It was 7:27 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, Monday, October 29, 2012 and Eli’s alarm was about to ring. He hated this feeling, of waking just before he had to, still having fumble with the alarm, but not having the option of really trying to go back to sleep.
He had a big day ahead of him. Today he would present theoutline of what would become his dissertation, the writing that would define all of his time in college and graduate school and determine his future. He would spend the majority of the next two years researching, writing, and then finally defending his writing before a board of his professors. If it was acceptable, he would receive his doctorate.
Actually, his doctorates. In physics and mathematics. Because Eli couldn’t decide which he liked more, and because he always took on too much work. But this made Eli feel special. After all, how many other 15 year old double PhDs do you meet?
The university had bent over backwards to let Eli design his own research and graduate studies plan. He was such a rare find, graduating from college at age 14, a genius level IQ, he was surprised they didn’t offer him a sports car to stay. MIT actually had, but Eli was smart enough to know that a sports car in Boston was more of a problem than a solution. And at 15, he couldn’t even drive.
And so, as the sun crept into his bedroom, Eli took in the salty, moist San Diego air and was glad with his choice to stay at home, only a mile and a half from campus. The new joint graduate program, technically known as CalTech San Diego, was originally Eli’s idea. When recruitment officer from CalTech came to visit him two years ago and asked what it would take for him to consider attending graduate school there, he remarked that the campus should move to San Diego because he hated the idea of living in LA.
The two real reasons he wanted to stay in San Diego were the only two people he felt connected to in the entire world: Professor Misha Makarov of the math department and his PhD advisor, and his grandfather, who he heard up and clambering around in the kitchen already.
No doubt he’d have already started on Eli’s breakfast. He really didn’t need to. He was getting older and Eli was perfectly capable of making his own food. But the morning ritual of walking outside and picking a few oranges off the tree in the back yard and hand squeezing them into a small glass of orange juice was something Eli cherished.
There was no place Eli loved more than his grandfather’s house. It was always a place of peace and refuge. One time at a student orientation meeting they were asked as an icebreaker to tell about their favorite place in the entire world. Most of the students talked about Yosemite, a beach in Hawaii or Thailand, the redwoods, upstate New York in the fall, but Eli’s answer was simple: his grandfather’s back yard.
The alarm finally buzzed, alerting Eli from his reverie. He pounded the off button and jumped into the shower, getting ready for the day. As the warm water washed over his face, he began to focus on the problem of the day.
He would have to convince his advisor, his friend, Misha, who always insisted he call him that and not Professor Makarov like the other students, that he had figured out how to travel through time.
It was quite simple, to Eli at least. Time is a dimension, just like space. We actually move through time naturally—just forward and at a constant rate. It would be like a person who was constantly walking in one direction and one speed his whole life and learning that, actually, he could turn around, speed up, double back, and so on. Learning to move through time took first that realization. And then came the math.
The math, and the physics, were more complex. They involved the quantum flux states of matter. Basically this meant that the smallest components of matter – smaller than molecules, smaller than atoms, smaller than the protons, neutrons, and electrons that made up atoms – are things called quarks. And quarks exist in varying states depending on their “excitement” levels . You get enough of something’s quarks spinning in the same direction at the same speed, you can move it through time.
And Eli planned on demonstrating this to Misha this very morning.
He turned off the water and heard the toaster ding from the other room. Grandpa Max has definitely made breakfast. So it was no surprise to find toast, whipped butter, orange marmalade, and apple butter on the table. And, of course, a small 6 ounce glass filled maybe halfway with freshly squeezed juice.
“Morning,” Eli mumbled, shambling into the room, grabbing the box of cereal with a cartoon bee on it and sitting down with the practiced cadence of a zombie going through the motions of its former life.
“Vitamins! Got to have your vitamins!” said grandpa as he placed the tumbler of juice in front of Eli.
“You know, if you’re really worried about my vitamin C intake, I can just take a pill every morning.” Eli began the dance he and his grandfather had practiced many times before.
