Einstein Goes for a Sail

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He puffed his last cigarette down to the filter during his afternoon stroll to the dock, ruminating, once again, over mounting insinuations that he was outdated or worse—Professor Killjoy—for not embracing quantum mechanics.

Hoisting the sail brought a welcome distraction as did reading the corrugated surface of the bay for wind direction and velocity. Shoving off, he felt relief rising inside him as he adjusted the tiller and boom enough to turn the fluttering sail into a solid wing that would’ve pushed the boat sideways if it weren’t for the wing-like centerboard underwater, the two countering forces combining to squirt the boat forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between his fingertips.

Such simple beautiful physics—a little aerodynamics and hydrodynamics backed by basic math—compared to that arbitrary and incoherent babble of quantum theory!

How could he abandon his mathematically sound universe in favor of a multiverse, a fourth dimension and dueling realities? Welcoming quantum chaos into his physical world would turn his quest for one gorgeous unifying equation into a fool’s errand!

Yet even if he was playing the fool, it was hard to cast him as the enemy of modern physics, wasn’t it? Hell, he’d practically midwifed quantum mechanics into existence twenty years ago when he suggested that light consisted of not just waves but tiny packets of energy. That self-affirmation, however, brought him back around to a depressing question that he’d never uttered aloud: What exactly had he done for science since then?

When a gust doubled the force on his sail, his rudder, his tiller and, finally, his hand, he cantilevered his pudgy torso beyond the windward rail to keep the boat level as it surged deeper into the bay, which he had to himself, except for some ball-capped fisherman in an aluminum skiff near the rocky entrance.

With the wind speed doubling yet again, his toddler-like hair swirled into a silver halo when he neared the shore, the stink of clam spit wafting off the exposed mud. Tacking abruptly in the shallows, he executed a U-turn so perfectly—the boom swinging gracefully across the cockpit—that he forgot whatever he’d been fretting over as he let the sail out until it hung perpendicular to the hull, and the relenting wind pushed his catboat into deeper water.

This was his favorite part, when downwind sailing slowed time and provided that pleasing mix of action and inaction that nudged his thoughts along. Where better to contemplate gravity and light, time and relativity? But he sure could use a damn cigarette. His doctor had urged him to quit smoking and sailing, claiming both pastimes inflamed the walls of his heart. The warnings were ignored, in large part, because his doc seemed far too young to know much about the human heart.

When reporters prodded him about quantum mechanics, he usually fished for laughs, making fun of its uncertainties and probabilities with lines like, “I still cannot believe that the good Lord plays dice with the physical world.”

Such asides usually sparked follow-up questions about his views on religion rather than his deeper thoughts on the latest fads in theoretical physics. Asked to elaborate, he might’ve pointed out that elements of the natural world only appear chaotic or random until we discover the math behind them. In a magnanimous moment, he might’ve conceded that he sees quantum theory as incomplete not incorrect, though he would never admit that he feared it made a mockery of his search for a unified theory that could connect gravity and electromagnetism and, well, basically, everything.

He was re-thinking his stubbornness on this issue when the wind shifted behind him, gusting suddenly from the southwest instead of the southeast, causing his sail to swing violently overhead before he could switch sides and stop the boat from tipping wildly and vaulting him into the bay.

At some point during his clumsy somersault into gasping submersion, he concluded there probably wasn’t any equation that could’ve precisely calculated and predicted the changing air pressures or rising thermal that caused that wind shift in this tiny pocket of the bay. This thought was paired with another: Why was he, of all people, so reluctant to concede that chaos and mystery are laced throughout a mathematically explainable world? And what if quantum theory could ultimately help him discover an even grander unifying theory?

Then, in a flash, he glimpsed a way in—that by adding the right algorithms to his equations he could use their coefficients to … Yet that flickering notion was lost with every cell in his body suddenly focused on survival. It didn’t help that he couldn’t swim and wasn’t wearing a life preserver. He flailed, slapped and clawed around to the centerboard yet couldn’t get enough of his mass on top of it to flip the boat upright. He tried again, his power fading, his hands numbing, his breathing foreign.

He didn’t hear the fisherman puttering toward him, though there she now was, reaching over the side and heaving him aboard her boat with what struck him as superhuman strength. They exchanged words that he instantly forgot as she righted his boat without getting wet, doused the sail and lashed a towline to its bow. Then she wrapped him in her coat, shook her hair out of her hat and took a closer look at this strange old trembling man in a rope belt and ladies sandals.

“Danke schon,” he said, giggling at his decades-old reflex to thank her in German while frantically trying to recall the fleeting notion that he’d found so exhilarating while capsizing.

After yanking the chord on the outboard, she lit herself a Camel as both boats began to move. “Want one?” she asked,

He shivered and smiled. “Oh yes. Bitte.”

She lit his with hers, then passed it from her lips to his with what struck him as such inexplicable intimacy and generosity that he was afraid he might weep.

About the Author: 
Jim Lynch is the author of three novels, all of which were performed on stage and received awards. His next novel will be released next April. Lynch lives in Olympia, Washington with his family. www.jimlynchbooks.com