The Quantum of Rotten Meat

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Professor Newton left the refectory. In the shadowed corridor a mild figure shuffled on the cold stone pavement, then half bowed the obeisance proper from a middling grade university servant. Begging your pardon, sir, he said, here is the copper coin you requested. Without looking up Professor Newton took the coin in his fist and pushed his fist hard into his midsection where it disappeared among the folds of robe; he was oddly stooped this morning, the servant thought.

The servant needed his pay; the bursar was tardy again, and what with his wife sick from another failed childbirth and needing costly things to stanch the bleeding and mend the lacerations the bungling midwife had made – well, he had earlier hinted to the professor that advances as well as arrears were…and here he had stopped and sighed. The implicit wordless need had passed between them like an untangling skein. He knew the professor to be a kind man though evasive and distant – in fact, he had already turned toward his study. The servant knew, had faith, that the professor, renowned for his alchemical magical skills, could turn the coin to an ingot and transmute the ingot to a heap and inflate the heap to a mound – of gold! to fund the barren wife's return to health and the couple's childless old age. In appreciation of the life of duty and faithfulness that the middling grade servant had given the university and the church and its inhabitants, the worthy professor would work this favor. And so he had requested the coin, the seed. The servant said with humble mien but burning eyes, Do you think, sir: will generous Heaven open its hand, smile on you and spill the palpable means to purchase health, redress the sick and buy out from a cramped and early death?

There are only two possibilities: yes or no. The professor spoke this oracle and moved on. The servant nodded eagerly and was satisfied.

Professor Newton closed the entrance to his study, went to a paneless window and leaned over the sill taking breaths of steely cold air as deeply as he could before something tight and unyielding inside him shouted stop, too much, no more. After some minutes at the window (it was a gray frosty view of devastated fields and the professor felt some odd reaching out to it), he stood before his bench, performed the accepted alchemical procedures, added thereto his own hard fought discoveries, elements before unthought of, and turned up the flame under the retort. There passed an hour of measurements and manipulations, inspections and consultations with mathematical tables he had written himself. The mathematical tables, and so much more, were scribed in his newest work, the mathematical principles that propel the universe. It was far from finished and, though it was a horror to the professor to think so, might never be unless…

Finally he took out the copper he had requested from the servant. (The professor never carried specie, even on the road, jingle invited robbers. Friends rolled their eyes heavenward and paid for him and he made good on the debt and more at the end of each term.) He remembered how respectful the servant had been this morning, deeply solicitous of the professor’s health and how he had wished the professor good fortune in preserving himself. And preserve himself he must! He had come this morning from inspecting the remains of the roast pig he had scavenged at midnight, a roast pig enjoyed by the faculty a week ago at the feast of All Saints. The remains of the repast had lain in the pantry, forgotten by the kitchen. Newton recognized the cause of his churning guts this morning and the icy trembling of his limbs. It was the green foaming tissue he had eaten a handful of in the near dark before the disgust hit home. He recognized it as the poison that had dispatched so many of the dogs and cats that patrolled the gardens, twisting their bodies into grotesque knots as it killed them. Beggars too, who grabbed at anything, had died the same horror, given the similarly rotten meat by resentful sneering kitchen drudges who knew they themselves were in the eyes of the university little better than the beggars. No one ever investigated.

The professor needed the universal elixir, the panacea, to save himself. He put the coin into a ceramic pot, uttered the necessary incantation and performed the mathematics from his great unfinished work. Following his own elegant calculus he divided the rising potentials by infinity and lifted his eyes to the dark ceiling. He was frightened by what he saw - was it the poison working? - a swimming cloud of confusion, infinitesimal futures, undefined, unresolved, all right, all wrong, all veiled. How to realize them, effect the event, ripen the copper coin to gold, bathe it in the alkahest, dissolve it and distill the gold to the universal elixir that alchemy promised? How to collapse the cloud? Frantic now, how to remove the infinity that confounds the formula? How to…there was no word for it until it flashed in the cloud. Renormalize! he shouted. Remove the infinity. Make it collapse (here he slammed his fist into the bench and popped the lid off the pot that held the coin).

Newton, the heat in his face and rage in his belly, leaned forward into the steam: was it life or was it death? Had the elixir distilled from the cloud of indefinite possibilities? If yes, he would live to finish what he accounted his greatest labor – the Principia Mathematica! And thereby prove the undeniable efficacy, the incontrovertible truth of Alchemy and its Magic. The Queen of the Sciences forever! But if no

The servant stood outside the door, mouth gaping as if better to hear, and heard the great shout.