his story is odd, and it isn’t really mine. It’s just the retelling of times past, before the birth of television sets and radios. It’s from the day when letters carried the most amazing and most intimate secrets of people’s lives. The unsolved riddles embedded in these long lost tales have filled countless cemeteries, depriving them of life and exempting them from eternity. The blessed few that escaped extinction did so only because their authors persevered. They dedicated their lives to literature and the art of the written word. Sagas and mysteries that never reached the hands of these men and women found permanent residence in the bottomless pit of obscurity. It is only through providence that I now unearth the following letters, which I found buried in my second-hand physics textbook. It’s either the work of a demented lunatic or the bizarre, supernatural events befalling an unsuspecting physics student in the eighteenth century, or maybe the overworked imagination of a visionary.
Ignorant of the relic within, I bought the textbook in 1990 from an out-of-the-way Miami bookstore. I found two letters inconspicuously wedged in the middle. They were halfway from the opposing covers of the book. The mysterious authors wrote the letters on ivory parchment paper, which showed severe signs of senility. They were slightly discolored and torn, with black and brown smudges on their creases and corners. In spite of their deteriorated state, they preserved a sense of nobility and an air of dignity reminiscent of fourteenth-century France. The handwriting was expressive, round, smooth, and uniform, with a slight northeasterly tilt.
I’ve tried to be faithful in its translation and attempted to preserve its character and flavor, but I have to admit, replicating the magic of the original isn’t possible. Not only is the Hispanic tone of expression difficult to translate, but so is its eighteenth-century prose, for which my capabilities are severely limited. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to convey its story because its contents both bewildered and impressed me, and forced me to ponder reality – past, present, and future – and my own sanity.
My most esteemed Jacobo,
I find myself in the predicament of having to write these words to establish a record, of any kind, for no one, absolutely no one, I am afraid, will believe me. I do not wish to burden you with this stressful load but I find no other recourse. It started a couple of months ago at La Universidad de Salamanca, on July 20 of the year of our Lord 1793, during my physics lecture. We discussed the revolutionary revelations of Galileo and Copernicus in stating the earth revolved about the sun and not the other way around. Kepler was in support of these strange theories. He believed that his empirical observations demonstrated the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun, including earth’s own trajectory. In 1665, Newton reconciled and explained these events by introducing one universal solution. He bridged celestial and terrestrial mechanics into what is now termed in scientific circles as Newtonian physics. Simply put, an attractive force between bodies exists and its magnitude is proportional to the bodies’ mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. This empirical axiom describes gravity and an array of other phenomena, and it includes planetary motion and even oceanographic singularities, whose explanation is beyond the intent of this letter.
Much like Isaac Newton, we conducted experiments to prove the validity, accuracy, and everyday relevance of this most worthy of scientific discoveries. Gravity, as measured on earth’s surface, is constant and proportional to earth’s mass and inversely proportional to its radius. By noting the acceleration of an apple, for instance, as it plummets from a tree branch, gravity is determined, by definition, technically speaking. Without navigating through the specifics of the experiment, we measured this physical constant in the laboratory and conducted several tests to ascertain and derive it. We measured 9.86 meters per second squared (m/s2), when its value is supposed to be 9.80 m/s2. We repeated the experiment twenty times and we had the same result every time. We concluded our equipment suffered from calibration errors. We also believed the results were sufficiently close to their theoretical counterparts, which saved us of any remaining apprehension.
We finished our last set of experiments at roughly ten o’clock in the evening. We were extremely hungry by then. We were prepared and willing to eat absolutely anything. We quenched our growing appetite at El Fogón (a local pub) treating ourselves to a cold drink and a hot dinner. I was in bed and sound asleep by midnight. Before surrendering to the life of dreams, however, it occurred to me that we did not clean the laboratory and that we would consequently receive bad marks. Catering to my usual paranoia and meticulous tendencies, I made a mental note to visit the laboratory one more time and tend to our misplaced utensils.
The laboratory assistant, whom I pestered very early in the morning for at least fifteen minutes, allowed me to enter the building but he quickly noted that he would “be back in half an hour to close and secure the laboratory.” Considering the equipment was preset, I speculated there was enough time to run the experiments once more, and I did. Now, as chance would have it, I measured 9.80 m/s2, which is exactly what it should be. I was flabbergasted. The sheer joy of matching practice with theory elevated my spirits. Just for reassurance and completeness, I performed the experiments another thirty times (I bartered goods with the laboratory assistant for this privilege) and each time I measured 9.80 m/s2.
It was important for my colleagues to witness the experiment for themselves and see the results with their naked eyes. Hence, I inquired if it was acceptable to leave the setup – as it was – for yet another day. I would make certain, of course, that the laboratory was to be kept immaculate. Frankly, I did not expect an approval but, amazingly, the assistant consented with the condition that I would help him complete other experiments for his own research. He furnished me with specific instructions and taught me how to perform his experiments, which he, undoubtedly, found tedious, repetitive, laborious, and routine. For my part, I thought they were intriguing, although, I have to admit, a bit monotonous. Nonetheless, I was pleased. My experiments would live to see the light of another day.
