The Other Side

By: John Staughton

“You know that you don’t need to be here, Wolfgang. I only invited you as a courtesy.”

“This entire display is a means of criticizing my life’s work… and yours. I wouldn’t miss it. I only wish Albert were here.”

“The world is too busy clamoring for his genius,” Erwin commented, a slight hint of disdain buried in the offhand grace of his words.

“So what do we do now?” Wolfgang pressed, puffing sporadically on the pipe as he lit it with a long match. The bursts of blue smoke obscured his face from view, and for a moment, Erwin could only see the disembodied shoulders of his colleague. In the blink of an eye, the façade had shifted and partially disappeared, as though the smoke were everywhere and nowhere at once.

“Now, we wait.”

“For how long?”

“Until he dies,” Erwin answered matter-of-factly, unshakably confident of the experiment’s inevitable result.

“Or doesn’t,” Wolfgang quipped, eliciting a grimace from his serious, bespectacled companion sitting on the edge of a chaise lounge a few feet away.

Wolfgang Pauli was a plump, cocky man who seemed perpetually comfortable. He made himself at home in any room, as though his reputation preceded him even to the perfectly shaped divots on the sofa cushions of strangers.

Erwin Schrodinger was a stringy, nervous man with a short temper and no physical strength to express it. Instead, since childhood, he had relied on his sharp, often cruel wit to disarm and defeat any would-be bullies and naysayers.

Seeing his friend beginning to lose himself in thought, and knowing the great pains it would take to dredge him from those introspective depths, Wolfgang again spoke up. “But doesn’t the discussion really begin now? How can we wait until he’s dead? That isn’t the point, Erwin.”

Erwin’s eyebrows scrunched for less than a second, more a tick than a reaction. His tone was declarative, like an annoyed professor answering the same question for the third time. “That is because there will always be a now and a then. Whether he dies now, in ten minutes, or in four days, there will always be a present moment that precedes the next one. That is the point.”

“Ever a broken record, Erwin. You’re getting caught up in the scale, as always.”

“And you are ignoring the scale of reality.” Erwin stood up from the couch and paced twice, then leaned his ear down towards the box on the table.

The bulkier man, seated firmly on the sofa, crossed his legs and adopted the pose of a grandfather sharing war stories – incontrovertibly wise.

“Consider this, old friend,” Wolfgang began. “Think beyond this room, this afternoon, and even this half of the world. Somewhere, it is autumn, and the world is drying up and dying. Somewhere else, it is spring, and the world is just beginning to bloom. Somewhere at this very moment, a government is likely being overthrown, while another is being elected for the very first time. A family is being torn apart by war in Africa, while a new family is being created in a cheap bedroom in Brussels.”

Satisfied with his short speech, Wolfgang clamped his teeth authoritatively on the pipe, and smiled around it, giving him the appearance of a smug wolf.

“You’re speaking of different systems and different lives, which are subject to thousands of different, disconnected variables. There is no link there – no dichotomous system in which they all play a part. Individual existence within one system presupposes separation.”

Wolfgang shook his head almost sympathetically. “Why is this room, or even this box, one system, while our planet is not? In comparison with the vast stretches of the universe, does Earth not live on the same insignificant scale as this box does in comparison to our planet? You must see the relativity there.”

The wordplay, delicately formed, though flippantly delivered, caused Erwin to pause for a moment, but he quickly presented his riposte.

“Yes, but as the scale increases, so too do the variables. Just because something is a contained system does not mean that an ultimatum always exists. The smaller the scale, the more controllable the system.”

Not dismayed, Wolfgang pushed his assumed advantage. “The windows are closed. Is it raining outside?” Pauli had always enjoyed countering rational science with intangible metaphors; it had won him more debates in university than he could count.

“I have no idea, but it wasn’t raining earlier when I went out for the paper.” Erwin’s answer was cautious and calculated; he felt that he was being baited into a trap, but was willing to spring it.

“But it could be raining. And what about four streets over? Is it raining there? Or at my apartment across the city? Could it have rained there an hour ago?”

“I suppose it could be, but we have no way of knowing.”

“And yet, the same cloud system, composed of a swirling mixture of molecules, is releasing them at apparent random to fall onto city streets. Our windows are closed, so we have no idea of their trajectory or destination. However, if we open the window and see that the street is damp, but there is no rain in the air, we will draw the conclusion that it rained in the past. If we open the window to find a dry street, we assume that it has not rained.”

“This all seems quite obvious,” Erwin coaxed his companion on, suspecting a twist, but not yet seeing it clearly.

“Yes, but if we do not open the window at all, the street is both dry and wet. Furthermore, what if it had rained, but the sun dried the street, and the skies cleared? We would assume that it had not rained, no? Are we any less correct in our evidenced knowledge than the man who had been caught in the deluge?”

A rattling whine from the box on the table distracted them from a discussion that could have continued for some time. It was the same conversation they had shared over a half-dozen parlor cocktails in the past two years – the endless debate of transient life, the duality of existence, chance, change, and the echoes of the tiniest atomic worlds bouncing through the utterly inconceivable universe.


Read the rest of this existential exploration in your own copy of Sheriff Nottingham Vol. 2, Iss. 1