Nick came into the office Wednesday morning, his head filled with ideas. He does this sometimes.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said.
“Up late playing Everquest?” I asked. Nick is always up late playing Everquest. He’s addicted. He’s a muckety-muck in an Everquest guild (“The Happy Travelers“). He maintains a web forum. He prints copious notes on the game.
“No,” he said. “Suprisingly enough, I stopped playing about ten and read a book. I picked up the new book from Brian Greene, and I read it until midnight. But I couldn’t fall asleep. I just lay there for several hours thinking about the shape of the universe. It’s amazing.”
Nick set his coffee on my desk. This was going to be a long one. “Did you know that other galaxies are moving away from us faster than the speed of light? They’re moving apart due to the swelling of space, a result of the Big Bang. They’re traveling faster than the speed of light because the speed of light only applies to things traveling through space; the galaxies are moving apart due to the swelling of space. Just think of it. Eventually they’ll move outside our existence.”
He picked up his coffee, took a sip. I sat still, befuddled.
If Nick’s mind is a mass of confusion because of what he reads, imagine what mine is like after he’s had time to cogitate on this stuff and then spit it out in what amounts to vague incoherencies. I like real science, social science, not this soft, fuzzy theoretical stuff.
Before I could parse what Nick had told me, he began to explain something about the speed of light, and its limitations. I only ended up more confused.
“That doesn’t makes sense,” I said. “If you have one ray of light traveling in a certain direction, and another ray traveling in the opposite direction, then they’re traveling away from each other at twice the speed of light. Right?”
“No,” said Nick. “They’re traveling away from each other at the speed of light. They can’t travel away from each other any faster.”
I couldn’t wrap my mind around this. I have a tough time wrapping my mind around a lot of stuff like this: particles that exist in two places at once, particles that can communicate, curved space, etc. “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “What is it? Relativity or something?”
“Yeah,” said Nick. He took another sip of his coffee. I could tell he was preparing to launch into another, related topic. I stood to leave.
“I’d love to hear more,” I said. “But I’ve got to go make sales calls with Tony.” I gathered my things.
“I should offer to drive,” I said. “Tony’s driving scares me. He drives too fast and he loves to tailgate. I spend most of my time looking down at my lap, holding on to my seat.”
Nick laughed. We’re not impressed with Tony’s driving skills. We think he’s a bit wild. When he was younger, he had several accidents and several tickets. Once while driving on the freeway, he hit an engine block; another time on the freeway, he hit a lawnmower. He hit a mailbox one time, too, but that wasn’t in the freeway.
Tony, Dana, Joel: the three drivers who scare me.
Tony and I left to make sales calls.
We drove from customer-to-customer to let them know that Tony’s leaving Custom Box, and that I’ll be taking his place in the field. Everywhere we went, the reaction was the same: “Will you still bring us ice cream?” For the past several years, Tony’s taken ice cream to our customers at least once each summer. Apparently, this scores Big Points.
Tony was driving through northeast Portland, wending the car on a narrow road in an industrial park. Traffic had stopped. Ahead of us, a semi was having trouble backing into a business. Tony became agitated.
“Come on!” shouted Tony. “Learn how to drive! You shouldn’t be driving a truck if you can’t back it up!”
“Calm down,” I said.
“Look at that idiot,” he said. “He can’t even back up the truck.”
“What do you care? Maybe he’s just learning. Just take it easy.”
Time passed. Tony fidgeted in his seat. He muttered under his breath.
“My god. I can’t believe this,” he said.
“Relax. You’re acting like Jeremy.”
“Well, that guy shouldn’t be allowed to drive a truck if he doesn’t know how to back it up.”
“What do you know?” I asked. “You’ve never driven a truck.”
“Man, that pisses me off,” Tony said, turning on me. “You and Jeff and Nick think I can’t drive a truck. I drove a big U-Haul truck to Bend without any trouble — I backed it up without any trouble — but Jeff won’t let me take the truck to deliver boxes. You guys think you’re such good drivers. It’s bullshit.”
“The very fact that you’re angry at this guy for taking so long to back up tells me you’re not ready to drive a big truck,” I said.
“Shut up,” said Tony. “I’ve seen you put a car into the ditch in freezing rain. And I’m not the one who rear-ended a car full of Mexicans while driving a truck.”
I had to grant this was true. “Yeah, that was pretty much Jeff’s fault all they way.”
Nick came into the office Thursday morning, his head filled with ideas. He does this sometimes. This time, he dragged Tony behind him.
“We were just talking about Voyager,” said Nick said.
“Which Voyager would that be?” I asked. “That bad Star Trek show?”
