Explorations in Spacetime
I. Perpetual Motion
You wave a bent twig up and down and in a circle, imagining a fireball before hurling the faux-flames toward your friend. She takes cover behind your yard’s great oak, and the make-believe embers wisp past her ear. Though you try not to show it, you get frustrated in the way she never gets hit, the way she always eludes the winds of your conjured tornadoes, and the way she jumps as you shockwave the earth. This is your yard—your domain!—after all, while hers is a few houses down the road. The only distance between you and her is a few effectual motions.
Bhāskara II was an Indian mathematician and astronomer from a time before thermodynamic knowledge curtailed dreams of perpetual motion with its so-called “conservation of energy” and “entropy,” from a time when master physicists could still daydream rose-filtered reveries about perpetual motion. Beyond pioneering differential calculus and nearly calculating the time in an astronomical year, he drafted an idea for Bhāskara’s Wheel, the first machine of its kind: a machine that—get this!—exemplifies a state of perpetual motion.
Spokes to the center wheel are filled with mercury, and, as it spins, the mercury dips and bobs like a balloon and perpetually shifts the weight in the wheel to one side. That weight pushes the wheel down, ensuring it turns forever—or at least, it’s supposed to. Bhāskara failed to account for the weight-shifted center of mass, so the machine doesn’t work. It crawls to a halt, as all things eventually do. It defies some natural law, our reality’s conventional motions.
The Laws of Thermodynamics were discovered centuries later, establishing perpetual motion as an impossibility. Because energy decays from a system, a perpetual motion machine would need to create more energy than is input into it, breaking the first law of thermodynamics. But, having come this far, a processual motion of failure after failure, why would the dreamers stop dreaming? They simply stretched their dream into a more spectacular dream, the dream of defying this world’s laws—this impossible dream of perpetual motion.
You two first talk when you sit across the aisle from each other on the school bus, before it clicks that everyone on the bus lives in the same neighborhood. When you see each other from your respective driveways, she yells out your name like it’s the first time you’ve seen each other in twenty years. Soon you’re running over to each other’s houses every day after school. You show her your video games, she shows you her dolls, and you hop on your scooters, drift up and down the winding road, sprint in circles around trees playing tag, and pretend to be people you aren’t—doctors and sorcerers and chefs. This is your burgeoning routine, your newfound perpetual motion.
More than a century ago, a perpetual motion wheel not too dissimilar from Bhāskara’s design (with metal spheres in the spokes, shimmering in the sun, rather than mercury) was assembled over a roadway cutting through Los Angeles. It was fixed in a café’s billboard, spinning day and night as Model Ts rolled just a few feet underneath. The spheres swayed back and forth, up and down in the machine like hot air. It was a marvel, a masterpiece of perpetual motion.
A masterpiece, that is, until a blackout struck, leaving the machine motionless. While this solved the mystery of how the machine materialized the dreams of fringe pseudo-physicists and those who dream of perpetual motion, it proved to the citizens of Los Angeles that nothing can move indefinitely, that nothing can remain in the same state forever.
Still though, wouldn’t it be grand? Something unchanging, forever in motion?
When second grade goes faster than it came, your motions stay the same, and as you make your way through fourth and fifth grade, your list of friends shifts like dirt on a baseball field amidst all the tumult of elementary school—the theft of Pokémon cards, all the mishaps of turncoat kickballs slapping the side of someone-or-other’s head. But you’re always there for each other. When you have a month’s notice of your nine-hundred-mile move down south in fifth grade, you keep on playing in your yards and bouncing on your mutual friend’s trampoline, dismissing the imminent farewell until just days before it comes. The effort to pretend nothing is changing, after all, takes less effort than to acknowledge time’s eventual motions.
II. Redshift, & The Expansion of the Universe
The girl down the street is not the only friend you have. There’s the boy from the next neighborhood over, and while your interests don’t align one-to-one—he plays football in his yard, and you prefer to stay inside to read The Magic Treehouse and Where the Red Fern Grows—you’re as thick and thieves, semi-inseparable.