“Not the point. Not the point.” Grandpa Max replied with the patience of a saint who had mastered raising a teenager. “This is fresh. This is natural. It’s something we made, not something trucked in from miles away, processed and produced in some factory. No preservatives, no chemicals. Besides, this tastes better.”
“Yeah, but, this is like 100 milliliters tops. “ Eli said, his mouth full of honey nut oat ring goodness.
“I don’t know what that is, and I’ll be damned if I fought in the war to hear you using the metric system in this house,” spat Max in fake outrage.
“I don’t think the North Koreans cared about us using metric Grandpa.” Eli loved this little game of theirs. Every morning, more or less the same. Arguments about the orange juice. Of course Eli was going to drink it. He loved drinking it. It was part of what made this home.
But he couldn’t just give in.
“The metric system is far more logical and useful here, Grandpa. In metric, a centimeter cube is a milliliter. And a milliliter of water weighs a gram. Tell me how that you can do that with the English system of measurement, a system the English themselves don’t use any more?”
“A pint’s a pound the world around.” Max pulled one of his many sayings out of thin air.
“And the only things that come in pints are beer and ice cream, things I think we can agree would both be better if we had a liter of them than a pint.”
“Well, you’ve got me there,” Max relented. “Now drink your juice. And if you want more, I’ll grab you some of the store-bought stuff from the fridge.”
“No, this is good.” Eli downed the shot of juice—particularly sour this morning. It was ok. That was part of the fun, the daily variety of what the juice would be like. He then downed the left over milk from his bowl and grabbed a final piece of toast as he slung his backpack over his arms. “I’m actually ready to go whenever you are.”
“Then let’s get to it.” Grandpa Max enjoyed driving Eli to the campus. It was only a short jaunt across the mesa known as Mount Soledad. The drive gave usually several spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean to the west and north, the downtown of San Diego to the south, and the suburban sprawl of strip malls, apartment buildings, houses, and business parks as the city of La Jolla melded into half a dozen other suburbs making up the “Golden Triangle” area of northern San Diego. Actually, most days this early you just saw fog blanketing the world below, and this was one of those fall mornings.
They arrived at the campus at 7:58 am, with 17 minutes until Eli’s first class of the morning.
And he had all the time in the world.
At precisely 10:15, Eli strode into the university’s laser laboratory. He could’ve climbed Mt. Everest if it stood before him. And there sat his faculty advisor, Misha Makarov. His clothes were rumpled, as they usually were. And he sipped from a mug of coffee Eli often wondered if it had been spiked with whiskey.
“Ilia!” Makarov beamed as Eli entered the room, using the Russian nickname Eli knew was reserved only for him. Definitely the coffee had been spiked this morning. “So what is it you have prepared for me today? Why all the secrecy and why the time in this laboratory. You know it is hard to get time in here.”
Eli was fairly certain he could get access to any equipment in the graduate program any time he wanted. But he also knew it wasn’t polite to be so arrogant. “Professor, I have to show you something I think will change the world, and both of our lives forever.” He withdrew a bright red apple from his knapsack.
“If you think apple will change my life, I have news for you.” Misha replied. “We had many apple even in Soviet times.”
“It’s not the apple, it’s what it’s made of.” Eli answered. “What is this apple made of? Fiber, sugars, cells, yes, but even smaller. Molecules, atoms – even smaller!” Eli felt the need to explain because Makarov, after all, was a professor of math, not physics.
“Protons, electrons, neutrons, yes. I am not your student. Why do you need laser?”
“In a second. But even smaller—on the subatomic level, those protons and electrons have even smaller particles, like quarks. And those quarks exist in various phases—differing levels of energy, of excitement, different spins, right?”
“Yes, but I do not understand why the laser.”
“This apple will be the same apple right now that it is five minutes from now, right? And 20 minutes ago. The same with you and me. But what won’t be the same is the way our quarks are moving around. I’ve come up with a formula that accurately predicts the chaotic movements of quarks at the subatomic level.”
“Where is this formula? Show it to me.” Makarov seemed a lot less impressed than Eli expected. Eli handed him an index card with just a few notations. “That’s. . .that’s shorter than I expected it.”
“So is e=mc2.” Eli shot back. “And that explains how energy and matter are the same.
“But you are not Einstein.” Makarov responded.
“Funny you should bring him up. Yes, this is a simple formula, but if you look at my notes,” Eli handed him a spiral notebook with pages of complex notations that broke down the formula into its simplest form, “You’ll see it’s all in there.”
“Well, it’s not so simple. You still need to be a genius to do this math, or have a good computer. “
Eli interrupted, “But, Einstein. . .Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger wrote back and forth to each other about quantum physics. In 1935, Einstein said that if you had a keg of gunpowder that had a 50% likelihood of exploding, then at some point, the gunpowder was both exploded and not at the same time. That’s how quantum physics works.”
“Yes! A paradox! Something that both is and can’t possibly be at the same time! You know I love paradoxes. But Schrödinger went further. He had a cat. He said if you put a cat in a box with a bottle of poison that was 50% likely to break open and kill the cat, that it is only when we, as the observer, look in the box that nature has to decide whether or not the bottle of poison broke open or not. Before we open the box, the cat is both alive and dead. It can’t be, but it is how particle physics works.”
“And so, before we measure and observe the movement and spin of the quarks in this apple, they are in a state of random flux. When we measure where they are, we can pin down their location for just a moment—but that’s all we need. Put a date and time into the formula I gave you and apply it to the apple. I’ve done the calculations for the apple for 5 minutes from now. And I’m feeding those results into the laser.”
“Wait, so the laser is going to change the apple at the subatomic level—move its quarks around—so it will be the same apple, but five minutes from now? This. . .this is genius. If it works. But I do not think it will. I think more likely you will make applesauce.”
“Then we’ll both have a nice snack.” Eli placed the apple on a metal platform a few feet away from the point of the laser. He fed the last few numbers into the computer and pressed enter. He could hear the whine as the laser’s core heated up. “The best thing about this is? Totally safe. Look. . .” Eli put his hand in front of the purple beam now coming from the laser’s maw.
“I’m not an apple, so it’s not changing my quarks. I could even put another apple in front of it, and it wouldn’t affect it either.”
“Bozhei moi! Eli! Safety!” Makarov grabbed Eli’s arm and pulled it away.
“What? You don’t trust my math? I do. Totally safe.”
“It is safe for cat until you look in the box, too. You could just be extremely lucky. Still,” Makarov tossed Eli safety goggles, “we must follow safety protocols. You step back, I will handle the laser controls from here on.”
“Fine. Fine.” The laser was now fully ready, its beam cutting a bright electric magenta sword through the room. It was doing something, as the ionized oxygen in the room turning into ozone filled Eli’s nostrils. It smelled like. . .science.
The readout indicated the laser was 100% ready. “Shall I?” Makarov asked?
“Do it.” Eli answered. Makarov hit the enter key.
The hum increased substantially, then a crack like a miniature sonic boom, a few stray shocks of static around the apple, a small green flash, and silence as the purple laser beam disengaged.
“If nothing else, you made an apple disappear. You program this thing to work on rats, doggie doo, or trash and you could have a multi-million dollar pest and waste disposal system.
“Ha ha.” Eli didn’t think it was funny. “But just wait. 25 seconds more.”
“But you set this to work for 5 minutes from. Why 25 seconds?”
“Because I also made calculations to send the apple back to us so we wouldn’t have to wait the whole five minutes. Look in the back of the notebook.” Makarov flipped to the last pages.
“As impressed as I am that you can do this math by hand, Ilia, don’t you think this is advanced stuff you shouldn’t be playing with?”
“How can math get me in trouble? It’s not like it’s dark magic or something.”
“You are too young to remember,” Makarov nodded mournfully. “I met most of the men who worked on the Manhattan Project, and worked on the Russian nuclear program myself. It’s not just math and science. It’s what you do with them.”
It is what I’ll do with them, but only for good. First to right the wrongs in my own life, then the rest of the world, Eli promised himself. “3 seconds, two, one. . and. . .presto!”
“Uhhh. . . . maybe there was a problem. Maybe we couldn’t send it back once it came. Is the laser fried? Can it go another round?”
