THE GOSSIP OF ATOMS
I didn’t know James that well. I never met his family.
I was in high school. Like most of the people with whom I made acquaintance, James was a friend in my best friend’s vast net of contacts.
James Davidson had dropped out of high school and he was working as a salesman in a furniture store. James would be part of our group at times, such as when we went to the beach. We all would laugh when he galloped down the shoreline like an ape, splashing, and shouting, “It’s the Wooly Booger!”
Not only was James fit and athletic, he had an old mind somehow misplaced into a young man.
James would visit me at my house on days during the summer when I was not at my pre-college summer sessions for high school kids studying physics. He preferred those weeks when my mother and father were gone on trips together.
My mother had decided that she didn’t like me associating with James because one day, when he and I were in my room together, my mother entered to speak to us and James just sat there stroking a piece of string that he held up before his face. I didn’t know it then but he had taken LSD.
When James would show up, unannounced, I would heat up two frozen individual pot pies for us and then we would play slow games of chess while we talked philosophy.
James was reading Dialogues of Plato voraciously and it seemed he was consolidating his understanding by posing to me questions in the Socratic dialectical manner for debate, such as “What is the purpose of life?” (I recall that after the series of questions asked which were not only to draw individual answers but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand, we concluded that the purpose of life was “To be happy”).
One day, that day, we had eaten our pot pies and we were playing chess. James moved his Pawn to the center. I moved my Pawn to the center.
I said to James in a manner of provocation, “Today ancient Greek physics is just a curiosity. It is not useful. Yet we still invoke ancient Greek philosophy as if it could provide us with useful answers.”
James advanced his Bishop and replied, “Your beloved Sir Isaac Newton said ‘God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done’. The Bible is more ancient than the Greek philosophers.”
I advanced my Knight and smiled, saying, “An apple must have landed on his head while he sat under that tree.”
James withdrew his Bishop and mused, “Funny. Newton supposedly sat under an apple tree and a falling apple enlightened him to discover gravity. And supposedly, in the Garden of Eden, an apple from the Tree of Knowledge enlightened Adam.”
I was amused, and then I suddenly remembered, “Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. You’ll like this. In class today we talked about the sound an atom makes,” and I watched his face for the pucker of skepticism that I anticipated.
James raised his eyes to me and asked, “How big is an atom?”
I replied, “If an atom were a marble your fist would be as big as the planet Earth.”
James puckered, “What the hell does ‘sound’ even mean to an atom? Isn’t ‘sound’ a wave of atoms in the air?”
I replied, “Atoms vibrate. That vibration itself makes a sound. The softest sound possible. It’s called a ‘phonon”, like the smallest piece of light is called a ‘photon’.”
James said, “Cool. But if the Greek philosophers aren’t ‘useful’ how is the sound of an atom useful?”
I quoted enthusiastically, “Because sound moves more slowly than light, we might be able to more carefully probe and influence the quantum world if we can use sound.”
James thought a moment and then smiled, saying, “If atoms can make sounds, are they like flocks of birds? Or crowds of people? And if they’re like crowds of people then what are they gossiping about?”
I laughed, “Your atoms probably are asking ‘Do you think we’re part of a Greater Being?’.”
I found out later that after leaving my house James went to my best friend’s house. My best friend wasn’t home but his mother was there. She was couch-ridden with cancer. She later said that James had talked with her for a couple hours.
After that James went to the big beautiful park nearby. He sat under a tree.
People at the park said they heard a loud sound.
With his father’s gun in his fist James had blown his brain into atoms.
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