Queens, New York. April 9, 1985.
“Merlin Be Praised!” Nerf toasted. The four men hoisted their glasses high, then downed the drinks in one gulp.
I just sort of wander into these things, I don’t know why. I guess Merlin would call that a paradox. I won’t tell you what I’d call Merlin.
I met the Quantum Leapers in one of the cocktail lounges at La Guardia Airport. I was early for a flight that had been indefinitely delayed, and I find that time seems to pass faster (another paradox!) when I don’t spend it scowling at a clock.
“Waitress!” Steverino called. “Another round.” He sniffled. Steverino looked like his nickname: Mr. Hollywood, or maybe Mr. Miami. He spoke incredibly fast, and while speaking, he glanced all around the small lounge. “Merlin, get her to tell me where the Men’s Room is.” He snuffled.
“Don’t worry, ’Rino,” Merlin replied, almost motheringly. “We’ll find a Men’s Room for you.” Merlin was shaped like something made of plastic trash bags, all random bulges and drooping sags of flab. He had a sparse beard, and his thinning hair looked oily. His clothes would have welcomed the miracle of surfaction, I’m sure; that’s laundering, for the benefit of those uninitiated in the higher mysteries. He winked at the one called Arsob. “Arsob, you’ll help Stevo find a john, won’t you?”
“Sure thing, Steve,” said the one called Arsob. He brushed at the lapel of his double-breasted jacket. He was very well appointed, though his glasses made him look slightly insectile. His smile was one of tolerant amusment. “After all, if a friend in need isn’t one indeed, I don’t know what is.”
“That’s right,” said Merlin. “You don’t know what is, if anything.”
Nerf said: “Merlin knows everything!” Although all four were physicists in their late twenties, Nerf was the only one to look the part. He wore khaki trousers with a patterned, short-sleeved shirt. There was a Navy blue golf jacket on the chair behind him, and his pocket protector was bulging with pens.
“‘Steverino’ I understand,” I said to Merlin. “But why do you call Nerf ‘Nerf’?”
“Because he’s so squishy.” Merlin smiled wisely. “Say something squishy, Nerf.”
“Why you know I’ll say anything you want, Mer.” Nerf was earnest. “Just tell me what you want me to say, and I’ll say it.”
“See,” Merlin chuckled. “Squishy.”
“Ooh!” Nerf almost spilled his drink. “That was one of Merlin’s funniest jokes. When he met Arsob, he called him an arrogant, rich so—” Something or other. “Anyway, the acronym just stuck. That Merlin, he sure does know how to make a joke!”
“Squishy,” said Merlin.
I asked: “How did you four get to know each other?”
“We met in college,” said Arsob.
Merlin gave him a sharp look. He said to me, “How do you know we know each other?”
“If we ever met at all,” Arsob amended.
Deep breath. “I see four guys drinking together in a bar. They call each other by name. They toast together. I assume they’re friends.”
“But that’s all,” Merlin snapped. “You just assume. You don’t know.”
Nerf clapped with delight.
“If you had known,” Merlin continued, “you wouldn’t have had to ask.” He smiled smugly.
Steverino gave a wry grin. “The old Chaos Postulate…” He snuffled.
“That’s Merlin’s masterwork,” Arsob drawled. “An equation that proves beyond doubt that nothing is anything.” He dabbed his finger into a droplet of water, then traced on the table: “0=?”.
Nerf was righteous. “It does not prove that nothing is anything! It proves that, while something might be, we have no way of saying so, one way or another.”
Steverino chuckled. “I thought it proved that it doesn’t pay to think about it.” He sniffled. He had continued to crane his head around, looking for a bathroom. He hadn’t found one yet. He sang softly, to himself, “‘White lines’…”
I said: “…?”
“They are all correct.” Merlin smiled with satisfaction.
“It’s a paradox!” Nerf chirped. “Merlin’s just full of paradoxes! …or is it ‘paradoxi’?”
“Why should it have to be either?” Merlin mused. “Why should it have to be anything…?”
“Right.” Nerf threw the question at me: “Why should it?!”
Deep breath. “Everything is something. Generally, if you misunderstand that this is so, it’s because you’ve framed a question incorrectly. For instance: Hume’s paradox of the tree falling in an unpopulated wood; would it make a sound?”
“A very sound paradox,” said Arsob.
Nerf said, “An eternal mystery, right, Steve?”
Steverino snuffled. “Beats me…”
“The point is,” I continued, “the question is framed badly. Would the redistribution of air caused by the falling of the tree cause a not-present eardrum to buzz? Absolutely not. Would that restribution nevertheless occur, such that it would it cause an eardrum to buzz if one were present? Absolutely yes. No possible doubt.”
“I don’t have to believe that!” Merlin’s face and neck had erupted with bright red blotches. “You can’t prove that that’s so! It doesn’t have to be true!”
“Anyway,” Arsob posed, “if you weren’t there to measure it, how would you know…?”
“And didn’t you ever get a ringing in your ear?!” Nerf demanded. “That’s a sound without a source!”
Steverino snuffled. “Do you think we could find that Men’s Room now…?”
I sighed. “Nothing has to be anything, right?”
“Yah!” Steverino giggled.
“Merlin’s proved it!” Nerf looked proud of his idol.
“All right,” I went on, “try this. About ten minutes from here is the Whitestone Bridge over the Long Island Sound. Suppose four people were to jump off that bridge. My asumption is that all four would die, either from the fall or by drowning.”
“You can’t prove that!” Merlin’s blotches were spreading.
Nerf backed him up. “You can’t even prove they were alive to begin with!”
Steverino blew his nose into a paper tissue. It sounded like a repeating rifle, or maybe a basoonist having a heart attack.
“So it wouldn’t have to happen?”
Arsob made a temple shape with his fingers. “No, of course not. Even if we agree to the way you pose the problem, there’s still no way to predict what would happen. The random factors might be such that some might live.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go try it.”
“What!” Nerf gasped. Arsob gave a furtive glance toward the door. Steverino looked like he thought it might be fun.
“Let’s go over to the bridge. You four jump off. If you don’t all die, you’ll have made Physics history. You’ll have proved the injustice of chaos. Just think what a victory that’ll be over order.” I saw a twinkle in Merlin’s eye. “…and in case you don’t make it, I’ll be there, and I can break the news to your relatives.” The twinkle was replaced by something more furtive.
“It’s a good idea…” Arsob hedged. “It’s just that I catch cold so easily…”
Nerf said: “Maybe we could try it with rats!”
Merlin was petrified. He was trembling. “We don’t have to do it if we don’t want to!”
“No, of course not,” said Arsob.
“Besides,” Nerf offered, “we’ve got a plane to catch!”
Merlin took measures. “That’s right! We’ve got to catch a plane! We don’t have time to waste on pointless experiments! Right, Steve?”
Steverino sniffled. He had used a razor blade to bevel one of the straws from the drinks. He was forcing a napkin through the straw, like a marksman cleaning his rifle. “You’re always right, Mer. Listen, do you think we could find that Men’s Room now?”
Nerf said: “As Merlin Wills…”