Friday, January 17, 2014


     It was a toy that belonged to one of his older sisters.  It was a tube about so long, red, with a shorter yellow tube around the far end that you could twist.

     It's a kaleidoscope.  Here, just aim it at the light, and look through this little hole, here.

     Instant fascination.  Six-pointed stars of crystal, like multi-colored snowflakes, you could stare at those chips of color, and see how they perfectly matched from side-to-side, and each one of the six arms of that snowflake was exactly, exactly like each one of the others.  Look carefully:  a chunk of red, like a ruby; a different piece of yellow, that would be topaz; and purple would be amethyst.  A lot of other colors, dozens of them.  

     Here, point it up to the light.  See how they all get brighter?  And now, down toward the floor, they get dimmer.  And back up to the light.

     Now, when you twist the back, like this -- the quiet swish of things moving inside and -- it changes into something new, again, and again.  And then, when he twisted the front part around like this, it was not like a star or snowflake anymore; it was a six-sided ring, but all six parts were still exactly alike.

     He remembered the magic of it faded, a little, when he noticed a tiny amount of dust inside it, which revealed it as a mirror, or more correctly, two mirrors.  Still, it was amazing and beautiful.

     Years later, upon reflection, he would know that the angle between the mirrors was precisely thirty degrees.  It was not in the least bit magic; there was a perfectly clear geometrical explanation.  It was inevitable that it would form a six-sided pattern.  Inevitable, as in absolutely determined.  Well, not exactly determined:  the perfect six-sidedness was determined, to be sure; but the fall of the crystals was random, was unique.  Well, not exactly random:  gravity, after all, and the position of the mirror, would determine whether it had a center, or it was a ring.  But what kind of a ring depended upon what kind of crystals had been placed in there.  And maybe no two kaleidoscopes were exactly alike.


     Fourteen or fifteen years later he would be looking through the lens of a microscope in a laboratory class in geology -- mineralogy -- and he would be shining microscopic light through microscopic crystals and looking at color patterns that were not in rainbow order, hearing words like index-of-refraction, diffraction patterns, bi-refringence, absorption spectra -- the stuff of precision, positive identification, the discovery of new species of minerals, the business of experts who were mineralogists and miners and men of fortune.

     Very interesting.  Though he never got good at it; and didn't make his fortune, or even learn well enough to remember much about it, decades later.


     In high school, his physics teacher showed him something marvelous, and this how it went.  You could take a watch with a luminous dial -- an ordinary wrist-watch that had the twelve hour-marks and the two hands coated with radium (yes, that radium),  and --

     Here, let's dim the lights in the lab.  We've been studying about radioactivity, and radioactive decay; and radium is radioactive; and you can find it on ordinary luminous watch-dials; now we will just put the watch under the microscope here, like so; and focus it, like so; and there! Have a look.

    Within the lens of the microscope was a little dark universe, with a little galaxy of exploding stars.  You could move the focal length of the microscope and move three-dimensionally (if that is technically correct) through this magic galaxy of constantly exploding stars. Dozens, maybe hundred of them, constantly appearing and disappearing in a single flash . . .

     Radium has a half-life of 1600 years, and each of these atoms decays exactly once and only once in the life of the universe.  Alpha decay and gamma emission . . . 

     To this day, it remains amazing to him -- not that he thinks of radium watches very often -- because whatever a photon is, you were seeing a single photon -- well, lots and lots of single photons, but you were seeing each one of them individually -- a single photon that exists once in the history of the universe, and you saw them, hundreds or maybe even thousands of them in a minute or so, and this is going on around you all the time.  And always has been; and always will be . . .

     Okay, let's have the lights back on, please.


     He remembers a beautiful clear night, out on the college golf course, with friends.  They were lying down on the gentle slope just below the green, feet on the upslope, head on the downslope, looking up into the sky, talking.

     If you will tilt your head way back, like this, feel the grass on the very top of your head, and look at the stars ---

     It worked.  He could see that he was not looking upward, or looking outward, at the sky:  he was looking down into the whole universe from up here!  Heaven itself stretched out beneath him, a glorious, luminous abyss.


     It would be years before he would discover Thomas Kuhn.

     He remembers all this while reading some short stories by Flannery O'Connor for the first time.   

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