Traumphysik

A brilliant young physicist, alone on a Pacific atoll during World War II, begins to chronicle the laws of motion that govern her dreams.

 

I suppose that, after a brilliant coed graduates from MIT and volunteers for the war effort, the only place the Navy can bear to send her is a nameless atoll in the Pacific.

They’re lucky it suits me.

I’ve been assured my job is tremendously important. I believe them. I know it is. I maintain a generator that powers a signal light that is visible up to thirty thousand feet, vertically. Our planes fly much lower than that, of course, but I mention the strength of its output because it’s a bragging point.

I maintain the signal. I am the landmark, the light in the dark.

This atoll is approximately an acre in size. The Japanese don’t have a name for it. We don’t have a name for it. So I am trying to think of a suitable name for it. Something to do with my name. Lucy, Lucia, Lucid, Lucifer. I’m not sure the US military would take kindly to the last one. Oh, too late, it’s done, then. The name of the atoll will be Lucifer. It means ‘light-bearer,’ so it’s very appropriate. It’s a reclamation of the name: not the Judeo-Christian bogeyman, but the light of science and reason.

Actually, my current situation—isolated, with limited responsibility and an overabundance of free time—is an ideal situation in which to run my dream experiments. I’ve brought with me Professor Gaertner’s text on lucid dreaming. The first step toward lucid dreaming, he posits, is hyperawareness of phenomena in the waking state. For example, I must count the fingers on my left hand several times a day. The reasoning being that, when I do the same thing out of habit within my dream and come up with a nonstandard result (three fingers, or nine), I will know that I’m dreaming.

And when I achieve this state, and keep it stable, I can begin my experiments.

 

Last night I had a breakthrough. While still dreaming, I opened my eyes and held my left hand in front of my face and counted five fingers; however, each of the fingers appeared cracked and roasted, like pork on a spit. But I was not alarmed. I simply recognized that this was a nonstandard result, and therefore that I must be lucid dreaming. I sat up on my mat. I managed to touch my right hand with my left index finger before my excitement woke me up. I considered it excellent progress.

I’m supposed to walk two brisk laps around the atoll every morning and log it in the station log, to assure the Navy I am keeping myself fit and alert and occupied. I did when I first arrived. But now I just wander at will.

In my notebook, I’m keeping a record of the tides. I’ve also begun to classify all the species here, like Darwin on Galapagos, except on a far more humble scale. For example, there are geckos, gnats, crabs, and little pigs. Albatrosses come and go. I’ve seen at least one frigate bird from a distance. I make note of the markings on their bodies and their habits of locomotion. I’ve developed a rudimentary classification matrix for the entire ecosystem, including the seagrasses that grow like so much hair between my shack and the sea, based on what will probably prove to be meaningless characteristics. But I have to occupy my time somehow. I have a newfound appreciation for history’s naturalists who made it their life’s work. Linnaeus, I hardly knew ye.

When I was finished cataloging everything, I did something I now regret. I carried one of the little pigs—a female, who was quite docile, and seemed happy to go for a ride—into the surf. I wanted to see if it could swim. I thought it must be able to swim, the species being so proximate to water, even though its ancestors were likely ship-borne vermin.

So I carried it down into the surf until I was knee-deep. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone so far out. I let it down into the water. At that moment, a wave of unusual force slapped my midsection and I fell into the water. I lost sight of the little pig. Then I glimpsed it again, underwater, twitching and writhing and sinking, clearly unable to swim. I reached for it but just then, another wave slapped me back, leaving me even more disoriented than before. I lost sight of it altogether this time. I didn’t recover it, or even see it again.

I felt quite bad. Maybe I should stick to physics.

In my dream last night, I managed to stand up in front of the full-length mirror I’d positioned at the foot of my mat. (The Navy sent it with me. Of course I must have a full-length mirror. God forbid I should be unaware of my appearance.) I was very intrigued to see that my image was not inverted—the MIT insignia on my nightshirt read MIT, not TIM as it does normally in waking life. I remember receiving that nightshirt my sophomore year; it was a gift from Professor Gaertner—-the wife Sofia, not the husband Bernhard; I should clarify, as they both bear that title—who thought I might be lonely as one of the only coeds at the Institute. I appreciated that.

