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The Autobiography of an Autodidact

by Steven Utley

For reasons which now escape me but must have been pretty darn important at the time, I once needed to know the definition of “Planck-Wheeler length.” Perhaps it was just the name. Perhaps I supposed that it must be something really special and magnificent if two people (named Planck and Wheeler, I also supposed) had been required for the job of measuring it.

“Supposing is good,” says Mark Twain, “but finding out is better,” and so I made up my mind to find out. That I did not know the Planck-Wheeler length from a hole in the ground, or even care that I did not know, is an indictment of my liberal arts education.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always greatly preferred to live in a world with some science to it, and genuinely admire scientists. In fact, my second burning ambition in life (the first having been to drive a steam locomotive) was to become a paleontologist, discover a new kind of dinosaur in the Gobi, and name it after myself. That was Roy Chapman Andrews’ doing, through his books, All About Dinosaurs and All About Strange Beasts of the Past.

Early on, however, I got sidetracked from science by art. Real actual science (as opposed to the kind on display in, say, The Brain From Planet Arous) was just too detail-oriented for my taste. Also, drawing pictures of dinosaurs and writing stories about them was easier than bone-hunting for a kid whose mom wasn’t about to let him go anywhere near Central Asia unless and until he straightened up his room.

And that other great fascination of boyhood, space: it never occurred to me then (and certainly doesn’t occur to me now) that I, personally, would ever board a rocketship and blast off in some direction or other. I did hope, fervently, that I’d live far enough into The Future to see other folks go off-planet, but for my own part, let me stay on Earth, preferably indoors, and draw and write about other worlds and the monsters infesting them — dinosauroids, as often as not, but sometimes robots. Sometimes both.

In school I was a total washout at science, never attaining even the minimal skill necessary to clear out the chemistry lab with a stink bomb. College-level biology (a required course) found me chronically incapable of recalling the four different kinds of purine or pyrimidine bases to which the RNA molecule’s string of ribose and phosphate groups are linked; uracil was, for some reason, easy to remember, but as for the others — adeline, guano, and ovaltine? The professor didn’t think so, and probably he was right.

Throughout these years, I never climbed upon or swung from any branch of knowledge adorned by the Planck-Wheeler length. Or possibly I did, but was too distracted by national events to notice — my voyage through the education system occurred during that tumultuous period of American history between the end of the Civil War and the début of People Magazine.

In any event, many long years afterward, for whatever damn reason, I looked up “Planck-Wheeler length” and discovered, as had Planck and Wheeler and who knows how many others before me, that it is 1.62 x 10-33 centimeters, “the length scale below which” (according to my source, Nova) “space as we know it ceases to exist and becomes quantum foam.”

Quantum foam, I next had to go out of my way to learn, is “a probabilistic foamlike structure that probably makes up the cores of singularities, and that probably occurs in ordinary space on scales of the Planck-Wheeler length and less.”

This latter definition struck me as rather heavily dependent upon the probable — and why a foamlike structure and not one like, say, spackling compound or chocolate pudding? Nevertheless, I was content with the knowledge that the Planck-Wheeler length is the shortest distance between two unfoamlike points (on this scale, between Point A and, I guess, Point A-minus) except for distances which are even shorter, such as 1.62 x 10-333 centimeters.

I was content, that is, for a while. Then I began, irresistibly, to wonder what in fudge singularities might be — which brings up another problem with real actual science. Learning one fact usually means having to go chasing off after 837 or even as many as 83733 other facts.

That, anyway, is how I became the compulsive autodidact I am today, helplessly pursuing my self-education wherever it may lead, and without a coed in sight.

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Utley

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