One day, when your teacher gives you the daily warm-up assignment to doodle based on the word “evil,” you decide to create identical pictures of the supervillain you had invented months prior: an evil baby, donned in a pacifier and a bonnet and shooting laser beams from his eyes. When the teacher confronts you both about it, fearing plagiarism, you explain this to her. She just smiles, shrugs, and says not to do it again.
Every time you tell a joke, he laughs, and you always laugh when he laughs. While you prefer to invite the class out to Dave and Buster’s for your birthday every March, he invites his closest friends to a sleepover every September, orders pizza, and hooks up all of his consoles to every TV in the house. At recess you two gather all of your friends and play tag together. You have fun—even though he’s faster than you, even though everyone moves faster than you.
In the year before you move, you feel it. The motion of objects. Redshift. The way that light waves spread and slow and redden as celestial bodies shift away from us, whether from wild wanderlust or from dispersing as the universe spreads like a broken yolk, runny and raw. You know redshift. Everyone you know is starting to seem more red.
You and the boy have the same teacher in first and third grade, while you and the girl share a second and fourth grade class. This is a pattern you notice. The summer before fifth grade, you hype yourself up and count down the days until school starts again, expecting him to be in your class, but when the pattern falls through, when you’re thrown into a class with no one you’re close with—neither the boy nor the girl—you feel long-faced, double-crossed by fate.
Lunch is the last haven where you can sit with your friends. Hard bench-tables are arranged in two long columns against each wall, and though it’s not mandated, the grade divvies up by gender. Girls stick to one side, boys to the other. This is how it’s been done since third grade, and you aren’t one for change, so you’ve always sat with the boy. While both your inner circles churned and stirred like gears, you’ve been one of his staples.
Spring comes: You can tell by the clean smell of grass on the breeze and by the bricky A/C unit wheezing cool drafts into every classroom instead of dry-hot puffs of air that smell like toasted laundry. You’ve hunkered through two stranger-seasons, settled into a strict routine of silent work broken only by your noontime lunch-and-recess, and you’re used to it. But you notice something else, something different.
When you plop your paper bag onto the lunch table one day, there’s new people sitting with the boy from the next neighborhood over, people you don’t know. You’re met with conversations that seem to talk around you, and you can never find a good place to jump into whatever conversation chugs on like a never-slowing rattletrap. Sometimes it’s about football or hockey, and other times it’s about some video game you haven’t played. No matter what, though, talking points orbit around you, always out of reach.
Hubble’s Law notes that far-away galaxies move away from Earth faster than neighboring galaxies do.
You, the centerpoint of your observable universe, seem to remain stationary as the universe expands while all the galaxies at the fringes of your observable universe careens away as spacetime whizzes towards infinity. You’re helpless to stop it. Everything moves so fast, and any light those stardust-streams emit will shift red before teetering off of the spectrum of visible light.
Once everything moving away from you surpasses a certain point in distance, you’ll never be able to reach it again. Do you wonder what that point is? How far can something go before being impossible to reach?
Everyone who sits at your table peels away one-by-one, splintering into other social circles. When the boy from the next neighborhood over joins another group, you eat with some of the only people who came to your last birthday party—the small high-pitched boy with a head rounder than a bowling ball, and the tall boy with a goofy smile. The boy from the next neighborhood over couldn’t go because he was at a football scrimmage, and neither could the girl down the roads because she was at cheerleading practice. You know it’s not personal—you understand that much—but you dwell on it. You sometimes remember how much it stung.
When those last two boys leave the table, the girl from down the road and one of her friends, someone you know from your class, sit with you. The tables’ gender-locking had already eroded because of age; after all, you are nearly a middle schooler, no longer in the age of cootie-stoked paranoia.
You three talk about the recent sci-fi movie, reference YouTubers you all watch, and whisper words your older siblings taught you. You get so caught up in all of it that you almost forget about the boy from the next neighborhood over, chatting with his own friends, so out of reach across the lunchroom.
You two occasionally chat and play video games after school, but nothing is how it was. There’s more distance, you suppose. Everything is a tinge more red.