And now here I stood, wearing the same nightshirt, noticing how MIT stayed MIT. This is the first deviation from known physics in waking reality.

In honor of the Gaertners’ German heritage, I’ve decided to call my experiment (and the universe it elucidates and its attendant systems) Traumphysik, which sounds more rigorous than “dream-physics.” Everything sounds more rigorous in German.

 

I had my daily check-in with base at noon. I’m told the war is going well. I take their word for it.

They asked whether I was keeping up with my fitness routine. I said yes.

They asked whether I had enough food and water. I said yes.

They asked whether I was having any trouble with the generator. I said no.

I heard another voice ask me if I was lonely and then muffled laughter and then shushing and then silence. I said nothing.

I lit the signal in the evening as a new squadron flew over. Supply planes, using my atoll for a landmark. I could make out the numbers on their underbellies. They looked like a school of flying fish overhead—and I, at the bottom of the sea. They flashed their call sign in Morse code and I flashed back. Lucifer. I am the light-bearer.

I’m developing quite a taste for coconut. I’m not tired of it; on the contrary, it’s the only thing I crave now. I split the hairy brown ones on a spike and then carve up the flesh with my knife.

 

Another breakthrough.

It’s 3:14 a.m. (pi! How serendipitous!) and I write by candlelight. I just succeeded in performing Galileo’s experiment on falling objects—in my dream. Before going to bed, I had placed a feather and a watch on my bedside table. When I got up in Traumphysik, I picked up the two objects, remembering to remain very calm. I raised my hands so that they were spaced above the floor equally. Then I let go. The watch and the feather both floated down, impossibly, maddeningly slow, like particles sinking in a column of water, but at the same rate of acceleration, as theorized would occur in a vacuum or (observably) in the absence of an atmosphere.

But oddly enough, neither the feather nor the watch dropped in a straight line. They fell diagonally and away from each other, tumbling as if down opposite sides of an invisible mountain.

I was so excited I woke up. I couldn’t help it. I had enough wit to light my candle and open my notebook. So here I record: This is the second deviation from the known laws of physics in waking reality. The next step is to repeat the process twice, to confirm the result.

But for now—back to sleep.

 

When I woke up today, I found that my watch was broken.

I didn’t actually drop it, of course—I was lucid-dreaming, not sleep-walking. It was still on my bedside table where I had left it. But it was stopped at 3:14 a.m., at the moment I woke to record my progress. It’s too bad. It was a graduation gift from the Gaertners.

But aside from that regret, this is an interesting result. It could be mere coincidence. Or it could be that the waking and dreaming worlds are related. Freud would furrow his brow and shake his head at me—How obvious, Lucy, how very obvious. But Professor Gaertner’s work takes the null hypothesis, as it should; he assumes that the dreaming and waking worlds are entirely uncorrelated, even despite all anecdotal evidence (and cultural momentum) to the contrary.

Regardless, I intend to continue with my experiments. I have to continue work on the dream world. Or is it only my dream world? Is the Traumphysik the same from person to person, or different? It would be fascinating either way: If Traumphysik is the same from person to person, that suggests the existence of a real physical world to which we collectively travel each night; on the other hand, if Traumphysik varies from person to person, then one’s own Traumphysik must represent the subconscious world in which one lives. One’s own Platonic cave. One’s own fires and figures and shadows.

There is no way to test other peoples’ Traumphysik at this time, as I am alone. Therefore I assume the null hypothesis: My Traumphysik is entirely uncorrelated to others’ Traumphysik. It is my own place.

 

I am thrilled to report that the first Galileo dream-experiment yielded the same result twice more: The watch and the feather fell at the same rate, down opposite inclined planes, and hit the floor at the same time. The watch is still broken, and the feather appears unchanged.

