You might have been forgiven if you thought that there was a giant yellow wood chipper out besides the glass window, spewing out a horizontal stream of debris at full blast. That’s how intense the mayhem was.
Inside however, it was quiet. JN, Director of the Albert Einstein Institute for Gravitational Physics at Potsdam, Germany, was waxing philosophical as he stood gazing at the enormous, ivory moon that shone brightly into the tall, armoured glass window.
“Beautiful Selene, the moon goddess. Who would have thought she would one day be responsible for the end of the world?” He said almost to himself.
I went forward and stood beside him. It was an unexpectedly clear night and the moonlight illuminated the land almost as bright as the sun, but unlike the sun, every detail of the moon’s surface was visible. If you gazed steadily at it for some time you lost peripheral vision and it began to seem as if you were suspended in space and about to start falling onto that ivory white pock-marked surface.
Time seemed to stop while both of us gazed in silence at the magical scene outside. We knew that the mad weather would soon follow, with hurricane force winds, rain, hail, flying objects and what not. Ever since the moon’s orbit started decaying, gravitational forces had broken down our planet’s surface to rubble. Humanity had hunkered down in squat, reinforced, surface buildings or retreated underground. Huge tides that covered continents on one side and exposed the ocean bed, shipwrecks and all, on the other were a part of daily life. We were one of the few surface installations left and our job was to monitor instruments measuring the rate of the moon’s inward spiral back to Mother Earth.
I was curious to know why the Director had called me to his office this late. He was not a formal man and would usually ring or drop by while you were at work and casually give instructions or ask for progress.
“Working late today” said the Director, unnecessarily I thought, seeing that he knew I had been in front of three monitors with nothing but numbers on them almost continuously for the past whole week and that I could literally feel my haggard face and hollow eyes with my hands. We had been working non-stop this past month with just enough breaks for a little food and sleep.
Not that the Director looked peaches and cream either. He was a brilliant physicist, and though his job was mainly to keep the money flowing in, he had never lost his love for hard science. And in the past few years it hadn’t been about the money anymore. Or the publications or even the Nobel Prize. It was literally about saving the world.
“Yes, I was just collating the results of our latest measurements of lunar orbital drift.”
“And” he raised his eyebrows.
”Increasing, as we expected.”
“So how much longer do you think we can last?” he asked.
“Not much, another few months before we are forced underground.” I answered.
“What’s his point?” I thought, “He knows all this shit. He’s leading up to something.”
“Anything up, sir?” I asked.
“Something has come up,” he said, peering at me intently, “and I had an idea that I thought I should share with you”
“With me,” I said with a hint of a question in my voice. I was the youngest member of the Director’s handpicked team.
“Yes. Rohit, do you know what our progress has been in achieving significant temporal displacement?” he asked me, still looking up at the scene outside.
“Well, I know that we think we have sent subatomic particles in a retrograde direction…” I said, as this project was really the Director’s baby.
Turning around from the window he looked sternly at me, as if admonishing me for my implied lack of faith “Well, for your information, we’ve made a little more progress. Since last week we have been sending kilograms of stuff back in time… kilograms.” he repeated. “This morning we sent a hundred back to 1955. I think we may have a glimmer of a chance to set things right.” He jerked his thumb backwards towards the window where the enormous moon was peeping in as if trying to eavesdrop.
I looked at him intently trying to fathom his meaning. The world had certainly gone to pot these last few years. Ever since Einstein had realized the complex mathematics to relate gravity with electromagnetism, the fruits of science had magically appeared in multiple laboratories across the globe. Unlimited clean power and control over gravity had made us master of the material universe. With control over gravity anything was possible. From tiny dime-sized units, electronic fireflies, to enliven a party, to huge skyscraper moving behemoths that took less power than was required to air-condition that building; it was all child’s play. Space travel became routine, though the problems of long duration space flight were still unsolved. Asteroids were floated down to Earth and consumed in the factories. People had personal anti-gravity fliers that replaced the automobile and the same principle powered turbines that produced electric power without an ounce of fuel used or exhaust produced.
The story of Einstein’s discovery of antigravity was known by every school student and was as apocryphal as Kekule’s dream of the hydrocarbon molecule or even of Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment.
In the April of 1955, Einstein, while dispiritedly working on the grand unification theory, suddenly had a momentous inspiration. An idea sprang to his mind unbidden and fully formed. He scrambled to get it on to the blackboard before it faded from his mind. It brought forth such a frenzy of scribbling that his housekeeper twice entered and retreated with his lunch, unable to get him to pay any attention at all to her. She anyway secretly thought him to be a bit of a Verrückter or madman as her English aunt would say.
Later, in the evening, his backache which he had been attributing to his excitement of the day, worsened, and he was taken to the nearby University Medical Centre of Princeton Hospital. There, in a short while, he was diagnosed as having an aortic aneurysm. He couldn’t get operated fast enough, so great was his desire to be back to his equations. The surgery went well and he was soon home. He felt reborn and found such an enthusiasm in his work that he hadn’t experienced for decades. He made peace with Neils Bohr, incorporated the quantum theory which he had spent so much time in disproving through ‘thought experiments’, unified the fundamental forces and in three years had laid the theoretical foundations for generating antigravity from a spinning cryo-cooled superconducting ceramic disc. He had been presented with a second Nobel Prize just before his death in 1961 (of a recurrence of his aneurysm). By that time he was revered almost as a God.
However, material comfort did not, as expected, bring about world peace. In fact tensions heightened and innumerable small wars broke out as politicians scrambled to retain power. If a man’s material needs are met he does not need political leaders. So the leaders schemed to keep old enmities and bitterness alive. Thus commenced the arms race to beat all arms races.
World War III, when it broke out in 1989, saw the initial use of conventional and nuclear weapons, on which scale almost all sides gave as well as they got. Then the laboratories of most nations, for the science was basic, turned to the production of antigravity weapons. Initially targeted beams of antigravity were used but these were only slightly better that the previously used rifles, tanks and mortars. Then they developed massive AG units that when activated in tunnels underground major cities, sent sizable chunks of the Earth’s crust out into space. Huge craters pockmarked most cities. Even more massive underground experiments caused tectonic plate shifts, and the resulting earthquakes and volcanoes killed more people than the wars themselves.
It was towards the end of the millennium that scientists started noticing minute perturbations in the moon’s orbit. It turned out that this large scale use of gravity had some small scale effects on the Earth’s movement through space. Newton’s Third Law still worked even though the universe was now moving under Einstein’s baton and some scientists saw a certain poetic justice in this. Anyway, minute changes in the Earth’s movement led to not so minute changes in the Moon’s. It was first noticed as an increase in liberation and as more astronomers focused their telescopes on the satellite, its orbital decay became apparent. It orbit became more and more elliptical and at its closest pass, like today, it appeared to be almost four times as big as the old full moon. It was obvious that macroscopic life on Earth would last only a few more decades, and then the satellite would come back to her parent in one giant cataclysm that would be visible from the orbit of Pluto, if there was anyone there to see it.
“A hundred kilograms.” I was surprised. Temporal displacement was a minor and mainly theoretical project of the Director – at least as far as I knew, which probably wasn’t very far – we were all working on the more pressing problem, which was survival. My personal direction was investigating the options of setting off synchronized underground antigravity charges on the moon to blow it apart to lessen tidal forces shearing the surface of the Earth.
“But wouldn’t that have caused problems materializing out of nowhere back then?”
“We don’t have much time to go slow or to appreciate ethical niceties” he replied. “We initially sent 5 cubic feet of air, then, when no major effects were felt on the timeline, we sent a hundred kilograms of sterile water. We chose a location in the middle of the Sahara desert and hoped the materialization would be undetected. At the most we’d have a damp patch on the sand for a few minutes, or a mighty surprised and drenched camel – if there are any left.”
“Well, that’s a major breakthrough,” I said while my mind was jumping ahead of itself, trying to grasp the implications.
“How do you know those things actually go back in time? They could have gone forwards, or into another dimension, or just disappeared…”
“Think about it” he said and tilting his head downwards so he could look at me over his gold rimmed reading glasses.
“Well, send something back and see if appears in the historical record?”
The Director moved his head slightly and raised his eyebrows – think again, he meant.
“OK, send a recorder back in time and look at the record…. But it would disappear, wouldn’t it?” I faltered. “I give up. Just tell me what you did.”
He sat back in his chair and rubbed his forehead “There are so many ways. What we did was we set up a lab weighing scale connected to a monitor and printer so that any changes would be recorded as squiggles. Then after recording a straight line for an hour, we kept a 10 gram weight on the balance. It showed up as a squiggle and the line moved up. Then we sent this mass back in time 30 minutes. Guess what happened?”
“It showed up on the recording half an hour earlier.”
“Exactly. While we were sure we had a straight line for an hour, now we saw the squiggle and elevation in the recorded line appear from half an hour earlier. The video recording of the printer showed the change too. The only real proof was in our memories. We remembered what we had done.
“We sent a potted rose plant two days back: to us it seemed that the buds instantaneously exploded into full blooms the moment we sent it back. The video shows a gradual blooming. But we knew because we remembered.”
“We sent a live rat back and it disappeared. We later found it happily munching on my sandwiches, none the worse for its excursion in time. Oh we had some fun with this thing.”
“So, what now?” I asked, realizing that this was leading somewhere, otherwise why would he be explaining all this to me. Did he want me to work on this project? But I was so deep into my own work, I didn’t want to take on something new right now. Well, let him ask, I thought.
“So now we take a chance at reversing this mess that the world is in.”
“You mean alter the timeline?” I asked, my voice shooting up a whole octave.
“Yes, my dear boy” he said. “What alternative do we have? Look outside.” He turned towards the window where the daily show had begun. Dust rushed past almost horizontally, mixed with rain and pebbles. Occasionally some larger object struck the window with a thunk that came in muffled by the thick glass. The landscape was moonlit and you could see lightning flash across the sky. Most living things had perished on the surface and the only survivors were rodents and insects that could eke out a living in burrows. Life was still thought to persist in the depths of the oceans but no one was certain. We ourselves had burrowed deep under the surface and built subterranean cites but these too were increasingly at the mercy of frequent earthquakes.
“We, who were not so long ago thinking of touching the stars, are now banished from the surface of our own planet. Is this an existence? How much longer before we are reduced to worms? Do you think we should miss any chance of correcting things, I mean, we can hardly get into more trouble?”
“So what exactly do you have in mind?” I asked, “I could take on some extra work, if you want.”
“It’s not your work I need, it’s your time” he answered cryptically. “Tell me, if we could alter the past, what do you think we should do to prevent us ending up in this sorry situation?”
“Well, maybe put a limit to the electrogravitational output of a device or machine to a level that would not significantly affect the moon. It would have to be done around 1975 before the mega gravitational generators were developed. But that would mean no large scale antigrav power, no asteroid harvesting, no major landscaping (this was done to level mountains, building in their place luxurious cities to house the ever increasing human population).”
“Which government or major world leader do you think would consent to such a limitation?”
“Why not? Once we show them the maths, how could they not believe?” I asked.
The Director gave me a half smile as if amused at my childish naivety. “Did anyone listen when we extinguished species after species with millions or billions of years of evolution behind them? Did anyone listen when we almost emptied precious fossil fuel reserves in a global orgy of mass production and gluttonous consumption of trivial, useless things whose only long term effect was to poison the air and soil that we lived on?” His face was getting flushed – this was a side of his which I had not seen before. “You know what happened when sea levels rose and coastal towns and villages just vanished off the map? The refugees were no more than flotsam and jetsam for countries that had land. Walls and fences went up almost overnight and at many places men with guns mowed down people trying to get in.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “A scientist with figures will have the proverbial snowflake’s chance in hell of convincing governments and militaries in 1975 to stop using antigrav power. And actually, even in 1975, there were a lot of scientists who predicted that we were messing with forces we didn’t really understand. No one listened to them…
“No, my boy, it’ll have to be something more drastic.”
It’s not your work I need, it’s your time – he’d said. I suddenly sat up bolt upright as I realized what he may have had in mind. “Are you saying that you want me to go back in time” I asked incredulously. “How do you know I’ll even live through it?”
The Director said nothing, just looked at me as if unsure how to answer.
“So I just go back in time, change something and you pull me back” I asked.
There was no answer. For a long moment we stared at each other.
“You can’t get me back, can you?” I asked slowly.
“It’s a one way trip, Rohit” he said.
“And if I do go, what do you want me to do that will ‘reverse the mess’ as you say?”
“There is only one way to prevent mankind from taking this path – the grand unified theory must not be proved. Einstein must be stopped, if necessary eliminated before he does that.”
After the initial shock I realized that what the Director was saying made perfect sense. The world would not be ending if Einstein had not completed his monumental last work. If we did not have antigravity we would not have achieved the spectacular scientific success of the latter half of the twentieth century, but then, nor would we now be in this desperate, catastrophical position.
