How it all got started
It was the perfect night. No clouds and very cold. Baroque music played in the background of the observatory. At least there was that. Another evening without conversation, just introspection. Alyaa pulled her head back from the eyepiece and rubbed her eyes. She had been looking up at space for an hour, not fully understanding why it gave her such a feeling of peace.
Alyaa did not care much for social interaction. In fact, she wasn’t interested in most of the things people her age thought about. For Alyaa it was always the same thing: space! She had a show to watch every evening. A virtual 360-degree IMAX theater, where the only thing blocking the screen was the earth she was standing on.
She had come from the Middle East to attend college in the States. None of her relatives had gone to college and her family felt women didn’t need that level education. This fact was not lost on her. Being the youngest, with two older brothers, her fate would most likely have been very different but for one simple fact. Both of her brothers were dumb as rocks.
Even as Alyaa was young, her mother knew that if any of their children would be able to care for them, it would be Alyaa. It took her father years to see, or maybe to admit it, but eventually he too had to agree. After dinner one day her parents told her, if she worked hard, they would pay to send her to college.
Alyaa didn’t waste the opportunity to learn. She excelled to such a point that near the end of her senior year she had scholarship offers from many colleges. She could have gone just about anywhere to pursue anything she wanted, but her toughest intellectual challenge to date was going to be explaining why she wanted to study astrophysics and what that even was to her parents.
She applied to several schools, but the California Institute of Technology was her first choice. It was rated the second best in the country, and she was very excited to get a letter for an online interview.
The day of the interview came and she was very nervous. She had no idea what they were going to ask her or what she would say. She hadn’t been able to articulate the reasons to herself why she wanted to go into this field, but now it was time to spit it out. After a few minutes of introduction and getting to know each other the interviewer dropped the bomb.
“Tell me Alyaa, why does the field of astrophysics interest you?”
“That’s a question to which the answer is better felt than expressed. I have lived in an area of the world that has been in turmoil most of my life. The things that must seem petty for someone living in your part of the world are the heart of what causes so much violence here. People are too willing to fight over beliefs. I think that the knowledge gained for me in this subject is important on many different levels. It is both the learning of facts and the discovery of truth without preconceived prejudices. I hope that the discoveries in this field will help open people’s minds and enable them to consider alternate possibilities and broaden acceptance and tolerance of others’ beliefs around the world.”
“Alyaa, that was one of the most inspiring answers I’ve heard to that question, and I have asked it quite a few times in my career. Alyaa, there aren’t enough women in this field and our school tries to change gender conceptions to reflect the world in our student body. But what our school absolutely needs is students like you. I’m going to pass on the results of our interview and recommend that you be accepted with a scholarship. You’ll receive a letter of the offer soon and I hope you’ll accept. If you have any questions you can call me at this number. Okay? Bye.”
Three weeks later the letter of acceptance came in the mail and she was thrilled. Her parents didn’t want her going to a school halfway around the world, but she had been awarded a large scholarship which made the offer hard to refuse. After many discussions they agreed but it was her mother that was the hardest sell. She didn’t want her daughter so far away, in a culture that she didn’t understand and one that didn’t understand her.
Her first year in California was quite an adjustment. The following three years however flew by. Now with all her undergraduate courses out of the way she was ready to start the courses that really mattered. Alyaa had all the enthusiasm and focus of the other students in her field of study with one additional take. As fractured, dysfunctional and confrontational as mankind was, she believed people shared a common wonderment of the universe. It was this love that she felt might one day bring the world together.
Even though her major coursework was just starting, she had clocked almost as much time on the lens as many of the more senior students. She always came away with the same appreciation as to how small and insignificant we all are, and a little frustrated in the task of understanding it all. How much could she hope to achieve in chipping away at the big picture? She worried that all her future hard work would eventually lead to a big fat nothing. Her parents were proud of her and had given up so much to help her get to this place in her life. Her life and her struggles must someday enable her to help the whole family for their sacrifices. Now with just minutes before her first truly anticipated class, she thought to herself, “okay, now it all starts for real.”
There were no bells to mark the beginning of class, just a very large clock on the wall. It was placed high above and behind the auditorium, so no one could look at it without sending a message of being bored. The professor, already there, was watching to see what he called the three-bears syndrome. There was a lot of shuffling as the students made their way to find the perfect seat. Some hoped to get a spot to hear better, some to see better and some hoping to hide from an impending question thrown their way.
There was one bear that was the exception, Rodger. He had not had Rodger in his classroom before, but his reputation preceded him. He was a bit eccentric, but an excellent student. Though likeable enough, odd didn’t begin to describe him.