I’m recording all of my results in this notebook, as I was trained to, by Professor Gaertner. It’s a pity his other students were so susceptible to prejudice. My time there was calm at the beginning, and I was treated kindly as the only coed in his class. But then it became clear that I was the brightest student in the class. The others didn’t take it well. I recall a time when I was crossing campus at night, in the Cambridge winter, and was waylaid by several figures in black cloaks, who blindfolded and gagged me. I thought it might be a harmless “hack,” but I began to perceive malice on the part of my interceptors, as they called me rude names, and then led me to a place where I was stripped of my coat and shoes and outer garments until I was wearing nothing but my underclothes. I was told to count to twenty. Of course I could only do so in my head as I was still gagged.

When I removed the blindfold, I was alone. I walked home, which was several blocks away, in the snow, with the temperature somewhere in the single digits. The house matron had to draw a hot bath for me and I had to sit in it for an hour to thaw my extremities until we were sure I hadn’t gotten frostbite. When I got to class on Monday, my clothes were lying in a pile on my desk. I heard snickering around me. The others hid their faces behind their books. I sat down and folded the clothes and put them under my desk and carried on as usual.

That was just one incident among many.

I can’t be bothered with them, of course. Not then, not ever. Reason does not permit me to do so. Besides, Professor Gaertner noticed the abuse, and took pains to protect me. After all, his wife, Sofia, was also a professor and radio physicist, famous in Germany before they left the country. He was not threatened by a learned woman. Especially one learned in the sciences. I was, and remain, glad of their patronage.

And though I am ashamed to say it, I take some pleasure in considering how those young men are now in the trenches in the European theater. Speaking for myself, I highly recommend the Pacific theater. It is peaceful and calm. There is no one to bother me, except the little pigs, and I rather like them.

 

I did one full lap around the atoll yesterday. Not to please the Navy, but to please myself. It takes about ten minutes. That’s an estimate—since my watch broke, I’ve been guessing at intervals. I’ve been estimating hours, too, like my noontime radio date with base. I can tell it’s noon when the short shadow of the palm tree outside my shelter crosses over a certain arrangement of bleached kelp at its foot. Then I get on the radio and call them.

I haven’t told them my watch is broken.

I haven’t told them much, in fact. Nothing about my Traumphysik, obviously. They wouldn’t understand, or they would find it an occasion to mock me amongst themselves, and I’m not in a mood to provide them that pleasure.

 

I’m still so intrigued by the result of my first Galilean experiment. It’s such an unexpected result that the objects fell at an incline, in opposite directions. This suggests multiple centers of gravitational pull. The feather is attracted to one center of mass, whereas the watch is attracted to another. They obey their own masters as if made of different substances. It’s extraordinary.

It’s clear that more data are needed.

In the meantime, I’ve progressed to another experiment. In keeping with Galileo’s findings, I decided to test the behavior of a pendulum in my Traumphysik. I tied a length of string through a pendant and hung it on a nail that protrudes from one of the beams of my shelter. In tying the pendant, I recalled its provenance. In my junior year at MIT, I was courted by a young man named Louis. He looked sharp in class, in his day-to-day wear, especially a maroon wool sweater. I had asked around, and been told he was dating a girl at Wellesley—but then he asked me to be his date to a Harvard mixer, so I assumed that that business was done with.

I bought a new necklace for the occasion at a jeweler’s in Beacon Hill—this very pendant, a cream-and-caramel cameo I thought very pretty. Anyway, I shouldn’t linger; this story has a predictable ending. I waited to be picked up at my dormitory for two hours, listening to radio dramas with the house matron. Finally I left the dormitory by myself and hailed a taxi and arrived at the mixer, where I spotted Louis in a corner, surrounded by our classmates and accompanied by a pretty blonde I could only assume was the aforementioned Wellesley girl. I exited quickly, the same way I’d come in. I didn’t want to provide the denouement. It was never mentioned again, by me or by Louis, who avoided me thereafter.

But I kept the necklace. I liked it still. Apparently enough to bring it with me, here, to this atoll. I’d forgotten I had packed it at the last minute, so when I unpacked on my first day, I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my suitcase. And now I can use it for experiments.