The other students, as I should have guessed, copied my results and opted to simply update their respective laboratory reports and not redo the experiment. They did not want to squander any more of their precious time and, honestly, neither did I, at this point. I still had to return to the laboratory the following morning to stow away the equipment and necessary utensils. Given my proclivity to science and exploration, I could not resist the lure of performing yet another set of measurements, since everything was already set. Playing the scientist and seeking to improve the quality of my laboratory assignment, I noted everything about the experiment, from the equipment used and its last reported calibration date to its placement in the laboratory.
This time the results were different (9.72 m/s2), which was very strange. I ran the experiments another thirty times and still the result was the same. This daily variation of an alleged physical constant puzzled me. I exercised extreme precaution in recording every aspect of the experiment to ensure its accuracy and repeatability. I started a daily log and filled in what I could recollect from my previous experiments. I started with the time when I performed them – “between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. on July 20, between 9:45 and 10:00 a.m. on July 21, and today at 9:49 a.m.” I resolved to continue the research for a few days, while noting changes and devising theories and hypotheses.
I was in the laboratory at 9:25 a.m. on Thursday morning, on July 23. I reserved ample time to allow me to reflect and guarantee the setup was perfect. I made sure it was in the same exact condition and in the same location as I had left it last time. Nothing had changed, not the time of day, or the temperature, or the hardware, or even the methodology, absolutely nothing. As soon as the minute hand reached the 49-minute mark, I set to work and ran my experiments. I ran them one after the other, all thirty times. The result was 9.81 m/s2 for each of the thirty set of experiments. The answer was theoretically correct but irrevocably inconsistent with the previous data.
I described my results to the laboratory assistant and asked for his opinion and theories, if he had any, but he quickly dismissed my concerns. He shrugged his shoulders and judged them the work of an apprentice. He said there must have been something erroneous with my setup. Just to humor me, he reviewed the procedure and reassured me that my last set of measurements was correct and sufficiently accurate, especially considering the equipment I had at hand. What mystified me nevertheless (which, unfortunately, I could not successfully convey to him) was not that I had not been measuring 9.80 m/s2 but that my results were clearly inconsistent, IN SPITE OF THE FACT I FOLLOWED THE SAME EXACT PROCEDURE EVERY TIME!
Dissatisfied with his response, I continued my experiments for the next several days. As ridiculous as it may sound, I wore the same clothes every day (washing them daily), ate the same meals (always chicken for lunch and the same tapas for dinner), and retraced all my footsteps. I meticulously followed a rigid daily regimen – unerringly the same – including my personal hygiene. The purpose of this insanity was not to alter or possibly change any potential factor in the experiments. I brushed my teeth at precisely seven twenty-three every morning and commenced with the upper right side of the mouth and then the lower right, followed by the upper and lower left, respectively. I became obsessed, as you can plainly see.
From July 24 through July 29, I obtained consistent results, which oscillated between 9.79 and 9.81 m/s2. These results, in my mind, were as exact and as accurate as I could hope to achieve. On July 30 and 31, on the other hand, I measured 9.99 m/s2 unfailingly for more than sixty measurements each day. Nothing made sense. I checked the working condition of the equipment to see any effects of fatigue, its placement in the laboratory, everything, but nothing, nothing changed except the actual results.
Perhaps there was something about the earth’s rotation relative to the moon and sun. This was a far-fetched idea, for sure, but I had no other theories, plausible or not. Even if I subscribed to that nonsense, I would have to repeat the experiments for multiple lunar months and solar years, and that would take far too long to complete, especially when the root cause of the problem still remains very much stowed in the shadows of ignorance. The fact was whatever I measured was, in effect, a time-variant parameter. Why was I the only person that noticed it, though? Was there anything else changing in harmony with these measurements? I decided to augment my procedure with simpler but related experiments. I took a heavy rock, shaped like an oversized ice cube with about a foot to each side, and used it to make temporal measurements. I tested how long it took to fall from the roof of El Mercado Estudiantil, which was about 20 feet tall. The results were similar and consistent most of the days but blatantly off when the other gravity measurements failed.
Almost two months into this mystery and I was no closer to an answer. No one else seemed to notice anything peculiar about those “off days.” I started timing everything, like how long it took me to walk from my bedroom to the corner sandwich shop and back. I noted the wind, the time of day, and even visibility conditions. I conducted all the experiments daily and noted my observations in a journal. On those “off days,” I found everything distorted. It took me ten more minutes to walk to the grocery store, two minutes longer to brush my teeth, and fifteen more minutes to dress and get ready in the morning. The whole ordeal completely riddled me. I began to lose faith in science and to second-guess everything I did.
