Chapter 2: The Discovery
It turned out Dad’s idea of becoming a scientist involved an incredible amount of reading. Somehow I had anticipated building electronics at his workbench, working through equations, or bouncing radio signals around with the radio hardware in his study. Dad explained that I was not going to touch his radio equipment until I finally got around to taking and passing my Amateur Radio License exam. He said that if I wanted to be a scientist, I had to think like a scientist. If I wanted to think like a scientist, I had to learn what and how scientists thought, and the best way to do that was to read what they wrote. “Michael Faraday started out as an apprentice to a bookbinder,” my father explained. “He taught himself science by reading the books he bound. You could do much worse than to follow his example.”
Mom actually was a scientist. She’d studied chemistry and was working on her Ph.D. when she dropped out of school to have Kira and marry Dad. She was a great help when I took chemistry last year, but she expected me to just know all the atomic weights and ionic states and such. All of them. Perfectly. Right away. Trying to learn chemistry from her was an exercise in frustration on both sides.
Dad, on the other hand, was a patient teacher. One of my earliest memories was sitting in his lap while he read Barenstein Bears books to me. He was a great reader and had an excellent library. His books ranged from technical books about electrical engineering, electronics, and radio to works of history, philosophy, and politics. His answer to many of my questions was to hand me the appropriate book to read, and stand ready to rectify my confusions. When I took an introduction to calculus at the community college last fall, he handed me a beat up copy of Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus Thompson.
Dad was a great help on my calculus homework. He’d earned a degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, worked for a while, and met my Mom while he was back in school working on a masters. They got married and returned to Sherman, Tennessee, where he got a job in electrical contracting just before my big sister was born. He didn’t use all the math he studied in school, but he remembered plenty. His work was feast or famine. He’d land a big industrial job and work sixteen hours a day or even more, including a round trip to Johnson City, Knoxville, or as far away as Chattanooga. He usually had enough work to keep a couple other contractors and apprentices busy. Then, he’d have a few months at a slower pace doing mostly residential construction work before the next big job came up. That spring, he’d finished up work at a new auto plant and was back to a more sedate pace.
So when I set out to be a scientist, he handed me a well-worn copy of Matter and Motion by James Clerk Maxwell. “He’s one of the smartest and most successful scientists that ever lived,” Dad explained. “When you read his book you’re learning exactly how a brilliant scientist thinks about the most basic concepts. You’re learning straight from the guy who figured out how electromagnetics works, instead of suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.”
I was surprised how interesting and readable the book was. Dad would answer my questions and help me with some of the math when I got home from school. Debate season was over for me since I hadn’t qualified for Nationals. I had plenty of spare time to study. Some of the math went completely over my head, particularly the section on what Maxwell called “Least Action.” Most of it was merely difficult. I’d grind through, get stuck, Dad would get me going again, and I’d grind some more. I was glad I’d taken calculus already. By the time the school year was almost over, I’d worked my way through Matter and Motion.
Dad asked, “Have you given a thought to what you want to do this summer?”
The previous summer I’d tagged along with him doing electrical work as an apprentice. The time wouldn’t count toward becoming a journeyman electrician since I didn’t have a high school diploma, but the experience would be helpful if I wanted to try working as an electrician while I was in school, like Dad did. And the money was pretty good too! “Are you busy enough that I can help you out like last summer?”
“I’m taking some time to help out your Uncle Rob, but it’s nothing you need to help on. I’m also working a small residential job near Knoxville, but it’s strictly part time. I may want you to help out here and there if I get in a crunch. Mom and I want to take the family on a week-long vacation in August. I want to stop in at a trade show in Houston and visit the Huntsville Hamfest on the way back. On the way out we’ll pick up Kira and visit some of the familiar sights in Nashville and Memphis – just a road trip, nothing elaborate. It may be one of our last opportunities for a family road trip, what with you heading off to college next year and Kira graduating. You’ll need to find something to do with the rest of your summer. I have a proposition for you. You keep up with your studies and take a college-level physics class at the community college – the calculus-based one, so you can apply it to a degree in physics or engineering. Ace the class, and I’ll pay you for the hours. Same rate as last summer.”
That seemed uncharacteristically generous of Dad. Last summer, he had me logging hours on a timesheet for working in the heat and humidity of construction sites all summer long. Getting paid for studying? He must be feeling prosperous after finishing up that auto plant job. “Sounds like a good deal,” I replied, before Dad had a chance to regret his largess. “I also want to do research for next year’s debate topic. Would that be included?”
Dad was always supportive of my debate research. “Reading makes a full man, Meditation a profound man, and Discourse a clear man,” he was fond of quoting.
“What’s the topic for next year?” Dad asked.
I knew this was going to be trouble. “Resolved that the U.S. federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.”
He glared. “You realize, the Gore Tax has done more to destroy the country’s economy than even 9/11. Coal towns up and down Appalachia have been devastated. Taxing carbon was bad enough. But subsidizing uneconomical forms of energy only adds foolishness to folly.”
Yes, my father was a climate denier.
President Lieberman got Congress to pass the Preserving our Planet’s Future Act as a monument to the late President Gore. A key part of the plan to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and rein in global warming involved a carbon tax that opponents, like Dad, called the “Gore Tax.” Global temperatures had stopped rising and in fact levelled off in the years since the plan passed. A strong consensus of scientists all agreed that the President’s action had averted global disaster, yet some extremists denied there was a connection between the law and the climate. It was all just a coincidence and natural variation, they claimed. Dad followed climate-denier websites like wattsupwiththat.com where skeptics argued that because carbon dioxide levels had continued to rise while temperatures levelled off, the Gore Tax was ineffective. But any number of climate scientists had models proving just how much worse greenhouse gases and temperatures both would have been without the law. I’d tried discussing the scientific consensus and the importance of saving the planet from climate change with Dad, but he was just too stubborn to listen to me.
“Of course, I have to be able argue both sides of the topic,” I pointed out. “And I’d appreciate whatever evidence, insights, and arguments you could share.”
I doubt I fooled him, but he smiled. “I suppose so. But mind you, I’ll expect you to keep filling out your timesheet and account to me for the work you do.”
I agreed, glad to have that potential conflict averted.
* * *
My summer days fell into a routine. I got up, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed on over to Kudzu Joe’s coffeehouse. It was slow in the mornings. The local Masons met there Wednesdays for breakfast, and there were some retired gentlemen who tended to hang out and shoot the breeze. There were a couple of truckers who’d stop in now and then to grumble to each other about how the Gore Tax put them out of business. But most of the customers were lawyers from the Lee County Courthouse across the square, business people with offices nearby, or other truckers or working folk who came in, grabbed a cup and left. Joe didn’t mind my nursing a cup of coffee and working at one of the tables. Sometimes, my best friend and debate partner, Amit Patel, would join me if we were working on debate prep. Usually though, I spent the time studying physics. By the time the lunch crowd started in, I headed home for lunch.
Then I went off to the community college for my physics class which was held Monday through Thursday. Friday was a study and review session which I usually skipped. After class, my schedule was less fixed. I’d sometimes head back to Joe’s. Sometimes I’d head home if Dad were in, and if I thought I’d need his help on the latest homework. Sometimes I’d head over to the Berkshire Inn. It was a national hotel chain, but the Patels owned the local franchise. They had a small lounge where they served breakfast in the morning, and I could work there with Amit, when he didn’t have to get behind the desk to check in a customer or run an errand for his folks. His folks didn’t mind if we used the exercise equipment in the weight room, so sometimes we’d work out or swim before I headed home for dinner. And I’d been over to the hotel weekly during the school year watching the science fiction-western, Firefly, with Amit on the big screen TV in the lounge. By then, the show was in its second season, and we caught every episode.
Amit started joining me at Kudzu Joe’s more often when our mutual friend from the debate team, Emma, started working a morning shift as a barista. Lately, he’d been studying up on something called game theory. I’d heard of game theory, but the kind of game theory Amit was studying involved trying to manipulate girls into going out with him. Naturally, I found the concept fascinating, having developed quite an interest in girls, myself. Near as I could figure from Amit’s description, it involved “negging” or putting down a girl’s self-esteem to the point where she’d go out with you. It didn’t make much sense to me why you’d want to date a girl with poor self-esteem who could be so easily manipulated.
One morning, my obnoxious cousin Abby Tolliver came into Kudzu Joe’s with a gaggle of her friends. As they were ordering and picking up their drinks, Amit smirked. “Witness my game,” he said softly as he got up and walked confidently over to Abby and her friends. “Hi, Abby,” he said.
“What do you want, loser?” Abby said contemptuously. I marveled at how effectively she communicated her scorn, making her “you” sound like “eeyoo.” Her nose crinkled in disgust at Amit’s effrontery in thinking he was worthy to speak with her. Abby’s friends giggled at what they perceived as Amit’s humiliation.
Amit looked impassively at Abby for a moment before continuing. “I just wanted to let you know how very sorry I am,” he said with seemingly sincere regret, “but I won’t be asking you out to the Fall Ball in September.”
One of Abby’s friends almost choked on her iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk. Abby was so outraged at Amit’s presumption she couldn’t speak for a moment. Amit just stared at her with a concerned and sympathetic look on his face. He was fortunate to have timed his approach before she got her drink or he might have ended up with a face full of scalding hot decaf soy latte. Finally, Abby exclaimed, “What makes you think I’d even consider going out with you?!?”
A look of relief swept over Amit’s face. “Oh, I’m so glad you feel the same way. Thanks for taking it so well.” He nodded gravely at the girls and said, “Ladies,” by way of a goodbye. Then he turned his back to them dismissively, strode confidently over to the table, and sat down facing me. “Do warn me if your dear cousin is about to smack me on the back of the head,” he said softly.
Abby’s ejaculation as she stormed out the coffee shop was unworthy of a true Southern young lady. Her friends followed in her wake. “You certainly pissed her off,” I observed. “If that was an example of your ‘game,’ I’d say ‘you lost.’ Abby is even less likely now to ever go out with you than she was before. Of course that’s an accomplishment in itself.”
“You still don’t get it.” Amit sighed. “I wasn’t gaming Abby.”
“Huh?” I was confused.
“Look, Abby may be bitchy, but she’s cute, her family is loaded, and she’s probably the single most popular girl in school. She thinks she’s way too good for the likes of me. Only the top guys in her little clique’s pecking order have a chance with her, right?”
“Yeah…” I still didn’t get it.
“So where does that leave the guy who apparently just turned her down?”
I began to see what he was getting at, but it still didn’t make sense. “It’s not like you’re going to be, oh, homecoming king just because you preemptively turned down Abby when you had no shot with her in the first place.”
He grinned “No, of course not. But Abby just got rejected by someone her clique rates as a zero. That’s blood in the water for the sharks she swims with.”
“All I see is you came up with a clever and convoluted way to cut down and infuriate Abby. Not that she doesn’t deserve it. But I don’t see what it buys you.”
“Ah, but not every girl is a part of her clique, and the ones Abby and her gang snub and put down will jump at the chance to perceive themselves as better than Abby – to go out with the guy who turned down Abby Tolliver.”
Realization was beginning to dawn. “You’re ‘gaming’ Emma.”
He got that cocky grin again. “Not necessarily. Can’t tie yourself down to one girl, dude. Gotta play it cool, have the attitude that you’re in demand, you don’t need any particular girl. ‘Gotta fake it ‘til you make it.’” He dropped the attitude and stopped regurgitating his pick-up artist slogans. “But if all this lands me a date with Emma, I’ll start there. You pick up any vibes from Emma?” His back was to her, and she was serving another customer.
“She did seem awfully amused when Abby and her gang stormed off. And she’s been looking over this way. Are you going to ask her out?”
“‘Indications of interest,’” he said proudly, as if he were a doctor providing a professional diagnosis. “I’m not going to ask her out right now. Too obvious. She’s no dummy. But, soon.” He took a sip of his coffee. “See, you need to understand game. I have the Indian thing to overcome, so I have to have good game just to break even, at least with girls around here. You could clean up if you put your mind to it. And you’ve got the whole bad-boy mystique going for you, what with your dad marrying a Tolliver.”
I never ceased to be amazed how everyone in town seemed to know everyone else’s business. I’d certainly never mentioned my parents’ story to him, what little I actually knew of it.
It must have been fifteen minutes later when Sheriff Gunn walked into Kudzu Joe’s. He came through the door and stopped. Seeing us, he came straight over to our table with a slow and commanding authority. He was a big and imposing man, but he also had some trick of posture and body language that made me feel… vulnerable. I took a deep breath and studied how he walked and held himself. It helped me distance myself from his intimidating influence. I still had to will myself to remain calm as he spoke.
“Boys, a very respectable young lady filed a complaint with me just now that she was verbally assaulted in this establishment not long ago,” The sheriff towered above Amit. “Either of you two have any comment?”
“Well, sir,” I preempted Amit, “if there were any abuse I’m afraid it was directed by my cousin, Abby, at Amit, here. He very politely declined to go with her to a dance, and unfortunately, Abby took it rather poorly.”
“You expect me to believe that Abby Tolliver,” the sheriff was so incredulous he said her name twice, “Abby Tolliver wanted to go to a dance with Amit Patel?”
“Oh, I don’t know, sir. I didn’t think so either at first, but Abby got so upset when Amit turned her down that, well, I have to wonder if maybe she truly did have a crush on him. But, anyway, Amit was polite and courteous throughout the entire exchange. A perfect gentleman.” I said all that just loud enough that Emma could hear and, hopefully, take the hint. Sure enough, Sheriff Gunn called her over. Emma was no great friend of Abby. She explained it to the sheriff more or less the same way.
I think Sheriff Gunn could see this was going nowhere, but he felt he had to put us in our place. “Boys, this is a quiet town and I aim to keep it that way. If I hear any more complaints from Miss Tolliver, so help me I will run you both in for disturbing the peace and I’ll let your fathers tan your hides when they pick you up, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” we both said.
The sheriff looked straight at me. “I understand there’s been a lot of traffic off the old highway near your Uncle Rob’s place. Lots of trucks. You know anything about that?”
Dad had mentioned something about a project up at Uncle Rob’s but he’d lectured me strongly never to mention his business around town. “No, sir. I haven’t been up to see Uncle Rob in months,” I said truthfully.
Sheriff Gunn grunted and left.
“Thanks guys,” Amit said to both me and Emma, “I owe you.” He turned to Emma and casually laid his hand on her forearm. “How about I treat you to a movie and ice cream when you get off, by way of thanks?”
Damn if she didn’t take him up on it. They exchanged numbers.
“What happened to waiting and asking her out later,” I asked after Emma was out of earshot, back behind the counter serving her next customer.
“It was the right time. Mutual shared danger. Excitement. And now all those tingles are linked in her mind with me asking her out. Twenty bucks says we make out on the first date.”
After what I’d seen, I wasn’t going to take him up on the offer. “So you’re doing her the favor by allowing her the privilege of a date with you?” I was still a bit incredulous at it all.
“Gotta maintain the right frame,” he said. “Establish your superior value and follow through.” He dropped the cocky attitude for a moment. “That did work out better – and faster – than I expected. And thanks for the save with the sheriff. Like Abby got so upset because she secretly yearns for me.” He was loving it. “I can’t wait for that one to get around. I owe you, dude.”
“Yeah, the next family get-together is going to be pretty interesting, but it was worth it to see her taken down a peg,” I assured him. By then, it was lunch time. Amit nonchalantly blew Emma a kiss as we left. She giggled. Girls.
The Lee County sheriff interrogating someone about a teenage squabble speaks volumes about how the Tollivers pretty much owned the county. And yes, my mom actually was one of those Tollivers. My Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Jake Tolliver started off in coal but the family wisely diversified into lumber, chemicals, and other businesses long before the great coal crash. When Mom fell for Dad at school, her parents forbade the match. They saw Dad as an uncouth adventurer trying to marry his way into money. The Tollivers disowned Mom and it was years before they spoke again. More recently, Grandma Tolliver insisted on inviting us over for Thanksgiving. Grandma was always gracious, but she was the exception. With Abby’s father, my Uncle Larry, around, we spent most of the meal pretending not to notice that the Tollivers were pretending not to look down on us. Mom’s other brother, my Uncle Mike, was just as bad. The social structure of the community was pretty simple. The Tollivers were on top. The lawyers, doctors, and senior Tolliver executives were in the next tier. There was a decent middle class of Tolliver managers, engineers, teachers, and county workers. Some Oak Ridge or TVA workers who didn’t mind the long commute. Blue-collar workers, like Dad, were not as well respected. Social status at school was strongly influenced by social status of one’s parents.
That afternoon Amit was going out with Emma, so I didn’t go over to his folks’ hotel after my physics class. I went to the Tolliver Library instead. The place had a fascinating history. Before Great-Great Grandpa Tolliver died over a hundred years ago, he decided to endow a university: Tolliver Technical Institute. By the time of the Great Depression, Tolliver Tech rivaled places like Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, and Auburn as a regional engineering powerhouse. But the Tollivers failed to keep a tight grasp on their namesake. They lost control of the Board of Directors during World War II when the school reorganized as a military training institute. Dad claimed that in the 1950s and 1960s, the school became “a hot bed of experimental and progressive foolishness.” Even I’d heard stories about how it was a real party school. Quality suffered. In any event, by the 1970s, the Tolliver Corporation stopped hiring Tolliver Tech graduates. The school blew through its endowment, and went bankrupt. The State of Tennessee acquired the campus and integrated the facility into the community college system. Now the place only offered two-year technology degrees and basic classes. Through all the turmoil, however, the Tolliver Library remained intact and funded under a separate endowment run by whichever Mrs. Tolliver fancied herself as a patron of knowledge. The technical books were dated, and the library had long since stopped keeping up with the leading edge of scientific and technical development, but it was a beautiful and little-used facility perfect for some quiet study.
When I finished my homework on waves, I decided to see if I could find a good book, so I could learn more. I was browsing the shelves when I found it. In faded gold letters the cover said “Electric Waves. Franklin. The Macmillan Company.” Of course, I knew about Benjamin Franklin and that he flew his kite and developed lightning rods, but waves? I thought electric waves were much later. Intrigued, I picked up the book. “Electric Waves – An Advanced Treatise on Alternating-Current Theory by William Suddards Franklin, Professor of Physics in Lehigh University, New York; The Macmillan Company, London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1909.” I almost put it back when I realized it wasn’t written by that Franklin. But I started leafing through it, and I found it was full of wonderful and simple drawings of waves: water waves, sound waves, and electric waves. Just what I needed. I found a comfortable chair, settled in, and started reading. I was on page 115 when I saw the words that forever changed the course of my life:
“The theory of wave distortion in transmission lines and cables was first developed by Heaviside. The second half, pages 306-454, of Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory, Vol. 1 (London, 1893), is an extremely simple and interesting discussion of this subject. In his forthcoming third volume, Heaviside will elaborate on his remarkable theory of wave interference whereby electric waves bounce off each other. This ingenious discovery promises to unlock similar valuable insights.”
It confused me. “Wave distortion theory” seemed esoteric enough. Electric waves bouncing off each other? That just didn’t seem right. But it was time for me to be heading home. I replaced the book on the shelf and resolved to ask my dad about it.
* * *
“Radio waves do not bounce off each other,” Dad said matter-of-factly. “They pass right through each other. They only bounce off material things, particularly conductors.”
I told him what I’d read.
“‘Electric waves’ is just an old fashioned way of describing a radio wave, or more generally, an electromagnetic wave,” Dad explained. “Whatever you want to call it, that’s either a mistake or you’re misremembering it,” he insisted.
I took offense at the implied slight on my powers of recollection. I asked Dad if I could borrow his computer. I went to his study and fired up the web browser. By that time, many books that were out of copyright were available online, either through Project Gutenberg or through Omnitia. I Omnied “electric waves franklin” and had no trouble finding it. I navigated through to page 115 as Dad watched over my shoulder.
“The theory of wave distortion in transmission lines and cables was first developed by Heaviside. The second half, pages 306-454, of Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory, Vol. 1 (London, 1893), is an extremely simple and interesting discussion of this subject.”
That was it. A blank void loomed below that text. There was no further discussion of a forthcoming volume three nor a mention of bouncing waves.
“You must be studying too hard,” Dad said with a chuckle.
Now I wasn’t merely offended. I was mad. I knew I wasn’t imagining things, and I wouldn’t have made a stupid mistake like that. I controlled my temper, and printed out a copy of the page to keep for reference. Further discussion wasn’t going to help, so I decided to bide my time and change the subject.
“What’s the project you’re working on with Uncle Rob?” I asked.
“I’m just helping him clear some land and pour a foundation for a new barn.”
“The reason I asked is Sheriff Gunn asked me this morning if I knew anything about a lot of truck traffic at Uncle Rob’s place.”
Dad was normally very expressive. He froze for a moment. He checked the time on his watch. With an obviously feigned casualness that belied his too-long dramatic pause he asked, “So, what did you tell him?”
“I said I hadn’t been up there in months and I didn’t know.”
Dad looked at me gravely.
“That was the end of it,” I assured him. “So, why would Uncle Rob’s barn require so many trucks?”
“I called in some favors and borrowed a back hoe and a bulldozer for the excavation.” I saw Dad glance down at his watch. “And we had a cement mixer up to pour in the foundation and a pad.” That sure didn’t sound like enough truck traffic for the sheriff to find noteworthy. I could tell he was hiding something, but if he didn’t want to discuss it, it wasn’t any of my business.
Just then, Mom called us both to dinner. Dad said Grace, and we ate. He ate quickly, checked his watch again, excused himself, and told Mom, “I need to head back to Rob’s tonight. I’ll be up late. Don’t wait up for me. You can call me at Rob’s, but only if you really have to.” He forestalled any questions by looking at me and saying: “Do clear the table and wash the dishes for your mother, please.”
“Yes, sir.” I could tell a direct order when I heard one.
I could see Mom was deep in her “I’m worried but can’t discuss it in front of the children” mode. “OK, dear.”
Dad popped back into his study. I could hear him power up his radio. A staccato burst of Morse code punctuated the air. A few moments later, came a reply with a slightly offset tone. I was wishing I’d mastered Morse code back when he first started trying to teach me.
Once Dad left, I asked Mom if she knew what was going on. “I’m sure your father will tell you what you need to know about his business when you need to know it. In the meantime, you should remember not to discuss family business outside of the house.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, and I cleared the table for her. She said she’d wash the dishes.
Knowing Uncle Rob, it might be a still. Dad had let slip that Uncle Rob was prone to condense some of the corn he grew into more marketable form without benefit of government sanction. Dad did not approve. Not that he didn’t imbibe some of Uncle Rob’s product now and then, but he didn’t think the risk Uncle Rob ran was worth it. I couldn’t see Uncle Rob building a meth lab or marijuana grow house, let alone Dad helping him with either project. And frankly, I couldn’t see how any construction project would involve enough trucks for the sheriff to notice or care. When I went to bed, I plugged in my phone and noted that Dad’s phone was charging on the counter. Was he back already and I hadn’t noticed? I stepped into Mom’s sewing room. Dad had installed a four-camera security system that recorded to a computer there. I checked the camera that covered the driveway. His truck was still gone.
