The Central Mechanism
Jim Cowan

Who's to say that if a challenging truth were revealed to us, we'd deal with it any better than those who came before?

This is not a science fiction story.

It's not any kind of story. It's a proof, and when you get to the end you'll see what I mean.

But let's get started. I'm simply going to write down some things that really happened to me. What's more, I'll tell you what I found on a hard drive at the computer recycling center, some science that makes the Copernican revolution look like a PTA meeting. There's love, hate and death in all this too. When I've finished, you'll see there's no other way for me to get these ideas into your head except to pass the whole thing off as a story. But it's not.

Anyway, here goes.

Last Sunday morning I'd slept late after a heavy Saturday night at Trino's. Someone I'd really respected had died last week, pointlessly; I was angry at everything, and I'd drunk even more than usual. Around noon on Sunday I was on my way to the computer recycling center, driving on the four-lane, farting from last night's beer all the way up the hill to where there's the big church at the top, First Church of Something, with one of those signs where the pastor changes the message every week.

So I'm coming up to the top of the hill and there in the middle of the road is this old geezer--thin, frail, bent over with his back to me--placing traffic cones to close off one lane so all the fundamentalists can get out of the church parking lot and home to their Sunday lunch without having to wait for us atheists to pass by.

I shift down a gear and gun the engine, because these cones make me think about the separation of church and state. The road is state property, right? And I'm a veteran, a guy who was willing to put his life on the line to defend the Constitution, right?

4500 rpm.

Now you've gotta understand that a CJ-5 like mine's a real Jeep, not one of these Wranglers that Chrysler passes off as Jeeps today. The old CJ-5's are heavier, more powerful, and mine's got a bikini top to keep the sun off my head because there's nothing worse than a bad sunburn on a bald head. The top's all I need because it's warm year-round down here and you really don't need doors or anything, especially when you're driving an '82 like mine with its torn seats and more mud than carpet on the floor and only a bunch of wires where the radio used to be. The radio got stolen when I was in Atlanta once. There's not much crime around here, unless you count the fight that broke out when a handful of gays and lesbians tried to march in the July 4th parade after the Gulf War and the local patriots in the crowd waded in, threw some punches and stole their flag.

Anyway, as I get closer to the church and the old geezer I see that this week the church sign says: Read the Bible: Prevent Truth Decay, and that made me even madder because revelation's not the way to truth and no one had said that better than the man who'd just died.

I guess I should make things clear right now. I don't like the fundamentalists. The fundamentalist crap that passes for Christianity round here--faith's the only way to get to heaven, that sort of thing--is what I don't like. Good works don't count in the Bible Belt. Only faith matters, and I don't like that because faith's the enemy of reason.

I shifted down another gear. The needle on the tach jerked up toward the red line.

5500 rpm.

Faith means you have to believe stuff no normal person would ever believe. Believing two and two make four isn't faith because two and two do make four. Faith's believing two and two make five, which is impossible to believe unless you put your brain in a vat of liquid nitrogen and leave it at the U-Store-U-Lock-U-Keep-the-Key out by the Interstate. Of course, that's why faith's such a big thing. If religious stuff was based on reason there'd be no room for faith, and a lot of people would have to get real jobs.

The old geezer puts down the last cone and straightens up. I hit the gas.

6200 rpm.

The reason I don't like the fundamentalists is that when I was a kid and Mom and me had nothing to eat in the house, all the faith in all the churches in town wasn't much use to us, but a little charity, say a few good works in the shape of some canned goods, sure would have been nice. That's what I mean about faith and good works, and I learned that from my mom when she stood looking at our empty pantry. That was before she got her bookkeeping job at the Chevy dealership. She's been there more than twenty years--now ain't that something?

But back to Sunday morning. You've got the picture? The old geezer's closed off one lane with his traffic cones. I'm doing thirty-five, forty, and the tach's red-lined for sure. Then I hit the horn, swerve a little, and take out all the cones, ker-chunk, thwack, ker-chunk, thwack, every last one of 'em, and I almost take out the old geezer too. I hear his yell above the roar of the motor. Nice Doppler shift as I pass real close to him. Very satisfying.

And when I looked back in the rearview mirror he'd made it to the sidewalk and was standing there clutching at his chest with one hand and shaking his fist at me. I knew he couldn't get my tag number because I do a little off-road driving in the mountains and the mud, and I never, ever, wash the Jeep.

A white-haired guy ran out of the church parking lot to help him. I only caught a glimpse but right away I recognized Mr. White Hair because I'd taken a seminar from him--Humanities for Scientists--compulsory for all us nerds. Mr. White-Hair was Professor William Allan, Dean of Arts and Science at South Tennessee State which is where I go to school.

I wasn't surprised to see him. Allan's a deacon or something at that church.

At school he's a rigid tyrant, humiliating students and so on. He's so mean that someone started a malicious rumor that he's gay. That was probably a student he'd flunked, but it could've been someone on the faculty because Allan's made enemies there too, not least because he's chair of the school's Publications Committee. Or maybe it was just some guy he'd slept with. (Snicker.)

Sorry about the snicker. I usually write e-mail, not literature. Which reminds me that before we get started with the real stuff I should tell you a little about me, in case you get the idea that I'm some kind of a nut. My name is Carl Edwards and I'm twenty-five years old, a graduate of our own Davy Crockett High School and the U.S. Army. Don't ask about the Army--that was only so I'd have the money to go to school, which I got, and now I'm a computer science major right here at STSU.

Let me tell you a little more about my good side, so you understand I'm not just a guy whose idea of a good time is to flatten traffic cones on a Sunday morning. You know about SETI? The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence? Radio telescopes scanning the sky, looking for signals from alien civilizations? Frank Drake started it years ago, using the big radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, and now lots of people have tried. No one's found a signal yet--nothing but noise from the sky.

One problem is there's a lot of sky. Another is no one knows what frequency aliens might choose to transmit to us. So there's a lot of sky and a lot of bandwidth to cover, but the biggest problem is that there's no funding.

SETI's expensive. A state-of-the-art search would cost about as much as, say, one attack helicopter. In other words, it's not that expensive. The problem's that most people, especially people in control, don't want to hear about nonhuman intelligence. It might be more intelligent than them and that's threatening, and then there's quite a few fundamentalists in Congress who say there's no point in looking because the Bible doesn't mention life anywhere else except on Earth and the Bible can't be wrong. At least that's what Dean Professor William Allan told us in his seminar right after the big debate last year on creation science and evolution.

Anyway, the point is there's a lot of data to analyze, billions and billions, so to speak, (except Carl Sagan never said that until after Saturday Night Live made fun of him for saying it) and there's no money to do the job.

