People think it’s funny I’m from North Dakota. Some people here, I mean here at Columbia, people who have supposedly finished a four-year degree, they don’t know seem to know where it is. I would tell them, it was in a movie, Fargo. See, if it was in a movie, they would be able to figure it out. They may not know what’s west of here, but they know their movies. Even guys in my lab, smart guys. We can find atoms, and maybe even quarks, but they may not be able to find North Dakota on a map.
And I don’t think people back home, back in Jericho, are impressed much either. Except my dad, of course, he thinks it’s the greatest thing, his son is studying physics at Columbia! I’m sure he tells people about that while he’s at the counter of the pharmacy, filling out prescriptions. “Here Mrs. Nygard, here are your blood-pressure pills and your nitroglycerine, and by the way, did you know Mark is at Columbia now?” And people say, “Where?” When I was there at Christmas, I heard him telling people that. I was in the store, rearranging all that junk on the shelves. He’s got all that old junk on the shelves, stuff I think has been there since I was in high school, like joke cans of nuts where a big stuffed spring pops out when you open them, or a couple of pegs of cheap plastic purses in these bright colors that little girls might want, except there are no kids in this town anymore, or bags of old hard candy that nobody eats anymore. Every time I come home I move it around some, and we hope maybe he’ll sell more of it, although I don’t think he does. Just everybody’s prescriptions. Everybody’s lasting a long time now, lots of time to hang around and need prescriptions.
It’s a long way from that shop to here, and I don’t think I’d ever have ended up here if it weren’t for Mr. Engels, our science teacher. He was always trying to get you think about things from a different perspective, like if you thought you understood something, turn it upside down. I’m probably the only person who didn’t get completely frustrated by him. Some people were mad because he taught evolution and how the earth was four and a half billion years old and all that and wouldn’t let people call that a “theory.” And some people got frustrated with him because every time they thought they’d understood something, he’d turn it on its head.
I remember the day we were talking after school got out and he just casually threw out there that most of matter was just empty space. I think he was erasing the chalkboard — Jericho’s schools still have chalkboards — and he said, something like 99.99 percent of an atom is just empty space. Not a solid thing. I was thinking, “What?” and then he said, “I think this is to scale … If you the nucleus of an atom and it was the size of a basketball — I was on the basketball team — the electrons orbiting it would be about a half-mile away. That was just jaw-dropping to me at the time. It still is. That’s why I love physics so much, why I decided to study it in college. There was another one, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that said until you were looking at a particle, you couldn’t know where it was. So in other words, looking at the electron in the atom would be what made its electron appear to be in a certain place. I loved that. The more I study science the more mysterious everything is. We’d sit in Mr. Engels classroom, which looked like something a century old, with these old tables for us to work on, and old tubes and bottles and burners that were rusting, and only one sink, an old iron sink, way in the back of the room. It was like a scene out of a museum, and there he was, tossing around all kinds of cutting-edge ideas from chemistry and physics.
Some people in my program, in my lab, hate the questions, hate the uncertainties. They’re in this to come up with answers. They fill a board with equations and try to solve them so they can come down to something reliable, that they can use as a keystone for a big building of knowledge. I like the questions that knock the buildings down. I don’t want my knowledge to get too comfortable. Here’s another one I love, I think about it all the time, that I got from Mr. Engels. He said that in the 1950s they discovered that most of the atoms in your body get replaced every year, like 98 percent of them. We were in Mr. Engels class, after class — he never threw these zingers out to people in class, or they’d just get mad or frustrated at him. We were sitting there, talking about I don’t know what, and he brought this up. It must have been studying biology — he taught all the sciences. He said, “Last year, when we were studying physical science, I got to know you. This year you look the same, maybe a little taller, more grown up, but all the molecules, all the stuff of you that I’m talking to and that’s hearing what I say and seeing me, all that stuff is totally different from last you. All your parts. And yet, somehow, you are still here. How is that possible?
You put that together with the bit about how everything is made of space, and you start to realize how we’re more like the idea of ghosts, vaporous things, than we are solid. And you start to wonder if it’s just as much the space that holds us together, that makes us, as it is the stuff. I know this sounds like the kind of stuff that people think about late at night, like sitting in a dorm room getting stoned and listening to some kind of rave music or ambient music and thinking weird stuff. I had a roommate in college who liked to do that, and I’d like on my bed sometimes and listen to his friends sit there and take drags on their joints and say this weird stuff and say, “Whoah!” like it was real profound. And all I needed to do to was think back to Mr. Engels classroom and some of the wild stuff he told me. Especially about how everything was just empty space. I could sit and chew on that thought for hours.
Maybe that’s an idea that’s more comfortable for a guy who grew up in the middle of the country, a part of the country that most people think is empty, that there’s nothing in it that matters. Compared to New York, I guess it is pretty empty. But you live there, you know how full it is. I’ll probably never live out there again — who knows where my career will take me — but I know how full it is, full of good things, good people, all kinds of things and people that are invisible. Sometimes I think it’s the invisible people in the middle of the country that hold the country together. People in North Dakota are sane, down-to-earth — maybe too sane, sometimes — but they’re not flying off on their wild mental balloons like people here in New York. I think the country would have floated away in craziness if not for people in the middle, in the Midwest. And it makes me wonder whether there’s something similar, whether there’s something about all the space in the middle of atoms, in between the stars, whether that space isn’t what holds it all out, apart, what makes it all matter. I know that probably crazy. My dad would say, “That’s the kid of stuff you guys do at a university, crazy stuff.” But I know he’s proud of it, that even if he can’t understand it, he hopes I keep doing it.