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Science and the Common Man
© 2015 By Og Keep (a pseudonym)
Sarah made her way up the steep concrete steps and into a row of seats. She didn’t want to be too far back, where she would miss everything. Studies have shown, after all, that students at the back of the room get poor grades. And she didn’t want to be in the front, lest the professor call on her. She knew nothing of science, and with any luck, she’d never have to take any again, after this semester.
She settled into a seat near the center of the row. Her friend Alicia followed her, settling into the next seat. The rest of the row, and the rest of the hall, filled quickly. There was a steady murmur, covered with the sounds of rattling seats, overlaid with the sound of notebooks and the occasional cough.
She glanced at Alicia, who had already raised the fold-away armrest between them and had placed a fresh spiral notebook there. Sarah did likewise, choosing a bright red notebook – red for alarm, red for danger, red for read-this-every-chance-you-get-or-you’ll-fail. She selected a mechanical pencil from her bag and wrote a header on the first page:
SCIENCE 231A, DR. CORBUS, DAY ONE.
As she wrote, she heard an authoritative throat-clearing, and a deep, booming voice spoke clearly and loudly through the hall.
“I am Doctor James Winter, and this is Science 231A, euphemistically called ‘Science for the Humanities Major.’ ” The voice rang somewhat, and it had a slightly familiar note to it. In the tone of voice came the clear suggestion that Humanities Majors were not approved of by Dr. Winter. “Doctor Corbus will be unavailable for the Semester, and I have been drawn from other, more important, tasks to replace him.”
Sarah crossed out DR. CORBUS from her header and scribbled in PROFESSOR WINTER.
“If you are here for a real science education, you are in the wrong room. In this class we will be covering things you should have learned in High School. Or well before that.” She looked up at him, and by pure chance, at that moment he glanced at her. He grimaced, glanced at the ceiling, and resumed scanning the assembled students.
Sarah, however, became a statue. Dr. Winter was a stranger to her. She had never seen him nor heard of him until that moment, but he was the exact picture of the man she had dreamt.
It had been an odd dream. She and several other students were sitting at desks, in some sort of a cave, lit by fires and torches. A dragon of some sort – or perhaps a cerebus, and sometimes it was more of a griffin – guarded the mouth of the cave. They were being compelled to copy something that had been scrawled on the wall, over and over.
She couldn’t remember what they had been forced to copy. It was something strange, possibly Latin, and it struck her as cynical and faintly evil, or perhaps merely silly.
Winter had been there. Tall, thin, almost frail, and yet, somehow, powerful, forceful. His hair was white, and he had a white goatee. He was casually dressed, with a cardigan over an open-necked button-down shirt, and khaki slacks that seemed far too informal for school. It was as if he had been transported there from his home. In fact, there were slippers on his feet, and there was a newspaper in his hand.
He approached the dragon, or gnome, or cerebus and scowled at it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, with annoyance.
“They are required to copy it,” the thing replied. “I don’t make the rules. I merely do as I’m told.” It extended a claw towards him, and the fearsome extremity was larger than most of Doctor Winter’s body.
“This sort of thing is not allowed,” said Winter.
“What are you going to do about it?” asked the thing, now in a dragon form, towering over Winter and menacing him with sharp teeth.
“What do you expect?” asked Winter, as though reprimanding a badly-prepared student. He shifted the newspaper to his left hand and reached towards his belt, his right hand moving to his left hip. From nowhere, he drew a thin, shiny sword.
It was rather small as swords go. It might have been two and a half feet – Sarah was no expert in swords – and perhaps an inch wide. There was only the smallest of guards, and the grip was scarcely big enough for one hand, even a hand so small as Doctor Winter’s. There was virtually no pommel to be seen.
“Too blunt for me,” answered the cerebus, now three heads snarling and snapping. “That thing can’t cut my skin, even if you were fast enough to strike with it.”
“Then why do you fear it?” asked Winter. He brandished it, and it shimmered a numinous light. “It is alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
The students stopped their work and stared at the unfolding dispute. The thing had become a hydra, snapping from seven heads, hissing and spitting. “Stone age superstition,” it hissed.
Winter didn’t reply, but his sword lopped off a head, and the three that grew from it, and the three that grew from each of those. The Hydra became a dragon, and Winter stabbed through a scaly armor plate, striking deep. It shifted again, a Cerebus at bay, backing away, growling. He stepped forward, but instead of striking with the sword, he batted its noses with the newspaper, now rolled into a loose tube.
The Cerebus became a gnome. “Don’t you know who you’re messing with?” he growled.
“Scarcely matters,” said Winter. “You’re done for, just the same.”
As Winter made a swift motion, a downward diagonal chop towards the gnome’s chest, it vanished in a puff of smoke. He put away the sword and started to walk out of the cave. The dumbfounded students stared after him.
He stopped and turned, a look of annoyance on his face. “Class dismissed,” he said. In the dream, chains fell from the students, and they followed him from the cave.
Alicia nudged Sarah. “Are you coming, or not?”
Sarah’s head cleared. She was back in the lecture hall, and her dream, so vivid a moment before, had faded. The hall was emptying, and the professor stood at a board in the front, erasing something. No trace of slippers or a newspaper; no hint of a sword.
Sarah rose to her feet, folding down the stand and taking the red notebook with her.
In the student union, over pizza and soft drinks, Sarah turned to Alicia. “What happened in the lecture hall this morning?” asked Sarah.
“Well, you stared at Dr. Winter, said, ‘Oh my word,’ and then copied everything he said verbatim for two hours.”
“Seriously. What happened?”
“Um, seriously, that’s all that happened. What do you think happened?”
“I, it’s weird. I thought… Okay, this will sound silly, but I dreamed him last night.”
Alicia’s eyes opened wide. “You had a dream about Dr. Winter?”
“Well, sort of, I mean, he was there. Lots of people were, and a dragon thing was making us write verses that were copied on a wall. Dr. Winter made it stop. And I swear I never saw him in my life before this morning.”
“You must have seen him somewhere. You know, dreams are weird. It’s the brain’s way of assimilating information.”
“What was I supposed to assimilate from this dream?”
“That the faculty of this school would, you know, lead us out of the darkness of ignorance into the sunlight of learning, maybe?”
“How did I dream his exact face?”
“You didn’t. You dreamed probably, you know, a faceless professor-type. What Jung called archetypes, you know? And Dr. Winter was the first real person you saw who fit the archetype.”
“So my dreams can’t even manage to be original?”
“ ‘Fraid not.” Alicia drank the last of her soda and tossed the cup into a nearby receptacle.
Sarah looked past Alicia, towards a group of students who sat around a small table, holding hands. Their heads were bowed, and black books were open on the table in front of them. They seemed to be taking turns whispering.
“Now that will be annoying,” she said.
“What will be annoying?”
“The superstitious supercilious self-righteous. Look at us, we meet in a circle and pray. We read ancient books that make no sense.”
“Are you sure it’s, you know, superstition?” Alicia was watching Sarah closely.
“Don’t tell me you’re a God Freak, too.”
Alicia blushed slightly. “I was, when I was younger. Now I don’t know. It’s like… you know, something still holding onto me. I don’t think I believe it but I don’t think I don’t, you know.”
Sarah raised her eyebrows and grinned. “You don’t think you believe it but you don’t think you don’t you know?”
“Okay, I don’t know, okay? I was raised that way.” She nodded her head towards the prayer circle. “But… Well, college would probably be a lot more fun if I didn’t suspect that somebody up there didn’t approve of everything I did. Like parties and boys and you know, whatever. Anything fun, you know.”
“So throw off your chains and come out of the cave. Maybe that’s what my dream was about… Getting you out of your ignorant superstitious cave and into the light of common sense and reality.”
