Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Baseball and Cosmology: a Story

What do baseball and cosmology have in common? Pretty much nothing, except for the short story I'm posting today in honor of the beginning of the baseball season and Yogi Berra's 90th birthday. Baseball does figure prominently in many memorable science fiction stories -- Steven Silver maintains a list of baseball-themed science fiction at his web site. Some of the links are active so you can pull up the stories.

The story I'm posting here, "Extra Innings," appreared in the November, 2004, issue of Analog. Pete Rose gets a brief mention in the story, and Stan Schmidt, the long-time editor at Analog, wrote back to tell me that he had attended high school with Pete Rose in Cincinnati, and they played softball together during gym class! Apparently Rose was much more serious about the softball games than anybody else. (Whenever I tell that story, the first question somebody asks is, "Was Rose betting on the games?").

There are some interesting scientific issues connected to the cosmology in this story, but I don't want to discuss them here because it would ruin the ending of the story.  I'll talk about the science in my next post.


Robert Scherrer

            “... the current cosmological epoch has no special place in time.  In other words, interesting things can continue to happen at the increasingly low levels of energy and entropy available in the universe of the future.”
– “A Dying Universe:  The Long-Term Fate and Evolution of Astrophysical Objects,” Fred C. Adams and Gregory Laughlin, Reviews of Modern Physics (1997).

It ain’t over till it’s over.”
            – Yogi Berra

Jimmy Dyson pushed his bicycle through the sun-baked field behind Benny Krauss’s house, spraying clouds of dandelion seeds into the air and jostling the precious cargo in the basket mounted on the handlebars.  Withered thistles caught on the scratchy wool socks his mom always made him wear, even in the St. Louis summer.
“Benny, it came yesterday!” Jimmy shouted, lifting a brick-red box from the basket and waving it in the air.  “It has Bob Gibson on the cover!”
Benny burst out the back door and sprinted to the bike, trailing plumes of dust from under his sneakers.  “Lemme see,” he said, prying the box from Jimmy’s hands.  “‘Strategy-League Baseball, more accurate than the real thing.’  Wow!  Let’s try it, Jimmy.”
Benny pushed open the back door, blasting cold air into Jimmy’s face.  “Come on in,” said Benny.  “My dad says we don’t own the electric company.  You want some lemonade?   My mom just made some.”
Benny and Jimmy paused in the kitchen just long enough to gulp down the lemonade.  Benny’s mom never put in enough sugar, but the ice-cold liquid felt good in Jimmy’s parched throat.
“You missed the Scout meeting last night,” said Benny.
“Oh, Benny, we’re getting too old for Boy Scouts.  Besides, I wanted to read the rules for the game.”
“Well, you missed a cool meeting.”  Benny crunched an ice cube between his teeth.  “They had this astronomy guy from St. Louis U. talking about the Big Bang.  No one knows if the universe is going to keep expanding forever, or shrink back down in a zillion years” – Benny dug his right fist into his left palm – “and squish us all like bugs.”
“Hah,” said Jimmy, “like that’s ever gonna matter to us.  Come on, you said you wanted to play the game.”
            The two friends plopped down on the avocado shag carpet in Benny’s bedroom.  Jimmy lifted the cover, which pulled off the box with a sucking groan.  A stack of colored charts slid onto the carpet.
            “OK,” said Jimmy, lifting one of the charts, “Here’s how you play.  These are the players from the 1968 season.”
            “But it’s 1969.”
            “Well geez, Benny, you can’t make a game about the season if it isn’t finished yet.”  Jimmy picked up one of the charts.  “Let’s say that I’ve got the Cardinals and you’ve got the Mets – ”
            “But I want to be the Cardinals!”
            “Okay, okay, you’ve got the Cardinals and I’ve got the Mets, and Bob Gibson is pitching to Ron Swoboda.  So this is Gibson’s pitching chart.  You roll these four dice.”  Jimmy passed the dice to Benny, who tossed them into the upturned box lid.  Rattle, rattle – clunk.  “So we read off of his chart, and it says the pitch is high and inside.  Then you roll the dice again.”  Rattle, rattle - clunk.  “This gives the pitch velocity.  It’s 97 miles an hour.”
            “Do you get to bat now?” asked Benny.
            “Wait, I forgot to roll for the temperature and humidity.  You do that before the game starts.”  Rattle, rattle - clunk.  “Oh, gotta do the wind speed and direction, too.”  Rattle, rattle - clunk.  “Now I roll the dice and check Ron Swoboda’s chart.”
            Jimmy rolled the dice, and Benny squinted at the tiny print on the chart.  “What does g(s)3b+2-1 mean?”
            “All right,” said Jimmy, “that means it’s a ground ball, hit slowly, two squares to the right of third base, and one square in front of it.  So now we have to find the fielding chart for the third baseman – that’d be Mike Shannon.” 

