The Poet and the Physicist
By Lady E
Warning: There is some amateur philosophy, barely brushing the surface of things, and as such, it may not be particularly palatable to differing viewpoints, nor is it guaranteed to be accurate. I merely dabble in ponds already created.
The universe decided to play a joke one morning and had a good laugh.
Jeremy McKean left his house at exactly seven o'clock for a customary Saturday morning stroll through the less populated area of Fairfield, Connecticut, about six miles from his physics lab in Redding.
As he walked along a residential street, yet vacant in the morning hours, whistling cheerfully off-tune with the birds in the trees, he came across a man outside the coffee shop on the corner. A rather familiar man.
With his usual casual, courteous air, he asked, "Have we met?"
The man turned unblinking eyes on him and took a moment to respond. "Who knows? We might have in another life."
A spark of curiosity ignited in his scientific mind. This could not possibly be a man he had met before, as he would certainly remember such unusual behavior. Searching, he tried again, "Do other lives matter? I meant this one, since it is all we know."
"We don't know anything about this life, no more than we know about the others."
Jeremy frowned, rebelling against the idea that he didn't know anything. Reaching out, he let his hand brush lightly across the man's arm. "What is this then? This body that you walk in, this energy that you expend. Is this not life, here and now?"
The man motioned towards the coffee shop window nearby, where their faces were reflected off the glass. "Is this not illusion, here and now?"
Grudgingly, Jeremy admitted to himself that it did appear as though the two of them were inside the coffee shop. That gave him an idea, and he dared, "Come have coffee with me?"
"How about tea instead?"
"You do science?"
Amused, he laid down the cup of black coffee and reached for a packet of sugar. "Particle physics. Or high-energy physics." Ripping the paper, he dumped the contents into the bitter liquid and watched each grain vanish into the depths. "I like it, yes. I like...searching for the answers."
The other man, a poet as it turned out, had not yet touched the tea he'd requested. "What if there are no answers?"
"There always are." He confidently settled the pitcher of cream back in place and gave a flippant wave. "If there aren't, make 'em up." Smiling, he reached for the small stirring spoon. "The human mind is an amazing thing."
The man finally took a small sip. "Sounds like denial."
Surprised, he looked up. "Perhaps. But – Tad, is it? – denial is not necessarily evil."
"What about fear?"
The spoon clattered to the table.
"It's beautiful tonight. Quiet and soothing."
And so it was, their silhouettes slanting against the path as they moved deeper into shadows. A little too quiet and soothing perhaps, for Tad couldn't resist a teasing grin and a jibe, "Empty and dead."
Eyebrows lowered dangerously, Jeremy gave his day-long companion a playful shove. "You pessimistic twat!"
Their laughter sounded like rockets in the night. When it had quieted some, Tad's expression grew pensive again. Then, "Pessimistic?"
Jeremy observed the other for a moment. "You're not happy-go-lucky, my friend," he said at last and then sighed. "Emptiness and death are gloomy topics."
A glance shot his way, and Jeremy couldn't place if it was knowing or curious. Perhaps both.
"I think they're beautiful. Like tonight."
The deliberately confrontational words arrested him, and he stopped walking, turning to regard his new friend directly. He couldn't quite keep the steel out of his voice as he said, "You don't think they're beautiful. You think the cycle is beautiful. Life and death. Emptiness and completion. Feeling and apathy. Space and time. The dual nature of the universe is beautiful from a grandiose perspective. But each individual element? How can you find happiness in emptiness, Tad?"
Tad returned his hard look with a mild one. "What does emptiness have to do with happiness? It's beautiful in itself, for its place in the world. It is only when we try to connect with it, assign a label and expectation to it, that we think, 'This is bad' or 'This is good'."
"You're advocating not connecting with anything then? Float through life without any understanding or feeling?" Jeremy was confused and also, for some reason, extremely upset.
There was a pause. And then Tad smiled. "I'm not advocating anything. I'm trusting."
"The universe adds up to zero."
It was Tad's turn to be surprised. "Scientifically proven?"
He snorted. "We can't prove anything. Scientifically theorized, rather. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Everything and nothing cancel out, and we're left with..." His voice trailed off, his mind churning furiously for the words. But there were none, so his hands rose in gesture instead, equally impotent.
In the silence that followed, both men stood still, each one trying to shape their mind around the intangible.
Finally, Tad broke the moment, gently. "It does not make things meaningless, Jeremy."
He was doubtful and a little scared. A lot scared. "Doesn't it?" He paused, wishing he could take back the words, but his thoughts drove him on. "You were right. Why else do we chase so desperately after the Truth unless it's because there is no Truth?"
Tad sat back, arms crossing lightly behind his head. "Sometimes, I'm afraid that this whole world is all a joke. I'm not unshakeable. But all it takes is one raindrop or one blade of grass to make me realize, with certainty, that all of this is real, all part of some greater force."
"And that's not denial?" A slightly bitter inflection entered Jeremy's tone.
He shook his head, shrugged, and then met the other's eyes. "In the face of that, it just doesn't matter so much whether I have or do not have all the answers."
"I used to hate science – up until about twelve hours ago."
There was no need to ask what had changed. "No, I don't suppose a wise man like you would have any use for us poor ignorant scientists."
But Tad was serious. "No, it isn't that exactly. I never understood science – all those complicated formulas and calculations. And then physics, with all its shifting grounds and theories. 'What a mess!' I always thought and never bothered with it."
Jeremy swiped an arm across his forehead, removing a glistening layer of sweat and then carefully extracting a single, perfect pearl of perspiration. "You're going about this the wrong way. Take a look at this bead of sweat. It's made up of a thousand different molecules, and each of those molecules will one day end up millions of light years all over the universe. It seems chaotic, doesn't it? Everything scattered all over the place. And yet, remarkably, every single molecule is still present. Infinite. It cannot disappear."
"I see that now. There is clarity to be found in the study of anything. There is clarity in life." What remained unspoken was how thoroughly clarity and mystery overlapped.
"Strange, isn't it? To think the most unexpected of things could work out so perfectly..."
"It's beautiful. Like tonight."
The physicist smiled at the poet. "Like tonight."
When the two men parted ways beneath the dim street lights of civilization, knowing it was unlikely they would meet again, the universe grinned a wicked grin and returned to its mysterious dance.
A/N: The poet was intended to be a Buddhist and the physicist a Catholic-existentialist. I will confess I was severely tempted to write this as slash but then decided I was much too lazy for the task. This piece is half-formed and drabble-ish, primarily dialogue, and nothing I'm particularly proud of, but I would love to hear your thoughts all the same. Thanks for reading!