Thousand Words a Day: August 1, 2017

Bob filled his beer glass from the open keg; by this time, it was mostly warm and mostly empty, but Bob didn’t mind. “Love this beer,” he said.

“Yeah. It’s okay,” Andre said, draining his own cup. “But I’ve had enough for one night.”

Bob came back to his lawn chair. The two of them were sitting outside on the back patio. “No, it’s great stuff,” he said.

“Okay, so you were saying about time travel,” Andre said.

“Yeah. See, you guys, you’re thinking about it the wrong way,” he said. “There’s not that much I can tell you, but I can tell you that when the breakthrough comes, you’ll be amazed as how simple and ordinary the key elements are.”

“Key elements,” Andre repeated. Andre hadn’t quite decided if this guy’s story was legitimate or not—but whatever the case, he sure talked a good talk. And there was something else about him, something odd about the cadence of his speech and the way he walked and moved; his mannerisms were not quite right, as if he’d learned them only as an adult. He kept tugging at his collar and his belt the way a dog who never wears a collar might tug at one.

“Yeah. Look at it this way,” Bob said. “In the modern era, say since about 1800, we’ve managed to invent a large number of convenience items and labor-saving things, but almost none of them are really original thinking. Almost everything we’ve thought of had some precedent in nature for us to follow.”

“Precedent?” Andre said.

“Yeah. Take fire. Mankind tamed fire thousands of years ago, and that single accomplishment led to everything else, right? Fire made it possible to colonize harsh locales, kept animals away at night, and even made it possible to sterilize and soften meat before eating. That helped conquer disease. But—” Bob emphasized the word— “but, man didn’t really invent or discover fire. Fire already was in the environment in the form of forest fires started by lightning. All man had to do was figure out how to control it.”

“Well, it’s not always easy to control fire, is it?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Bob said. “It’s quite an accomplishment. All I’m saying is that it’s not an original concept. Man just improved on what he saw in nature. The thing is to imagine how long it might have taken man to discover fire if natural fires had never existed.”

“What about the automobile?” Andre asked.

“Hmm.” Bob took another drink from his beer. “Well, let’s see. What’s the essential element of a car? I guess it would be the internal combustion engine, right?”

“I guess,” Andre said.

“And what’s the essential element of the internal combustion engine? Isn’t it the idea of a gas expanding against a piston?”

“Sure,” Andre said.

“The piston-in-a-cylinder arrangement grew from steam engines, where the phenomena of water boiling to steam and expanding as it does so was put to mechanical work,” Bob said. “The water-to-steam thing already existed in nature and was noticed as soon as water started to be boiled over fires. So again, we see the effects of man’s work with fire and the effect that heat from fires has on things.”

“How about the airplane?” Andre said.

“Bird and bats fly,” Bob returned. “And so do insects and things like maple seeds. In fact, I understand that Sikorsky got his idea for a helicopter from watching maple tree seeds spin in the air.”

Andre shrugged. “Yeah, well, I see your point.”

“One thing I can think of that doesn’t have an obvious parallel in nature is the wheel and axle,” Bob said. “The Egyptians didn’t have it when they built the pyramids, although they did use platforms atop tree trunks of roll things on. The tree trunks weren’t attached, though, and so they kept having to move the back trunk up to the front again.”

“Really?” Andre said. “It doesn’t seem like much of a mental leap from a rolling tree trunk to a wheel and axle.”

“No, not to us,” Bob said. “But that’s because we’ve lived our lives with wheel-and-axle arrangements all around us all the time. What if you had never seen one? Then it’s not so easy to imagine.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Andre said. “You want another beer?”

“Please,” Bob said. Andre got up and first went to the keg, but he could get only a half-cup out of it. He drained that himself, and then said, “I’ll get you a fresh one from inside.”

“Okay,” Bob said.

Andre’s wife, Rebecca, was coming out of the door as Andre went in, and she came and sat in the seat that Andre had occupied. “How you doing?” she asked. “Is Andre keeping you entertained?”

“Oh, sure, he’s great,” Bob replied.

“Where are you from?” Rebecca asked. “Your English is great, but I can hear just a little accent.”

“Sweden,” Bob said. It was his cover story—the only trouble with it was the possibility that he would encounter someone who might respond to this lie by speaking to him in Swedish. He hadn’t had the tape for that language, and so he would not be able to respond, but he had a lie for that too. Rebecca, of course, was not Swedish and did not know Swedish and, in fact, had never been to Sweden.

“Oh, how interesting,” she said. “What part of Sweden?”

“Stockholm,” Bob replied. “A little town a ways to the south, actually.”
“My roommate in college was from Sweden,” she said. “Exchange student, lovely girl, and smart too. Spoke three or four languages.” Rebecca laughed. “I’m lucky if I can manage with English.”

Bob smiled. “You seem to be doing okay.”

Andre was back on the porch now, with two cold bottles of Budweiser; he handed one of them to Bob. “Honey, you’re in my seat,” he said to Rebecca.

“Oh, shoo,” she said. Andre pulled up another lawn chair and sat down heavily. “So, what are you boys talking about?”

“We’re talking about guy stuff,” Andre said, and he took a drink of his beer.

“Actually, we were talking about inventions,” Bob said, peering carefully at Rebecca, gauging her reaction.

“Inventions? Like what?” she said.

“Oh, like the airplane, and how we never would have invented it if not for the example of birds and bats and stuff,” Andre said.

“It’s not that you never would have invented it,” Bob corrected him. “It’s just that it would have taken a lot longer.”

“How much longer?” Rebecca asked. She was suddenly interested—a little too suddenly, Bob thought.

“Who knows?” he said. “The concept of the airfoil is surprisingly simple, but without an example, it might have taken a long time for someone to just happen on it and to see what it means, how it works.”

“So, what you’re saying is that animals have had so much time to evolve things like eyes and wings and whatnot, that if they haven’t evolved it, then it probably can’t be done,” Andre said, slurring a little. His bottle was already half empty, and he had had many cups of beer from the keg.

“Well, not necessarily, but yes, most things that can physically be done, an animal somewhere or other has evolved it for protection,” Bob said.

“That kind of puts your time travel theory to bed then, doesn’t it?” Andre said. “No animal ever evolved time travel.”

“Well, are you sure about that?” Bob said, smiling. “Maybe no animal time-travels to here, only away from here. After all, this time is not all that friendly to your average animal.”

Rebecca was looking at him strangely. “Time travel? What?”

“Bob here is a time traveler,” Andre smirked. “Or at least he says he might be.”

“We all are, aren’t we?” Bob said. “One second per second into the future.”

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