            Strategy-League Baseball was indeed “more accurate than the real thing.”  It also took twice as long.  After playing a couple of games, the two friends embarked upon a project with the foolhardy single-mindedness that only 14-year-old boys can muster:  they would recreate the entire 1968 season, game by six-hour game.  Every morning Jimmy would bicycle through the sticky heat to Benny’s house, bounce across the field of weeds, and drag himself, puffing and sweating, into the cool sweet air of Benny’s house.  And there they would play until dinner time, when Jimmy would gather up his charts, carefully stack them all back into the box, and bicycle home in the late afternoon sunshine.
            Strange things happened that season of 1968.  Pete Rose fractured his skull on opening day and was out for the rest of the season – no batting championship for him.  “Sudden” Sam McDowell pitched a 9-inning perfect game, only to walk 7 consecutive batters in the 10th and lose the game.  Furious three-way pennant races opened up in both leagues.  Benny and Jimmy ignored the real baseball season that summer of 1969 – the Cardinals were out of contention, so it looked to be a very unmemorable season.  They buried themselves in the game instead.  That summer, that last summer before high school, the last summer of childhood, stretched before them like an infinite ocean of time.
            But even eighth-grade summers come to an end.  The days grew shorter, and Jimmy found himself bicycling home in hazy twilight.  By the time new school supplies piled up in Benny’s bedroom, the two boys had only made it to the end of May on the baseball schedule.  Jimmy went off to the big Jesuit high school downtown, while Benny attended the local public school in the suburbs.  They still saw each other over the summers that followed, but Jimmy’s lawn-mowing job kept him pretty busy, and after Benny went up East to college, they rarely saw each other at all.

            “So Ben, what have you been up to?”  asked Jim, bouncing three-year old Evan on his knee, while Laura cleared the dishes from the dinner table.  “We haven’t seen you in, how long, two years?”
            “Been pretty busy at work,” said Ben, settling into a frayed armchair.  “It took a long time to set up the Neuro-AI Institute, and I’ve got to write grant proposals every year just to keep it going.  MIT loves us, but they don’t give us much money.”
            “But what do you actually do there?  Laura keeps asking me what you do, and I just say, ‘Oh, Ben’s gonna put a computer in all of our brains some day.’”
            Ben chuckled.  “Just the opposite.  We’re going to imprint the neural patterns of the brain onto a computer, once we get the spintronic stuff going.  Immortality!  But that’s decades away, too late for you and me.”  Ben glanced at Evan as he slid off of Jim’s knee and padded over to Laura in his Winnie the Pooh pajamas.  “But what about you, Jim?  What have you been up to?”
            Jim shrugged.  “The usual.  Teaching chemistry to high school kids who couldn’t care less.  I can’t even get them to watch science shows on TV.  Like that Nova special last week.  They’ve discovered that the universe is filled with something called dark energy – ”
            “— which makes the universe accelerate as it expands forever,” said Ben.  “That’s been known for a few years.”
            “Oh.”  Jim sat silently for a moment.  “We took Evan to a Cardinals game last night.  Hey, that reminds me, I want to show you something.”  Jim eased his wiry frame off of the couch and rummaged through the hall closet, spilling a fur-ball of coats into the hall.  “Here,” he said, pulling out a faded red box.  “Do you remember this?  Strategy-League Baseball.”
            Ben smiled.  “How could I forget?  ‘More accurate than the real thing.’  Also took a lot longer to play than the real thing, if I remember correctly.  I’m amazed you saved it all these years.”
            “Better than that, I saved all of the records, the box scores, everything.  Our last game was May 23, 1968, Los Angeles vs. St. Louis.  That was a great game, Don Drysdale pitching against Steve Carlton.”
            “Didn’t it end with a home run or something?”
            Jim jabbed his index finger at a yellowed sheet of lined paper, which crackled when he touched it.  “It’s right here.  Dal Maxvill hit a homer in the bottom of the 12th.  The only home run he hit all season, or at least as far as we got in the season.”
            “Gosh, I’m amazed you still remember that.  I’m amazed that I still remember it.”
            “Hey, do you have some time right now?  Let’s do another game.”  Jim leafed through the charts.  “The next game is May 24, the Giants against the Cubs in Wrigley Field.”
            “Oh, Jim, I can’t.”
            “Juan Marichal is pitching.  And it’s Wrigley field.  Let’s at least roll for the wind speed.”
            “I’d love to, but I’ve got an early flight back to Boston tomorrow.  I’m giving a seminar at Harvard.”  Ben sidled toward the door.  “Maybe next time I visit.”
            “Sure, let’s plan on it.”  Jim walked Ben to his car in the muggy twilight through a sea of flickering lightning bugs.  Then he went back inside to the game and pulled out the box scores for May 23, 1968.  Jim shook his head sadly.  “But Juan Marichal was pitching.”

