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(n.) The fine art of using the shape of your knowledge to guess at what lies beyond that knowledge's limits and of hoping that Reality doesn't contain any discontinuities that you didn't take into account.
I have to admit that I was looking forward to a wasted afternoon as I walked to Knudsen Hall from my office in the History Department. South Campus is not the kind of place where a professor of any of the Humanities expects to do any fruitful work and a visit to the Physics Department is, I then believed, a complete waste of time. However, the head of my department, Jueird Juanita, had asked me to respond to a request sent to her by one Professor Toniwanda Brent and she had even managed to pique my interest in the question of why a late-Twentieth-Century physicist would be interested in Nineteenth Century technology. The letter had said,"...someone familiar with the relationships between society and the technology of the mid- and late-Nineteenth Century; in particular, the technology of the railroads." Well, I'm qualified and I'm also junior enough to be sent on an interdepartmental snipe hunt. That sounds too cynical now, but at the time I wondered what possible use a physicist specializing in Relativistic Quantum Dynamics (I checked it in the faculty directory) could have for railroading technology over one hundred years old.
I walked past Kinsey Hall and knew that I had entered the realm of the hard sciences when I overheard two students debating the plausibility of something that they had seen on that new TV program,"Star Trek". If I had ever thought that historians' discussions of "what if" were strange, I was instantly disabused of that notion. I found the entrance to Knudsen Hall overlooking the inverted fountain that some wit had labeled "The Ever-flushing Toilet" and went into the twilight zone.
Doctor Brents laboratory was on the second floor of Knudsen Hall, on the east side of the building. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the ramp I had to walk up to get onto the elevated floor. The part of the room I could see was filled with one of the new IBM-360 computers, the most powerful computer in the world. And scattered here and there I saw transparent plastic carriers with their magnetic memory discs, only the size of long-playing records, on their spindles. Then I saw the large windows overlooking Schoenberg Hall through vertical steel louvers mounted on the outside of the building. Off to the right as I looked through the windows I could see the towers of Century City. I was distracted from the view by a young woman striding purposefully across the room toward me, threading her way around waist-high assemblages of electronic equipment. Deep red hair fell in graceful curves to her shoulders and seemed to sway in fluid synchrony with the skirt of the long green dress she was wearing. A light spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her such a youthful appearance that I took her to be a graduate student until she introduced herself as Doctor "Just Call Me Toni" Brent.
"I'm so glad you could come," she said after I had introduced myself and she was leading me back the way whence she had come. "We're hoping that you can help us in interpreting some of our data."
"What kind of data does a physicist get that needs an historian to interpret?" I asked.
"This," she said, pointing into the space behind a row of tall cabinets that effectively divided the lab into two rooms.
Peering around the end cabinet, I looked whither she was pointing and saw the weirdest television receiver that I had ever seen. Actually, my first impression was of seeing an oddly deformed howitzer, its three-meter long barrel flared wide at the muzzle like a blunderbuss. That barrel was pivoted about its muzzle and its"firing angle" could be elevated and depressed by forty-five degrees. The carriage on which that "cannon" was mounted was a mass of electronic equipment that I couldn't begin to describe, but I saw that the whole apparatus was mounted on a wide turntable whose base resembled an electronic octopus whose cable tentacles ran across the floor to the various cabinets scattered around the lab.
My impression of high-tech artillery came completely undone when I noticed the light emanating from the half-meter wide muzzle of the "cannon". I saw an image of barren hills rising out of a desert. I know that Los Angeles, left to itself, would be a desert and if this apparatus were some kind of x-ray vision machine, it would be showing me the hills that rise behind the UCLA campus on the north. But I was definitely not seeing the Santa Monica Mountains. The hills in the image were too barren, lacking the chaparral that covers our local hills. In fact, the image looked more to my eyes like some places in the Mojave Desert. And the buildings I saw in the foreground belonged to a city that.... No, there was no such city in the Mojave Desert. I tried to look closer at the nearest building, but the image was blurred and fuzzy with a strange translucence.
"Can you adjust the focus on this?" I asked my hostess.
"No," she said. "I wish we could. It would make our task so much easier."