He wasn’t back the next morning. “He probably stayed up at Rob’s last night,” Mom assured me. Probably? She didn’t know? My, Dad was playing whatever it was close to the vest if he wasn’t telling Mom.
I texted Amit: “Can’t Joe this am. How’d it go?” I had time to get a lunch mostly pulled together when I got his reply: “You’d owe me 20.” Heh. “Berkshire after class?” I asked. “Come on over,” he replied.
I asked Mom to let me know if she got any updates from Dad and drove to the community college. I walked to the Tolliver Library, bounded up the stairs to the third floor, and found Electric Waves right where I left it on the shelf. I turned to page 115. It was still there:
“In his forthcoming third volume, Heaviside will elaborate on his remarkable theory of wave interference whereby electric waves bounce off each other. This ingenious discovery promises to unlock similar valuable insights.”
I knew I hadn’t been imagining things. But why would two copies of what looked like the same book have such a discrepancy?
I carefully compared the Tolliver Library copy in my hand to the printout of the Omnitia scan I made last night. They looked identical, except for the extra sentence about bouncing waves in the footnote. I made a photocopy of the page to take home and show Dad. Then, I went to the catalog terminal and searched for Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory. Up came Volume 1 published in 1893, Volume 2 published in 1899, and Volume 3 published in 1912. They were all listed at 538.3 H44, right near where Electric Waves had been shelved. I found Volume 3. It was dedicated to the memory of someone named George Francis FitzGerald.
I began reading Heaviside’s idiosyncratic prose. In the first section of the book, he talked about waves and reflections. If there was anything in his dense prose about electric waves bouncing off each other, my head was too wooden to find it. I didn’t have the physics or the math skills at that point to actually understand electric waves, let alone electromagnetic waves. It was tough going; maybe Dad could help. By this point, I was becoming suspicious of online books. I went back to the Omnitia scan of the Franklin book. I pulled it up on my laptop, and I compared the scans in the Omnitia pdf file to the physical book from the Tolliver Library in front of me. Same title page. Same 1909 copyright date. Both copies even said “Published October 1909.” I started reading, comparing each page, paper versus screen. No differences. This was taking too long. I turned to the index of the physical book and looked up Heaviside: “Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory, 113, 115.” Page 113? I checked. Yes, there was a mention of Heaviside on page 113 and both books had identical versions of that page. I looked at the index in the scanned file. “Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory, 113.” There was no mention of page 115 in the scanned index. But, both the scan and my physical copy had a mention of Heaviside on page 115!
This puzzled me. Was the Omnitia scan the original version? Then, did someone add the “bouncing waves” verbiage and the extra reference in the index of the Tolliver Library copy somehow? But, if that were the case, there was already a reference to Heaviside on page 115 that should have been indexed but wasn’t. Or, was the Tolliver Library hardcopy the original? Then, did someone delete the bouncing wave verbiage and the index reference, forgetting that there was still another reference to Heaviside on that page? Which was the original version?
I thought about this. Suppose someone, for whatever reason, wanted to delete the reference to Heaviside and the bouncing waves text on page 115. Suppose they wanted to hide the fact that it was ever there. They might then delete the mention from the index, forgetting that there was another mention of Heaviside left behind on that page. Perhaps. But, why go to such trouble?
Maybe these bouncing waves were nonsense, like Dad had said. Maybe not. I’d read nearly half of the Franklin book. He was a good writer – easy to follow and clear in his descriptions and analogies. If he vouched for it, that made it potentially credible. I certainly didn’t have the physics expertise to debate the facts. As my debate coach, Mr. Stinson, was fond of saying, though, “If you can’t debate the facts, then debate the personalities.” And if there was one thing a couple years of high school debate training made me good at, it was research. I set out to understand the personalities involved to see if some kind of motive or explanation might become evident.
James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory of electromagnetics in the 1860s and published his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in 1873. He was dead six years later at age 48 of stomach cancer. Heinrich Hertz discovered and characterized radio waves in the 1880s. He published his great work, Electric Waves, in 1893. He died the following year – technically – on January 1, 1894. A couple references I found spoke of a “bone malignancy” in his jaw. Others ascribed it to “granulomatosis with polyangiitis” whatever that was. Heaviside died at age seventy five in 1925, but his final years were unproductive. His behavior became increasingly paranoid and erratic as he complained of being constantly harassed and distracted by the neighbors and their children. Heaviside had dedicated his book to FitzGerald. I looked him up. An electromagnetic pioneer, his work apparently anticipated Einstein’s relativity theory. He died in 1901 at age 49 of some kind of indigestion. Another stomach cancer?