“Doctor Winter said that you have to hold a reasonable world-view and you have to know what you believe and why you believe it.”
“And being a scientist, he’d probably disapprove of you believing in superstitions.”
“But he said that you shouldn’t dismiss an idea until you know what’s wrong with it. He said that that’s what Science is all about, you know, figuring out what’s a reasonable thing to believe about things. Like this cat thing, with a box, you know. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. There’s no such thing as zombie cats.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re on about.”
“It’s in your notes.”
“I didn’t take any,” Sarah said, flipping open the red notebook. She pointed to the page where she had written her header, only then noticing that it was followed by several pages of fine handwriting. Her handwriting. Notes. Copious notes.
“No, just every word,” said Alicia. “Gotta go. Gym in fifteen. Want to meet up this evening after classes?”
Sarah nodded assent, and Alicia walked away, pausing near the bookstore before wandering off. Sarah continued to stare at the Jesus Freaks. One of them, a pretty girl with long black hair, noticed Sarah’s stare and got up.
“Hi,” she said, approaching Sarah’s table. “I’m Brittany. I think we have calculus together. Want to join us?”
Sarah looked up at the Asian-American girl with a combination of puzzlement and scorn. How could a smart girl – Asian, and taking advanced calculus – believe in that stuff? Or, for that matter, be named Brittany… Seriously?
“Um, no thanks,” said Sarah.
“You’re not religious?” asked Brittany.
“Um, no. And I don’t want to get Bible-thumped, thanks.”
Brittany took a step back. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” She turned back to her friends, who had their Bibles open and seemed to be discussing some passage.
Sarah shook her head in annoyance and looked down at her science notes. “Science,” she read in a murmur, “Is the process of creating educated guesses and testing them until we discover the truth.”
She stole another glance at Brittany, who was now carefully ignoring her. If Brittany had applied science, thought Sarah, she would not now believe in a stone-age god. How could people keep such incompatible ideas in their heads?
In a different part of the college, a small office that was one of several small offices surrounding a smallish conference room, Dr. Winter was thinking about the morning’s lecture. He had hit all of the basics: What science is, and what science is not; that science is a way of life, almost a philosophy; that great minds used science in every day life. He had talked about why we have to test the ideas in our heads, and why science is important even for those who would never be seen in a laboratory after college.
No, he hadn’t left anything out. That wasn’t what was troubling him. He was feeling uneasy, and he wasn’t sure why. It had started the previous night, as he was sitting at home reading the newspaper. There was danger, and there was a strong need for something.
It had to do with that girl. The one he had recognized in the lecture hall; the one who had seemed familiar; the one who seemed startled by his appearance. Or maybe it was just first day jitters.
The girl was probably just afraid she’d have to learn some science or do some maths. She probably hadn’t been startled at all. And in Winter’s extensive experience, the class would dwindle by at least thirty percent in the next two lectures. No doubt this girl would be among them. No need to concern himself with her.
Maybe he was simply reaching an age where everyone looked like someone he had known, ages ago. That would explain the feeling of familiarity when he glanced at her. He looked at his watch then compared it to the electric clock above his door. Seventy-two more minutes of office hours, as if the students had actually absorbed enough watered-down science to have questions already.
He sighed and reached for a book.
Alicia stretched her tendons and thought about her classes. Calculus was going to be a problem. Integrals, deriviatives. If this equation is true, then that equation with fewer variables had to be true. And this other equation gave you the area of everything below the line in that graph. It was like black magic, honestly.
She shouldn’t have to take calculus. It wasn’t like it helped her English Literature major. She should ask her counselor why she needed to take it. She stepped out onto the track, in the outermost lane, and began to walk, slowly at first, then quickly, rising up into a jog as she entered the first turn.
It would certainly be helpful for science, with all the equations and calculations that Doctor Winter had mentioned. Kinematics, he had said. She remembered that because it was about motion, like kinesthesiology, the study of human motion. Her roommate was studying that. Sports medicine, or something.
