First published at Atlas and Alice on 30 January 2017, with many thanks to Eds. Benjamin Woodard and Donald Quist for selecting it. ATLAS and ALICE explains the origin of its name as follows:
ATLAS and ALICE experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. These experiments look to explain some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe. For instance, just last summer, ATLAS contributed to the discovery of (what we think is) the Higgs Boson. Although the names of these experiments are technically acronyms, we find it beautiful, ironic, compelling that they also share names with two eminent literary figures.
And so this flash fiction, whose episodes thread back and forth between the life and dreams of a gifted mathematician who cracks the Navier-Stokes Equation, offers a literary intersection.
The piece began as a picture prompt. Here is the picture:
And I studied that picture, and studied it, and I just couldn’t come up with anything. I used to love damming water after a rain and making little ponds (as two of my sons can be seen doing in the header picture). Then, I don’t know, something about the haziness of the photo, I was thinking it was a dream. And I was thinking about damming, problem-solving, play, mystery, underground, sources, water-tables and I swear to you, no matter how I blew up or sharpened up that picture, I could not tell what is in that boy’s hand.
I was stumped.
Then I had a conversation with my friend Charlie, who is a mathematician at Bell Labs and very interesting and dear to me, because he loves the poetry of Robbie Burns, and I asked him if mathematicians ever dreamed solutions to problems. I asked him to read an early draft of the story, and along with many valuable corrections (I didn’t want to embarrass myself if a real live mathematician ever read the story!), he said: “I don’t know enough about math(s) to comment on how some might see natural objects in metaphorical math objects but it sounds fun. James Burke has interesting stories about profound discoveries in science and engineering – stories that make the discoveries come alive.”
And he put me on to this old Television series, Connections, which I have to admit I had never heard of, but watched quite a few episodes. They are interesting and Burke was just the right mix of earnest and corny but mostly really interesting. The episodes are mostly online. Here’s a starter, if you’re interested:
My weekly writing team took a cold hard look at a middle-draft of the story, and I also had my favorite go-to reader, Randall Brown, give it a spin. My only concern was that the story work without needing the picture that inspired it, that it could be divorced from the starting image and live on its own.
To read the result, hop on over to ATLAS and ALICE, meet the brilliant, reclusive Isaac Pundfald, and enjoy “Then he spiraled and lifted in the clouds.” I can’t imagine a better home for this story, a story about one of math’s great unsolved equations.
Thank you very much for stopping by my blog and I hope you enjoy the read.