"Well," I said as I forced myself to look away from the bizarre image (and not, truth be told, having to apply all that much force), "if I'm going to help you, I suppose I should start by asking what it is you're accomplishing here."
"This," she said, indicating the roomful of equipment with a sweep of her hand, "is our Macroscopic State-Function Reader."
"Yes, it's certainly macro," I said, looking around the room.
She chuckled. "Perhaps I should have said that it's a reader of macroscopic state functions."
"That's a macroscopic state function?" I asked, pointing at the image.
"Not per se," she said. "That's more like an image of the surface manifestation of the state function. Are you familiar with Plato's doctrine of Forms?"
"Yeah, sure. Plato believed that Reality consists of flimsy, corruptible matter spattered onto incorruptible templates that he called Forms."
"Right," she said. "Modern physics has a slightly different version of it. It's called quantum theory and it goes like this: the world is made of incorruptible particles with unchangeable properties, such as electric charge and rest mass, and those particles are spattered onto a flimsy, ever-evolving template the we call a state function."
"Sort of a reversal of Plato's ideas," I commented.
"In a manner of speaking," she said. "Just as the Forms were the ultimate reality for Plato, the state function is the ultimate reality in quantum physics."
"So," I mused, "if you can read the state function, you can read the state of Reality. But, as I recall, the quantum theory deals in probabilities and not the certainties of the classical physics of Newton. Is that why the image in your reader is blurred?"
"Indirectly," she said. "Quantum theory is probabilistic because the state function of any object must encode all possible positions and motions available to that object. If we try to read the state function of a small object, like an atom, we see all of those possibilities at once, so we get a blurred picture. That particular blurring is involved with Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. On the other hand, if we're looking at the state function of a large object, we want to ignore the details of the atomic level and thus the Heisenberg principle effectively goes away. After all, we see the objects around us in what we regard as exquisite detail even though they are made of atoms that would look quite fuzzy and hazy if we could see them."
I looked again at the image in the Reader and squinted at the nearest building. "So why is this image blurred? It's so fuzzy I can't even read the signs in front of the buildings. You don't mean to tell me that it's some kind of world in an atom, do you?"
"No," she said. "It's our world... more or less."
"More or less?" I repeated somewhat incredulously. "In what way more or less?"
"Well, as you would expect," she said slowly, as if not quite sure of her words, "the macroscopic state function, the state function without the atomic level of detail, also encodes all possibilities of the world's development, its history. What we have done in developing the Reader gives us the ability to read specific portions of the world's state function based on a database that we are still developing."
"Wait a minute," I said. "You said that the state function encodes the world's history? Does that mean that this," I said as I gestured at the Reader, "can look into the past?"
"Eventually we hope to do just that," she said. "We've had some small successes, but no more that two centuries back and the image was much worse than this one. No, what you're seeing now is the present, but the present of our world as it would be if history had gone slightly different."
"That's what we want to find out," she said. "We don't yet know how to model social changes in our database, but we find it fairly easy to model specific kinds of machinery or buildings and we can program the Reader to examine only the parts of the world state function in which that machine or building does not exist. Basically we take the part of the state function our world manifests and then use a kind of interference hologram to delete the pattern of the item we want to eliminate."
"So you assumed the non-existence of some machine and now you're looking at the consequences," I guessed. I looked again at that fuzzy city in the desert. "The machine was one involved with the railroads, I take it."
"Yes," she said. "In essence we have assumed that Silas Muller never invented the gasoline-powered locomotive and that engines using the Muller cycle were never used on the railroads."
"That's more than a little far-fetched," I said. "The idea of replacing pressurized steam with compressed air and gasoline vapor lit off by a tray of burning pitch would have been so obvious in the late 1850's that someone would have invented the old-fashioned Stink Engine, even if Muller had not."
"Well, we chose it because it's easy to model for the Reader," she said. "But obvious is easy to judge of something you already know. As I understand it, people in the 1850's regarded exploding gasoline as rather dangerous and that's as far as they went with the idea. It took a bit of imagination for Muller to see that explosion as a harnessable power, what he called cannon-power. One of the reasons that the image is so fuzzy is that there are so many different ways that history could have gone without Muller's invention. The probability may be small, but its not zero."
