I think I was about eight years old when I decided I was going to be a scientist.
When you’re eight, this sounds like the perfect career. I could see myself in a starched white lab coat surrounded by petri dishes and beakers as I looked into an antique microscope all day, and then, at night, charting the courses of stars. One wall of my laboratory would be made up of test tubes and jars, elements carefully isolated and waiting to be combined to dazzling effect. Another would be made of large cages, where impossibly white guinea-rats ran through complicated mazes as their brains sparked with the static of miniature electrodes. The third wall would be for very thick and very heavy books. Actual books, made out of paper and whatever the covers of books were made out of. I had read them a hundred times each. I had even memorized a few. Then, the last wall, my favorite because it had won me three Nobel prizes, was nothing but a green chalkboard covered with equations so complicated that I was the only one who could ever understand them.
This is what a great scientist I was when I was eight: the lab had four walls, and I hadn’t bothered to leave room for the door. Hopefully, one of those Nobel prizes was for a teleporter.
My father encouraged this insanity, and gave me this purple holographic projector that hung the same edufeed over my room every night, over and over. “Sally Stardust’s Cosmic Celebration,” it was called, and Sally Stardust was this bouncy cartoon girl who talked you through the feed with outdated slang and jokes about shopping. Fortunately, there was an option to do away with Sally, so I deleted her, junked the “stellar jewelry kit!!” and stuck her bioluminescent star stickers above my brother’s crib. Without Sally, the air beneath my ceiling flickered with suns and planets, and the facts were read in a hypnotic monotone by some lonely old man.
So I suppose the whole thing was that guy’s fault. Or maybe Hasbro’s fault, for hiring him to do the voice-over on what was really an ill-conceived toy to begin with, but either way, without that grape-colored contraption and its apathetic barrage of facts I might have never realized, on my ninth birthday, that my ninth birthday couldn’t possibly exist.
Here’s how it works: the Earth is revolving around the Sun, and our year is based on where we are in that orbit. So people have this idea that if you stand in a certain spot at a certain time on a certain day for two years in a row, you’re cosmically standing in the same place both times. This is wrong. Really, the sun’s moving around something too, and that something is moving around something and everything is rushing outwards, faster than cars, faster than airplanes, faster than rockets. I was millions of miles away from the place I was born in, but my mother apparently hadn’t heard Sally Stardust’s opinion on the matter, and after a relatively pointless screaming match I ran into my room and slammed my door shut. I wrote a bunch of random letters and pluses and minuses signs on a sheet of paper and pretended that I had worked out the secret of the universe, but after an hour or so I got tired of that. I gave the paper to my mother and told her that I had discovered a new equation that proved her right.
I think I was ten when I figured out that you have to be good at math to do science. After that, I painted Sally Stardust’s Cosmic Celebration a dark shade of blue and gave it to my brother. He was about four, I think. Age doesn’t mean much once you realize that you’re counting an imaginary thing.
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