Elliot Snaith

As I wove through the dark streets, always moving to the north and east, the homes grew gradually larger, but none more than four stories in height.The strength of that wood would last another century.I could feel the grandeur radiating out of their stately architecture.It was in stark contrast to my own upbringing in Lakewood, a half hour south of the city.Our small house with shake siding was inside what remained from the original forest, still sheltering owls hunting mice by moonlight and rainbow trout swimming against the current as Chambers Creek flowed into the Salish Sea.I walked the streets without direction, desiring only to absorb the night and the snowfall, but suddenly I found myself in a familiar place.One house jumped out.A classic North Tacoma residence, with granite blocks for the ground floor and dark wood for the upper two floors.All of it protected by a black roof with a high pitch and wide overhang for the winter snows that piled up during the occasional big storms.It was dark now but for an unseen lamp in the foyer whose light escaped from the two small windows at the top of the large wooden door.Melinda Smith’s home.Melinda, who had asked me to the Tolo dance when she was a sophomore at Aquinas and I a junior at Bellarmine.Twelve years back, I had entered that very door.Years ago, Melinda’s father, Dan Smith, had opened that door.With a laugh, he told me Melinda wasn’t ready yet.He himself had just gotten home from his workday and still had his suit on.Smith was a legendary presence.The instant I heard about it as a freshman, I began hoping that one day I would participate in his discussion of the great ideas of Western civilization.Smith was drinking a Heidelberg beer from a brown bottle shaped to look like a small keg.In his other hand he held a small cheese and crackers sandwich.He nodded his round, balding head as he studied me.When he took a bite from his sandwich, bits and pieces of crackers fell down onto his protruding stomach.He didn’t notice or didn’t care if he did notice.As we stood in the foyer waiting for Melinda to descend from the wide wooden staircase, he said he had learned recently that I was interested in mathematics.I assumed this was a reference to the national exam.How old are you? he asked.Sixteen.Do you know Charles Fefferman?He just graduated from the University of Maryland in mathematics.He’s already publishing original research.With so few words he had canceled out my sense of self.Twelve years separated me from that encounter, but the feelings of nullity returned as fresh as they were back then.I had entered the house with an unexamined sense of success and strength.That had been quickly crushed.A painful event, but here it was again in all its power.It was linked to what I felt, but could not name, in the Tut exhibit.It was still nebulous, but I knew it had something to do with identity.With who I was in the universe.In that moment I accepted what was obvious.Our seminar in mathematical cosmology was finished.In Shel’s absence, we could not get to the creative edge.No one had mentioned it at our first meeting without him, but it was over.The snow crunched under my feet, the squeaky sounds filling the stillness.Even all these years later, as I stepped on the newly fallen snow and felt it squish down under my weight, I remembered how devastated I was that one morning as a child when I woke up and found the snow had gone.The white that had blanketed everything had completely disappeared.Mom explained that snow came in flakes made of both water and air.The vast majority of a snowbank was water and air whipped up to appear huge just the same way that sugar and air is whipped up into cotton candy.It wasn’t just snow that melted down into a much smaller volume when heated up.Lead feels solid, but when Ernest Rutherford carefully measured the situation, he found that an atom of lead is primarily space, not matter.It’s a question of adding up the volumes of the elementary particles making up the block of lead and comparing this to the volume of the block itself.Electrons are point particles with a volume of zero, so ignore those as negligible.The proton radius is a fermi, same as a neutron.In each atom of lead there are two hundred of these protons and neutrons, so the volume of those material particles is like ten to the negative thirteenth of the atom’s volume.Heat up any block of lead and it melts down to ten to the negative thirteenth of the original volume.Tacoma is maybe ten miles on a side, so take all of Tacoma’s one hundred square miles and go down a mile into Earth’s crust.One mile straight down.That Tacoma slab is one hundred cubic miles.If one put these particles next to each other, the ball they formed would be ten to the negative thirteenth of the original volume.About the size of a basketball.That’s all that would be left.The Tacoma slab at a billion degrees melts down to a basketball.I knew the ideas, but did I ever live their truth?The universe had taken a basketball of quanta and transformed it into the Tacoma slab.I knew the calculations.But could I experience Tacoma as whipped into existence by the universe?Dirac’s Quantum Field Theory in Knapp’s BarThe one establishment still lit up in this neighborhood nexus of businesses was Knapp’s Bar.The entrance was a tall door made of glass so old it looked like running water.The colored lights from within flashed through it.When I pulled the solid door open, warm smoky air with the smell of stale beer poured out into the quiet snowy world.The bartender, in a cool gray collarless shirt and lightly tinted pink glasses, broke off his conversation with the couple at the end of the bar and smiled.I asked for a beer, pulled out a stool, and perched on its brown imitation leather.

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