            Jim Dyson dragged himself up the hospital steps, wheezing and stopping every three steps to catch his breath.  Each time he put weight on his left leg, his knee burned like someone had driven a hot knife under the knee-cap.  At least the knee pain took his mind off of his constant backache.  What was the point of living to 94 if you felt like death warmed over?  But damned if he was going to discarnate until Laura did.
He finally found the room where Ben Krauss lay stretched out on a bed, his skin like wet paper, his breathing slow and irregular.  A group of neuro-techs surrounded his body.  Could these kids really be doctors?  One of them, a Japanese woman who looked younger than Jim’s grandchildren, was sliding a helix of copper tubing around Ben’s shaved head.  A bearded neuro-tech broke out of the crowd to intercept Jim.
            “Can you save him?”  rasped Jim.  “You know, he helped to invent the damn process.”  Jim tried to push past the bearded neuro-tech to see his friend, but he might as well have been pushing against a wall.  He slipped and fell to his knees.  Tears welled up in his eyes.
            The neuro-tech pulled him to his feet.  “Look, old man, we’re doing our best here.  Everything depends on how long he’s been brain-dead.  I think you’d better sit down in the waiting room.”  He guided Jim gently, but firmly, out of the room.

            Buried in a salt plug half a mile under a pine forest in the uplands of Louisiana, a three-meter cube of layered gold and silicon stored an array of spintronic processors, computing at the atomic level.  Semi-sentient robots tended the square mile of land surrounding the salt dome, vaporizing any animals that blundered across the perimeter.  No point in taking chances with 20 billion lives.
            Jim Dyson lay on his stomach on an inflatable rubber mat in a Florida swimming pool, his body twenty years old, with some minor improvements on the original.  He sniffed the chlorine and rubber and coconut-scented suntan lotion.  Something about the sense of smell was vital to Jim – it was the most primal of the senses, the one that reminded him best of what it was like to have a body.
Laura floated three feet above the water next to him. She never worried about obeying the laws of physics, which always bothered Jim – it broke the illusion.  She sipped a gin and tonic, gradually allowing intoxication to seep into her processing core. 
            “Laura, I’m bored.”
            “Get a drink,” she said.  “You want a Bloody Mary?  Those were always your favorite.”
            “I need to find a hobby or something.”
            Laura pivoted ninety degrees, until her feet were straight up in the air, and her head was only inches above Jim’s.  “Tee hee, the world is upside down,” she said.  “What happened to that bridge club you belonged to?”
            “We broke up.  We played through all possible bridge games – there’s only a finite number.”
            “Chess was solved by the global processor.  There’s a perfect winning strategy for white.”
            “Then go see your friends.  Or take up serious drinking, like me.”  Laura disappeared, along with the pool.
Jim interpolated himself into Ben’s agorasphere, which Ben had sculpted into a scientific lab.  Ben, clad in a white lab coat, was bent over a book.  Kind of silly, thought Jim.  Ben never wore a lab coat before the discarnation.  “Ben, haven’t seen you in, how long?”
            “About 1020 ticks, I think, give or take a few.  What do you need, Jim?  I’m kind of busy.”
            “With what?  Last I heard, you were doing pure math.” 
“Did that for a while.  Proved the Goldbach conjecture, a few other things.  It’s not really satisfying – hard to tell where your own mind leaves off and the global processor begins.  But lately, I’ve found a new problem to work on.”  The ceiling over their heads irised open, revealing a velvet sky sprinkled with stars.  The view expanded to show the sun and inner planets.  “Watch what happens now,” said Ben.  The sun swelled, turning first orange, then blood-red, engulfing Mercury, Venus, and Earth.  “In five billion years, the sun will enter its red giant phase and incinerate us all.”
“Five billion years?  That’s a long time.”
“Not when you’re planning to live forever.  We can’t afford to stay earthbound until the sun fries the array.  A group of us are working on ways around it.  You’re welcome to join us.”
            “No thanks.  This was meant to be a social visit.  Do you remember that baseball game we used to play?”  Jim could sense the option to trigger embarrassment in his own core.  He chose to ignore it.  “Have you ever thought about, you know, trying it again?”
Ben bifurcated.  One of him went back to the book, while the other continued the conversation.  “That’s kind of silly, Jim.  You could process an entire season in a few billion ticks.  Hell, you could process all possible seasons.  Seems like a complete waste of time to me.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  Jim flicked back to the pool.  Maybe he would take up serious drinking after all.