Rodger had dragged some classroom desks to the back of the auditorium, so he could sit behind the very last row. He wasn’t hiding, he was multitasking. This was his command center. Here he had his laptop, used mostly for fact checking, a video camera so he didn’t miss a word, a legal pad for taking notes and recording the times topics were covered so he could find them on the tape for later review. He also had a camera to capture the professor’s notes on the board. He did however find time to take an occasional picture of his second greatest passion, Alyaa. She was his own mystery to the universe, and he knew his mini Hubble telescope with a 200 zoom lens was as close as he would ever get to understanding her. She was only twenty rows in front but seemed light years out of his league.
The professor had to smile at seeing this arrangement after hearing about it from other teachers. He looked forward to being corrected, by a voice from afar, when he misspoke. It was like having a second consciousness, and he sometimes felt like Rodger was about to finish a thought for him.
The professor was never afraid of making a mistake or finding that a student knew something he didn’t. And since his subject matter had a reputation that scared the faint of heart, he tried to interject humor as often as possible. He felt humor was a shortcut to long term memory and was not afraid of having the joke be on him. His reputation helped build the number of students enrolled into his program, many taking one of his courses as an elective just to experience him. It was viewed as a level of accomplishment and passing his course earned them a black belt in bragging rights.
After 20 minutes or so he had sorted out those scheduled to be or not be in this class, taken role for the first and last time and gone through the syllabus. For him, his next objective was the most important part of the whole course. He wanted them to come away with the ability to use everything known, and at the same time question it.
He stood quietly looking at the class until he had everyone’s attention. After about 15 seconds of silence he felt the tension had opened their minds and they were ready. It was time for him to start the performance.
“If we want to solve a problem, any problem, but for now let’s say that of the great unknown, do we seek facts that only pertain to the problem, or can we make comparisons from unrelated situations? Do we look at the overall picture or study the minutia? Could we find how electrons orbit around their host atom by studying the orbits of planets around the sun, or vice versa? At any given level of proximity what laws are constant, and which are not? The information we get from the collection of images from such things as the electron microscope or the Hubble telescope are just that. They CAN… lead to advances in science but are just as likely to lead to an erroneous conclusion thus adding more questions.
Some of the greatest discoveries were theories until they were proven correct. Just thoughts! Created by the ability to construct models in the mind’s eye. Can we solve the questions about black holes or black matter in such a way? Some propose that black matter exists because they can measure its effects on objects. I’m not saying they are wrong, but it might be too easy to create something in your mental model simply because you aren’t seeing the bigger picture.”
He walked over and took a sip of water, more for dramatic effect than for thirst. Then for added theatrics he looked up with an expression of just having an idea.
“This brings me to the point of relative perspective.”
From afar a voice called out, “Professor wait please, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t recording. Can you start from if we want to solve a problem?”
“Rodger is it?” saying his name as if he didn’t know.
“Just pick up the video from now and I think you’ll be fine.”
“Okay and action!”
He paused to regain the attention of his audience and his own composure.
“You know the saying you can’t see the forest for the trees!” He took a step towards the students. “Let’s take a field trip.”
Again, from afar.
“Professor my equipment, I can’t! I didn’t know…”
“Relax Rodger, I was about to say a mental field trip.”
“Oh, I’m sorry professor …. But you should have led with that.”
There were a few giggles and the professor smiled.
“Yes, I suppose I should have,” he said in a loud voice, and with no further pause he continued, “Everybody please close your eyes. Imagine large fireworks going off in the night sky. A large circle of bright burning individual points of light is created, with its center void of any light. Can you see it? Okay, freeze that image.”
He put up a slide of exploding fireworks and said, “Okay, look at this.”
His clever ruse of spontaneity is now exposed to some of the more observant students, but it doesn’t matter. At this point he has them being reeled in like fish.
“Now let’s think about a bang theory. Not the big bang, a much smaller one. Take your minds out of the gutter and back to our firecracker please. Mind you this is all conjecture.”
He paused for a moment again as if to think.
“What if, before our galaxy was formed it was a rotating mass of suspended particles of matter compressed by the forces of gravity until the pressure caused an explosion at the atomic level, sending blobs of mass in every direction.”
“Does that include Z or just X and Y professor?”
“Just stay with me Rodger. Remember that these blobs of mass formed the stars and planets of our galaxy. But what about the theory that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? What if a black hole starts out as nothing more than a super concentrated vacuum in the vacuum of space, created by and equal to the sum of the total force of the mass explosion. Remember everything is still rotating, so stars furthest away from the center of the explosion appear to lag because the circumference they must travel is greater. This gives the curvature in the legs of the galaxy that would otherwise look like the spokes of a wagon wheel.
