Monthly Archives: December 2015

Updating Urth

Isaac Asimov wrote several stories starring Wendell Urth, a leading extra-terrologist with a fear of all mechanical forms of transport.  In February 2011 thought I’d make my own character after him, with some explicit homage to the Asimov stories.

The character I invented is Professor Charles Xavier Urth, set in present day.  In his office he has a signed magazine cover framed on the wall, from 1955, inscribed “to the real Doctor Urth ⊕”.  The implication is that Dr. Robert Urth, Charles’s grandfather, was someone Asimov knew from his circles of interest in mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and Nero Wolfe.

I pulled out a plot idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for even longer time, where a glitch or paradox or some kind of problem with quantum mechanics and/or time travel experiments causes the universe to simply seal up the offending region behind an impenetrable wall: like an oyster secreting a pearl around an irritant.

I purposefully begin the story in a manner typical of Asimov’s stories, opening with the main character’s name.  Furthermore it’s a non-action type of activity.

Although told in 3rd person, I want to make the way in which the events are perceived and related follow the perceptions of the character currently in focus.  For example, when the efficient secretary is interacting with the agents they are referred to by name, but when the professor is dealing with them they are simply “the first agent” etc. since he didn’t notice them as individuals or remember their names.

With these things in mind, I pointed the character at the situation to see what happened.  Of course, nobody knows the details of the anomaly at the beginning, so I don’t have to either!

Of course, my Professor immediately sets off to do something uncharacteristic, flying off to visit the anomaly.  I wanted a more explicit link with the mysteries of Nero Wolfe, where Professor Urth doesn’t travel.  Revisiting the story, I think he would do more telecommuting with a multi-window screen of video conferences to various grad students and in-field assistants.  After all, my own work meetings can have 16 windows on my 70″ living room screen with participants all over the world.

Another note about the character’s name: Professor X (Charles Xavier) has a logo that is a circled cross, like the mathematical symbol ⊗. Urth’s logo looks like a circled plus: ⊕, the astronomical symbol for Earth (this is used in Asimov’s story The Key.

The idea of a mindquake comes from GEB.

Short Story beginning/draft — “The Pearl”

Copyright 2011 by John M. Długosz

Professor Charles Xavier Urth was doing what he did best. His first task that morning upon arriving at his campus office was to read some scientific papers, magazine articles, and other clippings that were prepared for his attention. About two thirds of the way through the first paper, he had an idea. Reflecting in thought, one thing suggested another, and so on for a chain of half a dozen topics. Finally, the sixth thing—which was totally unrelated to the subject of the paper—apparently bore a relationship to some other topic that he had not previously realized.

A “mind quake” ensued, with symbols in his brain rearranging themselves in light of this new revelation. Normal people do such reorganization normally during a certain phase of sleep, but never on such a scale or for such an extended period of time. His brain activity was very much like that of a normal person in deep sleep in some ways, but also like a normal person having a simple partial seizure.

Professor Urth sat at his desk, seemingly relaxed, his eyes half closed, the print-out in front of him forgotten, for two hours. He still had not moved when the visitors arrived.

Nancy checked on Professor Urth every fifteen minutes when he was in such a state. When she came back into the outer office, she found the two gentlemen standing by her desk.

As way of introduction, one of the visitors took out a wallet-sized case and unfolded it to produce a very official looking badge and a laminated photo ID. He spoke his name as she read it: “I am Special Agent Sebastian Floyd, from the F.B.I.” He pronounced it so you could hear the periods. “My partner is Special Agent Christopher Friday.” Friday nodded in her direction at the mention of his name.

“We are hoping The Professor,” (you could hear the capital letters) “can help us with an investigation. It is a matter of some importance.”

“Of course,” replied Nancy. “Professor Urth will be available within the hour, and if you care to wait here, I’ll make sure he sees you immediately.”

Floyd was not used to waiting. “It is most urgent. Can we see him right away?” He was not sure but was under the impression that Urth was in his office. In his work, busy was not the same as absent, and he was used to interrupting people and making his Official Business take precedence.

“The Professor Must Not Be Disturbed at the moment.” Nancy made sure Floyd could hear her capitals. Her face wore the expression of a stern school mom. Then she softened her expression and explained, “If you want his help, you most certainly want his willing cooperation. And undoubtedly you want to make use of his talents. So, you need to accommodate his ways. His talent has needs of its own.”

She sat down at her desk, and motioned to the row chairs along the wall by the door. There were seven guest chairs in the outer office: how many students and suppliants of various importance have waited here for an audience, and for how long? The agents had been briefed, and were prepared to wait however long it took. But it didn’t hurt to check first, if only out of habit.

The agents sat down, and Friday, the junior agent, took out a tablet and started reading some documents. Research materials and ideas for this case, presumed Floyd. Floyd was more pure detective than technician, and preferred to wait with his own thoughts for a while.

Professor Urth’s fits never lasted more than three hours. Through long practice, he had trained himself to limit them and apply them to useful purposes. If he showed any unusual signs, or failed to come around in time, Nancy would take action. So, he continued, in comfort and safety, to juggle symbols in his mind. Later, when asked about a particular problem in group theory or certain practical applications of it which include self-assembly of nanostructures and unification of Dark Energy to the rest of known physics, Urth would realize that a particular long-standing mathematical problem could in fact be solved and give instructions on doing so. If anyone ever asked.

While the visitors sat, Nancy checked on Urth twice more. The second time, something about his demeanor prompted her. She tapped his hand and called softly, “Professor…” Not expecting an immediate reaction, she went to the small refrigerator tucked under a table along one wall. She took out a juice pouch, shook it for good measure, and ignoring the thin straw and all instructions printed on the pouch, used scissors to clip a corner, and poured most of into an elegant blue Chinese teacup. She parked the filled cup out of reach and tapped Urth’s hand again. She finished the remainder of the juice in the pouch herself while she waited.

As the Professor emerged from his fit, Nancy placed the drink in his hand, purposefully folding her hands over his larger one to mold his fingers to the cup. When his eyes showed that he was lucid, once again sharing this mundane world with other people, she briefed him. “You have visitors. Two F.B.I agents wish to see you. Shall I send them in now?”’

Special Agent Floyd repeated his show with his credentials, this time in the inner office. Urth showed no interest in looking at them, or even in remembering the man’s name. Furthermore, Urth waved off the agent’s introductory spiel about how he came to be referred to Urth and (presumably) that there was some great problem that needed to be solved. The Professor trusted that if the agent got this far and got in to see him, it must be an issue for him to at least hear out. He didn’t care who the agent’s knew that got them referred here; they were here now.

“Tell me about the problem.”

“Well,” said the first agent, “there is a ‘physical anomaly’ at the Organon Research facility. We, by which I mean everybody, is at a complete loss.”

The second agent handed Urth his pad. The display showed a room containing most of a large sphere. It appeared to be about three meters in radius; if it was a complete sphere, the lower half must be mostly in the room below, with portions in the room above and adjacent. A small amount of space was visible through the door along the curving wall of a giant pearl.

“This just appeared out of nowhere,” the second agent explained. “It is a perfect sphere and cuts through the walls, floor, and ceiling, but is mostly in this lab. A witness in the next room reports that the curved surface simply appeared along his lab’s wall, with no sound or disturbance. It was, as far as anyone can tell, just there.”

Professor Charles Xavier Urth was shaken. More than anyone, he knew that the universe works according to a set of rules. Not only did he know those rules to a great level of detail, but he intuitively grasped interrelationships and deep underlying principles at work. A macroscopic object appearing out of nowhere violated conservation laws that were a direct result of the deepest principles underpinning the universe. If it was merely hoaxed, it would be a serious puzzle to solve. But if it was genuine, it would be a prize indeed.

The realization that it meant travel to an unfamiliar place only slightly dented his excitement. “OK, let’s go.”

The photographs did not do justice to the anomaly. Seen in person, the surface of the sphere was, to a first approximation, a metallic gray that was diffuse rather than mirror-like. However, it had a luster and finish that looked simply strange. It was not like anything else, but not in any obvious way. It was not iridescent because it didn’t show color fringes, and yet it seemed to shimmer. It had enough shading to make it appear properly round, but less so than any real object, like it was drinking up some of the light rather than scattering it. Sighting along the edge, it seemed to bend light slightly. When not looking at an edge, it was hard to tell exactly where the surface was.

“Is it safe to touch?”

Illustrating his answer, Davis Holden placed his hand against the weird surface. “Everyone who first saw it touched it before realizing how remarkable it truly was. Nobody has had any complaints.”

Professor Urth gingerly touched it with his fingertips. “It’s cold,” he observed.

Holden explained, “it’s the same temperature as the air, but it conducts heat very well so it feels cold to the touch. Our experiments indicate that it might be a superconductor of heat, in fact. The research into the anomaly is next door.

Where the wall intersected the sphere it formed a circle about two meters in diameter. It bulged into the room, but left the bulk of the lab space available for normal use. The original contents of the lab had been removed to make room for the instrumentation and people tending the instruments.

“Just about everyone dropped what they were working on and came to study this, and brought whatever kind of tools they had.”

Someone gave Urth a fresh print out detailing the physical properties that have been determined. Optically, it scattered all light with 100% reflection, but not in a normal manner to form spectral highlights; rather, it seemed exactly backwards, preventing light from reflecting near the angle of incidence, so it looked gray and strangely flat. Light grazing the limb was bent sharply away from the expected reflection angle. In the infrared, it radiated as expected for its temperature. That it was the same temperature as the surroundings was verified with contact thermocouples. That experiment produced a secondary result: tape would not stick to it.

It was a possible superconductor of heat, but a very good electrical insulator. Magnetic fields did not pass through it. Neither did X-rays, but it had not yet been determined if they reflected in the same manner as the laser light. An alpha particle experiment was in progress; the immediate observation is that at least some particles bounce off.

The few chemicals available showed no reaction. Nothing managed to chip or even mar the perfect surface.

Urth added to the list mentally from his own observations. It was moving with the Earth, being held by the cutouts it produced in the walls and floor. If it was too massive, it would have crashed through the building. “Is anyone trying to determine its mass?” The researchers all shook their heads. “I think it might be important.” This he said to Holden. He would make sure someone worked on it.

He continued with his next subject. “I want to know more about Dr. Saunders’ work.” Urth knew from the briefing he read on the plane that the lab space that was the center of the anomaly was formerly occupied by the project of Doctor Jarod Saunders. It seems to have been formerly occupied by Dr. Saunders himself, since he could not be located, his car was parked in the lot, and there was every reason to suppose that he was working in the lab at the time of the indecent.

Holden explained, “it was some kind of quantum computer.”

Urth stopped him. “I read the report that the F.B.I. people gave me. I need to know details! What was unique about it? What equipment was in the room? What was the precise nature of the experiment he was conducting? Where are his notes?”

Dr. Saunders, as it turns out, kept meticulous notes. They were located in the computer that was used to interface with the experimental system, and was currently located well inside the anomaly.