This is where I fit in. I'm part of this project on the Internet where you download free software that runs on your PC as a screen saver and analyzes SETI data while your computer's doing nothing else. When you've finished your chunk of data you upload your results and download another few megabytes of signals from the skies and off you go again for a week or two. With thousands of people doing this all over the planet, you get the processing power of a supercomputer for free. Clever, huh? Anyway, I'm running this software, and I'm telling you this so you can see that I'm not some kind of a nerd. I'm a truly social being, doing my bit for the community just like everyone else.

Sure, maybe I won't be the one to find the first signal buried in the hiss of the galactic background noise. But I know, I absolutely know for sure, that sooner or later someone will.

How do I know? Well, not because little gray men landed their flying saucer outside my mom's house and came into my bedroom and performed sexual experiments on me while I was asleep. It's what I found on the hard drive. What was on that drive changes absolutely everything.

For example, it settles the church and state thing once and for all, but not in the way you'd think. I know, I absolutely know for sure that there's no separation between church and state.

If any fundamentalists have read this far, which I doubt: Don't you get all worked up and say, "I told you so!" I've got to warn you, you're not going to like what I'm going to tell you one tiny bit. Not only does my stuff remove you wackos from the center of the universe once and for all, it's so much more elegant, more beautiful, more complete, that there's no absolutely no doubt at all that I'm right.

Here's another fact about me, sort of a personal note so you'll see I'm a real person. I like to roll up a paper towel or some other scratchy tissue at one corner, making something like a very thin cone, and stick it in my ear to clean out the wax. I love the way the tissue scrapes against the hairs inside my ear canal. You should try it; it feels real good so long as you don't jam the paper in too far and hit your eardrum.

So now you know everything about me and you can tell this is not a story made up by some writer, because no writer would ever think of mentioning earwax in a story about physics.

Bet you thought you'd caught me there, but that last line was just a trick. Like I said, this is not a story. But it is about physics. So let's get on back to Sunday.

The computer recycling center's in our dying downtown, between a pawn shop and the water-heater factory. Across the street there's a topless bar, but I don't like that sort of thing. The building's an old machine shop, a high ceiling, and ten thousand square feet of space with windows all down one side that look out over the parking lot where the men who make the water heaters park their pickup trucks.

It's a charity founded by Rose, the wife of the local-area-network supervisor at STSU. She's short, with mousy hair and a bad perm, and lips that remind me of a chimp--not that I'd tell her that to her face. She and her husband Thaddeus are members of the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Sierra Club and so on, not that they make a big thing of it. I met Thad at school and he introduced me to Rose. Like Thad, Rose's an atheist and so for Rose good works are everything. Thad's a mountain man, respectful and sharp, with a big beard, and the ability to tell truth from fiction that comes from spending a childhood in the high hills, away from civilization, and always knowing that, if civilization doesn't suit him, he can go right back to his little farm in the mountains any time he likes.

I go to the center one or two evenings a week and late on Sunday mornings. People bring in their old computers and we give them a receipt so they can take a tax deduction for a thousand dollars, which no one in their right mind would ever really pay them for their junk. We test each component--motherboard, memory chips, video card, drive controller and drives, sound card if there is one, keyboard and monitor if the machine came in with them. We strip out whatever's broken, cannibalize other machines and stick in what we need to assemble a working computer. I learned how to do all this in the Army.

OK, so you've only got a 486-33 with 8 MB of RAM, and not a Pentium 200 with 128 MB, but to some kid who lives in the hollers out past County Line Road, or down by the brick works, a 486-33 looks pretty good when the alternative is nothing. We give a few away to organizations too, not-for-profits. All they do is word-processing and maybe run Quicken, and what we've got is fine for that and you can't beat the price.

I gave the animal shelter a real nice old laser printer last week. People don't spay and neuter here in the sticks; they think it's cruel, or against God's will or something, so the shelter puts down eight thousand strays a year by injecting the blue death into their veins. The shelter's out on Reservoir Road, on the way to the dump, and they need all the help they can get. My mom volunteers at the shelter, that's how I know this stuff. Sometimes I help her and take the dogs for a walk. They love it. They're such social animals.

Now that I think about it, so am I. What with SETI and computer recycling and scooping poop at the animal shelter, I do a lot for our society.

Anyway, that Sunday morning, feeling a little better after trashing the cones, I arrive at the center and Rose says to me, "Hi Carl. STSU sent us a machine at the end of the week. Check it out. They said it's a Pentium."

As I mentioned, we got old machines, even 286s.

"Why'd anyone give us a Pentium?" I said. "Particularly the state." We almost never get anything from the state. They have strict rules about getting rid of unwanted state property.

"I dunno, honey," Rose said. "But I'd really appreciate you just checking it out for me."

I started right away because I had my own reasons for wanting to examine this surprising Pentium very, very, carefully. There wasn't any monitor or keyboard, just this case that didn't have a scratch on it. I took off the cover and yes, there was a Pentium processor on the motherboard. After plugging in a power cable, spare keyboard and the best monitor we had in the center at the time, I switched on the machine.

Turning on the computer told me that the power supply, video card, motherboard and memory were all intact. Then the machine sat there, doing nothing--I didn't even get a C:> prompt. Someone had deleted everything on the hard drive. Not that that's unusual on the machines we get. In fact, that's what you should do, and more, otherwise you might as well leave your filing cabinet in the street for anyone to poke around in.

That's because computers only delete a drive's File Allocation Table, or FAT, so that they can't find any deleted files--but all those files are still on the disk until you write something else on top of them. It's like ripping the table of contents from a book and thinking you've destroyed the whole book. Lots of utilities will recreate the FAT for you, (actually there's a second copy of the FAT, so usually it's real easy) and then you can recover them all.

I booted DOS from a floppy and inspected the hard drive to see what was on it. Nothing. Then I stuck in another disk and ran an Undelete utility. Sure enough, there were thousands of deleted files on the hard drive, waiting to be undeleted.

"Everything OK?" Rose asked.

"I'm not sure about the hard drive," I said, stalling. "Give me a few more minutes." She had to go out to Radio Shack to get some connectors or something, and while she was out I ripped out the hard drive and stuck it in the Jeep. I installed the biggest drive I could find from our stock of drives we'd taken from otherwise useless machines, installed Windows 95 and finished the rest of the tests. The machine was in perfect condition, ready to be shipped out to some lucky person. I left a note for Rose that said the machine was OK now, that I was taking the drive home to run some more tests on it, and went home. I needed more time, and some privacy, for what I had in mind.

My room at home's real neat, just like in the army. There's a single bed and a big desk with my computer, a really fast Pentium with a huge hard drive and lots of memory. I keep everything else either in the desk drawers, or my filing cabinet, or the shelves. My clothes are in the closet at the end of the hall, next to Mom's room.

You can tell a real geek right away because the case is always off his computer. Too many screws to fiddle with when you know you'll be opening the thing up again in an hour or two to tweak something else. In five minutes I had the new drive hooked up. Then I copied the contents of the STSU drive to my own giant hard drive. Inside my computer was the soul, or at least the mind, of the other computer.

I reformatted the STSU drive to really destroy everything on it, and dropped it off at the center the next day and told Rose it was working fine.

Did I steal anything? If so, what? You worry about that if you want to, but while you're worrying I'm going to fill you in on a few things that happened a year ago.

Last fall the Philosophy Department sponsored a big public debate on Evolution. One of the young faculty wanted to chew up and spit out a creation scientist. Over a thousand people showed. A stage was set up at one end of the gym. There were tables and water pitchers for the speakers, that sort of thing. The rest of the gym floor was covered with chairs and there were microphones in the two aisles for the audience.

I got a seat on an aisle, close to one of the mikes. The crowd filled the bleachers too, and everything was very bright under the arc lights they use for basketball games. Actually, the whole thing was a lot like a basketball game because the audience came strictly to root for one side or the other. I doubt all the arguing changed anyone's opinion, but that's how people are. The debate was the usual stuff. The creationist's main argument, coupled with some bad science, was that evolution's not proven, it's only a theory. The philosopher moved slowly and methodically, destroying the creationist's arguments, but the whole thing was a little tedious.

There's more people from up north moving into this city, what with the high-tech corridor out by the airport and the big malls that've killed the downtown, so the crowd was pretty evenly split. We heard all about radiocarbon dating, the fossil record, and the inerrancy of the Bible, but it wasn't really a debate, just two people talking different languages: reason and faith.

Toward the end of the evening a man came up to one of the public mikes. He was in his early thirties, blond and with a very neat mustache. He had the slightly exaggerated features of a movie star, but everything was just a little crooked, so while he was no use to Hollywood, he did have a peculiar charm that was good enough for the real world.

"I'm a scientist," the man said. "In science, all knowledge is tentative. Everything is a theory until a better idea comes along. Then we use the better idea. So by definition we're skeptics and we agree with the creationists when they say the theory of evolution will be history when someone comes up with something better. But I have a question for those who believe in creation. If something better came along, would you agree that creationism is wrong? In other words, are you willing, at least in theory, to change your beliefs?"

Of course, that was the end of their masquerade as scientists. He had them, and the audience knew it. The fundamentalists were real quiet while the rest of us laughed and then cheered. Some other people from the audience had to have their say on one side or the other, but really the evening was over after this man asked his rhetorical question. I asked the coed sitting next to me who he was. "Tom Thomas, from the Department of Physics. Isn't he cute?" He was, and I decided on the spot to sign up for one of his classes after Christmas.

On the way out I passed Dean Allan talking to the comptroller, Stott, a thin man, a fundamentalist, who did a lot of Allan's dirty work for him around the campus. That's how Allan exercised a lot of his power, through the budget process. Allan was saying, "Before I believe in evolution, Our Lord Jesus Christ will have to come down from Heaven Himself and tell me the Bible is wrong."

Stott nodded sympathetically. Allan knew a lot of the state Regents who make all the senior administrative appointments in the state schools and Stott knew that Allan knew the Regents and that's why Stott... well, you and I know that's how things work.

As for Jesus telling Allan the Bible was wrong, well, it could happen, I thought to myself, and hoped I would be there to see Allan's face when it did. I said nothing of course, just smirked in the darkness on my way to the Jeep. If I was testifying in court and you asked me to describe Allan's mood that night, I would say he was very, very angry. Why? Because the night's rout of the creationists had been allowed to happen on his turf.

But then, he was an angry man. Anyone who's the deacon of a church that sponsors a hell-house on Halloween and shows kids a coffin with a body inside it that's supposed to be a gay man who died of AIDS ain't filled with charity. Someone told me Allan said that Christianity wasn't about tolerance, it was about sin, and the Bible said homosexuality was perverse, wrong.

Did you know that the first Halloween hell-house was in Roswell, New Mexico? Right where that UFO was supposed to have crashed in 1947. Does that mean anything? I don't think so, but I'm always on the lookout for coincidences.

No matter. I registered for Tom Thomas's most popular class: Overview of Twentieth-Century Physics for Non-Physicists. It was held in a sterile room with painted gray cinder block walls and a wall-to-wall blackboard at the front. Tom strode back and forth, tossing a piece of chalk in his hand. He wore chinos and a gray turtleneck and he moved his trim body in way that suggested he was fit and well-muscled.

"There's physics," he said, "and then there's the rest of science."

Physics was all about matter and energy, space and time, the stuff from which the universe is made. Chemistry, biology and so on were all derived from the principles of physics. Understand physics and you could compute the rest of science, at least in theory, and if you believed that mind was nothing more than a manifestation of certain complex arrangements of matter such as the human brain then you could explain everything, if only you knew your physics. Of course, it might take a few billion years to derive, say, the total subjective experience of a Rolling Stones concert from first principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity, but the class got the idea.

The problem, as Tom explained in that first class, was that physics was obviously incomplete, which is a nice way to say that current knowledge is not quite right. The two great theories of the twentieth century--quantum mechanics and general relativity--were contradictory and, especially in the case of quantum mechanics, incomprehensible. Quantum mechanics works, but what does it mean? Energy is a wave that spreads to fill the whole universe--or it's a particle confined to a tiny region of space. Which one it is depends on the experiment you choose to do. An electron may or may not be in a particular place. It's not anywhere until you do an experiment and find it. And when you find it, you might instantaneously affect another electron at the other end of the galaxy.

The most tested theory in the history of science, correct to ten decimal places, reduces the world to a series of random events that require a conscious observer to know what really happened and seem to be linked instantaneously to other events somewhere else.

Tom ended the class with a quotation from the physicist Wigner: "It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics without reference to the consciousness.... The very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate reality." At the time, I didn't pick up on Tom's burning interest in this last phrase.

Later, Tom talked about the other great enigma of twentieth century physics, the appearance of order in the universe. Chaos gives rise to simple systems and simple systems engender more complex systems. "While you're walking down to your local bar on a starry night, look up at the sky and wonder. You're looking back in time, to when the universe was nothing but clouds of hot gas, and when you get to the bar, go inside and look around." He laughed. "You might think you've moved from order to chaos, but you've just seen how the universe has evolved from the random movements of atoms in ancient clouds of gas into wonderful, intricate life. It's moved from blind chaos to beautiful complexity." He taught physics as if he was a poet, which he was. He was a poet of science, and I loved him for it.

Trino's. That's where I really got to know Tom Thomas. In a bar. I'm not talking about the topless bar across from the recycling center, I'm talking about our bar. Straights ignore Trino's. Trino's is where the gay community struggled with what to do about AIDS in the early eighties, where they planned the Great July 4th Parade-In of 1991, where they went to drink after the big fight over the flag. Trino's is the one place in town where we can be ourselves. Not that it's a leather bar or anything like the bars they have in Atlanta; it's just an ordinary neighborhood bar except the people in there are gay and lesbian.

Anyway, that's where I really got to know Tom, and now he's dead, hit-and-run in the early morning while he was out running on a country road. A random event, atoms banging together in a primeval cloud of gas.

I didn't have class on Monday afternoons that semester, so I spent the afternoon in my room, examining the contents of the hard drive. There were twenty thousand files on the drive, a lot of stuff, but most of it was routine--word-processor files, calculations and graphs, letters, papers, quizzes and tests, the sort of thing any professor has on their drive, archives of articles from the online versions of Physical Reviews, and several folders crammed with shareware utilities that claim to make work easier but in most cases aren't really necessary. And there were two folders that turned out to be very important. One was named PGP and the other QC.

PGP first. I knew what was in there, of course. Pretty Good Privacy is an encryption program written by a guy called Phil Zimmerman who arranged to have it made available for free on the Internet and the Feds threatened to prosecute him for exporting munitions. So you get the idea--it's a dynamite piece of software. That's all you need to know about how well this program works, but if you're a geek like me, then you'll want to know exactly how it does work.

The basic idea's simple. Get a very large prime number, multiply it by another very large prime number and you get a very, very large number that has only two factors. You can use these three numbers to create two related keys for encrypting messages. You make one key public and tell everyone to use it when they send you e-mail, and you keep the other key very, very secret because that is the only way anyone can decrypt messages encrypted with the public key. This is important--you can't decrypt messages with the public key, only the private key. If you make the keys large enough, there isn't enough computing power on the whole planet to break the code because the only way to find the factors of a very, very large number, I mean one with thousands of digits, is to do billions and billions of divisions, which would take years, decades, or even centuries. So PGP isn't unbreakable; it's actually easy to see how to break it, but breaking it takes an impossibly long time.

Now imagine this in the hands of terrorists. That's why PGP looked like a munition to the government. Of course, the mathematics was available to anyone. Anyone, anywhere, could have cobbled together some code and do what Phil Zimmerman did. Once an idea's out there, it's out there. But more later of the idea that ideas that are out there have a life of their own. Now back to Tom.

In class Tom mentioned the importance of consciousness in physics, but it was in Trino's that he explained to me just why, in Wigner's words, "The content of consciousness is the ultimate reality."

As usual, he began with a story.

"Once, when I was a graduate student in New York," he said, "I was invited to a party to celebrate a christening in an Italian family. It was a wet Sunday in November and the party was a big one in a big house on Long Island. In addition to the baby, who played a very small role in the party, there was a pianist, a student from Juliard, who played the piano in a room at one end of the house with lots of windows that looked over the garden. He played all through the party, effortlessly. After an hour or so, and few glasses of wine, the men in the family gathered round the piano and started to sing. They sang to celebrate the baby and their family, and as an affirmation that they were alive. They sang alone and they sang together, they sang Italian folk songs and operatic arias in Italian and Spanish about pretty girls and love and longing and sadness and joy. It was a celebration of their past and a recognition of the uncertainty and the promise of the future. I sat by one of the tall windows and the men's voices filled the seamless space around me and inside me and I thought about quantum mechanics."

I must have laughed because he said, "That's not as ridiculous as it sounds. At moments like that, which are the most wonderful moments of life, there is an overwhelming sense of belonging, of oneness, of wholeness, and these are glimpses of the ultimate underlying reality. There are tantalizing hints of that unity in quantum mechanics. For instance, Bells' Theorem describes a fundamentally new kind of togetherness, undiminished by spatial or temporal separation, a mingling of distant things, a mingling that reaches instantly across the galaxy as forcefully as it reaches across a sodden garden or across a room. The mathematics is such that, even when we replace quantum mechanics with a deeper understanding of reality, Bells' supraluminal non-local reality will survive because this is truly the way things are." This was the first time I realized that Tom was working on something to replace quantum mechanics, the theory that was almost right.

"In quantum mechanics, there is no reality until reality is measured by someone. The idea that there's nothing there until an intelligent ape from a small planet at the edge of one of ten trillion galaxies makes a measurement is a foolish idea. Someone or something else is watching, observing, making measurements all the time. That's why there's a reality in the first place."

Abruptly, he changed focus. "In San Francisco, the cable cars are pulled up and down the hills by cables that run in a slot under the street. The machinery to drive all the cables is in a single building called the Cable Car Barn. You can go there and look down on the machinery from the tourist balcony. You see motors and huge pulleys, cables are sliding through the air, the place smells of oil and ozone, and the loud hum of the mechanism tells you that everything's working perfectly, that miles away the cars are climbing California Street or rattling down to Ghirardelli Square.

"But the universe is not like the Cable Car Barn. John Wheeler, who was a physicist with a remarkable imagination, said that there is no such thing as the glittering central mechanism of the universe to be seen behind a glass wall. `Not machinery, but magic, may be the treasure that is waiting.' Well, Carl, I intend to find that central magical mechanism."

That's when he told me he'd already written a paper, a speculative essay, on the role of consciousness in science. This paper was the real start of the conflict with Dean Allan, chair of the university's Publications Committee.

Tom's basic idea was simple. Quantum mechanics has no meaning without a conscious observer; in general relativity each conscious observer interprets time and space differently. The universe is moving from chaos to complexity, from matter to mind, and mind is an essential part of the two great theories of physics. That was his first point.

He pointed out next that truth and beauty seem to have a life of their own in the two worlds of science and of art. Both truth and beauty are intrinsic, and essential, to the human experience, but science has nothing formal to say about beauty and art has nothing formal to say about truth, although science is beautiful and the best art is truthful.

Finally, he said, scientists--biologists, physicists, philosophers--were all skirting around the issue of consciousness. They wanted to deal with its central role but couldn't address it because they had no clear hypothesis to test, no research agenda to pursue. Tom wanted to propose a hypothesis that would link physics and biology and philosophy and everything else. Here's his argument:

The universe is made of quanta of matter/energy and space/time. That's all there is. Tiny bits of inanimate stuff. And a couple of force fields--gravity and another field that may be a combination of electromagnetism and some other forces that work within the nucleus. "Here we are, squishy molecular machinery made of atoms that are themselves merely twists in the fabric of space-time; we're assembled and fuelled by the energy of sunlight, which is rain of massless photons; and from the ground we stand on comes a tide of neutrinos that has swept through the earth as if it didn't exist. Out of this flux of nothingness comes the realization that, say, E = mc2, and this knowledge is beautiful. Where does this thought come from? There has to be more to this than random torrents of energy surging pointlessly through space and time.

"Our theories are wrong," said Tom. "Incomplete because our assumptions are incomplete. There is more to the basic stuff of the universe that matter/energy and space/time and a couple of forces. Each quantum of stuff has more than mass/energy and location/momentum, it also has a quantum of consciousness." This simple idea, which Tom called his Theory of Quantum Consciousness, cast a lot of problems in a new light.

Right away, you're probably thinking this is a load of bull, but bear with me. You're going to see that this idea is not as dumb as it sounds.

First of all, quanta of consciousness, like quanta of matter, energy, electrical charge and magnetism, are so small that you don't notice them on a daily basis. You're totally unaware of the single charge on an electron, but when you're hit by lightning, the charge on a few trillion electrons gets your attention.

So the quantum of consciousness associated with every elementary particle is way too small to notice. But these quanta combine in subtle ways and Tom proposed some properties that characterized the combination of quanta of consciousness. Here's the whole proposition as he might have scribbled it on the back of an envelope at Trino's:

The first axiom sets the stage, and later Tom showed how this assumption solved the observer problem in quantum mechanics. Simply put, there's no need for an experimental observer because the universe is observing itself all the time. The second addresses the non-local nature of reality required by Bell's Theorem. The third explains why a rock about the size of your fist, which has about the same number of atoms as say the brain of a dog, appears to be dead while the dog is obviously alive, intelligent, and conscious. The atoms in the rock are arranged in a regular, repetitive crystalline structure, while the atoms in a dog's brain are arranged into intricate cells called neurons which are themselves arranged in an extremely complex interconnected array. The rock is conscious, but not noticeably so, and certainly much less so than the dog.

For the same reason the Earth and its biosphere, which are certainly intricate mechanisms, are conscious, but not as obviously conscious as a dog. Quantum consciousness falls off with distance (third axiom) and the Earth is not connected enough, yet, for an object that big to demonstrate consciousness to the only detector we have at the moment, which is the human brain.

The fourth axiom, which parallels the Second Law of Thermodynamics but in a less depressing way, explains why the universe is evolving from the chaotic motion of hot gas after the Big Bang into galaxies, stars, planets, and ever more complex forms of life. Consciousness is not conserved, like matter or energy. No, consciousness increases over time, like entropy. In other words, quantum consciousness is the life-force in the universe.

Now if you have any understanding of the minds of people who are heavily invested in organized religion, you will see that these ideas are very threatening.

The first axiom is a statement of pantheism. Every thing in the universe is more than a dead piece of matter; every atom, every quantum particle, has some small element of mind. Aquinas' separation of body and soul, of the world and spirit, and science's parallel separation of matter and mind, are all eliminated. There is no division between Earth and Heaven. There is no meaningful separation of church and state.

The third axiom places all objects on a continuum of being. Some are more complex, more intricate, more conscious than others, but they are not different kinds of things, they are different only in degree. We are all part of the same seamless stuff. So much for prejudice based on species, race, gender, sexual orientation, so much for the exploitation of animals and the non-animal natural world, and so on. The special place Judeo-Christianity claims for humans is eliminated by this third axiom.

The last axiom brings purpose to the universe and it also subsumes morality and aesthetics into physics. This purpose and morality is not laid on the universe from Heaven or somewhere, the purpose of the universe is embedded in the material of the universe. All you need to know is right here, right now. You just need to pay close attention to the universe and work hard to figure out exactly what you should do.

For example, killing is wrong because it reduces the total consciousness in the universe, and killing an intelligent being is more wrong than killing a cabbage, which is probably necessary in the big scheme of things, but in practice there is no absolute good, just this tension between different choices. That's why life's not easy.

Diversity is good because it promotes complexity, which in turn increases the total consciousness, but some organization is needed to get anything done. That's why nature's organized life into species instead of billions of unrelated creatures. In the same vein, morality's no longer a matter of debate. At least in principle, morality can be derived from the four axioms of quantum consciousness. (Don't get excited--this is about as difficult as deriving the total experience of a Rolling Stones concert from quantum mechanics.)

Quantum Consciousness links physics to the biological sciences, the humanities, and all human activity. Suddenly, we find ourselves living in a universe governed by a set of rules that work to arrange and rearrange mind and matter into ever-more complex, intricate mental and physical structures.

Now this is not the kind of stuff Dean William Allan wanted to hear and he used his position as Chair of the Publications Committee to make sure that Tom's heretical ideas would never see the light of day.

Perhaps I should explain why STSU has a Publications Committee that can prevent faculty from publishing. STSU's a small school and some of the faculty are, well, marginal. Some are really good, like Tom, some are bright enough but perhaps a little crazy, and others are plain dumb. The school had been embarrassed on several occasions by articles that caused merriment and even ridicule in regional or national academic circles, and after this had happened three or four times the president decided enough was enough, to hell with academic freedom, and set up the Publications Committee with Dean Allan in the chair and instructed the committee to make sure that nothing went out of the university unless it was of academic merit according to this internal process of peer review.

Allan was a powerful man, well-connected in Nashville and a close friend of our Neanderthal Congressman, a friendship that effectively neutered the president of the university.

Big bucks flowed to the school as a result of Allan's relationships and Allan, working through Stott, controlled the flow of those dollars inside the school. The younger, untenured faculty feared Allan because he could destroy their careers, and the most of the tenured profs kept out of his way because, as someone said, "Does Allan work for the university, or does the university work for Allan?"

To be fair, Allan did a good job for the school, bringing in the money for buildings, new programs, and that most valuable commodity for politicians: jobs. Anyway, you get the picture. Dean Allan loved his role as the Torquemada of STSU's academic inquisition and, like Torquemada, Allan thought his work was for a greater good, so I suppose he isn't evil, just horribly wrong.

Before the committee met, Tom told Allan he was trying to reveal the spirit in the world. "I thought he would like that, but he wasn't impressed."

The committee was not impressed either when Tom explained, "I'm trying to bridge the gap between mind and spirit."

We heard later the discussion was perfunctory after Tom left the room. They nixed the paper on the superficially reasonable grounds that it was pure speculation and contained absolutely no data at all.

Tom was stopped in his tracks at this point, but still optimistic. "I'm already working on the mathematics of the theory. In a few months I should have a rigorous formulation of the four principles and then I'll be able to propose some experimental verifications. With a little luck, I'll even have some experimental evidence myself. I may be able to test the basic ideas with the equipment we have here."

So, like Galileo, Tom was accused of heresy and told to cease and desist and placed under the modern academic equivalent of house arrest.

Allan was no fool. He knew that Tom's paper was dynamite. I heard on the grapevine that he described Tom's theory as "a heresy worthy of the Anti-Christ" and what with the millennium coming up, he probably really believed that Tom was in the grip of supernatural forces. So Allan's job as a state employee, and as a self-appointed employee of God, was to stop Tom.

Despite the Publications Committee's embargo, Tom did get some feedback from the physics community. Physicists have been wired for longer than almost anyone else and they share their work online as what they call "preprints," draft papers posted on bulletin boards coordinated out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and mirrored at several other academic sites. Other scientists comment on the preprint and help the authors refine their work. If you're interested, you can find preprints at places like <>.

Tom discussed the preprint idea with me. "It's not real publication," he said.

I agreed. "Sort of a discussion with colleagues, refining your work. The Publications Committee didn't say you couldn't discuss your work with a few other professional physicists."

"Exactly." So he posted a preprint. The response was overwhelming, and very similar to Dean Allan's comment. "Speculation unsupported by even a quantum of data," was one of the nicer comments Tom got in his e-mail.

"I was too material for Dean Allan and now I'm too spiritual for the physicists. This means I must be right," he joked. He knew he was bridging the void between heaven and earth, crossing the line between mind and matter, and that no one really understood what he was trying to do.

It was the e-mail that tipped Allan off that Tom had posted his paper in an obscure corner of the Internet. The Dean said he'd found the preprint on the Net himself, but we didn't believe him. I suppose he could have searched the Net for Tom's name but when I asked Thad, "Has the Dean been reading faculty e-mail?" Thad told me, "E-mail on the state's network belongs to the state. Whoever owns the system owns the mail. There's no privacy. That's the law. Not that the ACLU agrees with it." Thad's a very honest person, and he answered my question without betraying his employer's confidence. I like Thad.

Tom was called in and given a written warning that any future breaches of the university's policies on publication would result in dismissal.

So his work was rejected at both ends of the spectrum, by the religious right and by the supposedly dispassionate scientific community. "I'm certainly scaring people," was his laconic comment after the break-in at his office. "Who said that science advances funeral by funeral?"

I didn't know, but whoever it was, was right. "You'll just have to wait until all the crusty old men with gravy on their ties die off." But Tom wouldn't wait.

The break-in was the reason that Tom was using PGP, that and the discovery that the Dean was reading Tom's e-mail. Nothing was stolen from the office, but Tom knew someone had turned on his computer at three in the morning because he had a shareware program running in the background that logged his activity on the machine, and in the log were thirty minutes of use when Tom knew, and I knew, he wasn't at work because we were in bed together in his apartment. So he downloaded the shareware version of PGP and encrypted his work on Quantum Consciousness. His public key was stored on a server on the Internet. Most people store their private keys on their own computer because PGP's really meant to encrypt messages on a network so people who intercept a message on the network can't read it. Tom told me he wasn't going to keep his private key on his machine because his problem was not interception on a network, it was illicit access to his machine. Anyone who turned on the machine would be able to get his private key. "I'm going to keep it on floppy and take it home with me at night."

His work was in the QC folder of course, and this was what I was looking for as soon as the Pentium came into the center.

I couldn't follow the mathematics of what he was doing. In fact, he never even showed me the math because I wouldn't have understood it, and he had invented some of it himself anyway, but I can give you an outline.

Einstein asked himself the question, "What would things look like if I was riding on a beam of light?" and from this question developed his special relativity description of gravitation. Special relativity completely subsumed Newton's three-hundred year-old explanation of the motion of the moon even though Einstein started from a totally different premise from Newton and his apple.

In the same way, Tom was starting from an idea of such breathtaking novelty that it's hard to talk about it clearly. Nevertheless, he developed a mathematical model of his ideas.

Last Wednesday, less than a week ago, he came into Trino's and sat down across the table and said, "It works!" What he meant was that he had been able to formulate Quantum Consciousness in mathematics and from the mathematics he could derive the equations of Quantum Mechanics and of General Relativity. "If the math holds up to scrutiny then this is Wheeler's glittering central mechanism, and he was right--it's not machinery, it's magic. It breathes life into the universe, this is the fire hidden in the equations, this is spirit moving on the waters."

Along the way, he told me, he'd had to invent what he called "some novel mathematics." Then he started talking about how the universe was evolving. "With every particle tingling with its tiny charge of consciousness, destined to play a role in the evolution of the universe, no matter what we do, no matter how evil we are, in the end we cannot oppose the relentless, universal force that is transforming mere matter into mind. Yes, we have free will and we can to choose to work with the universe or against it, and evil actions will slow down the transformation of matter into mind, but we cannot stop the process nor prevent the final outcome. In the end, when the universe is complete, it will understand itself perfectly."

"Mmm," I said, struggling with ideas about perfect understanding and God, and about some heresy I'd heard in which God himself is evolving, and so is his understanding of creation. That's if you believe in God, which I don't. But Tom was rattling on.

"Now here's a fascinating thing that's fallen out of the math. The speed of time is inversely proportional to the total consciousness in the universe. That's why the Big Bang was a big bang--there was no matter and therefore no consciousness in the beginning. At the instant of creation, time ran infinitely quickly. As soon as energy and matter and their associated quanta of consciousness appeared, time began to slow but it was still running very quickly, which is why the universe expanded remarkably in the first few milliseconds, seconds, minutes and years of its existence. Now things are much more stable, as if consciousness is a stabilizing force, adding an inertia to the unfolding of the universe. If my math is right, this temporal inertia created by consciousness means that the universe will never end, but will get closer and closer to a state in which every quantum particle in the universe is linked in an essentially infinite number of quantum conscious ways to every other particle. The closer the universe is to this state, the slower time will run, so we'll never get there."

"Like the speed of light," I said. "You can never reach it because your mass increases the closer you get."

"Exactly so, but not surprising because you can derive relativity from quantum consciousness so it's not surprising that relativity contains elements of quantum consciousness. I like that, but what's important is that now I have a theory that makes predictions that can be tested. For instance, Hubble's constant, which is a measure of the rate of expansion of the universe, can be derived from TQC. Not by me--my astrophysics is nowhere near good enough--but someone should be able to do it. The important thing is that this theory can be tested against observations."

"Unlike creationism," I said.

"Sure. What's more, I may be able to derive the value of some basic physical constants, like the speed of light and the charge on an electron, from first principles. That's never been done. It's sort of a Holy Grail of physics."

Even I knew that any success along these lines was a Nobel Prize for sure.

"There's something else coming out of the math," he said. "There's a quantity which represents the relationship between the total consciousness of a system and the material state of the system. This quantity corresponds to truth, or beauty, or perhaps to other concepts we haven't even thought of yet."

Now this is what any thinking person knows intuitively. Beauty and truth are two sides of the same thing and both speak about the relationship between the world of ideas and the world of matter. His work was starting to expose the workings of that relationship. In a weird way, the theory referred to itself; the more beautiful its equations, the more likely they were to be true.

Now all this doesn't mean that you can write a Shakespeare play starting from the math of quantum consciousness any more than you can predict a World Series starting from Newton's Laws of Motion. It's possible in theory, but doing the math would take to the end of time, so it's a lot easier to just play the games and see who wins. The easiest way to write a Shakespeare play is to let Shakespeare do it.

Of course, he wanted more than mathematical proofs and he was sketching the principles of what he called a transducer. "In the Middle Ages you could hope to work wonders if you had a splinter from the True Cross," he said. "If you'd told the average medieval peasant that you could work wonders with a computer chip, which is piece of silicon about the size of your thumbnail, something made from sand, you'd have been burnt at the stake as a witch. So the transducer, which is a device that transforms quantum consciousness effects into the fundamental forces of physics, makes QC effects measurable in the lab. It will be as surprising, and at first as incomprehensible, to us as the idea of spinning sand into wonderful things would be to a serf."

I didn't even get a hint of how this surprising transducer might work because he was too excited and rattled on, saying, "Anyway, the paper's finished. The math's correct. It's publishable by any standard. I'd take it to Allan today but he's off campus at some religious meeting out of town, back at work on Monday. I can wait. There's no way he can stop me now. The math is consistent. Once the experimentalists get their hands on it there'll be verification within days, maybe hours after I post the preprint. But I want him either to say no and be known forever as the man who tried to stop publication of the most important scientific paper ever, or to watch him say yes, knowing that he's saying yes to the end of his world."

That was the last time I saw Tom, but not the last time I talked with him. He left for Atlanta that night. He was going to talk to a national convention of high school physics teachers, something about teaching physics to make it interesting. He called me the next evening from Atlanta, very excited.

"Guess who I met here," he said.


"Allan. I saw him at the Backstreet."

Now the Backstreet, on the corner of Peachtree and Juniper, is Atlanta's oldest and most famous gay bar, three floors, pool, skyline bar on the roof-deck, and the best lights and sound on the biggest dance floor in gaydom. They have an annual White Party that attracts every circuit queen south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was a little pissed off that Tom had gone there without me, but the news that he'd seen Allan there overwhelmed my anger.

"I was at a table close by the stairs, sitting by myself, my friend." The friend bit was to massage my ego and it was nice of him. "I sip my beer, lift my eyes from the glass, look up, and there's Allan prancing down the stairs from the Triple X Charlie Brown cabaret and what's more, he's holding the hand of a remarkably pretty young man. He saw me all right, but pretended he didn't, and then he headed out right away, looking very shaken."

"Wow! So the rumor's true."

"Yup. I don't need to say anything at all. He knows I know and that's enough. With this and the paper I've got him by the balls."

I was recovering my cool. "In a way," I said, "I'm surprised he was at the Backstreet. I would've pegged him for the Model T." The Model T's in the old Ford factory on Ponce DeLeon. We'd gone there once together, but the only thing more bitchy than a bunch of fags is a bunch of old fags.

But then the surprise was over and I was thinking more carefully. "Suppose we confront him. Perhaps he'll claim he was doing research for the Southern Baptists. They don't care about war, murder, rape and child abuse, but they're really worried about gay rights."

"Southern Baptists don't wear their shirts open to the navel. The clown was wearing a big gold chain too. But who cares?"

So Allan joined the ranks of the fallen zealots, the Jimmy Swaggerts, the Jim Bakkers, the Elmer Gantrys, the J. Edgar Hoovers, and that guy that was queer that worked for McCarthy.

Tom was right--it didn't matter. We'd already decided that Tom would post another preprint no matter what the Committee said, but the chance of forcing Allan to approve Tom's work or face the threat of outing made the triumph, well, sort of complete.

Tom came back from Atlanta late Friday night and they found him on Saturday morning in his running gear on a country road three miles form his home. He had a closed head injury, tension pneumothorax, ruptured liver and spleen. Blunt trauma, hit and run, said the police report.

Coincidence? You can think about it and make up your own mind, but that's why I wasted those fundamentalist traffic cones. As Tom would have said, there is a certain symmetry in the universe and it pops up in surprising places.

I'm getting choked up and I'll have to quit for a moment.


Let me get on to the real point of all this. I had the soul of Tom's computer on my hard drive and there in this QC folder was the text of the complete formulation of the Theory of Quantum Consciousness. The problem was that the document looked like this:


Version: PGP for Personal Privacy 5.0

MessageID: HDo8lgYFv9gn1Uj+TWmMUZW/iXSvb3yK


...and so on. You get the picture.

Now Tom's public key was on the Net, and I already had that key on my machine. I'd been using it to encrypt my e-mail to him. But his private key was... well, remember he'd told me he'd taken it off his machine in case of any more break-ins so they couldn't read his stuff when they broke into his computer. But where was the private key? By examining his public key on the MIT keyserver I could tell his private key was 4096 bits and that's longer than anyone can remember or wants to punch in by hand. So the key had to be on the disk he took home from work every night. There wasn't any other way to handle a key this big.

I had a key to his apartment and I went over but there was nothing there. At least no floppy. I'd spent a lot of time in his apartment and I knew where he kept stuff in his desk and so on, I even knew where he kept the disk from work. But it wasn't there. And I knew why. Once the math was finished, there was no point in keeping anything from the Dean. Even if Tom was fired, he could still publish and then the world would beat a path to his door. So he'd left the floppy at work.

On Monday, I went over to the Physics Department and told the secretary I was a friend of Tom's and asked if there was anything I could do to help them clean out his office. "It's already done," said the secretary. "The Dean had Dr. Thomas' personal items sent to his family--a couple of photographs and a leather jacket hanging on the hook on his door, that was all." I went down the hall and she was right. There was nothing except a desk and a chair. The desk drawers were empty except for those wisps of gray fluff that you always find at the back of drawers.

I went back to the secretary and asked, "Where's his stuff, papers, floppy disks, that sort of thing?"

"If it wasn't personal, it belonged to the state, and the Dean said we should send everything to the dump. Everything. The Dean made it very clear." Good jobs with the state are hard to get and her attitude made it clear that she wasn't about to lose hers.

Later I learned that Thad, shocked at the waste of a Pentium, had quietly diverted--yes, that was the word he used, diverted--the computer to the recycling center. But in front of the secretary I kept myself focused on Tom's private key.

"Even the floppies?" I asked.

She looked at me strangely, as if I was trying to steal something. "The Dean said we should send it all to the landfill." That was the end of it. I was only a student and she knew it, so I left.

Tom's family hadn't spoken to him for years, ever since they found out he was gay. I called later and got his father on the phone. He was already crying. I suppose he had realized that he'd lost some things forever, things he could have had for the asking but it was too late now. He told me there were no floppy discs sent by the school, just the jacket and the photographs.

"Nothing in the pockets?" I asked. There wasn't.

It was raining when I headed out to the dump, which is a few acres of trash at the end of Reservoir Road, past the animal shelter. Seagulls wheeled around in the sky behind a bulldozer that was slowly leveling piles of trash, papers, old mattresses, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, all the throwaway crap of civilization. There was a smell too, putrid.

I asked the guy at the gate if STSU had brought anything to the dump since Saturday and where it might be. "Dunno. This ain't a coat check, we don't give out numbers," he said.

"Thanks. I'll think I'll take a look around."

Two cops were sitting inside a pickup truck. They had their guns out. I went over to them and said lightly, "What's up? Someone steal something?"

"Target practice, wiseguy. Firearms re-cert next week."

"So what'ya shooting at?"

"Mainly rats, but just about anything that moves."

I didn't like their attitude, not that it mattered. I could see that finding a floppy in this mountain of paper and plastic, grease, oil and rotting food was impossible and anyway the floppy was probably useless what with the rain and the dirt and all the grease, even if the bulldozer hadn't crushed it. So I stood there watching the mewling gulls, staring at where the secret of the universe had been thrown away. But of course, as Rose and Thad and the Sierra Club would say, there is no away.

On the way back from the dump I stopped in at the animal shelter. Mom was there, cleaning out the cat cages. On the wall there were some plaques given by donors in memory of their pets. There was one that always nearly made me cry. "In memory of all those for whom no one came." It was for the ones who didn't get adopted, who spent their allotted five days at the shelter and then met the blue death. My mom caught me looking at it when she was finished scooping poop.

"Stop being sentimental," she told me.

Now you're thinking maybe Tom had hidden another copy of his personal key on his hard drive, camouflaged to look like a Word file or some data from his checking program. Well, believe me, I've looked, and there's nothing there.

So what was left for me to do? I had the text of the paper but it was encrypted. OK, I knew how to break the code, but it was a 4096-bit key. Before the SETI project got going on the Internet, several hundred people had worked together in the same way, trying to win a bet by breaking a 40-bit key with code-breaking software on machines all over the world. It took them about nine months, let's say a year to keep things simple. Now every bit you add to a key means that it will take twice as long to break it. So going from 40 to 4096 bits means that I can try to find Tom's private key on my machine but it will take me about 2(4096-40) years and, well, I can't be bothered to calculate exactly what that is but if I wrote out the number it would be longer than this whole thing I've written. And on top of that, with the quantum consciousness time retardation phenomenon and time slowing down as the universe gets more complex, the code's not going to get broken, ever.

I thought about posting the problem on the Internet, a project that people could run on their computers like the SETI project or the original code-breaking effort, but anyone who's interested enough to take part will know that there is essentially no chance of breaking this code. Ever. So I didn't even try. And the idea of reworking the math myself is out of the question because the math was Tom's invention and I'm not that smart. "Most of physics can be described with partial differential equations," he'd said, "but I needed something quite different." I didn't ask him what that something was, and now it's too late.

By the way, now that you know the four principles of Quantum consciousness show that the universe is relentlessly evolving, unfolding into higher and higher levels of complexity and of consciousness then you know why I'm so sure that SETI will pan out. It's only a matter of time. So, despite everything that's happened, I'm still running the SETI software. It's an affirmation that Tom was right.

Yesterday, when Mom came home from work at the dealership, she told me Stott had traded in his car for a new four-wheel drive sport utility. He didn't get as much as he might for his trade-in because it his old car needed some work on the body. She said there was a dent in the fender on the passenger side.

Does it mean anything? I don't know, but like I said, I'm always on the lookout for coincidences.

Am I going to the police? Maybe, but in long run there's a better way. Even though the secret of the universe is lost in the landfill, jumbled up with a lot of trash, and at the same time it's jumbled up forever on my hard drive, there's one more way to find it.

Ideas have a life of their own. Someone called them memes, sort of like genes, but mental instead of made of DNA. They're out there, replicating inside people's heads and it's impossible to eliminate them. True memes are indestructible, they're the most durable things in the universe because they will be discovered again and again.

That's why I've written this account of Tom's ideas. Remember, it's an account, not a made-up story, but I don't care if you think it's true or not. If you've read this far then I've already got what I wanted. I've planted the meme of Quantum Consciousness inside your head.

Think about it. It's there and you can't get rid of it, can you?

Someone will read this and wonder if just maybe Quantum Consciousness is the way out of the intellectual maze we've built for ourselves. Maybe that someone will be a high-school kid or a college freshman, someone who's good at math but still young enough to think impossible things.

Perhaps you're that reader.

Or perhaps you're not, and maybe you'll forget this story but years from now, when your four year-old granddaughter asks you, "Why did Granny have to die?" you'll tell her in your grief that everything is alive and nothing really dies, that the universe is good and the stuff it's made from combines and recombines endlessly as it journeys to perfection. The little girl won't understand what you say but she will feel what you feel and the meme will jump from your mind to hers and when she's older and majoring in math she'll sit down one rainy afternoon with a pencil and some paper and work into the night and rediscover Quantum Consciousness.

How it happens doesn't matter.

Tom's dead, but I'm not as angry about this now as I was on Sunday morning. He played his role, did his bit to move the universe in the direction it's meant to go, and his bit was much more than most of us can hope to do. He won't be here any more, I can't enjoy his company, but that's the way things are, and I'll live on, trying to do my bit. Actually, I've probably done what's the most important thing for me to do in my whole life: I've written down what happened and made sure it's read by thoughtful people like you.

So now you know that reality is good, reality is conscious. Of course, I can't prove that to you but I do know, I absolutely know for sure, that sometime, somewhere, someone will rediscover Tom's Theory of Quantum Consciousness.

I know this will happen because, if you think carefully about what I've told you, you'll realize that the Theory of Quantum Consciousness is the only scientific theory that predicts its own discovery.

Now remember that the test of any scientific theory is that it makes accurate predictions. Right?

Quantum Consciousness predicts its own discovery and it's been discovered. Sure it's been discovered. It's in your head right now, isn't it?

OK. I rest my case.

Now remember right at the beginning I told you this isn't a story. I said it was more like a proof. That's why I'm going to finish with the Latin phrase Quod erat demonstrandum. Mathematicians put this at the end of their proofs when they have demonstrated that which was to be demonstrated, except they usually just use the initials.

But the last line of a story is very important, and no writer of fiction would ever end with something as limp as the initials of an obscure phrase in Latin.


Jim Cowan ( is trained as both an electrical engineer and a doctor, and is a graduate of the 1993 Clarion SF workshop. He is amazed and delighted that many wonderful things in the world can be completely described by mathematics and he is equally amazed and delighted that many wonderful things, including mathematics, cannot. In addition to his stories in InterText, he has written two stories for the print magazine Century, and his story "The True Story of Professor Trabuc and his Voyages Aboard the Sonde-Ballon de la Mentalitie" will appear later this year in Asimov's Science Fiction. His story "The Spade of Reason" appeared in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourteenth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.

InterText stories written by Jim Cowan: "The Gardener" (v4n5), "Genetic Moonshine" (v5n3), "The Central Mechanism" (v8n3).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Jim Cowan.