In Traumphysik, I sat at the edge of my mat, held the pendant in between my thumb and forefinger, drew it up to 0 degrees, and let it go. A remarkable thing happened. It swung to 270 degrees—the nadir of a normal arc—but then swung right back up to 0 degrees. Its arc was confined to the fourth quadrant. I tested it again. This time I drew the pendant to 90 degrees, straight up. I let go. It swung to the left, then stopped at 180 degrees. And swung back up to 90 degrees. Its arc was confined to the second quadrant, in defiance of any expected behavior. Absolutely fascinating.

I have to conclude that, again, there are forces of gravity in Traumphysik that differ from those in the waking world. Multiple centers, multiple pulls. It is not the earth. It is not the moon. Gravity is fungible.

I repeated each experiment twice, with the same initial conditions, and obtained the same results, to finish the night’s work. Then I let myself sleep.

 

I took another walk around the atoll today. I spotted a new species of lizard sunning by a tide pool, and also a beached jellyfish with a dark blue heart. More significantly, though, I got the distinct sense that circumambulating the atoll takes a shorter time than it used to. I have no good way to test this, given that a full walk already takes such a short amount of time, and my watch is broken, and I can’t rely on my own heartbeat, obviously, since its rate is inconstant during exercise.

So instead of measuring time, I will measure space. I placed a conch shell on a spot on the sand at the lip of high tide, in a straight line with my shelter. I will re-measure in one week.

 

I checked on the conch shell. It was gone, already, overnight. There was no trace of it.

My goodness. How does your razor cut, Occam? I submit four possibilities, and address them in turn:

  1. I was careless and misplaced the conch.

Re: My capacity for mistakes is very low. At MIT, I had a reputation for rigorous, consistent, excellent work (though my fellow students called it “perfectionism”). This is not a boast. This is an empirical observation.

  1. I miscalculated high tide.

Re: Unlikely, given that I’ve been keeping assiduous records thereof.

  1. The conch was displaced by another animal or group of animals.

Re: The largest fauna on this atoll is the native pig, mild-mannered and no bigger than my hand. To test its strength, I found another conch and harnessed it by twine to a little pig I caught. It could barely move. This does not preclude the possibility that a group of pigs moved the conch, but according to the behavior I’ve observed so far, they do not seem capable of purposeful assembly or group tasks.

  1. The atoll is shrinking.

Re: Vastly unlikely. Base has not informed me about any rises in sea level. And I know of nothing that would cause a change in sea level on such a short timescale—only a tsunami, which would temporarily lower the sea level, not raise it. And the atoll sits atop a coral reef. I’ve not known coral reefs to sink, unless the calcite beneath is unstable. The calcite could be unstable because the ocean’s pH is dropping. But again: None of this could occur on the timescale I’m witnessing, not by any natural phenomenon of which I’m aware.

Further data are needed. I’m running another test. This time, I found a long, slim length of driftwood—half as tall as I am—and hammered it deep into the sand, three-quarters of its length in. I’ll check on it every day.

 

Now the driftwood post is also gone.

What could this mean? I’m certainly alone on the island, and the pigs definitely could not have moved such an object.

I’m strangely unalarmed. But then again, this is a logical reaction, as I’m in no immediate danger. If I ever do feel endangered, I can get on the radio. I’d explain my discoveries to the Navy scientists, though no doubt they’d come up with their own theory based on their assumptions about people who own uteri.

Besides, my curiosity grows. I want to stay and continue my work. I’ve formulated a new goal: to devise a unified theory of my Traumphysik. The scope of my theory is limited to what I can achieve in my lucid dreaming, of course. But I’m getting better every night. Last night I did not conduct an experiment, per se, but achieved a feat of observation: I succeeded in leaving my shelter entirely and standing on the beach. The stars were bright violet sparks, and the sky was deep chocolate brown. The ocean was markedly different, too—pearly and viscous. In waking life, this landscape might appear choked and polluted; as it was, I felt as if this palette were the natural and normal one.

Also, in the dream, I found the same conch shell on the beach. It was eerie. I’d selected the conch shell as a marker in waking life. And here it was, with a characteristic chip in the outer lip. Its appearance in my dream suggests Traumphysik at work. Perhaps there are wormholes in my personal universe.

There is so much more to learn.