Would antigravity be discovered by some other person? Most scientific discoveries appear when the time is ripe, when enough information is present in the intellectual matrix for thoughtful researchers to ponder and make new connections. In fact many discoveries were made by different scientific groups, at geographically distinct locations, working independently and unaware of each other, but at roughly at the same time. Then the scientific journals would be ablaze for a time with flaming priority fights. But the Grand Unified Theory in 1955 was mostly considered dead and only Einstein and a handful of his faithful were working on it. There was very little belief that it would come through. If Einstein dropped it, it would probably just be another idea that looks pleasing but is nothing more. And if Einstein had failed to prove it, probably no one would take it up again for a while. So we had a fighting chance that if Einstein couldn’t discover antigravity, then maybe no one would, at least for a long time.
It took another month for the private lab area to be set up to house the apparatus. I spent that time researching on what Einstein did in the time just before he had his Eureka moment. I was supposed to stop this from happening and the Director quietly hinted once that a bullet was a time-changing man’s best friend. I would be going back in period clothes with money and forged papers. No one really knew if all that would go back with me or if I would arrive buck naked. So I had to swallow a package with a tightly packed copy of my forged papers and dollar bills. We were past caring for these little indignities by that time.
The actual transference took place early in the morning of a wild Sunday. Outside, the Earth was taking its usual battering. There was only the Director and myself and two other trusted fellows. The rest of the team knew that we were working on time travel but only the four of us knew the real purpose. We had not dared publicise our theory as there would certainly be dissenting voices that would delay or derail the whole project. I stood on the metal cover of the superconducting disc, then came down again and solemnly shook hands with the others.
“Goodbye” I said. “I hope this works. If everything changes, remember me. If and when the change occurs write down your memories so you won’t forget what we have done”.
We had discussed what would happen if I managed to change the timeline. We thought (and hoped) that everything would instantaneously and soundlessly change. Maybe the moon would jump back up in the sky and the storms would cease. Would the world suddenly be repopulated with people who would have complete real past histories, memories, experiences, lineages – the whole works? We did not know if the decimated population remaining in this time would be part of the new world or not. If they were, how would they cope with the sudden change? One moment they are in deep bunkers in a dying world and the next…? Crushed to death underground, or suddenly, miraculously, on the surface of a world with a normal sized moon and pleasant weather? They would either go mad or be considered mad. It was only the Director and my two colleagues (if they survived) who know the reason for the sudden change. And suddenly it was very important for me that they remembered, remembered that I had existed, that I had been friends with them, been as real as them and that together we had undertaken this mad adventure.
“No chance”, said the Director, “the first thing we do after…” he hesitated, “after you’re gone, is to update our diaries. “ Won’t the diaries change too” I thought. Don’t worry, we won’t forget you”.
They wished me luck, shook my hand and I stepped up on to the footplate again. Everyone was silent. I managed a half smile for I suddenly wasn’t feeling brave at all. “Here goes” I thought.
“You are a brave man, Rohit, be safe, go save the world” with this little speech the Director quickly pushed the button as if afraid I might change my mind. There was a whine that rapidly increased in frequency as the large ceramic supercooled superconductor under my feet started spinning and EM currents began to radiate around me. It felt nothing more than what I felt on the practice runs. And then suddenly, instantaneously, without missing a heartbeat or feeling the least bit of flutter, I was in another time and place.
It was evening and it was cold. I was in what seemed to be a park with stone benches and walkways. There was no one in sight. I looked down – yes my clothes had come with me. My pockets held my stuff.
“Phew” I exhaled. “It really worked. I’m alive and in one piece.” There was a gentle breeze that the tops of the trees swayed to. Birds were wheeling about and those roosting were creating one hell of a racket. It was like a scene from one of the old time films we used to watch in our underground cinemas. I felt the wind on my skin and I felt the rich air in my nostrils with its mysterious mix of fragrances most of which I could not identify, yet they felt so good to my twenty-second-century nose.
I moved around and waved my arms to check if everything was all right. There was a newspaper lying on a bench. In the fading daylight I made out the name – The Potsdam Recorder. The year was 1949. Reading the date suddenly made me realize that I had really, really, travelled back in time, I was the first person to do so, and then that I was so far removed, and permanently so, from my real life and time. Though we had proven backwards time travel in the laboratory, I had subconsciously never believed that it would work with me. I had been sure that there would be failures and years of experimentation. But here I was in 1949. Alone. Then I remembered the gravity and seriousness of my mission and some of my fear left me. I had work to do.