Three top electromagnetic pioneers died prematurely in what should have been the primes of their lives. It could just be coincidence. Medical science wasn’t that advanced and folks died early of ailments we could cure today. It was certainly curious. I had more questions than answers to show for my morning of research. After class, I headed over to the Berkshire Inn to see Amit.
I explained what I’d found to him. “Coincidence?” Amit’s eyes lit up. “That many deaths? No way. Don’t you know the expression? The first time is happenstance, the second, coincidence, and the third time is enemy action. Some enemy had it in for the discoverers of electromagnetics.”
Amit became more convinced when I explained the discrepancy between the book from the Tolliver Library and the scanned version from Omnitia.”
“Dude,” he said almost condescendingly. “The scan is clearly bogus.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You can’t trust Omnitia to tell you the truth,” he insisted. “They’re in bed with the government.” Ah, yes. Amit and his Omnitia phobia. I recalled he’d done a report for civics class about the company. Now he was repeating the highlights of his conclusions. Again. “It’s all right there in the name,” he insisted. “Omnitia is Omni – T – I – A: Total Information Awareness. That’s a secret government program to capture and store all emails, all phone calls, and all data transmitted over the Internet for the National Security Agency to search. The government has always wanted comprehensive control over communications. During the First World War, the Navy took over radio completely. After the war, they were forced to return radio to the private sector, but the government colluded to force all the radio companies to sell out to a single company they could monitor and control, the ‘Radio Corporation of America’ or RCA.”
We’d had this conversation before, if you could characterize my listening patiently to Amit describing the many ways Big Brother was out to get us as a conversation. Amit had even analyzed photos from the December 2001 press conference held on top of the World Trade Center announcing the formation of Omnitia from a consolidation of leading search engines like Yahoo, Alta Vista, and an obscure little start up with a name something like Googol. He was convinced he could tie the photos of some of the bystanders in the background at the press conference to principals at a CIA-backed venture company called In-Q-Tel. I tried to tell him it was ridiculous to think that tens of thousands of people could possibly keep secret the wholesale violation of everyone’s civil rights, but he insisted that’s exactly what they were up to, in the name of national security.
“The politicians were scared shitless some terrorists were able to drop a plane on top of the Capital and the White House and kill so many of them, let alone President Gore. They demanded that the government make sure nothing like that ever happens again. So they’re allowing wholesale surveillance of every communication to try to catch terrorists before they can act. And they’re sweeping up everything else at the same time. Just in case.”
This was not helpful. “So do you think the folks at Omnitia developed a time machine to send their assassins back to take out the discoverers of electromagnetics?” I asked.
He took my question seriously. “‘He who controls the past, controls the future. And he who controls the present controls the past.’ That’s Orwell. Omnitia controls the present. You can see, before too much longer, there won’t be any more libraries with actual physical books. It will be too easy to look up and read scans on a computer. And if there’s some truth that the powers-that-be find inconvenient, they can edit our collective memory of it in Omnitia’s database. Besides, the digital copy is trivially easy to modify. No one would go to the trouble of carefully modifying a physical book and then scanning it, when they could make the modifications so much more easily in the scanned images.”
I began to think he might actually be on to something. “I stumbled across this one tiny discrepancy between a physical book and Omnitia’s online database of book scans. How many more discrepancies are out there? If someone has been editing history, there are probably more edits out there waiting for us to find.”
“Us?” He looked amused. Then he turned more thoughtful. “We could systematically compare texts in the Tolliver Library to the online scanned versions.”
“That would take a long time. I spent the better part of an hour reviewing a hundred pages in one book,” I pointed out. “If we both worked full time, we might manage a half dozen books in a day. We need to narrow down the search.”
“Only books in the public domain are going to be available for free online, because of copyright issues.” Amit launched into another diatribe. “Did you know that the duration of a copyright used to be the same as the term for a patent? About twenty years. But authors and publishers and now media companies kept lobbying Congress to the point where it can be nearly a century before anything gets into the public domain. It’s the Mickey Mouse rule of copyright. Mickey Mouse will never go into public domain, because they keep changing the rules every time it gets close. Since Disney created Mickey in 1928, only works created before 1923 are in the public domain.”
“That’s a five year difference,” I pointed out to him.
“Yeah,” he countered, “they built in a margin of error in case they have any trouble getting the term extended – and by remarkable coincidence the margin is just long enough that they will have at least one chance to elect a pliable President.”
“So we only look at books older than 1923,” I got us back on track. “That’s still an awful lot of books.”
“I wonder if we could automate the process?” Amit speculated. “What if we scanned the Tolliver Library books page by page and let a computer compare our scans to Omnitia archived scans?”