Second turn, second straight, third turn.
“Science…is the process… of creating … educated … guesses…” she whispered, “And … testing them… until … we discover … the truth.” It was simple that way. She had thought science was about having to know everything there is to know about laws of nature and pressure and forces and vectors and all that. Measuring things and dissecting frogs. But Dr. winter had made it sound like a philosophy, or a way of life.
Her footfalls and her breathing pattern fell into a steady rhythm, allowing her to keep pace with her thoughts. Dr. Winter would hate that. Being associated with philosophy? A humanity? Not from the tone he used when he mentioned the humanities. She had a momentary vision of Dr. Winter living in a monk’s stone cell, writing equations on a scroll with a quill pen. As inhuman as a cloistered friar.
But he did seem to embrace science as a way of life. The thought resonated, as if some part of her mind realized something as she thought those words. Science is a way of life. That’s a good thought. She might use that in the term paper.
Back in the student union, Sarah looked at her notes with dismay. A term paper? She would have to write a paper explaining how science related to her field of study? Holy guacamole. How do you relate science to Communications? Short of explaining the physics of a television camera, that is. Science for Humanities Majors was meant to be an easy A and meet the laboratory science requirements. It wasn’t supposed to be hard work.
The holy rollers had stopped reading and were softly singing. Something jazzy and repetitive about oil for their lamps, they prayed, hallelujah. Argh. Sarah softly slammed her books and stormed away.
At seven sharp, Doctor Winter closed his book. He didn’t need to look at the clock. He had read precisely one hundred pages, which meant that seventy-two minutes had passed.
“Selah,” he muttered to himself, as he got up and closed the door. Time to go home and put his feet up. But as he turned to pick up his satchel, he realized that the sense of foreboding had returned. There was work to be done. He sighed and sat down.
Alicia, freshly showered after her run, and dressed in an outfit she hoped would be not overly revealing but wouldn’t actually repulse boys, knocked on Sarah’s door. Sarah was waiting, and needed only to grab her bookbag before they scampered off for dinner somewhere, followed by the library.
Brittany sat on the bed in her dorm room, her feet crossed beneath her, eyes closed in the silence. Her heart was heavy. She drew a deep breath and let it out again. Sarah, that was the girl’s name. The one from calculus class, and from the student union. The one that she had felt a strong compulsion to speak to. The one who had rebuked her.
“I come to you,” she said, “An unworthy petitioner, seeking an unreasonable gift, in defiance of all logic and all hope. I look to you, not as I imagine you to be, in some vain form of stone or wood, but as you know yourself to be, in Spirit and in Truth. You know already my petition, but you would have me give voice to it, nonetheless, that when it is done, I may know that it was you, and not some coincidence, which cause this to be done.
“And having dare thus far to speak in foolishness, I will voice one more thing, and will cover my mouth: I call for you to appoint a time when you shall call out to Sarah Miller, and draw her to your side.
“In the name of Yeshua HaMaschiah, I pray, Amen.” Of late, Brittany had adopted the affectation of referring to Jesus Christ by the most likely Hebrew rendering of His name, Yeshua, coupled with the phrase, “The Anointed,” also in Hebrew.
On the one hand, she reasoned that Jesus would recognize and respond to His name in any tongue, or even in wordless thought, but she did it from a combination of pride at knowing an esoteric detail, and a feeling of intimacy in speaking to God by His more obscure name.
She saw this, of course: her pride as a failing in her prayers. Even her fancy preamble probably had God rolling his eyes at her. She could have prayed the same prayer in a single sentence, and expressed the same thing: “Please, God, reach out to Sarah.” But her prayers, she reasoned, were a matter between her and God, and so long as He was not objecting, her prayers were properly made.
Having prayed for one who rebuked her, she felt the burden lift a little. Then, with no forethought at all, she blurted out another phrase: “Lord, use me to reach Sarah.”