"Yes, well, I suppose it's rather academic," I said, pointing to the image in the Reader, "so maybe we should get down to academics. Do you have any more information on the city?"
"Over here," she said as she led me to a long folding table under the window. "We've been photographing the city from every angle available to us."
I looked at the pictures spread out on the table and was more bewildered than enlightened by what I saw. Along the part of the table next to the wall lay a line of pictures that had been taped together in a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and the other pictures had been laid under them in an order that seemed to follow the panorama, though I couldn't be sure. Well, I thought, use what you know as a surveying platform and build outward from there. What I knew so far was that I didn't know a whole lot about this matter.
"OK," I said, "my first impression is that this city has no counterpart in our world and I get the feeling that you have already come to that conclusion yourself."
"Yes, I have," she said. "It's, um, an inescapable conclusion that comes from knowing how the Reader works. You see, once we tease out the part of the world state function that we want to explore the areas where it is most different from our part act something like potential wells that attract the attention of the Reader. That's not really an accurate explanation, but it gives you a feel for what happens. Anyway, this," she said, waving her hand over the table, "represents a very large difference between our world and theirs."
"So the city is what's different and being the difference is what makes it fuzzy," I said. "And now I'm noticing that the landscape in these pictures appears to be not fuzzy."
"That's because it's the same in all possible worlds in our complete state function," she said.
"And the railroad tracks are also rather sharply defined," I continued.
"The same in both worlds," she confirmed.
"All right," I said, warming to my subject, "in accordance with your assumption, those people would have done their railroading to the end of the Nineteenth Century and possibly into the Twentieth with steam locomotives not significantly different from the wood-burning 4-4-0's that we stopped using during the Civil War. My recollection is that those things could haul a standard train about one hundred miles before the crew had to stop and replenish the supply of wood and water, so up to the end of the 1860's the railroads had to establish and maintain water towers and woodpiles one hundred miles apart. Those refueling stops became the foci of a rather short-lived phenomenon called tank towns. By 1870 almost all of them were gone, but in this other world of yours they would have persisted and spread completely across the continent. In particular, there would have been a string of them spaced every hundred miles along their transcontinental railroad, which is what I'm assuming this is," I said as I gestured at the track in one of the photos.
"How are you assuming that's a transcontinental railroad?" she asked.
"I admit that my reasoning is weak and I'm taking a bit of a leap of faith here," I said, "but I want to come up with some kind of preliminary hypothesis that we can work into a proper solution." I pointed to the landscape in several of the photos. "That landscape looked to me at first like the Mojave Desert, but it could also be the Basin and Range geological province. That's essentially Nevada and Utah. Our transcontinental railroad went through the northern part of Utah and Nevada, so theirs likely did too. It's basically the obvious route from Saint Louis to Sacramento. Further, the shine on the rails indicates that this is a very active line and it looks like a through line. So my preliminary hypothesis is that this city grew out of a tank town on the transcontinental railroad."
"Rather spectacular for a tank town, though, don't you think?" she said. She pointed to several photos to which I had paid little attention.
"Those are pictures of the same city?!" I asked in astonishment. I had taken those blobs and swirls of bright color on black backgrounds to be some kind of esoteric pictures of the Reader's warp drive or whatever.
Toni nodded her assent. "Those pictures don't really do justice to the display that the city puts on at night. The lights move and change color. The whole downtown area shimmers and pulses with colored light."
"A festival of some kind?" I guessed.
She shook her head. "Every night," she said, "for as long as we have been observing it. A little over a month now."
"Display of wealth?" I tried again. "Telling the world 'See how rich we are!'?"
"I had that same thought," she said. "But we've found no sign of mining in the area. That seems to me to be the only solid source of wealth in that kind of environment. In fact, we had hoped to identify the location of that city so that we could send prospectors to the area and develop that wealth for our world. But we can find any mines."
"Maybe it's a manufacturing center?" I suggested. "Something that has to be made in isolation, something like, say, atomic weapons."
She shook her head in denial. "Not unless their factories don't look anything like our factories. But we see nothing that looks like industrial activity. We've also tentatively ruled it out as a military town. We even considered the possibility that it's a spaceport, their version of Cape Canaveral, but there's no sign of gantry towers, launch pads, or rockets. Only a medium-sized airport."