The first order of business was to find accommodation. I walked along the path and came to the park entrance. A few couples were leaving and no one spared me a second glance.
Exiting the park, I came upon a main street. It was rush hour and the streets were full of tired men with briefcases and loose ties looking forward to their schnapps and dinner. There was traffic and some of the cars looked like horse drawn carriages without the horses, but there were also a few modern cars. Walking a few steps I came to a decent looking hotel and without much ado, secured a room.
Over the next few weeks I explored the old town of Potsdam. I had thought that I would have difficulty fitting in into society in 1949, but I realized now that people hadn’t really changed much in these few decades. We always think that our lives and times are the most modern of all – but every generation since man became a social creature, probably thought the same.
Anyway I easily slipped into life as a travelling businessman in Potsdam. I remembered my boyhood days before the ravages of the moon had started to destroy surface architecture. Somehow by evening I would always end up in the botanical gardens of Sanssouci Park. I would sit for some time, closing my eyes, breathing deeply and trying not to think of anything. Not thinking of my mission and getting anxious, not thinking of how lonely I was in this heavily populated city, not thinking of the world I had left behind… or rather, ahead. It was in bed after dinner, in my hotel room that the thoughts would come. I knew that I could not continue my idyll for too long. It would be so easy to forget that I had a world to save, so easy to get a job, rent a small house somewhere and go where ever life took me. Forget the future as a dream. I would then look at a linear scar on my left shoulder where a carbon dioxide laser had grazed me one day in the laboratory. It had cut finely through my coat and shirt and gone through a centimetre of shoulder flesh. There was no bleeding as the cut was instantly cauterized. I noticed the smell of burning flesh before the pain hit me. The doctor said it was a sharper cut than he could have made with his scalpel. The scar anchored me to the reality of my own time for with it were associated memories that I knew were true. Yet how long would it be before I began to doubt my own memories? I wondered what a psychiatrist would have diagnosed if I told him the truth.
By 1951 I had reached America and secured a position of junior researcher and tutor in Princeton University. I had no concrete plans except that I had to somehow eliminate Einstein before he made his second Nobel Prize winning discovery. ‘Eliminate’ means ‘kill’ I reminded myself. But how would I ever manage to kill a human being. Though we had seen enough of death and destruction growing up, I was certainly not the type of person who would easily ‘kill’ someone. Why, I would deliberately miss when I threw a brick at a rat. I had no qualms, though, of the ethical consequences of my act. Einstein’s death would ensure the survival of humanity and there were really not many who would personally grieve over his demise.
Anyway, I soon procured a gun and went out in the countryside to sharpen my marksmanship. I enjoyed those outings and surprisingly got to be quite a good shot.
It was on a clear evening in October in 1953 that I had decided to carry out the assassination. I knew that Einstein would take a daily walk in the evening; usually alone but sometimes he would be accompanied by his old friend Michelangelo Besso. There were areas of park which were isolated and in the windy evenings the sound of a shot would be easily carried off down the mountains. It would be a matter of a few minutes before I was safely back in my room.
He came in alone wearing a grey overcoat and hat. This was the first time I had seen him in real life. The moment I set eyes upon him I felt a strange sort of wrenching in my chest. My breathing became fast and shallow. ‘Earthy ‘- that was the word that came to my mind as I watched him walk towards me. His bushy grey eyebrows and moustache and his lined face were just as I had imagined. He was walking slow, with his eyes focused on some thought in his head. I was surprised at my reaction to him. I had not thought I would be so affected.
I kept my head in my newspaper as he walked past to the end of the trail where the path took a turn on the edge of the mountain to reach the look-out point. I knew that he would stand a minute or two there before turning back and that was when I would strike. I would come up behind and from a distance of about twenty feet, do the job with my small Beretta and quickly but without haste slip away. There was hardly anyone about and once back in my rooms I would go about disposing of my weapon.
Would I get caught? The chances were not very high but I did not care much this way or that. If I escaped I would think about what I had to do in the years ahead of me. If I were to be caught I would just tell them the truth and see what they made of it. The very fact that I did not care about myself, was what was what gave me confidence in walking about the streets with a loaded gun in my pocket and showing no nervousness even when passing a policeman in the street.
