In 1905, a relatively unknown PhD candidate had a handful of scientific papers published in the Annals of Physics that forever changed our understanding of the world. Max Planck, who would later edit the journal, was among the first to recognize the genius of these papers. Here is how I imagine it might have happened if Planck had been the editor of the journal at the time.
It is a morning like any other morning. Max Planck wakes up, gets out of bed and heads to work. He walks through the gardens and then the numerous doors it takes to get to his office. He works on a physics problem until lunchtime, and then takes a break in the courtyard. After lunch, it’s time for the mail. Squeezing into an old chair, Planck slits open the side of an envelope and sighs. Thomson. He reads a paragraph, then sighs again. I wish he would move on and stop living off the electron, already.
Planck picks up another envelope.
Inside, he discovers several sheets of circular paper stapled together. Each paper has several lines that converge at the centre, which are covered with writing. He notices, too, that the letters of the words grow smaller and closer together as they reach the centre. Before reading a line, he thinks: Hendrik. He bends down to get the envelope off the floor and, upon reading it, has his suspicions confirmed. Turning back to the letter, he finds the beginning: Max, this is Lorentz. I have tried to reproduce the contraction idea for you in a letter, but I am afraid it failed. He laughs. A branch hits the window and falls. Planck looks up, sees the rain rolling down the glass, and realizes that this is physics. As he picks up the next envelope, he wonders why the Spanish had it so easy in the New World, while he and the rest of the physicists keep hitting the walls of the Old World over and over again.
With the next envelope, Planck decides to abandon his etiquette and go at it the way he imagines the poor do – he puts down his scissors, stands and tears the envelope in three. He sits down, blows away some dust from the desk, then begins reading.
After a page or so, he wonders: Who is this?
An hour later, Planck puts the paper down and looks out the window. The sun is out. Birds are tweeting loudly, as if announcing an arrival.
“I can’t believe it,” he says, and then begins to scramble.
On the floor, the pieces of the envelope are scattered. He finally finds the address – somewhere in Switzerland, but there’s no name. He picks the paper back up and scans it front to back. Nothing. He looks under his desk and finds an accumulation of dust to rival that of any barn, but no pieces of the envelope. Planck sits up and realizes that no one would believe him if he claimed the work as his own. Turning around in his chair, he thinks: I have to find that name.
Max Planck, eminent physicist, decides he has to be bold. He takes his pen, pen holder and paperclips off his desk. He removes the journals, setting them on the floor next to the bookshelf. The clock, he sets in the window. The rest of the mail he carefully stacks next to the open door. He then closes the door, rolls up his sleeves and, in a single shove, overturns the desk.
Dust flies everywhere.
Planck shades his eyes and waits. After a minute or so, the dust settles and he looks at the floor. Scattered among the piles of dust are a few pieces of torn, yellow paper. Planck bends, picks one of them up, and finds half of a canceled stamp on its backside. He bends down again, gathers the rest, and then sits down in his chair. One by one, he turns each piece over to see if there is any writing on them. Eventually, he throws two of them back on the floor, leaving two in his hand. Putting them together, the name begins to come into view.
If he had been an explorer in the New World, Planck would have been Velazquez. The others knew too much, or too little. Their names are either much more prominent, or entirely gone from the planet. However, Max Planck, eminent physicist, was born in the 19th century, not the 15th. His New World is much bigger, and also, much smaller than that of the Americas. He maps it by choosing, editing out whatever appears to be failure. Entire visions of the galaxy, as well as the minutest details of matter, have come to rest in his hands.
Outside, the sun has disappeared, taking the squawking birds with it. Unable to stand it any longer, Planck heads for the door and opens it. Down the hall, he hears footsteps, sees shoes disappear around a corner. Planck closes his eyes and begins moving, knowing that he will have to find his way out of this on his own. He follows the sound of the other, lifting his still-heavy feet and breathing fast.
“Who’s there?” he asks out loud, but no one responds.
In his mind, Planck can hear the words racing around a single loop. He wants to hear the other voice, the one in the paper, firsthand, but he wonders if it’s real; if he’s real.
Max Planck, the eminent physicist, stumbles out into the darkness. All the way through the gardens, he mutters a single sentence over and over again. Finally, he hears himself shout into the night: “Who the hell is Albert Einstein?!” He hears the syllables rattle the air, and his eyes fill with a world turned to rubble.
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