Read VIII. Ideal Interviews : WITH OUR GREATEST SCIENTIST of Frenzied Fiction, free online book, by Stephen Leacock, on

As seen in any of our College Laboratories

It was among the retorts and test-tubes of his physical laboratory that we were privileged to interview the Great Scientist.  His back was towards us when we entered.  With characteristic modesty he kept it so for some time after our entry.  Even when he turned round and saw us his face did not react off us as we should have expected.

He seemed to look at us, if such a thing were possible, without seeing us, or, at least, without wishing to see us.

We handed him our card.

He took it, read it, dropped it in a bowlful of sulphuric acid and then, with a quiet gesture of satisfaction, turned again to his work.

We sat for some time behind him.  “This, then,” we thought to ourselves (we always think to ourselves when we are left alone), “is the man, or rather is the back of the man, who has done more” (here we consulted the notes given us by our editor), “to revolutionize our conception of atomic dynamics than the back of any other man.”

Presently the Great Scientist turned towards us with a sigh that seemed to our ears to have a note of weariness in it.  Something, we felt, must be making him tired.

“What can I do for you?” he said.

“Professor,” we answered, “we have called upon you in response to an overwhelming demand on the part of the public ­”

The Great Scientist nodded.

“To learn something of your new researches and discoveries in” (here we consulted a minute card which we carried in our pocket) “in radio-active-emanations which are already becoming” (we consulted our card again) “a household word ­”

The Professor raised his hand as if to check us.

“I would rather say,” he murmured, “helio-radio-active ­”

“So would we,” we admitted, “much rather ­”

“After all,” said the Great Scientist, “helium shares in the most intimate degree the properties of radium.  So, too, for the matter of that,” he added in afterthought, “do thorium, and borium!”

“Even borium!” we exclaimed, delighted, and writing rapidly in our notebook.  Already we saw ourselves writing up as our headline Borium Shares Properties of Thorium.

“Just what is it,” said the Great Scientist, “that you want to know?”

“Professor,” we answered, “what our journal wants is a plain and simple explanation, so clear that even our readers can understand it, of the new scientific discoveries in radium.  We understand that you possess, more than any other man, the gift of clear and lucid thought ­”

The Professor nodded.

“And that you are able to express yourself with greater simplicity than any two men now lecturing.”

The Professor nodded again.

“Now, then,” we said, spreading our notes on our knee, “go at it.  Tell us, and, through us, tell a quarter of a million anxious readers just what all these new discoveries are about.”

“The whole thing,” said the Professor, warming up to his work as he perceived from the motions of our face and ears our intelligent interest, “is simplicity itself.  I can give it to you in a word ­”

“That’s it,” we said.  “Give it to us that way.”

“It amounts, if one may boil it down into a phrase ­”

“Boil it, boil it,” we interrupted.

“Amounts, if one takes the mere gist of it ­”

“Take it,” we said, “take it.”

“Amounts to the resolution of the ultimate atom.”

“Ha!” we exclaimed.

“I must ask you first to clear your mind,” the Professor continued, “of all conception of ponderable magnitude.”

We nodded.  We had already cleared our mind of this.

“In fact,” added the Professor, with what we thought a quiet note of warning in his voice, “I need hardly tell you that what we are dealing with must be regarded as altogether ultramicroscopic.”

We hastened to assure the Professor that, in accordance with the high standards of honour represented by our journal, we should of course regard anything that he might say as ultramicroscopic and treat it accordingly.

“You say, then,” we continued, “that the essence of the problem is the resolution of the atom.  Do you think you can give us any idea of what the atom is?”

The Professor looked at us searchingly.

We looked back at him, openly and frankly.  The moment was critical for our interview.  Could he do it?  Were we the kind of person that he could give it to?  Could we get it if he did?

“I think I can,” he said.  “Let us begin with the assumption that the atom is an infinitesimal magnitude.  Very good.  Let us grant, then, that though it is imponderable and indivisible it must have a spacial content?  You grant me this?”

“We do,” we said, “we do more than this, we give it to you.”

“Very well.  If spacial, it must have dimension:  if dimension ­form.  Let us assume ex hypothesi the form to be that of a spheroid and see where it leads us.”

The Professor was now intensely interested.  He walked to and fro in his laboratory.  His features worked with excitement.  We worked ours, too, as sympathetically as we could.

