The Right Answer

by Cliff Gale

Other professors liked to say that Victor Mancuso the mathematician and set theorist “was lost in the labyrinths of infinity.” His entire adult life, both his profession and his hobbies, had been centered in The Concepts of Time, the title of his eight-hundred-page magnum opus. Mancuso attempted to analyze time from every available perspective, and then springboard from them to his own original theories. He availed himself of every known analysis from ancient Greece, India and China, to the most current journals of physics and cosmology. He studied from every angle: potential, actual, multi-functional, physical, astronomical, and even religio-philosophico.

Legend had it that he had spent years studying the vague mathematics of extinct cultures and that, though he didn’t get his answer, he had “gained certain mysterious powers.”

When he was in a religious mood he would tell the class, “The probability of life existing at all is only 1 in 10 to the 215th, which might as well be zero, except it isn’t and there is life. This is considered by some to be a strong argument for the existence of God.” He refused to say whether he agreed or disagreed.

Mancuso worked within the framework of certain recurring words: absolute, limitless, continuum, endless, complexity, order, disorder, indefiniteness. These words often, more often than he wished, led him to words like inconceivable, incomprehensible, overwhelming, and, as he would tell a good listening ear, “even terror.” This in turn forced him to be caught up, for years, in distinctions and paradoxes, and he found that no matter how deeply he cut into his subjects, he could not get to a hard bottom, the type of hard bottom that Thoreau recommended as a place to stand. Mancuso could find no such place to stand. Time was a non-linear flow without beginning point or end, and he couldn’t escape it, or go backward, or forward. The future did not exist, except as an idea, and the past was unrepeatable and generally unknowable. You can never step into the same river twice. No, Mancuso could find no solid place to stand.

So, he sat instead. He sat in his gray fake-leather office chair over his brown walnut-veneered desk with its polished brass study lamp. His posture worsened over the years, hunched over the crowded workspace under a single low-watt bulb, looking at papers, hundreds, thousands of them. His neck was bent forward enough to make a seasoned chiropractor squirm. “There is no end to these papers,” he would shout in dismay at times, when a student interrupted him for a good or bad reason. Sometimes he would take a stack or two and throw them up into the air in front of his visitor, making his exasperation demonstrable, and then quietly request the aid of the shocked or embarrassed student in retrieving them into a workable order. “The research must go on,” he would say, “We must never give up. Churchill was right about that.”

Mancuso’s favorite word was the Greek word apeiron, which allegedly meant “unbounded, infinite, indefinite, undefined, the original chaos of the universe, and a crooked line.” His favored symbols were the sideways figure eight, 00, which is the mathematical symbol for infinite, and the Hebrew letter alef, the alef-null. His favorite phrase from the Bible was, of course, “The alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”

He was troubled by the ideas of foreknowledge, predestination, and fate, but dismissed them to the realm of metaphysics, which he considered a circular trap. It was a trap he felt he had spent too much time in already.

The sign on his office door said, in his own bold calligraphy (his only other hobby), “What is an infinite thought?” Whenever a student came for some varied counseling appointment, he asked every single one of them this question, even if they had visited five times in a single day. Most of the students found this entertaining once or twice, but it quickly became irritating to most, an interference in their own mission, and a big time-waster. Mancuso never seemed to tire of it, and wouldn’t let them leave without answering, even when they had no idea what to say and had used up all their clever comebacks, and were forced to say something trivial. “That is stupid,” he would say. It was surprising he was never punched in the mouth. Probably the only reason he wasn’t was because he looked so frail one strike might kill him.

Forewarned by other weary students, I prepared an answer for my initial introduction, for showing off my own mathematical prowess, hoping to gain favor that might prove useful sometime along the road of my own education or career. I was determined to avoid getting trapped in one of the frustrating circular discussions the others complained of, and somehow escape the clutches of simple logic also. I needed something beyond a tricky Zen koan to put him off, that had been tried before and nobody ever won. Mancuso liked to watch students squirm in the chair after a few attempts at parrying with him; then he would finish them off with some version of, “If you are going to be a student of mathematics, or physics, or astronomy, etc. (for him mathematics was in every subject, somewhere at the foundation), you are going to have to think much harder.” If they were lucky, they would only get a short lecture on brain functions, which Mancuso still believed to be: Left Brain: Logic, reasoning, mathematics, words, time, linear thinking, and Right Brain: Intuition, creativity, images, dreams, spatial relationships, non-linear, and most important (for him), timelessness. He would say to each student, “Somewhere residing in your little-used brain is the answer to eternal thought.”