The stars closest to the center are sucked into and begin forming the mass of the black hole. But if there is mass still rotating around it, there is still a negative force trying to bring the family back together again. There is also a possibility that as the vacuum decreases the force of gravity increases. Let’s be the first to name this phenomenon that we just created. How about the mother in law principle?”
There was a wide range of laughter, ranging from a high pitch giggle to low moaning gowns.
“Will some of the outermost stars escape returning to the center? I think so, because the effect of the vacuum, for want of a better word, is exerted globally or equally in every direction. Whereas the star’s mass was expelled lineally. There may be stars that reach a perfect orbit like our moon, eventually leaving our galaxy looking more like our fireworks, an atoll as it were. And, yes, for clarity, I said atoll.”
There was a small chuckle, but for the most part the students were feeling somewhere between hung over and in the grips of a Vulcan mind meld.
“If our model is correct or even partly correct, then there is no question about whether there is a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Now at the risk of causing a brain aneurysm, I would like you to imagine that you are at the outer edge of everything and you are looking through a telescope a million times stronger than the Hubble and all you see is blackness.”
He began waving his arms wildly.
“Blackness everywhere except,” he paused, staring and pointing with a look of surprise, to a point above everyone’s head, “There! Do you see it? It’s a faint point of light.”
After a long pause he surveyed the faces of as many students as he could, before saying, “Could it be that our entire universe is just one point of light on this firework display? That the big bang is just part of an even bigger bang! And that the center of this bigger bang, even though it cannot be seen, influences all the others? Maybe black matter isn’t negative matter at all, but simply gravitational pull from the center of a source yet unknown. That could explain the acceleration of our universe couldn’t it?”
Now he paused and slowly looked across the faces of his class. This had a double purpose. For the students they saw a dramatic pause. The professor however was studying their faces to see how many he reached and how many were doodling or filing their fingernails.
The professor took several steps, closing the distance to his students to an almost uncomfortable level, and as he did, he began to raise his right hand and point. The students leaned back in their seats, almost expecting fire to come out of his hand. But his wide eyed glare was looking at the clock far above Rodger’s head.
“Class!” he said in a loud voice. There was a small shriek from one of the students, “dismissed.” he yelled. There was a huge sound of laughter partly because of the student who shrieked and partly from the relief that they had all returned to earth from their mental field trip safe and sound.
A loud round of applause went up as a sign of approval, and smiling he took a bow. The noise was mixed with a lot of conversation as the class stood and began to shuffle out. Exactly the kind of response from his students he had hoped for. But before they all could leave, he called out, “Alyaa, could you and Rodger meet me in my office in 20 minutes?”
Alyaa nodded with a smile of surprise, while Rodger made a strange noise as he dropped his notepad. He turned beet red as the remaining students filing past him began laughing again. He turned even redder when Alyaa walked up to him and asked if he knew what the professor wanted.
His tongue seemed frozen in his mouth, and his brain seemed unable to grasp what she had just said.
“Rodger? Are you, all right?”
“Oh, yeah! Sure, fine yeah, I’m fine. Just surprised that’s all.”
But what Rodger meant was he was surprised that she was talking to him!
It took Rodger the better part of three minutes to get his command center packed away, which didn’t leave much time to get to the professor’s office. They walked as quickly as they could. Rodger juggled the straps of his numerous bags trying to keep them in place and from hitting other students as they walked by.
His mind was nearing fight or flight mode. Did the professor see him take a picture of Alyaa? Making a mental joke to hide his fear he thought he’d soon be exposed as a better stalker than a walker.
They reached the professor’s door. Rodger, dripping in sweat, at least had the presence of mind to open the door for her. The professor greeted them and asked them to sit. Rodger was just about to throw up when the professor started talking.
“As you may or may not know,”
Oh no, why did I take that picture? I’m going to get kicked out. She’s going to slap me any second. He suddenly felt dizzy and his eyes rolled back into his head. Before anyone could catch him, Rodger fell out of the chair.
“Oh my god! Professor do you have any smelling salts?”
The professor rushed out of the room, leaving Alyaa kneeling at Rodgers’ side.
Before the professor could return Rodger started to come around, but as luck would have it the sound of a passing ambulance made Rodger believe it was the police. He made a weird groan and his eyes rolled back and his head hit the floor for the second time in just as many minutes.
The smelling salts worked this time and they got Rodger back in his chair. Although totally confused, outwardly he looked like he was listening. And after a bit of teasing the meeting continued. When he finally tuned back in to the conversation he heard the professor say.
“As I was saying, I will need several assistants on the project.”