 

Last night, in my dream, again I practiced walking out onto the beach. I found I could sit down on the sand, which was sparkly and transparent, as if made from ground and tumbled glass. The sand was so clear I could even look down and perceive a few inches of depth, deeper than which light was too refracted to penetrate.

When I looked up again, a great silver pig was standing on the shore in front of me. It must have just emerged from the surf—iridescent rivulets were oozing down its flanks. It was much bigger than the island’s native pigs. It was the size of a lion. It waddled towards me, veered to my left, turned around, and sat back on its haunches. I turned to it and smiled, to signal welcome and no harm intended. It did not respond. Then I heard a deep gurgling sound from within its gullet, and the pig splayed its legs and belched, and there was the driftwood post lying on the sand in a pool of luminescent slime. Then it got to its feet and waddled back into the surf, its curly tail wagging left and right with the alternating pistons of its haunches.

I picked up the driftwood post, feeling a slight burn on my palms (Traum-bile?), and washed it in the surf. Then I did the most logical thing and planted the post in the same spot I’d planted it in waking life. We’ll see whether the island is also shrinking in Traumphysik.

 

The re-hammered post was nowhere to be found in waking life. But in my dream last night, I checked on it and found it—well above the furthermost reach of the surf. This suggests that, while the real atoll is decreasing in size, the dream atoll is increasing in size. Knowing how fluid gravity is in Traumphysik, I can’t make definitive conclusions. But it’s a thrilling result. Lucifer is rising.

On the radio today, just to refine my working hypotheses, I swallowed my pride and asked base whether there were any unusual events in my locality. They asked what I meant by unusual events. I asked whether there had been any sudden drops in oceanic pH. I was told that there was a war going on and they didn’t have time to measure acid in the ocean and as long as ships could still float and shoot at Japs, the Navy was happy.

So unfortunately I don’t have those data. I was again told, however, that the war was going well. I asked for details. I was told that that was classified information.

Then I was given instructions for another flyover. Tonight, at midnight, an essential supply convoy would approach my atoll and look for my signal light as a landmark to turn north. The signal light must be on. I must watch for their Morse code, giving their call sign. I must signal back in Morse code, giving my own. The supplies the convoy carries are crucial to a certain planned strike, which itself is crucial to our long-term strategy in the Pacific, and did I understand? Yes, I understood. I had never failed them before. I was to report in as soon as the exchange had been achieved.

At sunset I sat on the beach and watched the surf. I thought about how Galileo had hypothesized that tides were caused by the oceans “sloshing” in their basins as the earth turned, and how he dismissed Kepler’s proposal that the tides were instead caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. Kepler turned out to be right, of course. There are ten thousand million heavenly bodies, all with their own inexorable pulls.

 

On my last morning, there was a spectacular sunrise.

I sat on the beach, having stayed awake all night. The colors of Eos were lilac and mandarin. They called to mind the beach of my Traumphysik—the violet stars, especially. I hope to visit there again, and linger longer.

The pigs congregated near me, rolling on their backs and taking their little sand-baths. And the radio lay in pieces beside me. I’d always wanted to take that radio apart, and see what kind it was. I dismantled it well before midnight. I’d also dismantled the generator that powers the signal light. Then I’d sat on the beach with my toes in the sand and watched the convoy fly over. They had done well, navigating this far, but without my signal they would fly straight into Japanese waters. I’d watched them fly overhead and thought I could imagine their confusion, their consternation. Undone, and with so little effort on my part.

I breakfasted on coconut and waited. At last, I heard a distant buzz, and then a seaplane appeared as a speck in the sky. I got to my feet and watched it land, shading my eyes with my hand. The seaplane landed in the shallows, sending up a spray. A boat was unlashed from the underbelly of the plane and dropped to the water. Two figures climbed out of the plane and let themselves down.

The boat came nearer and I began to make out their faces. It was a man and a woman. They were both smiling. Lucy! Gut gemacht—wirklich ausgezeichnet! the man called out.

It was my dear friends, the Gaertners.

Meine lieben Freunde! Willkommen und Guten Morgen! I called back.

 

“Traumphysik” copyright © 2016 by Monica Byrne

Art copyright © 2016 by Keith Negley

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