“There is no other possible method in inductive science,” he added, “than to embrace some hypothesis, the most attractive that one can find, and remain with it ­”

We nodded.  Even in our own humble life after our day’s work we had found this true.

“Now,” said the Professor, planting himself squarely in front of us, “assuming a spherical form, and a spacial content, assuming the dynamic forces that are familiar to us and assuming ­the thing is bold, I admit ­”

We looked as bold as we could.

“Assuming that the ions, or nuclei of the atom ­I know no better word ­”

“Neither do we,” we said.

“That the nuclei move under the energy of such forces, what have we got?”

“Ha!” we said.

“What have we got?  Why, the simplest matter conceivable.  The forces inside our atom ­itself, mind you, the function of a circle ­mark that ­”

We did.

“Becomes merely a function of pi!”

The Great Scientist paused with a laugh of triumph.

“A function of pi!” we repeated in delight.

“Precisely.  Our conception of ultimate matter is reduced to that of an oblate spheroid described by the revolution of an ellipse on its own minor axis!”

“Good heavens!” we said.  “Merely that.”

“Nothing else.  And in that case any further calculation becomes a mere matter of the extraction of a root.”

“How simple,” we murmured.

“Is it not,” said the Professor.  “In fact, I am accustomed, in talking to my class, to give them a very clear idea, by simply taking as our root F ­F being any finite constant ­”

He looked at us sharply.  We nodded.

“And raising F to the log of infinity.  I find they apprehend it very readily.”

“Do they?” we murmured.  Ourselves we felt as if the Log of Infinity carried us to ground higher than what we commonly care to tread on.

“Of course,” said the Professor, “the Log of Infinity is an Unknown.”

“Of course,” we said very gravely.  We felt ourselves here in the presence of something that demanded our reverence.

“But still,” continued the Professor almost jauntily, “we can handle the Unknown just as easily as anything else.”

This puzzled us.  We kept silent.  We thought it wiser to move on to more general ground.  In any case, our notes were now nearly complete.

“These discoveries, then,” we said, “are absolutely revolutionary.”

“They are,” said the Professor.

“You have now, as we understand, got the atom ­how shall we put it? ­got it where you want it.”

“Not exactly,” said the Professor with a sad smile.

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“Unfortunately our analysis, perfect though it is, stops short.  We have no synthesis.”

The Professor spoke as in deep sorrow.

“No synthesis,” we moaned.  We felt it was a cruel blow.  But in any case our notes were now elaborate enough.  We felt that our readers could do without a synthesis.  We rose to go.

“Synthetic dynamics,” said the Professor, taking us by the coat, “is only beginning ­”

“In that case ­” we murmured, disengaging his hand.

“But, wait, wait,” he pleaded “wait for another fifty years ­”

“We will,” we said very earnestly.  “But meantime as our paper goes to press this afternoon we must go now.  In fifty years we will come back.”

“Oh, I see, I see,” said the Professor, “you are writing all this for a newspaper.  I see.”

“Yes,” we said, “we mentioned that at the beginning.”

“Ah,” said the Professor, “did you?  Very possibly.  Yes.”

“We propose,” we said, “to feature the article for next Saturday.”

“Will it be long?” he asked.

“About two columns,” we answered.

“And how much,” said the Professor in a hesitating way, “do I have to pay you to put it in?”

“How much which?” we asked.

“How much do I have to pay?”

“Why, Professor ­” we began quickly.  Then we checked ourselves.  After all was it right to undeceive him, this quiet, absorbed man of science with his ideals, his atoms and his emanations.  No, a hundred times no.  Let him pay a hundred times.

“It will cost you,” we said very firmly, “ten dollars.”

The Professor began groping among his apparatus.  We knew that he was looking for his purse.

“We should like also very much,” we said, “to insert your picture along with the article ­”

“Would that cost much?” he asked.

“No, that is only five dollars.”

The Professor had meantime found his purse.

“Would it be all right,” he began, “that is, would you mind if I pay you the money now?  I am apt to forget.”

“Quite all right,” we answered.  We said good-bye very gently and passed out.  We felt somehow as if we had touched a higher life.  “Such,” we murmured, as we looked about the ancient campus, “are the men of science:  are there, perhaps, any others of them round this morning that we might interview?”