Patty Summerhill entered Julie Newcomb’s laboratory and stopped short. Every horizontal surface in the room was stacked with computer printouts and hand-written notes on Post-its, take-out menus, and used napkins. Every millimeter of wall space was covered with mathematical formulas and sketches of spirals and ellipses.
Newcomb perched on a stool in front of a large bank of computer monitors, her fingers flying over a keyboard. Lacking a diplomatic way to tell her colleague that she looked like hell, Summerhill told her that in just so many words. Not that it mattered; Newcomb wasn’t listening anyway. So Summerhill placed a call to IT and had them remotely lock the computer system.
Newcomb shrieked a string of expletives no one has heard before or since. Summerhill quickly assured her that all her work was backed up on both a local and remote server and that, by contract, she was to take a ten minute break every two hours. A not-so-subtle suggestion to get some rest during the imposed downtime was promptly ignored. Instead, Newcomb pulled a palm-top computer from her pocket and became engrossed in another calculation as she paced a tight figure eight. (Newcomb would have insisted it was a lemniscate.) Summerhill decided to risk interrupting again.
“Julie, this doesn’t look like your primary research.” No response. In a louder voice, “What is all this?”
“Time travel? Are you kidding?”
Newcomb stopped pacing. “I don’t kid. I’ve already worked out the basic formula.” Then she glared at the locked terminal. “All but a few final calculations.” She said it matter-of-factly.
“Really?” Summerhill’s voice rose in surprise and admiration.
Summerhill’s PhDs in physics and mathematics were no match for Newcomb who had thrice that number of advanced degrees. Newcomb considered Summerhill to be on the low end of the bell curve. She dropped the palm-top on an already precariously-balanced stack of papers and pointed at the graffiti on the nearest wall.
“It’s time and space,” she began. “We’re moving at over 450 meters per second due to the earth’s rotation. That’s at the equator and has to be adjusted for latitude. At the same time, the earth is orbiting the sun at nearly 30 kilometers per second while our solar system is whipping around the Milky Way at over 240 kilometers per second and so on — to infinity… if the universe is infinite. My calculations use values that are far more precise, of course.
“I’ve determined that there is a fixed point around which everything — and I mean everything — else revolves. Archimedes said he could move the earth with a lever if he had a place to stand. But he also would have needed a fixed point for the fulcrum.”
“Not to mention a really long pole for the lever,” Summerhill interjected. The withering look from Newcomb indicated she did not appreciate the interruption or the attempt at humor.
Newcomb went on. “By calculating movement in relation to that fixed point I can ‘leverage’ an object either forward or backward in time. And,” she turned to a long equation on the opposite wall, “I have found the universe’s stationary point. Anyway, here wasn’t here until right now so to move to here back in time we also have to calculate where here was then. Likewise, if we want to move forward in time we have to calculate where here will be then. Otherwise you’re likely to end up somewhere… unpleasant, like far outside the earth’s atmosphere or at the sun’s corona, for example. All I need is the location of the fixed point and the locations of where/when I want to move to and from.” She looked at Summerhill again as if expecting a stupid question and was not disappointed.
“So it’s an infinite n-Body calculation, right? You know, there’s a common misconception that n-Body calculations are impossible to solve. How are you validating your data?”
Newcomb sighed heavily. “First, yes. It’s an infinite n-Body calculation. I just said that. Second, unsolvable is simply ridiculous. They’re only impossible to solve if your knowledge of math is limited to vector calculus. And third, I’ve already moved single atoms and some organic molecules forward and backward in time. That’s more validation than you’ll get from any mere theoretician. My calculations now are extrapolating the equation to increase the size of the nth body to include my body.” She glared again at the locked computer.
Summerhill was a bit dumbfounded, but decided that further discussion would be fruitless. She insisted that Newcomb maintain the break schedule and suggested she either rest or get something to eat until the system was unlocked. Instead Newcomb grabbed the palm-top and resumed pacing.
The next morning Summerhill decided to look in on Newcomb’s lab on the way to her office. As she approached the building she heard a loud humming that built to a crescendo followed by a flash of light. She opened the door to an empty lab with bare, white walls. An odd feeling that something was not right crept through Summerhill and she couldn’t remember why she had wandered into the empty space. “I’m just getting old, I guess,” she muttered to herself. “At least there was no one around to see me wandering about like a fool.”
Dr. Patty Summerhill returned to her office with the oddest thought echoing through her head. “When I got there, there wasn’t any there there.” She has no idea what that means….