Two days ago, my fears may have gotten the better of me but I swear it all felt as real as the soiled earth under our feet and the falling rain on our faces. I woke up early in the morning and noticed I was not in bed; I was FLOATING TWO FEET ABOVE IT! As I realized what was happening, I gradually drifted down. Sound and motion seemed muffled and sluggish. Bewildered, I staggered to the bathroom and life slowly seemed to recover its normal speed, and I regained my customary weight. I figured I was just drowsy, at first, and pressed on, since I’d recovered some sense of normalcy.
I stepped into my horse carriage and dozed off into a light sleep. When I regained my wits, I was hovering again about a foot above the seat. Like in the morning, I coasted back down at a seemingly faster rate. I looked at the driver but he was totally unaware and undisturbed. I conducted my experiments in the laboratory and they, of course, corroborated the fact that I was on another “off day,” which alarmed me because the weirdness started affecting my life in a very direct manner. Nothing else out of the ordinary happened after that.
Yesterday morning, not knowing what to expect, I was delighted to find myself lying on my bed. As my spirits rose, SO DID MY BODY! My anxiety grew, obviously, which, somehow, forced me to sink back down. I stood up and walked to the bathroom. As I became more distressed, my feet hurt and my legs could no longer support my frame; I became heavier. I could not detect or see any difference in my body that would warrant any extra weight, but my legs certainly did not agree. I had to sit down, and as I did, with a growing headache, the chair emitted loud cracking noises and quickly crumbled to the floor.
I must have hit my head after that because I do not remember what happened. By the time I woke up, which was only early this morning, I was lying on the floor next to the broken chair. I was afraid and thereafter became terrified of stressing further. My weight, however, remained unchanged, seemingly. In fact, I had no feeling in my extremities. I knew I was conscious but I was not aware of my limbs. I could see them like in a portrait, void of life-giving blood. I could also see the room but no longer was I part of it. Everything was static and breezeless. I felt the drenching sensation of a weeping heart, yet I could not produce any tears.
Suddenly, in an instant, I found myself immersed in a giant purple pool of gelatin, and I softly gyrated without discernable patterns or ripples, and I was, somehow, an intrinsic part of it. I felt at ease, shocked, comforted, preoccupied, distressed, and jovial. I cannot explain it. I was literally born into a new universe. I was a helpless baby in an absurd reality.
Then I woke up again in my room, as though nothing had happened. Time seemed to pass at its customary speed and my weight settled to its normal level. My experiments now yielded standard results and adhered to theoretical expectations (9.80 m/s2). Perplexed, I stumbled through the day without thinking until I saw La Noticia Diaria, which is when – Good God! – I froze…The date was June 3, 1796…three lousy years and nothing to show for it but the life of two days.
That is what prompted me to write this letter. I may have dreamed some of it but no way did I lose three years doing it. The broken chair is my only personal proof, which does nothing in convincing others, in convincing you, Jacobo, of my odyssey. Neighbors think I went back to the country to visit my family but that is definitely not the case – my parents can attest to that. In fact, no one has any recollection of my person or my whereabouts. I have even come to contemplate that someone could have taken me hostage and drugged me in the process, but I do not know to what purpose.
So, please, consider these events and their source. As I said, I do not expect any action from you except to be alert. In the meantime, I shall concentrate my efforts on generating credible evidence, and investigate my whereabouts for the last few years. For now, fare well. I will keep you informed.
My Dearest Pietro,
I wrote the note I am enclosing with this letter twenty-three years ago. I have been performing the gravitational experiments described therein since then. Although now conducted in my room and resulting in nearly unchanged results, except for seven perfectly arbitrary days: July 24, 1798, October 19, 1801, January 30, 1802, June 3, 1806, August 27, 1806, February 17, 1810, and June 24, 1814, for which the gravity measurement results were 8.78, 10.02, 9.45, 9.53, 9.29, 10.14, and 9.20 m/s2, respectively.
I do not really know what to expect from you at this point. I never sent the enclosed note fearing the world would immediately denounce it as lunacy, which probably remains true today. However, if nothing else, perhaps I could convince you to wonder and conceive certain so-called “impossibilities.”
Pietro, reflecting upon my last twenty some odd years, I decided to leave you these questions because I have grown hopelessly tired and useless in this mental institution, which renders me helpless, forlorn, and ineffectual. Please do not simply toss this aside as the crazed ideas of an old man.
Just because physical laws have not perceivably changed, does it mean they will never change? have never changed? Suppose, thus far, they have remained invariant; why should they not change, say, tomorrow? or the day after? or after three millennia? Maybe they have always been changing right under our noses but at incredibly slow rates, escaping the acuity and perceptive powers of our bare eyes…then again, maybe not. What prevents these fundamental principles from shifting, anyhow? history? popular will?...God?...Why?
Your loving uncle,