Einstein had by now gone on ahead and it was time for me to follow. I casually stood up, put my paper under my arm and, without a glance in either direction, started walking towards my rendezvous with destiny. The sun was low in the sky and Einstein was standing near the retaining wall at the end of the path. “This is it” I thought. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I noticed my palms were suddenly sweaty. Hurriedly wiping them on my coat and I reached into my pocket and drew out the Beretta. I was astonished with how heavy and solid the gun had become. My hand holding the gun was trembling – not just trembling, shaking. I felt weak and leaned against the tree, closed my eyes and took few deep breaths. “What’s happening to me?” This wasn’t how I had thought it would go. I had pictured myself calmly taking aim, pressing the trigger and seeing the man crumple to the ground while the sharp report of the gun went rolling over the valley. People who heard the sound would look around to see if a motor car had burst a tyre while I would slip away. But here I was shaking so badly I would miss a grizzly at ten feet. I felt like throwing up at the thought of my bullet bursting into the man in front of me. It seemed my body had a visceral response of its own; independent of the mind. I just could not do it! I just could not make myself kill in cold blood the man I had idolised all my life.
Einstein had started to turn back. My time was up and I had no choice but to quietly hide my gun and walk away before he saw me. Soon I was back in my room. The adrenaline effect had still not dissipated; my hands were still trembling and I could feel my heart running a marathon in my chest. I had never considered myself as an overtly emotional person and was astonished by my reaction. I had failed yet somewhere in the back of my head I felt relieved, almost to the point of gaiety, that I had not succeeded. I realized that it takes a certain type of man to be able to kill a fellow human being without passion, and I was not that type. Excitement very soon gave way to tiredness; I closed my eyes for a moment, and did not wake until ten hours later.
Upon waking, I had something to eat and sat down to think. What was I to do now? I scoured through my memory of Einstein’s later years to find any one moment when he might have avoided an accident, so that I could perhaps, intervene. But Einstein was a remarkably cautious man and took no unnecessary risks. He stayed mostly at home and when in need of recreation would go sailing in the nearby Princeton Lake. I thought about making him have a sailing accident but I had no idea, being from a future where sailing was a lost art, about how to go about sabotaging a boat. I even thought of burning down his house but found out that it was mainly bricks and cement and would need a capable arsonist to achieve a good blaze and there would be no certainty of achieving my goal as there were outside doors on three sides offering plenty of escape.
Maybe, I thought, I don’t have to kill Einstein to prevent him from finally realizing his dream concept. I just needed to somehow make him not think about relativity and gravity, generally in those few days of April 1955 that led up to his moment of inspiration and specifically on that day, when he was 76 years old and just before he fell ill. Could I prevent the moment of lucidity by interfering in the few days before it happened, while neural connections were still being made? I drew on my intense study of the papers left by Johanna Fantova, a librarian with whom he had a close relationship in the last few years of his life, to zero in on the period in which the theory must have crystallized in his brain.
How do you prevent a man from coming up with an idea that has been brewing in his mind for ages? You can’t up and tell him to his face not to think about that thing. However in my case it was not so difficult actually. The man who had to go was Albert Einstein and he was already a depressed, hopeless, elderly scientist who should have long retired and let the brash younger generation carry on the work. But how could he? He had expounded a most logically profound, theoretically elegant and mathematically unshakable theory, and its trademark equation had only three letters, so even a high school kid could think he understood at least a part of it, and he had done it when he was yet middle aged. He thought he was a genius and genius does not on its laurels sit. He had worked now for the last twenty years in the face of the hidden ridicule of his peers, trying to win the Grand Prize once again, please God (if you exist), just once again, before he could die peacefully. But he was getting nowhere, going around in semantic circles, and he was by now almost convinced that he was trapped in a cul-de-sac from which he had no honourable exit.
After the 1919 measurement by Eddington which proved that the sun’s gravity could bend light, the theory of relativity was generally accepted, though not understood, by most scientists. Einstein became a celebrity; his name itself came to be used to mean genius. People were now looking up to him to discover the next big thing. It had to be another revolutionary but simple equation, and to Einstein, there was nothing else but to find a way to connect gravity and nuclear forces to magnetism. It became his obsession for three decades.