I bandied various words and phrases about with other students in the cafeteria and Student Union, preparing for our face-off. The most common suggestions were variations on: mystery, power, ultimate, god (only small g), Nirvana, things like that, attempting to be deep. All the fancy ideas had been tried before, more than once, and Mancuso was always unimpressed, so they whined. I was certain that was the wrong approach. I suspected it was better to say something more along the lines of “the speed of light surpassed,” or “ultimate elementary particle than cannot be further divided,” or even, possibly “the basic thought process at the heart of the universe,” or maybe even, “a mathematical Platonic Form from which all arithmetic sprung.” In my mind I could hear his voice – “That’s stupid.” I sweated over this for a week before making my appointment. But it was in a typical college town bar, drinking shots with my roommate, that the answer came to me. I would make the whole thing a joke, said with a very straight face.

#

When I walked through his hallowed mahogany door and stood before his small but intimidating desk, Mancuso immediately looked up at me with his crooked neck and, seeing that I was a new victim, asked, “Well, what is an infinite thought?”

I was ready, and here is what I said: “Emptiness does not, and cannot, resolve the linear/cyclical conundrum of time. The first set of thoughts, consisting of ultimate elementary particles, so to speak, being (in reality- consciousness) which surpasses the speed of light and is undetectable by any natural methods and can never be quantified in less than five dimensions, and unfortunately, we are trapped in four.”

I expected him to smile or laugh or say something like, “Where did you come up with all that bull manure?” (Mancuso was said to abhor bad language, calling it “a sign of a lazy mind.”)

Instead, he looked at me wild-eyed, as though he had been attacked, and asked me, “Does time end then?” and as I prepared to answer facetiously, but keeping my poker  face, he went on to, “Does space end even if it is curved?” and next, “So you are claiming that subdividing does end in infinity so that infinity is then an illusion and not infinite at all and we’ve been chasing the wrong dog for centuries and I have wasted years of my life. I have to start over again. That’s what you’re implying! The problem is simply the limitations of four dimensions. But it can still be solved with math!”

At that moment I found myself sitting at his desk, and looking at myself. But I immediately saw that my hands were his, my clothes were his, and when I hobbled over to the mirror, I saw that my face was his. I had become Professor Mancuso – and I as quickly saw and realized that he was now me.

“I’m sorry for this, dear boy, but it has to be this way. You must understand, and listen to me very carefully now – if you run out of this room telling people I have switched bodies with you, no one will believe you, you will spend the rest of your life in an asylum, which you wouldn’t want. You must realize by your answer that you have changed my life, and your own, irrevocably. You have just handed me the keys to discovering the solutions to my lifelong quest, my lifelong questions, but I was old and my bent body wouldn’t last long enough to work out the proofs. I had to do this, have waited decades for this opportunity, thinking it would never come, but here it is. So now I, in your younger body, can continue my work, and you, in my body, can be grateful for the opportunity to sacrifice your life for such a greater cause. Not many students can say such a thing, though millions of people sacrifice themselves for the stupidest of causes.”

He went ranting on and on while I sat, weak and stunned, in his desk, unable to think anything clearly, but knowing that he had the upper hand. There was no place for me to appeal, no one would believe me; after all, I now had his face and body. I also heard him threaten me quite clearly: “Please do not make much of this. Be content to live my life for awhile. If you do try to upset the situation, remember, your body is as weak as mine was, and mine is as strong as you were. I only do all this for the greater interests of science, which you as a scholar should be able to appreciate. You know science requires sacrifice.”

Then I realized something else was happening to me rapidly, and I as suddenly understood that Mancuso knew it would happen. I was forgetting who I had been; I was becoming him, gaining his memories, and losing my own.

#

My name is Victor Mancuso. In my office is a perpetual fountain, only twelve inches high, and a perpetual waterfall, and a set of mirrors facing one another to provide an illusion (or reality) of infinity. I am a professor of Mathematics at a prestigious university in Europe, but I spend most of my time dissecting diagrams of geometrical shapes, or describing non-random fractals decipherable only to those able to grasp my explanations. I am a brilliant teacher, they say, but I know that somewhere along the line I have gone astray. I know that somewhere, sometime before now, I was on to something big, something that would have won me the Nobel Prize. Instead, that prize will be going to one of my former students, Alan Wintersen, who has found ways of explaining and describing infinity so that it has affected all other sciences and is filtering down into religions and philosophies. Good for him. He has invited me to attend the award ceremony as his guest of honor, since he says my work has influenced him. I am honored to go.

~

Bio:

Cliff Gale’s journey saw him in foster homes till age 18, various cults till age 42, as college kid from age 42-53, then he finished MFA Writing, retired lost, and adrift now.

Feel free to leave a comment

Previous Story

Test Of Time

Next Story

Human Processing Unit

Latest from Fiction

Don’t Look!

This story may not be suitable for sharing with your smart device! By Larry Hodges.

Lethe

We could swear we used to remember once upon a time what this story was about,

Olympia

On the excitement and regret of iconoclasm, from Gheorghe Săsărman's cycle of imaginary cities, translated by