“No. Voyager One and Two,” he said. “Do you realize they’ve been traveling for over twenty-five years? They were both launched in 1977. They’ve left the solar system and still it only takes ten hours for their signals to reach us. Ten hours. The nearest star is 4.2 light years from us. Assuming that Voyager’s signals are traveling at the speed of light” — and here the three of us had a long argument about whether this was a valid assumption; I contended that radio waves were not light waves and thus would not travel at the speed of light, even in a vacuum — “then, well, imagine I’m walking across the United States. If I had gone as far as Voyager, I would have walked from Canby to Oregon City. In twenty-five years.“
I shook my head. I, too, sometimes engage in intellectual flights of fancy, but they’re not so amusing when they’re my intellectual flights of fancy.
“You know how when you get an x-ray they protect you with lead?” said Nick. “Well, do you know how thick your lead shield would have to be to block just 50% of neutrinos from hitting you?”
No, I didn’t know how thick my lead shield would have to be to block just 50% of neutrinos from hitting me.
“It’d have to be 5.7 trillion miles thick. One light year.”
“Do neutrinos cause cancer?” I asked, puzzled by the comparison to x-rays.
“No,” said Nick. “I don’t think so.”
“Then why would I want a lead shield that thick?”
Tony and I left to make sales calls.
As we drove past Mom’s, I looked at the back yard, to the oak tree, once broad and tall, the oak tree which I climbed so many times as a kid. In the (possibly apocryphal) family mythology, this tree grew from an acorn planted on the spot by my grandfather, or my uncle, or some other family member. An outhouse once stood in the spot, and when the indoor bathroom was built, someone planted an acorn on the site of the old shithole.
But that was fifty or sixty years ago. Over time, the tree has aged, and rotted. The ice storm last winter wounded the oak, tearing off a couple of great boughs. Mom had an arborist come out to repair the damage. After patching the wound, he recommended felling the tree anyhow. Mom called my cousin, Mart, to do the job. Now the tree is laying on its side, the thick woody trunk askew.
“It looks like Mart has to come back to finish the job,” I told Tony.
“I can’t believe she cut that down,” he said.
“It was rotted,” I said. “Even Jeff agreed it needed to go.”
“Jeff’s not an arborist,” said Tony. “What does —”
“Look out! Don’t hit that bird!” I shouted as a stupid robin swooped low in front of us. “I can’t believe you almost hit that bird.” I was joking, of course. In the country, it’s impossible to avoid killing a bird once in a while.
Then I said, “Jeff’s not an arborist, but mom called one in. He trimmed the oak and then told her it needed to come down. He should have told her first, huh? Say, how do you know what an arborist is?” I turned to look at him.
“I’m not an idiot,” Tony said.
“I know,” I said. “But I only just learned about the existence of arborists three months ago. How do you know about—”
“Oh man,” said Tony, eyes wide, staring out the window.
I turned to look at the road just in time to see the car smack a little bird. “I can’t believe you hit that bird!” I said, laughing.
“It’s not my fault the’re jumping out in front of me,” Tony said. “If they were traveling at the speed of light, it wouldn’t be an issue!”
And then he added: “Besides, how do you know the bird didn’t hit me? Let’s see: I’m going straight and the bird veers toward me. You don’t see me saying ‘Oh look! You’re running into neutrinos.’ They’re running into you. It’s all in perception.”
“What are you doing, Tony?” I shouted.
He was on his cell phone, arguing with his wife. He was also driving. He had come up — quickly — behind a car that was backing out of a driveway.
Tony veered a bit to one side, half-heartedly applied his brake, and let the woman have the right of way. When he had finished arguing with his wife, he turned to me: “What did you mean, asking what I was doing back there? I saw that lady pulling out.”
“Yeah, but you came up behind her so fast. You were going to pass her on the right.”
“No, I wasn’t. I let her in.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you scared the shit out of her: ‘Why’s that asshole coming up so fast. What’s he trying to do?'”
“What? You wanted me to just stop and wait for her?”
“No, you didn’t have to stop, but you could have slowed down. Would that have been asking too much?”
Tony only sighed and shook his head.
“I’m helping you to become a better driver,” I said.
In the afternoon, Tony sent me to Portland by myself. He’d had enough of my driving tips. That, and I think he wanted to discuss the shape of the universe with Nick.
On 29 October 2004 (01:14 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (01:35 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (01:57 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (01:57 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (01:58 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (02:07 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (03:29 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (03:37 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (04:10 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (04:31 PM),
On 29 October 2004 (06:34 PM),
Mom (Sue) said: