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Zero Sum

Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

The First Day (1976)

The Professor strode into the lecture theatre and dumped his armful of texts and papers onto the desk without ceremony. He set the lectern up with his notes and then quickly assumed a position in front of the desk, looking up at the students as they moved into the theatre, shuffling and sliding to their seats. 

After waiting what seemed an appropriate length of time the Professor jumped his backside up onto the desktop, spread his arms wide and said quite loudly, “Right! Quieten down people. We’ve got a lot to get through today.” 

The students took little notice. A lot of them were looking around the room for faces they recognised, taking note of the name tags each of them had pinned to themselves. This was the first time they had all been assembled in one theatre.

Now, even louder and sterner, “Quieten down…, people please, people, a little shush!”. There was no appreciable quietening and the Professor lowered and shook his head. It was always like this at the beginning of the year. He tried again.

“If you attend closely…,” he suddenly turned sharply, balled a sheet of paper and shied it at a particularly boisterous student, giving him a look of stern disapproval, before returning to his remarks with, “I can assure you that before you leave this course you may well be terminally confused, or maybe, just maybe you will have been sorely amazed, and possibly, just possibly, your existence changed forever!”

His audience, still finding their seats and getting themselves set up for the lecture, laughed at this hyperbole. Although these were all senior graduates from a diverse range of disciplines, they were freshers to this course and hadn’t had the chance to become familiar with the Professor’s sense of humour first hand. 

They’d heard the legend when they’d accepted the offer of a position on this very selective course. The words used included mercurial, moody, and of course brilliant; but it was what former students and associates couldn’t put into words that made up the bulk of the Professor’s legend. 

Comment on the Professor often started with, “I don’t know, but…”, usually with the head negotiating a rather complex series of turns looking like nothing so much as a physiological attempt to perform every semiotically meaningful head movement, all at the same time. 

The physics wags claimed he had a certain “dark energy”, you couldn’t see it but you knew it was there none the less; but having never seen it, no-one could really say what it was that was the source of this energy. There was some agreement that just being around him had some sort of transformative affect on students. The best of them became becalmed in his presence, content to just absorb him, like a lizard in the warm light of summer sunshine; and even the least seemed to find ideas in themselves they would never have thought themselves capable of even harbouring, let alone expressing. 

The Professor had come to Sydney University about five years before, having first been appointed an adjunct professor in the Philosophy department. He’d spent most of his time there conducting soirees under the Jacaranda tree in the corner of the main quad. Those students that stuck the course did well, though there was a high attrition rate and by the end of that year only four of the original twelve finished.

His method was unrelentingly Socratic and many past students claimed that they had never heard him, even once, use the declarative in reference to any aspect of the course. His stock in trade was the interrogative. “Every question leads to further questions, or it isn’t a question worth asking.” his students would claim he said, but even that might have been too declarative for the Professor.

He’d moved on from Philosophy after that academic year. His new position was notionally in the Physics department, but that too only lasted a year.

He had finally come to rest, an academic orphan, in a set of rooms in the eastern range of Edmund Blackett’s old neo-gothic quad. 

Located in the basement, the only natural light had to make its way down past the cars parked outside against the building, the weeds growing against the old sandstone, and finally, through the small ground level windows perpetually dirtied with car exhaust, rain-splash and the grime that came with the University’s inner city location. 

Inside, those windows were high up on the wall and each morning, once the sun had climbed just that little higher, the windows offered little to dispel the dark and there was always a pervasive sense of subterranean intensity. The small suite of rooms developed a reputation as some sort of intellectual Altamira where there was always something more going on than just the depth, the dark, the art and the artificer. It was considered a privilege to be invited for tea in the Professor’s rooms. 

And, of course, there was the course; a kind of finishing off, a final cognitive and intellectual polish to the already bright academic careers of the students; always delivered here in the lecture theatre of the ivy clad Woolley Building on Science Road.

Given three choices, the professor had chosen the venue himself. He liked its brick solidity and relative lack of embellishment compared to the main quad and many other of the older buildings on campus. He’d said he wasn’t up to the Carslaw Theatres’ brutality and the General Lecture Theatre at the back of the main quad was like a subterranean sepulchre where ideas came to be interred and forgotten. 

Besides, the Professor always claimed a kindred spirit with Woolley the man. John Woolley had given his professional life to raising the minds of his antipodean charges. He was both a Principal and Professor at the newly constituted University of Sydney, but he also freely gave his time to lecture to workers at The Sydney Mechanics Institute. 

In 1866, at only 49, Woolley had drowned in The Bay of Biscay when the overloaded SS London foundered in heavy seas on its way back to Australia. A fine, decent man and a great loss to Australia’s nascent academia. The Ivy clad Woolley had been the home of the course for the past three years.. 

It wasn’t your usual course, of course. It was only for the select and selected few, and the winnowing of candidates was as thorough going as it was somewhat unusual. 

Operating globally and funded by a private international philanthropic trust, monitoring of potential candidates started at age seven, Primary candidate selection made at thirteen, and Secondary at matriculation. It was generally accepted that a High Distinction average across a candidate’s undergraduate course was necessary to stay in contention, and the all important post graduate work finally determined the ultimate candidate selection.   

A wide range of students from around the globe had been offered positions in the course based on that selection process and today was the first day of the new semester. 

They were an mixed bunch. There were musicians, mathematicians, physicists, cosmologists, philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists, there were biologists and neurologists, and all manner of cognitive scientists, historians, and there were artists and fine arts graduates and a contingent of Chinese calligraphers; curiously sitting with economist proponents of the Elliot Wave theory, who might have been looking forward to lucrative careers in finance before they were sidetracked to the Professor’s course. There was even a theological student whose PhD had been on the rise of the Jesuits. The theatre was filled with a naïve enthusiasm at odds with the usual seriousness of these young minds.   

The auditorium was beginning to settle so the Professor began.

“You’ve all done your reading. I know this because you’re all now professional intellectuals  and wouldn’t dare turn up here without having done it. So, lets get straight into it, shall we?”

The lights went down and multiple slide projectors set up at the back of the auditorium began to clatter and clack as they projected a multitude of images onto three screens suspended from a temporary truss that spanned the theatre. An audio system, unnoticed until now, began playing back a primitive drum tattoo that, having established its pattern, segued into the sound of moslem women ululating at a funeral, followed by the sound of a, crumhorn, was it? And so it went on. 

The Professor raised his voice against the audio. “Up on the screens you’ll see a selection of the material we’ll be looking at for the next few weeks. This material has been included in your course folders, including all the peripheral resources and the tools you’ll need to manipulate any numerical data. Those of you without access to a computer can get help from those that do. It is of the essence of this course that you co-operate with one another.”

The three big screens were currently covered in images of great art and architectural glories; there was The Pieta and the Willendorf Venus, naïve medieval church interiors and Lichtenstein’s “Whaam”, Gobekli Tepe, and Mohenjo Daro, the Giza pyramids and Angkor Wat were included in a sequence that included the Flat Iron Building and the World Trade Centre in New York;  the audio played on, now The Beatles’, “Penny Lane”. 

On the other screens there were maps, graphs and tables, algorithms, word lists of cognates, there was photography of all kinds and screen captures from TV and movies including “Frankenstein” and a BBC production of “Gormenghast”; there were hundreds of them cycling through, blinking up on the screens for a few seconds before being replaced by another. Faces of the famous starting several millennia ago with the Rameses, then the Greeks including Socrates and Archimedes, and Romans, Augustus, Nero, then Cicero and Seneca, then Hadrian amongst many others; and working its way up through the centuries; eventually Freud, Jung and Adler, but also John Wayne Gacy, L.Ron Hubbard and Pope Paul VI. As the slide show continued for several minutes, all the students were glued to the screens, watching and wondering what all these things could have in common.

The professor watched the faces of the students as they watched the changing images. He could see the growing effect of the slideshow and audio. The Student’s faces, at first excited, then calmer, more deeply curious, became blank as the eyes flitted from image to image, exciting their deeper consciousness. He let the presentation run on for a few more minutes to Hindemith’s “Metamorphosis”.

In the midst of a double forte horn figure the professor killed the audio. The sudden silence was startling. 

“So what are we about here? Anyone?” There seemed no rush to respond, the students were still entranced by the continually changing images. “Anyone…?” 

Eventually, as the Professor scanned the faces in the theatre, a few students tentatively put their hands up. One or two of them then, uncertain, bringing them down again. 

“Remember what you were told when you signed up; there are no wrong answers in this course, only more interesting questions. This course is not like your previous courses. Its more about how you think than what you think.” The Professor did one more visual turn round the theatre before uttering a quiet “Hhmmmm”.

“Come on people, this isn’t difficult. All we’re looking for is the unseen, the invisible link.” the Professor turned from the students and rounded the desk before leaning forward against the back edge, looking up at the ceiling, a little disappointed. 

“Yes…,” he checked the name tag and quickly consulted the course register, a pure mathematician, “ …Dravinda.” he finally nodded to the sole remaining nearby raised hand.

“Well, all the images reflect the creative impulse and the growth of human consciousness, or more particularly its expression; and, well, that’s aberrant psychology, statistically; either negatively, as in the case of the serial killers, or positively, as with the artists and the like. All of this material is representative of the outcome of a creative intellectual leap from the known and experienced to the unknown and yet to be experienced, So that might be the collapse of the quantum wave function….,” He paused briefly, then his face lit up, “No, no, this is about implicature….., no, this is about implicate and explicate enfoldment.”

“You got that from this?” the professors eyes widened with surprise, “Well done you! OK, so what about it?

“Well, more particularly, you’re going to steer us towards quantum consciousness and the zero point field”

“Good,” the Professor managed to combine both a shake and a nod of his head, quite pleased that the student had winkled his way into the mess of the thing and been able to form a coherent intellectual position about the unseen links between the various items, “but what about it?”

“Well, from what we’ve seen up there,” Dravinda pointed at the main screen, “and the reading list, I think you intend to start on a tangent, any tangent, and then show that these items are points on that tangent and those tangents are tensors in a kind of chaos analysis?”

The professor had began to nod slowly and eventually let out a brief chuckle followed by a long wide mouthed “Aaahhhh…, so someone did have an idea. Well done Dravinda. Now, how many of you thought something similar but thought to test the wind before engaging in our little discourse?”

A few hands went up among the mathematicians and physicists, then a few more scattered about the theatre .

The Professor smiled almost parentally at his students, “Of course, of course. Being who you are, many of you would have had more than an inkling of what we are about here from the reading list.” From time to time he had to remind himself that while these were the best of the brightest, most of them had never experienced the real world, having been intellectually cosseted most of their lives, feted for their intelligence. They were for the most part still children. The professor paused briefly to look again into the faces of his students. The slide projectors clattered on.

“Well let me assure you again. There are no wrong answers here and the best way to get the most out of this time we’ll spend together is to dive right in and swim as hard as you can. If there’s one thing I know about teaching this course, and it might be the only thing I’ve ever learned about learning, it’s that you’ll learn more, the more uncomfortable you feel about what you think, the more uncertain you are about the question you want to ask. You could say we’re here to do away with certainty and the easy answer. To reach a state of terminal interrogation. This is not like your previous course work. There will be no way to determine your relative rankings at the conclusion. The “results” will be internal, cognitive, personal, and you’ll have no more to show than the simple fact that you were here and you completed this course.”

That seemed to quieten the theatre a little. These were competitive minds. The notion that they had gone through all that they had to be selected, and then there’d be nothing to show, except a certificate of attendance, left a few of them wondering whether it was all worth it.

The professor looked around the tiered seats noting the slow impact of what he had said. His face suddenly brightened.

“Anyway; all of the material you’re looking at up here” he shot a finger over his shoulder, “and a lot more, plus all the ancillary materials you’ll need are on reserve in Fisher Library and can be accessed at any time by any of you during library hours. You’ll find that these resources have been categorised to ease the sharing of information between you all and the expectation is that you will co-operate in your various researches. The professor paused to let that sink in.

“There is no expectation that fine artists will become quantum physicists, but there is an expectation that they might, where appropriate, collaborate, to reach a mutual conclusion. I not only encourage multidisciplinary work, I believe it to be essential for you all to get the most out of this course. I can already see some rather unusual teams forming up.” The professor looked up at the calligraphers and Elliot wavers. Even the professor was having trouble parsing the links that appeared to form organically in that combination. “So lets get straight into it.”

“Go to “Bohm” in your folders, open up the “quotes”.

“The one that starts, “As in our discussion of matter in general, it is now necessary to go into the question of how in consciousness the explicate order is what is manifest…” This quote, by the way is from as yet unpublished work, so we’ll be speculating on this at the same time Bohm is. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could “read” the implicate enfolded in Bohm’s consciousness?” A few students giggled at the fairytale prospect.

“But we can’t, so lets speculate on what Bohm means here. Anyone want to jump in? The waters warm, and deep.”

A young woman sitting in the second row shot her hand up and without waiting for acknowledgement dived straight into her speculations.

“If, as Bohm says, each moment is explicate but enfolds all implicate possibilities and in quantum consciousness it is the “remembering” or the bringing of the implicate up into the consciousness of memory, the explicate, if you see what I mean; then that would imply that under certain conditions it might be possible to….., um, given that the brain doesn’t consciously differentiate between remembered and perceived, you know, except when we consciously choose to differentiate…., um…, well, so we could “think” things into being…., if you see what I mean. Sort of, “think it and it will be…..,” 

“…and what are the implications, if you’ll excuse me,of that enormous and somewhat alarming idea, anyone else…?” The professor liked to get things rolling and then keep them going at as quick a pace as the students could stand.

An architecture graduate, “That can’t be right; implying, as it does, that any individual consciousness could change the physical expression of the universe. How would that work?”

“The answer may only apply to an individual’s creative thinking. It may not be literally applicable to the so called “real world”. Think on this. Perhaps reality is only a projection  of a consensus among consciousnesses. Sorry for the tortured word. That would preclude the explication of contradictory implicates.”

The students were warming to this. A few of them displaying the kind of excitement common at children’s parties when guessing games are played. One of the more excited students, now just shouting out, “Heisenberg and Schroedinger, but from a philosophical perspective…”

“Weren’t the mathematics philosophical enough for you?” A comedian in the group.

“The Gioconda smile.” a fine arts grad shouted.

“Heraclitean fire!” That must have been the theology student.

The an architect again, “Iktinos and Kallikrates and the design of the Parthenon with all those ever so slight bulges that none the less satisfy what the eye expects and thereby confirm a geometry that doesn’t exist but looks like it does.

“You’re right, its all geometry at some level”

One of the calligraphers had his hand up. They were an unusual group, very quiet and keeping very much to themselves, they’d had to apply for permission from Beijing to attend the course. A political cadre had come with them. He sat at the edge of their group, a look of concentration on his face as he kept an eye on his charges. 

The Professor nodded a quick bow, indicating that the Chinese student had the floor. 

“When we are are at our work,” his English was flawless, “we are seeking to discover, to tease out the unseen in a word or idea. We are also seeking the centre of ourselves, and to make manifest the dynamism of the act in the final work. We seek to understand the world through an understanding of our own being in the moment of creation, a reconciliation of the interior individual and the external world across a metaphysical creative bridge to bring into being something which is both of the artist and of the world, but more than both. I think the English idiom is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” He finished and sat quietly, neither seeking nor expecting a response. There was a discernible pause.

That pause was broken by a strong voice from right up the back, “Actually, what about those silhouette perception tests?” It was a young woman. “Those black and white images that might be two black faces looking at one another across a white field, or a white vase on a black field. There is a cognitive continuum which stretches from the two faces to the vase, but somewhere along that continuum there is a single point, a place of no scale and no fixed location, that is the tiniest of interstitial spaces between the faces and the vase but at which, perceptually, there is neither faces nor vase, there’s your SchroedingerandKallikrates all bound up together.”

“And Heisenberg, don’t forget Heisenberg.” the professor added with some energy. “So its the seen and the unseen, or more particularly what happens cognitively at the point of turnover. Sounds simple doesn’t it? And it is, in the end, but we’re a long way from that end. Look, these are all good answers but you’re all still thinking like undergrads.” 

“You,” the professor pointed up at the young woman in the second last row who had aired the idea about perception. He looked up her name in the course register, “Bess, is it? Yes. Bess…., You’re absolutely in the wheelhouse. Do you feel like steering our ship?”

The young woman blushed and smiled at the professor. He felt a little unbalanced by her smile.

“That’s all I’ve got at the moment, except to say that there must be something in that non-moment of no time and place. That’s what fascinates me.” She smiled again and the professor now felt a subtle “push”. There was something metaphysical in that smile. 

He made a quick note on a slip of paper and pushed it into his pocket, exclaiming as he did so, “Oh, well done! And yes, so it should fascinate you, all of you, because that’s where we’re going. Into that tiniest of places between utter chaos and the strange attractions of systems and order. All the really good stuff happens there!”