As we go down the ladder, I wonder what my good friend iDifficult has lurking under his garden. I’d expected his shed to be full of garden tools, bicycles and cobwebs. Instead, it proved to be spotless and empty, with just a trapdoor in the centre.
And down we went.
You’re going to love this! he enthuses.
We step down into the middle of a seemingly endless corridor. I notice a slight curvature to the left. Nearby, a technician minion is finishing off some welding on a pipe that extends in both directions along the middle of the passage. I recognise the general design.
Good grief. Is this like the thing at CERN in Switzerland?
The Large Hadron Collider? He chuckles darkly, and a duelling scar on his cheek twitches involuntarily. It bears a resemblance.
And you’re in charge of it? I’m slightly worried. I’m not sure a self-confessed part-time evil genius should own a particle accelerator.
Oh, don't worry, this is much smaller. He points to an open can of sweetcorn on a nearby table near the lackey. It’s just a Large Sweetcorn Collider.
I’m not sure if I’m relieved or not.
Why have you built a Large Sweetcorn Collider? And what are you going to do with it?
He takes the can of sweetcorn from the table and dismisses his lackey. We walk ten yards down the corridor to a input funnel on top of the pipe. Without answering, he tips the contents of the can into the open funnel. He then makes some adjustments on an adjacent control panel, and presses a large and significant looking red button.
The lights flicker for a moment.
You ever heard of Erwin Schrödinger?
Schrödinger? It rings a bell.
Didn’t he have a famous cat?
He was an Austrian Theoretical Physicist.
Yes, I suppose he was, now I think of it.
But he had a cat, right? Schrödinger’s Cat?
Indeed. But long before he had a cat, he had a wife.
I stare blankly at him. This is bound to be heading somewhere.
And every day his wife would make him a lunchbox. And every day, it contained sweetcorn.
Sweetcorn? I wrinkle my nose. In a lunchbox?
Sweetcorn. And Schrödinger hated sweetcorn.
I’m not fond of it myself. Didn’t he tell her?
Well, in the end he did, yes. But his wife, in charge of the purse strings for the house, explained that she had to use her supply up before it spoiled; she’d bought two thousand tins in a sale.
Even though he didn’t like it?
It was A Bargain.
Ah yes, that old chestnut.
He asked his wife if she’d mind popping it for him before putting it in his lunchbox. He loved popcorn, and thought it might be nicer than sweetcorn. But she quite soberly pointed out that this was not possible.
He rolls his eyes.
Because, my dear Roth, sweetcorn and popcorn come from different corn plants.
They do? I didn't realise.
We live and learn. He considers this for a moment. Mostly. Anyway, it seemed he was out of luck.
So what happened?
Well, his wife continued to put sweetcorn in his lunchbox, though only about half as often as before. And there was the rub. Every day, he was unsure what would be in his lunchbox. Maybe it was sweetcorn, maybe it wasn’t. A coin toss.
Couldn’t he just have asked her?
He did at first, but she refused to tell him.
Why? That seems a bit mean. Controlling, even.
Well, she didn’t want him knowing. After she’d gone to the trouble of making him a lunchbox, she didn’t want him swanning off to the canteen mid-morning, when all the really yummy sandwiches are still there, to buy something else.
Oooh, ham and chicken with peppered mayo. On granary.
Pepperoni and roasted Mediterranean vegetables. Exactly.
We stand for a moment in hungry contemplation. My rumbling tummy snaps us back to reality.
Why did he not just take a peek in the box?
She warned him against it, quite sternly.
And that stopped him?
Yep. She was a formidable woman, this Austrian Frau, and he was a devoted husband.
I’d have peeked.
This is why you’re single.
Oh. Fair enough. So, what did he do?
Well, every day he would stare at his lunchbox, and wonder what was in it. And, being a Theoretical Physicist, he started having odd ideas.
Well, he realised that while the box was still shut, its contents were unknown. So, as far as he was concerned, the box could contain either sweetcorn or something else.
I shrug. That sounds sane enough.
Ah. But he also theorised that until he opened the lunchbox, both possibilities were true. That in some way, it contained either. It was only when he opened his lunchbox at midday that these two possibilities collapsed into one, that he would discover what was in the box.
Which is both illogical and impossible. And self-indulgent nonsense, may I say.
Yes, but remember he was a Theoretical Physicist. If he was grounded in the real world he would have been an Applied Physicist, right?
Um... There’s a certain warped difficult logic there.
This idea of two things being contradictory and yet both true is fundamental to Quantum Physics. The impossible becoming possible, mandatory even. All the time. He waves a hand, You just have to kind of go with it.
He cuts me short.
You just have to kind of go with it.
Ok. Carry on.
Right, so he would agonise all morning, wondering if he was going to enjoy his lunch.
Sounds like a miserable waste of time.
And there was nothing he could do about it.
I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
Now, don’t go getting all Kirk on me. He eyes me levelly, which is tricky when wearing an eyepatch. You want me to tell you this story or not?
He shifts the eyepatch to his other eye, so he can see me better.
I pout a little. Fine. Sorry.
It did make him miserable, but it set his mind thinking in strange new directions, and he went on to do the best work of his life, including the thought experiment about the cat.
So, the point of this little morality tale is that, in the grand scheme of things, him being miserable was a useful experience?
He shrugs. I suppose. His mistress thought so.
A niggling doubt creeps into my thinking.
So, how does this explain you building a Large Sweetcorn Collider?
I’m glad you asked. Come with me.
We wander a little further along the corridor, and my companion picks up an empty metal bucket from behind one of the many supports for the endless pipe.
Well, what I learned from this story is that, while I like to be inspired, I don’t like being miserable.
I blink a few times. You’ve lost me. Not for the first time today.
The lights flicker again briefly.
He turns to me and smiles madly.
So, despite his unconventional ideas and grand theories, do you know what Schrödinger never found in his lunchbox?
Oh, do tell.
He opens an inspection panel in the top of the tube, and scoops inside with the bucket. As he retrieves it and hands it to me, its contents are hot and crisp and fluffy. The smell is impossibly delicious, which seems appropriate.
I’m lost for words. This is impossible. Unless...
You’re a genius.
He waves my compliment aside and corrects me.
My business card says Part-Time Evil Genius.
If there’s space on the card, you should add Illogical Physicist.
He considers this.
You know, he says as we head back to the ladder, I think I might.
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2009