            All across the Galaxy, the stars were burning out.  First to die were the supergiants, prodigious wasters of nuclear fuel.  Then came the yellow and orange main-sequence stars.  Now the galaxy glowed brick-red with the dull light of billions of brown dwarfs, eking out an existence at the bare edge of exothermia.
James squirted a jet of hydrogen from the accretion disk around his black hole, slowing to orbit a familiar neutron star.  Part of his consciousness was embedded in the magnetic fields threading the accretion disk, but the bulk resided in the black hole itself – a perfectly efficient quantum computer, once you learned how to tunnel through the event horizon.
            “Anybody there?” he broadcast across a dozen wavelengths.
A modulated gravitational wave shot back from the neutron star, washing across the accretion disk, twisting space and time.  “Who wants to know?”
“This is James Dyson.  I came back to see you, Benjamin.”
“James! How long has it been?  And where’s Laura?”
“Laura dissolved her own personality back before the Fifth Migration.”  James paused.  Should he allow emotional content into his core?  He decided to permit it - a sting of pain and emptiness.  “She ran out of things that interested her.  I think she died of boredom.”
“Boredom?  That’s crazy.  How could anyone be bored when there’s such an important job to do?”
James broadcast an emotilog – confusion, dismay, loss of purpose.
“Look around you,” returned Benjamin.  “The stars are dying, and we’re going to die with them.”
“The brown dwarfs?  They last practically forever.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.  The protons that they’re made of – that we’re all made of – they’re unstable.  They’ll decay in about 1037 years, and then this will all dissolve – the stars, the gas, my neutron star, your black hole.  But that doesn’t mean we have to die.  Consciousness is information and processing power.  Maybe it can survive without matter.  I’m sure as hell going to find out.”

The universe ended as it began:  in a soup of elementary particles.  Electrons and positrons, neutrinos and antineutrinos, photons with billion-light-year wavelengths all swirled through the cosmos.  Yet the end was different from the beginning.  Subtle patterns coursed through the soup of particles – the patterns of consciousness.
James could feel the presence of his friend embedded in the local particle stream.  “Benjamin, I sense distress.”
“It’s over, James.  Everything I’ve ever worked for.  The quest for immortality - it won’t work.  It’s the damn dark energy.”
“The universe is accelerating.  We’ve known that since before the discarnation.  But it’s driving information outside of the causal horizon.  We can live forever, but the amount of information we can process is finite.”  The particle stream quivered.  “Eventually, we’ll just start repeating our experiences, over and over and over.  What kind of immortality is that?  It was always an illusion –
we’ve never had an infinite amount of time.”
“Really?” said James.  “Well, in that case I have a suggestion.”

The two friends sat on hard benches in the shadow of a dugout under the midday sun.  Raucous fans shouted from the bleachers behind ivy-covered walls.  The Giants pitcher was warming up, hurling each pitch into the catcher’s mitt with an audible thud.  “Recognize this?” asked Jim.
“Hey,” said Ben, “this is Wrigley Field!”
“Yep, Wrigley Field, May 24, 1968.  Juan Marichal pitching against – who?  Who’re you going to start for Chicago?”
Ben squinted at his friend.  “And what happens when the season's over?  It won’t last forever -- we still have to face the end.”
“True enough,” said Jim.  He smiled. “But through all of these eons, it was only during that summer of '69 that I really felt like I had all the time in the world.”
Ben watched the team pennants above the center field scoreboard flap in the breeze.  The wind was blowing out -- good home run weather. “I had forgotten all about this,” he mused.
“Just give it a try,” said Jim, “for the sake of an old friendship that never quite died.”
Ben smiled.  “Okay,” he said, “but I’ve got a better idea.”  The stadium vanished, and Benny lounged on his stomach on the soft avocado shag carpeting.  “I think I’ll go with Ken Holtzman,” said Benny.  “Everyone knows that Willie McCovey can’t hit left-handed pitching.  Hand me the charts for the Cubs.”  Jimmy tossed a stack of charts to Benny, and then leaned back against the wall to survey the Giants.  The cold, dry air from the wall vent blew across their faces, and that summer, the long Indian summer of the universe, stretched before them like an infinite ocean of time.



1 comment:

lucychili said...

A whimsical reference