“He had been strangely jumpy for a few days and I thought he was feeling the weather”, wrote Johanna Fantova. “He would leave food half eaten, stare up at the ceiling for minutes then suddenly get up and start pacing or scribble something on the blackboard before erasing it off with a frown and a grunt.”
When she set his breakfast on that day, she asked him what he planned to do. “I vill a little t’ink today” he said. By noon he was scribbling madly on the board and onto any scrap of paper he could find and getting more and more excited. At four in the afternoon when she took him his tea she found him standing silent, slightly stooped with a chalk in his hand and the board full of neat precise numbered lines of equations. The moment he saw her he seemed to come alive. “I haf found it Johanna” he said eyes wide with wonder. He dropped the chalk and did a little jig turning round and round with one hand up in the air. “Yes, I vill show them. It is all here” he said pointing to the blackboard. “They called me an old fool. Now ve will see.”
By evening he had a backache which he thought was due to the strain of the day, but by about midnight it became unbearable and he asked to be taken to the nearby Princeton hospital. He was diagnosed with an expanding aortic aneurysm that could burst at any moment and that would be that. The doctor’s advised emergency surgery with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. To Einstein the disease had come at a most unfortunate moment. He was on the cusp of his most momentous discovery, the crowning glory of his career. He lost no time in arranging that his notes be preserved in case he didn’t come back from the hospital, and urged the doctors to proceed with the surgery as soon as possible. In a matter of two weeks he was back home and in another three months had published his revolutionary paper.
So it happened that in the April of 1955 I devised all sort of devious ways and means to prevent Einstein from being able to think of scientific matters at all. I mailed him a talking parrot to which he took an instant liking and spent hours teaching it bad jokes in Yiddish. I hired a boat and met him as a sailing enthusiast and persuaded him to accompany me in day long sailing trips in the Princeton lake that were bound to leave him exhausted. I sent him long letters asking his opinion on scientific matters unrelated to the Grand Unification Theory, putting in just enough details to make him interested enough to reply. And then on the day he was supposed to have his ‘eureka’ moment I, because I couldn’t think of anything better, drove a hired car into the living room of a house right next door to his, while his neighbours were out at work. The crash was bigger than I expected and damaged the side of Einstein’s house too. It was easy enough to deflate the tyre and make it appear an accident. It created quite a stir and I appeared all confused and bruised and needed help to get out of the wreck. I was shaken and had to be taken to their house where I rested awhile. Later, my apologies to them were profuse and I had to inspect the damages to their compound wall and make arrangements to effect repairs. The police were called, the owners of the property contacted and paperwork completed. Einstein, I must say, was a thorough gentleman and accepted my apologies in disturbing him (and my offer to pay damages) with composure and did not appear to bear me any ill will. In fact it seemed as if he rather enjoyed the whole fracas. All this made me sure that he had enough excitement for the day and would go straight to bed.
I did not know what would be the result of my meddling with events. Maybe he would go on and have his brain wave tomorrow or in the next few days, or maybe he wouldn’t. I was hoping for the latter, and planned to somehow keep him constantly engaged for the next few days.
Well, you all know what happened next as this is your timeline. He suffered his aortic aneurysm in the night and was taken to hospital where he declined surgery as he saw no point in living any longer and he wished to go out, as he said, ‘elegantly’. He died peacefully, sedated from the pain with Fantova by his bedside.
My job was done, yet though I thought I should be elated at saving the world, all I felt was sadness. For a brief time I had known Einstein, I had talked to him, been his guest, and I had been touched by his humility. I also felt a pang at having deprived him of the justification in his long held belief and the opportunity to vindicate himself in the eyes of not only his fellow scientists and lay people but also in his own.
It has now been almost sixty years since Einstein passed away. I secured a teaching post and have lived a quiet life without much excitement. I am almost eighty now and though my memory is not as sharp as before, I clearly remember the world of the future I came from and when I compare it to the this one, ‘your world’, I might say, I have no doubt that, for all its wars and calamities and climate change and terrorism and all the exploitation of natural resources and the exploding population, and all the degradation of the environment and biosphere – it is a darn sight better than armageddon by the moon falling back into the Earth.
You will of course not believe all this to be true, but ask yourself – what if it was? Just consider yourself blessed. As for me – I sleep peacefully usually, except on some nights when I wake up asking myself the question that still rankles in my heart: Did I kill Albert Einstein?
by Arun Murari