Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Guest Writer: Bill Lapham

Stonehenge

Truth be told, the stones of Stonehenge have always been here in this configuration. They were waiting here when man arrived. The stones are mass, gray mass, and they cannot be dated, nor can they be moved. They have achieved a balance in the universe that man can only dream of achieving. They are immortal as forever; always have been.
Theories abound as to their origin and placement, about how they were brought here. They seem to beg for an explanation, how they were carved out of some English mountain with some mythical power and rolled here on a carpet of logs and hoisted into place with sand pits and rudimentary cranes made of posts and hemp lines, manipulated by brawn, muscle and sinew.
None of that is true, but the truth is what we seek. Our theory is that the stones have always been here. Always. Since before the Earth was formed, by the power of whatever god you choose to believe in, they were here. All that is the earth formed under them.
I am Professor Joe Jackson (yes, some of my friends call me “Shoeless,” but usually only after a pint and a shot) and I am accompanied by my (beautiful) graduate assistant Michelle Champion. When we got here yesterday, we found green grass in the surrounding fields; each blade offering its chlorophyll face to the sun for its blessing. We saw a blue sky; some would call it azure, but I would say blue. There were wispy clouds thousands of feet overhead, but no chance of rain.
And there were the stones, elephantine in their mass, they are mass itself. Moss grows on the north sides and looking at them from that angle makes them look ancient, ponderous, heavy, like any one of them could crush a man if it toppled over on him. They won’t, though. The ground is bedrock around here, solid. These stones have been here forever. They were here even before the earth was here.
We are at Stonehenge, in the south of England. Winter is approaching and we’ve been planning for an observation on the day the season changes – at Stonehenge, in Stonehenge, with Stonehenge. We think a universal constant—a fundamental number—is hidden in the arrangement of these stones and will be revealed to us on December 21, 2012.
We are standing at the center of the circle waiting for the moment the sun rises on the shortest day of the year – the Winter Solstice. We’ll mark the spot on the stone where the sun appears and measure the distance from that spot to the center of the circle and divide that distance by the height of the stone and multiply the dividend by the volume of air displaced by that stone, record that figure in our notebooks and then search for other relationships. We think there are many—perhaps all things, all physical formulae—rely on this constant for stability in this chaotic milieu we call the universe. We think this ratio may be the number upon which all other relationships can be described.
Unlike many of the other people present for this occasion, we do not believe this is the day the world will come to an abrupt end. It is, however, the day when our equator points directly at the sun and we find ourselves in alignment with the equator of the Milky Way galaxy – our galaxy. That makes it a special day; a good day to take measurements, test hypotheses, and observe natural phenomena for the sake of observation alone, because we will see things no other human being has ever seen before, or ever will again.
We are here with many other people. We are not alone. They touch the stones in the same place and with the same tenderness and consideration, with the same sense of awe, as every other human being who has ever touched them. How many people is that? How many humans have touched the stones of Stonehenge and wondered at their origin? How many languages have they spoken? How many different gods have they summoned to explain these massive forms and their arrangement? How many of those gods remain?
Maybe none.
There are many other people here today, each with their own story, their own reasons, their own theories. There are scientists with fantastical mathematical formulae and mystics with fantastical mathematical formulae and faith and there are priests from many different churches and religions, each with their own idea about the key to the entry into life everlasting. But they all believe, or want to believe, that the object of their personal search for a clue to the hereafter is to be found here, in the present tense, and the present place, Stonehenge.
The sky lightens in the East and it’s almost time to take our measurements. We prepare for our test just as the others prepare for theirs. Everybody’s got a theory to test and you’d think the place would be abuzz with conversations regarding various hypotheses, but there is no talking at all. The place is quiet, as if the beauty of the place has penetrated our shells and become part of us. We are in it, a part of it. We are integral.
We are ready at the precise moment the sun tips over the horizon. There it is. Michelle fires a laser at the spot where the sun appears above the stone. She takes the measurement and records it in her notebook. It is the measurement that we think will lead to the key of understanding: the fundamental number, the universal number, the number that will unlock all the mysteries mankind has conjured over the millennia. We have it.
We pack up our equipment and take a seat on camp chairs while other scientists and charlatans continue following their logical and illogical whims. We watch them with some amusement, I must admit. Why is it that we each think we are right about our assumptions and everyone else is wrong. Perhaps it is human nature to play zero-sum games: for one of us to be right, every other one of us has to be wrong. Think of it: how much time and effort will be spent on seemingly fruitless efforts?
“Professor?”
“Hmm?”
“Do you think there is any value in wasting time and energy on fruitless efforts?”
“Certainly,” I reply. “How could anyone make a conclusion before they conduct the experiment? Perhaps we only know the right answers by eliminating all the wrong ones. Somebody has to discover all the dead ends. We just don’t recognize those efforts with awards like the Nobel Prize. Maybe we should.”
“Do you think we might have wasted all this time and energy we’ve put into this experiment?”
“Absolutely not, dear. If nothing else, we will have discovered that there is no relationship between these stones and the rest of the universe. It might very well be that these stones were cut out of a mountainside and placed here with haphazard abandon. They have no significance to offer at all.”
“If that is true, will you be disappointed then?”
“If that is true, I will be happy we discovered a piece of the truth.”
Actually, I tremble at the thought. We will have expended a lot of time and energy, not to mention university resources, on a wayward scheme for little return. But not yet. We’re not done.
Then I hear a low rumble, like a heavily loaded freight train straining against the leash of inertia.
“Do you feel that?” Michelle asked. “The ground, it’s moving.”

© William Lapham 2010

Bill Lapham is a retired U.S. Navy submarine veteran (Chief of the Boat) and a recent graduate of the MLS program at The University of Michigan, Rackham Grad School, for which he thanks the GI Bill. He’s been published at Six Sentences and the U.S. Army NCO Journal.

9 comments:

  1. All the questions we ask and still no answers. But I expected nothing else from you. Great piece, Bill.

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  2. You nailed the professor's mind, COB. And I like the ending. Didn't Carole King sing about this?

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  3. Stonehenge is best experienced in solitude I reckon ...

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  4. Never been but after this would love to! When the aliens return in 2012, they will tell us all the answers. Nice write Bill

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  5. :-)

    So what you're saying Bill, is ... it isn't a stone age milk crate ?

    Cracking story.

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  6. Bill, you married observational science to mathematical science, and now we are about to discover the Theory Of Everything. I was fascinated by the story, and by your use of repetitive phrases. Has it all been said before?

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  7. Another notch in that well collected group of yarns you've spun. I'm happy to go along for the ride/read.

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  8. I think you gave me what I have always wanted from archaeology and history: a dash of whimsy. I hear in this piece the voice of reason hitched to the voice of crazy, and I am loving the duet. I like that you have a (beautiful) graduate assistant named Ms. Champion (who wouldn't want a good-looking grad assistant, by the way?) and I foresee more adventures for the good professor and his gal Friday.

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  9. Great piece of satire, Bill! I loved it!

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