The Start of Everything (or Nothing at All)
Where n = the numbered rows in Pascal’s triangle, our “1” starts at n = 0. It may as well not exist. Regardless, it is where we will begin.
“For after all, what is man in nature? A nothing in regard to the infinite, a whole in regard to nothing, a mean between nothing and the whole; infinitely removed from understanding either extreme.” – Blaise Pascal
This is how science works for me: it’s a series of endless pictures. Right now, the world forms, falls apart, and reconstitutes itself. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the lecture hall with my eyes closed. I don’t keep them shut long. Just long enough to flood my mind with images of a beautiful, messy beginning. The lecturer discusses the recently discovered Kepler-11 planetary system. I visualize a molecular cloud core collapsing: a star is born.
“This is an unbelievably flat system,” Dr. Bhattacharya says. “Remarkably compact.”
I wonder what it’s like to be so tightly coiled, so powerfully economical. There is a graphic representation of the Kepler-11 planetary system projected at the front of the lecture hall, but it’s all lines and black space. I close my eyes again and envision the planets: gaseous, rocky. It amazes me that we keep finding these exoplanetary systems—other planets orbiting stars outside the bounds of our Solar System. When I leave the lecture, my mind is still full of impressions of another world.
I’m craving espresso and ask a passing Stanford undergrad where the nearest café is. He seems surprised at my question but points me across the main quad.
“Have a good one, Professor Barnabas!” the kid says as we part.
I look around to see if anyone else is nearby, but I’m alone. Professor Barnabas?
When I finally get to the café, a college-aged barista greets me with frightening familiarity.
“Double ristretto?” she asks.
“Right,” I say. “Pretty neat trick. How’d you peg me?”
“Is that a joke?” she asks. “You’re so predictable.”
An uncanny feeling worms through me. Am I that ordinary? A standard fortysomething professor with expectedly off-beat taste?
“But you don’t even know me,” I say.
“Of course I do,” she responds. “Multivariable calculus?”
“Now I’m really lost,” I tell her, hoping for an explanation.
“Dr. Barnabas, are you feeling all right?”
There was that name again.
“What did you call me?” I ask.
“I’m Dr. Washington. Jake Washington,” I tell her. “I have no idea who Dr. Barnabas is. I’m a planetary scientist at Berkeley. I’m just here for a lecture.”
She clutches my arm and looks over my face as if she thinks I’m not real. It frightens me, watching this stranger staring at me the same way I look at wax figures in museums. I pull away from her and leave quickly. I try to write off the interaction as one of those bizarre encounters that might be explained by the right information. But after I leave the café, it happens three more times as I walk across the campus. My supposed acquaintances remark on my striking similarity to Dr. Sebastian Barnabas and use words I resent.
Dead ringer. Spitting image. Carbon copy. Twin.
As I drive home, I try to think about Kepler-11, but it doesn’t stick. Instead, I keep thinking about one name: Sebastian Barnabas. Sebastian Barnabas, who’s a professor. Sebastian Barnabas, who has a doctorate. Sebastian Barnabas, who works at a prestigious university across the bay. Sebastian Barnabas, who orders double ristrettos. For a moment, I half-believe that I’m the one who has it wrong. When I get home, I do what anyone would do: I search the internet. With a few keystrokes, there is Sebastian Barnabas, wearing my face as if it were his own. The same narrow eyes. The same prominent nose. The same dark brown hair. I don’t know how to deal with the sight of him.
My first sensations are shock and curiosity, but those feelings yield to something more primal: anxiety, confusion, panic. I click on one image, then another, and then another, sticking my face right up to my monitor while everything inside me beats and pulses, like there is someone trapped in my body, banging on my skin in an attempt to get out. I run to the toilet and retch. Just bile. My hands shake.
To steady the tremors, I latch onto the differences. Sebastian’s hair is longer than mine, styled upward and veering to one side. He is ten-or-so pounds lighter than I am, slimmer in the gut and face. I pinch the extra roundness under my chin, telling myself that sagging is natural in middle age. Unlike me, Sebastian has a light beard hiding any loose skin. But the differences in our appearance are so minor that they do little to overshadow the impression that someone is masquerading as me just across the bay.
I find Sebastian’s email address on the Stanford website and write to him, attaching a picture of myself. I ask questions: Where are you from? Who are your parents? Are you adopted? Do you know who I am? After I send the email, I read a scientific article, then re-open Outlook. I work, refresh my email, work, refresh my email. I ask my wife if she knows where my birth certificate is. She says my mother has it. Of course she does. At eight o’clock, I check my email one last time. There’s a response.
I read the first line: I thought you were dead.
I shiver. Sebastian’s email spells out the unavoidable truth that he and I are twins. According to Sebastian, his mother had given me up as a toddler. He has memories of me.
I feel lost, so I do what I always do when I need to make sense of the world. I wait for nightfall, grab my telescope, jump in my car, and head north to avoid light pollution. Once I am outside the city, I park my car and pull out my equipment.
Anxious to drown my nerves in the beauty of the infinite, I attach the lowest power eyepiece to the telescope. I swing the telescope toward Aquarius, using the finder to ensure that the Helix Nebula is within range. After fixing my position, I peer through the eyepiece, eventually finding the smoky oval of the nebula set against a triangle of stars. With time and patience, I begin to see more details: the two interlocking coils and the darker center of the nebula. It’s so ghost-like, this dying star. I look at the haze, knowing that the light is coming from the planetary nebula shedding its outer layers. I had seen more focused images of the Helix Nebula online—colorful pictures from infrared and ultraviolet NASA telescopes. The image I pick up is nothing that spectacular. But it is a vision nonetheless. I try my best to focus on the beauty, but all I can think about is how its interlocking coils are unraveling minute by minute, exposing the center to indifferent darkness.