I did a quick mental calculation. A couple dozen books per individual shelf, so maybe a hundred books per stack, and a thousand or so per row. There must be dozens of shelves. Maybe as many as fifty to a hundred thousand books. I couldn’t think of a way to estimate the pre-1923 fraction of books, but it still had to be huge. “Even if we could compare one book per minute, it would still take us years.” I started to search for “book scanners.”
“Stop!” Amit shoved my hands off the keyboard. “You think maybe Omnitia is messing with your books and you want to trust them with your search?”
Now he definitely had a point.
“Look. You remember how we set up the wireless network at the hotel?” He began.
Amit’s father installed a wireless network throughout the hotel for the guests to use. I picked up some extra money after school my sophomore year helping Amit and his father run Ethernet cable and set up wireless nodes. Amit and I had impressed his father by figuring out we could get better coverage installing the wireless access points inside rooms, instead of along the hallways as the instructions from the corporate IT team had suggested.
“Every once in a while, we’ll get Sheriff Gunn or some Tennessee state troopers out here because we have a guest downloading or sharing kiddie porn. They trace it back to the IP address of the hotel. Then they give my dad the MAC address of the guest’s computer and ask my dad to identify which guest used that MAC address to log into the hotel network. We tell them which door the troopers need to knock on.”
“What’s that got to do with Omnitia?”
“The cops could only do that if they were watching everything. I wrote up a screening application for the hotel so my dad monitors all the Internet traffic from the hotel. Unfortunately, he went back and reset the filters. He decided he didn’t like the game and pick-up artist websites I was visiting. And he caught me looking at porn and chewed me out. I could have hard-coded a work-around in the app, but then he’d be wondering why I was giving him a new executable. So I figured out how to anonymize my Internet traffic. I use Tor – The Onion Router.” He explained. “Tor routes all your Internet traffic through a network of relays to conceal where it came from and where it’s going. It’s too slow for video, but I can download pictures just fine. But, my point is if Omnitia is hiding something and you start looking for it, they’re going to trace it right back to you and your computer. Look – you’re even logged into your OmniMail account. They know exactly who downloaded that old book, for instance.” I must have looked worried, because he added, “Don’t worry. There’s too much going on the Internet for anyone to pay attention to one search and one download. But if you make a pattern of these kind of searches, and if it truly is something they’re actively hiding, they’re going to notice, eventually.”
“You think I should use this Tor when I do any online searching regarding this mystery?”
“That’s a start, but it’s not good enough. If you actually attract interest, they can link you anyway to your computer and any non-anonymized Internet useage. I think we need to be careful and take every precaution. Let’s think about how to protect us.”
We brainstormed for a bit. The solution we came up with seemed pretty robust. We knew a pawnshop in Knoxville that recycled computers from Oak Ridge and other businesses around Knoxville. Between us, we’d chip in to buy a couple of used laptops and pay cash so they couldn’t easily be traced to us.
Amit would figure out how to get online without a trace and install Tor. We’d use the first machine for preliminary research. I’d look into building a book scanner and Amit would research and download the software to take the scans, perform character recognition, and compare the scans of the physical books to the versions downloaded from Omnitia. Then, we’d disable the Ethernet connection on the first machine.
Amit would use the second laptop to search Omnitia for the online book scans. He’d download the specific ones I wanted and a bunch of other ones besides just to confuse the trail. Then, he’d burn them to a CD and transfer them to the first laptop. He called it “air gapping.” The first computer was air gapped from the Internet so no one could possibly plant computer malware to spy on what we were doing and report it back over the Internet. The computer that searched for information on book scanning and performed comparisons between our scans and Omnitia’s scans was a completely different computer than the one that downloaded the specific Omnitia scans we’d use. That way no one could make a connection between the fact that someone was scanning physical books and comparing them to particular scans of books online.
We’d only communicate about the project in person. Amit insisted that calls and texts were monitored and the location data could be used to trace us. I thought he was being paranoid again, but it made an interesting game to follow all the procedures he insisted upon.
By the time I had to go home for dinner, we had our plan. I would take the lead on identifying our target list of books: ones older than 1923 so they would be in the public domain and likely available online. That was pretty easy. They were already organized by subject thanks to the Dewey Decimal system, so I planned to start at Franklin’s Electric Waves and Heaviside’s Electromagnetic Theory, and work out from there. I’d compile a list and pass it on to Amit. I’d also take the lead on getting us to Knoxville to buy the computers. Meanwhile, Amit said he wanted to work out the details of how to get online without a trace. We agreed to meet back at Kudzu Joe’s the next morning to compare notes and see where we stood. I was eager to go home and see what was up with Dad and his secretive project with Uncle Rob.
On Friday, April 13, look for Chapter 2 Notes: On Game Theory, Global Warming and Oliver Heaviside, and
On Wednesday, April 20, look for Chapter 3: The Preparation.
New chapters post on Wednesdays, notes post on Fridays.
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