There’s something off in the bright-whiteness of the walls, in the sparseness of room decor. Your new math teacher—with his blocky glasses, receding hairline, and drone-speech—seems like the kind of guy to whisper “function over form” late into the night, to help him go to sleep, to help him cope with the guilt knowing his classroom also acts as a torture chamber for anyone half-drowsy. And that includes you, bedhead, having woken up only an hour ago and now near-ragdolling in your seat.
It’s the first week of school, about a month after you move to South Carolina, and you know nobody. Everyone’s either taller than you or annoying, screaming in the back of class and borderline bouncing off the walls. You decide to keep to yourself, to doodle and, whenever it’s quiet, count seconds as you listen to clock-ticks and measure how much longer until you go home. Keep to yourself. If people want to approach you, then they’ll approach.
Where spacetime folds over itself like a blanket, you could poke a hole through the top of it with a pushpin and come out underneath, across the universe.
You could punch a hole in the wind, jump in, and travel across the country. Travel to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge and see what San Francisco looks like from a bird’s-eye view. You could figure out first-hand what’s inside the noses on Mount Rushmore. When a hurricane comes, evacuation would be a cinch! Everyone would just jump in their holes and get the hell out of Dodge. You could go back to Illinois too. At a moment’s notice, you could be anywhere, with anyone, with all the time in the world.
Your social studies teacher doubles as your science teacher, and the two classes you have with her are back-to-back. You stay in her class after social studies and watch people wander in from the halls for science. Sometimes she gives you Jolly Ranchers for your good work, and it makes you feel golden. Bright colors of cherry or blue raspberry dazzle in your mouth with saliva and dim fluorescent lights, and they last until it’s time to go home.
When she scolds you in passing for balancing a pencil between your face and glasses one afternoon, you manage not to cry, but you hate that tears well up in your eyes. Some days are loud. Kids scream and the teacher does nothing, too soft-voiced from throat cancer to do anything. On other days—hush-days—when the class is pooped and ready to go home, the teacher can lecture. Whether or not anyone is listening is an entirely different question.
On one of the hush-days, you sit in the back of the room and notice that the kid next to you scrapes brass knuckles against the table’s unpainted side, out of eyeshot from the teacher. Either no one else notices it, or no one else cares, but it’s the first time you’ve seen a weapon up close, so you don’t know whether to be off-put or awestruck. Then you wonder why he would bring something like that to school; if someone else saw it, he could get suspended. Expelled, even. You mind your own business, because you’re not surprised something like this would happen at this school. You recognize it probably won’t be the last time something like this happens either, nor the worst thing you will ever see.
In the coming months, you hear slurs called across classrooms, mockery, cafeteria fights with girls screaming as they yank each other’s hair. You aren’t surprised that something like that would happen at this school. You want to (so very badly) walk out the doors and sprint, to escape, book it to wherever you can, wherever else in the world—anywhere besides here.
Wormholes are unstable. Theoretically powerful, yes, but briefly-lived before their collapse.
Even if they do exist, they’re too small for humans to travel through. Nothing more than a nick in the skin of spacetime, and, like our own skin, it would seal itself in less time than it would take to find it. A great amount of matter is necessary to prop one open, to sustain it. The matter would have to be a new type of matter too: exotic matter. Matter that might not exist in our universe.
There’s so much we don’t know, and what we do know says “This won’t work.” Wormhole travel won’t be feasible for a very long time, not until long after we die.
The grade’s given recess at the end of the year, and everyone floods into the vast field next to the school. You keep to yourself and pace in circles around the yard’s perimeter. Summer is near, and the South Carolina heat warps the air, somersaults it over itself, and leaves a writhing crease in the distance like loose jean denim.
If you could, you would take craft scissors from your backpack and cut it open. You would crawl inside, close your eyes, and fall through the warm spot in space and time. And when you choose to open your eyes again, you would be back in Illinois, back in first grade all over. There would be no piercing bright-whiteness on the walls, nor lunchroom fights, nor slurs hurled across the classroom like spitballs—only you, your friends, big oaks, after-school magic, and the rumble of scooter wheels rolling on asphalt.
Andrew Sinclair is an eighteen-year-old writer and student in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities’ Creative Writing program. His work has been previously published in Paper Crane Journal and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
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