"Sounds like you've pretty much covered all the possibilities," I said.
"We wanted to consider all of the obvious possibilities before we called for help," she said.
"Production, defense, transportation," I mused. "That just about covers it, at least for material reasons. Maybe we should look at some non-material ones."
"What do you mean by non-material?"
"Psychological," I said. "Some factor that makes this particular location feel special." I pointed to several of the daylight photographs. "Those pale blue areas look like they might be pools of water. Perhaps it's a spa town? It would be a fairly easy sell. Water in the desert seems magical enough and if it's mineral water, it could seem doubly magical. That would certainly explain the colored lights."
"Oh?" she prompted.
"Advertising," I said with a grin. "The more garish, the better."
"Do you think those people are still falling for that?" she asked. "That stuff about 'taking the waters' I mean."
"I'm not so sure we can rule that possibility out so easily," I said. "After all, if this is an alternate line of history, then what seems obvious and reasonable to us may not seem obvious and reasonable to them. Your basic assumption about that world embodies that idea." I squinted into the Reader again. "If only we could read some of the signs on those buildings,...."
"Now that's the truly galling part of it, right there," she said. "If we could read at least one sign, I could make a hologram that would unblur a lot of that imagery."
"Street signs?" I suggested.
"I tried," she said. "But this history split away from ours well before the invention of the automobile, so their automotive history is grossly different from ours. Their signs don't have the same shape and placement as ours do. I've also considered trying to read the name of the city off the train station. I've got one of my grad students trying to locate the place on the geological survey maps on the chance that the original explorers gave the place a name that stuck."
"Well, until that comes in," I said, "let's stick to what we can figure out from these pictures."
"Right," she agreed. "Spa pretty much covers health. No, wait a minute. Isn't desert air supposed to be especially healthy? Maybe it's a retirement community."
"Out west instead of in Florida? Yeah, sounds plausible," I said. "The only difficulty I have with that idea is the fact that people who live in retirement communities generally don't have a lot of money to throw around, so I can't see a justification for the lights."
"What's left, then?"
"If we rule out physical health," I said, looking again across the array of photographs, "we're left with...spiritual health. I wonder how many of those lights spell out 'Jesus Saves'?"
"You think it's a religious center?" she said.
"You might say that I've seen the light," I said with a grin. "Yeah, talk about your shining city on a hill!"
"But a whole city devoted to religion?!" She was incredulous.
"Oh, yeah, easily," I said. "Religion has played a much greater role in American history than most people know. It gives writers of history textbooks a rather interesting problem. If they write a completely accurate account of the motivations that drove the development of the United States, they end up with a book that looks like a blatant promotion of religion, the Christian religion in particular. That's a constitutional no-no. We're not supposed to write textbooks that promote religion. Unfortunately, that's one of those things that can't not be done, but we try nonetheless and we end up with textbooks that promote a kind of non-religion. It gives people a rather distorted view of the historical process."
"But a whole city?!"
"Don't think of it as a solid array of churches," I said. "They also need hotels, restaurants, stores, and all the other accouterments of civilization. The churches are just the focus of the city, the, uh, magnet that attracts the people. I also would not rule out the possibility that the city includes spas and retirement homes. That would be consistent with a religious community."
"An American Mecca?" she said as if the analogy would confirm my hypothesis.
"Or Jerusalem," I said. "It's the same basic idea. A place whither people can go to recharge their spiritual batteries. Have you ever been to the desert?"
"No," she said. "I've been through the Mojave Desert on the train, but there were no stops. I wouldn't have got off the train if there had been. There's nothing out there."
"That's precisely the value of the place," I said. "The emptiness and the silence clear the distractions of material culture out of our minds and leave our minds open to more, uh, pious thoughts. At least, that's the theory. The desert is a compelling image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. You've got the sojourn of the Israelites in the Sinai; you've got prophets returning to the desert to commune with God; you've got Jesus spending forty days in the Judean Desert. My guess is that some itinerant Revivalist preacher made this little tank town his desert retreat and that it attracted pilgrims when he was in residence."
"Do you believe that he couldn't have done that without the tank town?" she asked. "And that's why we don't have this city on our line of history?"
"I don't think 'couldn't' is the right word," I said. "It wouldn't have been impossible, only very difficult and thus unlikely. Our trains cross the desert without stopping, but theirs had to stop at every tank town, so our preacher had an easy way to and from a ready made base in an isolated and empty area, something his counterpart in our world did not have."
"OK, I think I'm starting to see it," she said. "If our preacher had been popular enough - say a William Jennings Bryan who didn't blow it...."
"Bryan was a politician, not a preacher," I interrupted. "You're confusing him with the role he played at the Scopes Trial."
"Well, then, someone like him," she said. "If he had been popular enough, he would have made the town famous, a focus of pilgrimage."
"If he had been influential enough, he might even have established a school to perpetuate his ideals," I said.
"A Bible college!" she said, snapping her fingers. She rummaged among the photographs on the table and thrust one at me. "We knew it was too big for a high school, but we couldn't figure out why there would be a college out there. Yeah, that's it! The tank town grew into a college town that grew...."
"Hey, Toni!" a young man's voice called from the door of the lab. "I found it!"
I turned around and saw a man of apparent Japanese ancestry coming toward waving a large envelope and what looked like a rolled-up map. Toni introduced him to me as Fumio Yoshida, one of her graduate students. After acknowledging the introduction he tossed the rolled-up map onto the table, pulled several dozen photographs from his envelope, and laid them out on the table, lining ten of them up under Toni's panorama.
"You went there?!" Toni said incredulously.
"Hey, I had to be sure," he said with a shrug. "Yeah, look! The mountains match up perfectly."
I have to admit that I wasn't ready for what I saw in those pictures. "Wow, have you ever seen anything so barren?!" I said. "How did you find it?"
"I used the Reader," he said. "At night I could measure the elevation of Polaris above where I estimated the horizon to be and get an estimate of the latitude. Then I recorded the times of sunrise and sunset both here and there and used the difference to get an estimate of the longitude. Thirty-six, ten North and a hundred-fifteen, ten West."
"Thirty-six?!" I exclaimed. "That's too far south! The transcontinental railroad goes through Nevada basically at forty-one North."
"Maybe they built theirs on a southern route," Toni suggested. "Go south through the San Joaquin Valley, cross the Tehachapis, then turn north and east to Salt Lake. It adds what - five hundred, six hundred miles? But it avoids the problems of blasting tunnels and building trestles and snowsheds and the ongoing effort and expense of keeping the track clear in the winter."
"Apparently so," I said. "It's certainly the right spot." I pointed to one of the photos. "Are those buildings?"
"Ruins," Fumio said. "The Mormons started a settlement out there in the 1850's, but then they wised up and went away. Man, you want to talk about isolated? It took me two days just to get there and two days to get back. The only person I saw out there was some old guy running sheep. That place is really disorienting, I gotta tell you. To know that there's supposed to be this big city there and to see totally nothing gets a little spooky. Truly weird. I know a Zen monk who would love the place."
"We were just speculating along similar lines," Toni said. "Does the site have a name?"
"Oh, yeah," Fumio said. "That's the payoff. According to the nice folks at the county courthouse, the Spanish sent an expedition through there in 1829. Those guys must have been real jokers. Or they were looking to run some kind of land development scam."
"The latter is likely closer to the truth," I said half absent-mindedly as the Reader caught my attention. The sun was just going down in Los Angeles, but evening had come to our American Mecca and even in the twilight the arrays of light dancing on and in front of the churches were impressive. It was, I thought, a modern equivalent of the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals, a beautiful, albeit expensive, testament to a people='s faith.
"Yeah, maybe so," Fumio said. "Anyway, the punchline is that they called it 'The Meadows'."
"Good," Toni said. "Now we can try to set up a correction hologram."
"You might want to use the original Spanish," I said. "We kept the place names untranslated here because they sound more poetic in Spanish than they do in English. Those people," I said gesturing at the Reader, "would likely do the same. They're not all that different from us, so I think you'll find that your American Mecca is actually called Las Vegas."
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