerald Gunderson, simply disappeared. Credit card purchases indicated he was in northern Arizona. I tracked him to the Hopi reservation.
It was mid-morning when I parked in front of Gunderson’s new home. I stepped out of the rental car and immediately tasted the dust that had followed me over miles of unpaved roads. Resting on deflated tires on the flat, brown dirt Gunderson’s Airstream trailer looked like a giant, aluminum tranquilizer. A square of plywood had replaced one broken window. I stepped on the metal stairs and knocked on the door. When no one answered, I knocked louder. A drape moved in a neighboring trailer so I went over there.
A fat brown-skinned woman answered the door.
“I’m looking for Gerald Gunderson. You know where I can find him?”
“He usually walks on the mesa.”
“That way?” I pointed to my right.
The woman nodded and I turned to go.
“You’d better take some water with you.” She went inside and returned with a plastic milk jug filled with tap water.
“Thanks.” I took the jug. “I’ll return it when I get back.”
The woman shrugged and closed the door.
I walked through saltbush and yucca to the foot of the mesa and wandered among broken rocks until I found the trail. It was a steep climb. Within a half hour I’d drunk half the water and sweated through my shirt. A bit later I found a rattlesnake sunning on the path, threw a rock at him, and waited a good fifteen minutes after he slithered into the brush.
Hours later I found Gunderson sitting cross-legged on a flat rock and staring at the horizon. His khaki hiking shorts exposed bony legs that had been burned by the sun and he’d grown out his gray hair and beard since his last picture was taken. I sat down and offered the water jug. He ignored it. I stared into the distance with him and felt the warm wind caress my face. The only sound was the faint whine of insects.
“I suppose you’re from the Institute,” he said after a long silence.
“Don’t you think you owe us an explanation, professor?”
“It’s no good.”
“What’s no good?” I asked.
“Describing the physical world with mathematics doesn’t work.”
“It’s okay if you didn’t succeed. You gave it your best shot. It may take years but someone will apply some new mathematics and come up with a different theory.”
“That’s not it.” Gunderson turned toward me his eyes focused somewhere behind my head. “We’ve reached the end of understanding. Holloway proved no consistent mathematics can ever describe the data the day before he killed himself.”
Gunderson launched into an explanation using terms like gauge invariance, Godel’s Theorem, and hyperspace topology. I followed the gist of his argument but the details evaporated from my memory like the sweat on my shirt.
“Maybe the experiments were wrong,” I said.
Gunderson shook his head. “We checked. There’s nothing.”
“What does it mean?”
“We live on a tiny island of denial. As we pushed physics beyond the realm of daily experience, the world became stranger and stranger. Our conceptions of space and time broke down as did our notion of reality. Going further, theories became more and more absurd, particles popping out of the vacuum and strings vibrating in hidden dimensions, but still the mathematics was tractable. Pushed to the ultimate, however, the universe is nothing but a cosmic joke. There is no sense, no pattern, no meaning.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
Gunderson turned away. I left the water jug with him and returned the way I’d come. On the hike down to my car the heat, dryness in my throat, and slip of my shoes on loose pebbles were understandable enough for me. In that way I was luckier than Gunderson and all the other geniuses. I decided to spend a few more days on the reservation and then file a report stating I never found him.
Host of the Gelato Poetry Series, instigator of the San Diego Poetry Un-Slam, and an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual, Jon Wesick has published over seventy short stories in journals such as The Berkeley Fiction Review, Space and Time, Zahir, Tales of the Talisman, Blazing Adventures, and Metal Scratches. He has also published over three hundred poems. Jon has a Ph.D. in physics and is a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts. One of his poems won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest.