Richard Feynman hangs in the air before me, just above the dirty dishes in the sink. He shimmers, shifts, the famous eyebrows drifting like smog. Behind him floats the Trinity nuclear test site, a swarm of nanobots, a sensory deprivation tank, the rubber seals of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Bongo drums. Topless bars. The hallucinatory curves of delectable young graduate students. Nobel Prize-winning scientists sure know how to pick ’em.
“Happy 90th Birthday, Dr Feynman.”
He glares, wreathed in plutonium yield equations. The impertinence of summoning a great, rational atheist into a séance occurs to me, but it’s too late to stop now. I already paid the psychic.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he growls. “You’re media.”
He says it with the same tone a Wellington housewife might reserve for child molesters.
On January 28, 1986, I had lived in Papatoetoe, South Auckland, New Zealand, Australasia, The Southern Hemisphere, The World, The Solar System, The Milky Way, The Universe, for 11 days. We’d moved in an orange truck from Whitianga, three hours away on the Coromandel coast. I was 7 years old, and I was fascinated by tuataras.
A tuatara is somewhere between a lizard and a snake. They only live in New Zealand. They haven’t changed much in a quarter of a billion years, and in 1986 they were known as the last living dinosaurs on Earth. How do we know it’s a dinosaur? Were Grandma and Granddad still old back then? Did they have a pet brontosaurus, too, out by the compost?
I’m almost certain I had never heard the name Christa McAuliffe. I’d certainly never heard of an O-ring seal in the right rocket booster. At the time, the idea of blowing a teacher up might have seemed like a bit of a laugh. Both my parents were teachers.
I loved space. Space was Up, and up is always the greatest direction in the world. But I loved dinosaurs more.
Richard Feynman Interview, Take 1
CR: Dr Feynman, you were a great scientist.
RF: I’m not quite sure what that means.
CR: You received the Nobel Prize for your work in quantum electrodynamics; you contributed to the Manhattan Project; you played a key role in the Challenger investigation; you created a brilliant and accessible lecture series on basic physics; and you explored many esoteric areas of science and technology. Wikipedia says so.
CR: So do you think Britney should have custody of the kids, or is Kevin really a good father?
CR: What’re the last three songs on your iTunes playlist?
CR: Goatse.cx vs. 2 girls 1 Cup – which is worse?
RF: What the hell are you talking about? This is journalism?
CR: Hey, Freeman Dyson reckoned you were good with media. Wikipedia says so.
His spectral face flares, bouncing off last night’s pasta remnants. The tiny saucer of burning rosewood stirs as he makes for the window.
He looks, stops.
“What’s that ‘goat cup’ thing?”
Yes, I have the video. Never show internet porn to a dead Nobel prize-winner. All that Swedish food gives them weak stomachs.
Running Very Fast to Stay in Place
For 18 months I ran a small, fortnightly computer magazine. I commissioned articles, wrote some myself, helped sell advertising and tried to find a direction. It was at the geeky end of technical – the kind of mag you’d read to know the latest motherboards coming out of Taiwan, how to calibrate a 24-inch CRT monitor, which containerload of random techno-junk was hitting the country next week. Engadget on paper, sorta.
I knew the daily RAM price fluctuations. I had a desk full of obscure oddities, including a digital calorie-measuring ice cream scoop. I could tell you why DDR-400 wasn’t going to be of any real use for another three months. And I was drowning.
As I tried to keep up, I found myself repeatedly hitting the brick wall of I Don’t Give a Fuck Anymore. I got that distinct and horrible kind of nausea that comes when you realize something’s never going to stop. And I lost all sense of wonder or surprise or weirdness at the science fiction things happening every day. Google’s going to map the DNA of every creature on Earth and carve it onto an asteroid, which we’ll then blow up with dark matter so it seeds the entire galaxy with tuataras? Meh.
To my friends – gadget, tech and idea junkies just like I’d been – it looked like a great gig. I’d tell them there’s a difference between eating chocolate and having your entire bloodstream replaced by adrenaline-laced white sugar.
“Hey, great idea,” they’d say. “Let’s do that.”
Weird Science vs. Modern Science
Eight story titles from E.C. Comics’ Weird Science, 1950-54:
- “Lost in the Microcosm”
- “The Conquerors of the Moon!”
- “…The Man Who Raced Time”
- “The Gray Cloud of Death!”
- “Outcast of the Stars”
- “The Slave of Evil!”
- “Monster from the Fourth Dimension”
- “The Last War on Earth”
Five apparently genuine sci/tech news stories (with thanks to Warren Ellis):
- The United Kingdom plans to end its program of submarine goat decompression experiments
- Deep-brain hypothalamus stimulation can trigger Deja Vu
- There will be a robotic Chinese telescope on the deepest darkest plateau of Antarctica (How does H.P. Lovecraft feel about this?)
- There are seriously strange things under the sea off the East Coast of New Zealand
- Researchers have created workable Cyborg insects
I changed jobs. I came to a government/corporate environment. And there, finally, I found the really weird shit.
Richard Feynman Interview, Take 2
RF: Most of the people I ever worked with or admired and I saw journalists as rubes, boobs and shit-shovelers. What’s so difficult about telling the truth?
CR: Yeah, well, I remember Mururoa.
CR: Mururoa. South Seas island where the French did their nuclear testing. Or Bikini Atoll? Congratulations on the military-industrial complex, with our Pacific neighborhood as its atomic crash test dummy.
RF: You have no idea what I went through after Trinity. And what, you’d rather be part of this religious-marketing-wordkiller nexus I see everywhere?
RF: The “science” of cynicism, of self-involvement, of public relations over reality. Demagogue technology sharing between marketing firms, corporations, governments and religions. You’ve seen it. I know you have.
CR: Back off, you old bastard. I’m a journalist. I carry the sword of truth and the shield of investigative coverage.
RF: “Leadership training.” Detoxification. Toeing the party, company, organizational line through Internal Communications Protocols. Staying On Message. Management attitude agreement charters. You were part of that. You helped.
CR: I’ll cut off your fucking ectoplasm supply.
RF: Don’t talk to me about weird science or lack of scrutiny, kid.
Never discuss politics with the dead. They’ve had time to get really nasty. And perceptive.
I asked The Rocket Scientist (PhD in aerospace engineering, experiments performed at NASA) where it all went wrong. I need ideas, I said. Something to go kick that soggy old specter’s ass.
She stared. Thought. Spoke, very softly and clearly.
“I think a lot of the stuff I read, on the internet and elsewhere, is all trees and no forest. I know that’s a big, obvious thing to say, but you know what? I always liked big obvious things. Dumb questions. Like, why is the sky blue? How does a car go forward? What makes sound come out of the radio? All the rest is just sort of information.
“When you look at some of the older scientists, say, from 100 years ago or more, they didn’t really seem to consider themselves biologists, chemists, astrophysicists or whatever. Certainly not researchers tied to one microcosmically specialized area of a single field. It was about looking at the world and trying to figure things out, reaching across boundaries and existing ideas. Like Tesla. What a madman. But great results.
“Mixing basic ideas is fun. Like how about peanut butter and orange juice (that didn’t work so well when I was 5)? Or, if fire is hard to figure but fluid’s a bit easier, how about treating fire like water? In videogames, if everyone’s so addicted to World of Warcraft, why don’t businesses try daily quests and experience points and having a token economy in place?
“The weirdest science of all starts with the kid at the back of the class who’d ask obvious questions that everyone else was too sophisticated to be curious about. And I don’t think they’ve ever found a way to bottle that.”
She sat there, a little uncomfortable.
“You should come over Saturday,” I said. “There’s someone who’ll like you.”
The key to a proper New Zealand-style barbecue séance is hot coals, good basting sauce and a long, warm Pacific afternoon. I’d hoped for tuatara kebab, but in the end it was broiled kiwi. Kiwi tastes exactly like chicken would, if chicken were endangered and helpless and slightly tough.
The two doctors stared at the smoke, trying to figure out something about gas vortices and the grill configuration. They chatted and strolled the yard, with the tiny rimu-wood altar held firmly at her side, as he floated and cackled and enjoyed the view.
This is New Zealand when the wind is in its best direction. He drifted over near sunset, the last few embers glowing in his eyes.
“Guess half-life’s better than nothing, eh, Dick?”
“Get off the sugar,” he said. “And stop feeding people crap.”
I nodded. We were done with the other stuff.
“Sophistication and cynicism’ll kill you faster than cancer,” he croaked. “And a good thing, too.”
He spluttered, then coughed and plumed. He floated up high, heading south over the hills at speed, before the sun went down and the wind brushed him away like tiny falling pieces from a space shuttle.
Colin Rowsell was the first New Zealander to orbit Pluto. He can be hired, questioned and abused on [email protected].