“Running diagnostic now.” Makarov punched in a few keys. “Everything is in normal shape. Should be good to go.”
“Let me double check the math. Maybe I forgot to carry a one someplace.” Eli knew that couldn’t have happened, but he checked his figures anyway.
Four and a half minutes as they pored over Eli’s notes and ran systems checks on the laser. They got so caught up in it that they didn’t notice the passage of time.
Suddenly there were a few pops, tiny bolts of purple lightning, and a green flash. The apple, or what was left of it, appeared on the silver dias.
“Well, it’s not applesauce.” Makarov remarked. The charred remains looked like the apple had been left to rot and then doused in gasoline and lit on fire. It smelled of sickening rotten sweet and smoke, like fermented cider poured on a campfire. “Now we know why apple did not go back in time again.”
“I. . .I don’t know what happened.” Eli was shocked. “My math. I double, triple checked it. It was perfect. Why didn’t it work?”
“Bratushka, this is why we have experiments. Nothing works perfect the first time.”
Eli hated when Makarov called him that. He knew it was the diminutive, the loving version, of the Russian for brother and he meant it like he was calling him his little brother, but all he heard was an old man calling him a brat. “But it should have. This was supposed to work. I needed it to work.”
“I know. But you have many years ahead of you to figure it out. But. . .you made something move through time for five minutes in the future!”
“But it didn’t survive.”
“So what? Why does it need to survive? You showed experimentally that you can manipulate quarks to move objects through time. Next week, we try it on solid, non-living object. We start with blocks of pure potassium, then iron, then we try steel, then liquids. Soon we do small mechanical objects. I bet by Christmas we can send ballpoint pen through time.”
“It needs to survive because I need to be able to move through time,” Eli yelled a lot louder than he meant to. He hadn’t meant to say that. But it felt good to unburden himself. But now the tears were coming. “It’s a failure. The math was right. I checked. But it’s me. I failed. I can’t do it. I’m a failure.”
“No no no no,” Makarov came over, put his arm around his favorite student and pulled out a handkerchief. “When Edison tried to invent light bulb, how many failed experiments before he got it right?”
“Edison was an idiot. Tesla was better.” Eli sniffed.
“Fine, but the point is perseverance. Don’t give up. Small steps. Ballpoint pen by Christmas. Preliminary writeup and submit to science journals by April. Further work to turn into your dissertation by a year from now. You’ll get it.”
“If we can send a ballpoint pen through time before Christmas, I ask that we remember to send one to us here and now.”
He waited a second, actually hoping one would appear.
“See?” Eli angrily retorted. He got up and started packing his papers and belongings.
“It’s ok. We probably forget. I am old. I forget things. You are young and have better things to do. Maybe you find girlfriend before Christmas and forget pen.”
“Yeah, or maybe the world ends on December 21 like the Mayans say it does. Whatever. I’m out for today.” As Eli pushed his way out of the lab, Makarov gave a little smile.
That was close. Too close. He was sorry to see his protégé and friend in pain. But he knew first contact would be happening soon. He remembered it like it was yesterday.
Makarov went back to the laser’s computer readout and erased all files associated with the day’s experiment, especially including the hidden file that corrupted Eli’s formula. He could never know. Not until it was time.
As Eli made his way towards the edge of campus toward the bikeshare station, he looked forward to the ride home. It was going to feel good to work out some of this frustration on the hills of La Jolla between campus and home. He normally hated them and so demanded his grandfather pick him up after a day of school. But not today. Today he needed the ride. As he pulled his helmet from his bag, his cell phone rang. It was from a local number, but not one he recognized. He considered not answering it, but picked it up in the hopes it was someone with a wrong number or trying to sell him something so he could take out his anger on them.
“This is Eli.”
“Yes, is this Eli Washington? Your legal guardian is Donald W. Washington?” Definitely a telemarketer. Time to show them how dumb they were for calling him.
“Yes, who is this and what do you want?” Eli was ready to pounce.
“This is UC San Diego medical center. We’re sorry, Mr. Washington, but there’s been an accident. Your grandfather. . . you need to get down here.”