“Wait! What?” he yelled.
Oh my god, what was I thinking? Rodger with a rush of relief, now wondered how he was going to pull off a casual comeback. He’d be glad to settle for awkward at this point, and it took a minute for even that to be achieved. Finally, when his respiration and heartbeat were almost normal, he heard the professor say, “And so, I was wondering if either or both of you would be interested in helping me with this project? It would provide you with some income and will give you credit towards part of or your entire research project. What do you say? Do you need time to think about it?”
Alyaa spoke first.
“I would be happy and honored to be considered, so yes count me in.”
Having no idea what was going on, Rodger said, “Sure I’d be happy to, I can’t wait to…. you know.”
“Great! How about we meet this Saturday at around 11 AM in the observatory conference room?”
They both agreed and left together. Alyaa was excited about what just happened, and Rodger was still trying to figure out what that was. Before they parted, they agreed to get there at 10:30 so they could talk a little before the professor got there.
Saturday morning outside the observatory, Alyaa found Rodger fidgeting and practicing what he would say to her when she got there.
She pretended she didn’t hear him and handed him a cup of coffee.
“I also brought some donuts just in case this meeting isn’t catered.”
“Yeah! About that. Just what did we agree to anyway?”
“What do you mean? Was I the only one listening to the professor? Why is your face turning red? And what were you thinking about the whole time?”
“There was that time that I spent counting the professors ceiling tiles, remember?”
None of this line of questioning helped Rodger’s demeanor, but before he could build a proper excuse, they heard the professor.
“Haaaay youuu guyyyys.”
The Goonies reference went right over Alyaa’s head, but Rodger chimed in before the prof. could finish the word hey.
As they had their coffee and donuts, Rodger began to set up his recording studio. The professor started by saying, “Look, we’ll be talking a lot together, so why don’t you just call me Dave when we’re here. And Rodger, this isn’t that complicated that this needs to be recorded.”
“Okay and cut.”
“I’d rather call you Copernicus if that’s alright with you professor.”
“I love it Alyaa, but that gives me the right to give you a nickname too, so watch it.
What I want to do is to take a very small piece of space and make a comparative study of the galaxies in that area.”
After about an hour and a half of explanation, they were each assigned to work eight hours a week. They had to coordinate the time between themselves and update each other, so they could pick up where the other had left off. This was to be done by a logbook kept at the observatory.
The professor handed them a small piece of paper to record everyone’s phone number.
“That’s kind of old school professor.”
They each opened their contact list. As Alyaa read her number so both the professor and Rodger could record it Rodger’s hand was shaking ever so slightly. She noticed. Putting her hand on the back of Rodgers hand she said, “Rodger. Everything is going to be fine.”
He nodded as if it helped. But as far as Rodger was concerned things couldn’t get much better.
“Alyaa’s right! I know it all sounds like a daunting task, but I chose you two for a reason. I’m sure this project will work out great, and who knows, maybe it could start out as the basis for a collaborative paper. You could both be published before you graduate. How does that sound? I’ll leave you two alone to figure out how you’re going so schedule your time together.”
They found themselves sitting alone and across from each other. Rodger finally broke the silence.
“How would you like to handle this?”
“Oh! No! I mean the schedule.”
They looked at each other both looking like chameleons on a red beach ball. Alyaa broke the ice first.
“If we are going to be spending a lot of time here, I think we need to decorate a bit.”
“That’s not my department.”
“Oh, I think it is. We need some motivational things, like a model spaceship, or a scale model of the solar system.”
“How about some Star Trek action figures?”
“That’s taking it a bit too far. Rodger, tell me you’re not into that.”
“God no! I was just running with your idea, that’s all. Besides what’s wrong with the way it looks now?”
Rodger looked around to see if he had missed the obvious. The interior of the dome was painted black to reduce light reflection. The circular wall was bare except for the evenly spaced steel beams that supported the dome. The only thing that broke the symmetry was the entrance door and the door into the conference.
“How about we build a mobile or something like that?”
Alyaa liked the idea so they got an old baseball, a larger exercise ball, a dodgeball, a basketball, a ping pong and a soft ball. They were painted to look like planets and hung from the ceiling. A few strands of Christmas tree lights and voila, instant solar system. Rodger even used a painted marble to represent earth’s moon. But before they painted a six-foot diameter sun on the wall, they called the professor to get permission to make some decorating changes.
“Did you ever think this fall semester would start out so cool Rodger?”
“No, it’s been a year of surprises starting off with a new president in January.”
“It’s going to be so odd when we graduate. People will call us doctors.”
“If I graduate, someone will have to call me a doctor!”