Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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The Ultimate Experiment

by Walt Trizna

George Stewart, age 94, with his mane of white hair and flowing beard, looked the part he had chosen in life, that of a distinguished scientist. His mind wandered as he waited in his study for Virginia to arrive. He always anticipated her visits. Twice a week she came. Finally, the door to his study opened and she entered.

"Virginia, how are you doing?" he said.

Virginia was thirty-five, of medium build and quite attractive. But it was the nurturing she gave her patients that revealed her inner beauty. She put down her nursing bag and replied, "How are you doing, Dr. Stewart?" although she knew the answer.

Virginia had been an oncology and hospice nurse for four years. The work was demanding and emotionally draining, but she derived comfort in knowing she helped the people she cared for to make their last days as comfortable as possible.

"I'm maintaining Virginia. I'm so very glad to see you, my dear."

Virginia smiled as Stewart adjusted his body in his hospital bed. She enjoyed spending time with Stewart, easily the most famous patient she had ever had. In 1975, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. His breakthrough theories and research led to the proposal of string theory. At his advanced age, his brain was still nimble. But his body was riddled with colon cancer and the malignant fingers of death had spread to other organs.

Stewart lived alone in a grand old house. His wife died some years ago and he still deeply mourned her. His only child, a son near 70, lived nearby and would visit when he could. Stewart would have liked to see his two grandchildren and great grandchildren more, but they had their own lives and families. He cherished the rare visits they managed. A nurse's aide kept watch over him and tended to his daily needs.

When Virginia had begun managing Stewart's care one month ago, he was given three months to live. "I'll spend my final days at home," he told his doctor.

Virginia was assigned Stewart's case and, during her first visit, she told him, "I'm having a hospital bed delivered today to make you more comfortable. What bedroom do you want it set up in?"

"Oh my dear," he answered, "I want to spend my last days with my very close friends. Set it up in my study."

He could tell she did not understand his request. "Wheel me into my study and you shall meet them."

She wheeled him up to the sliding double doors of darkly stained wood. When she opened them her eyes were greeted by floor to ceiling shelves overflowing with books.

"These are my very close friends. I have spent my life with their thoughts, their ideas, and their dreams. On these shelves are the works of scientists, philosophers, poets and great novelists. I can gaze at their spines and recall the cherished words they hold. This is where I choose to spend my last days." Over the days she cared for him she grew to understand how much these friends meant to him.

Now she saw Stewart as her patient and friend.

On one of her visits he said, "I've worked hard in this life. I am satisfied with what I have accomplished. But I am so very tired. I look forward to the next life and being united with my dear wife."

Virginia finished with her patient and left instructions with the nurse's aide as to what needed to be done until her next visit. With her work done, Virginia packed her bag and prepared for her next visit. They said their good-byes, and then Stewart mentioned, "I'm expecting a visitor this afternoon, a former student of mine. His name is Donald Ball and he has made quite a name for himself in the field of quantum mechanics and string theory. I have not seen him for thirty years or more. I can't imagine what the purpose of his visit might be."

"Just don't overdo it Dr. Stewart. I'll see you in two days."

Whenever Virginia left Stewart, she never knew whether she would see him again. She knew the end was very close.


Donald Ball drove his rental car along the back roads of southeastern Pennsylvania. He chose this circuitous route to give him time to think, although his mind had been occupied with one subject for some time now. He wanted to talk about an extremely sensitive and private matter: his old teacher's imminent death.

Ball had a collaboration to discuss with his mentor. That was why he traveled from California to Pennsylvania. He had in mind the ultimate physics experiment and needed Stewart's help to prove a theory that, until now, he had not dared share with anyone.


Ball arrived at Stewart's residence and parked on the circular drive. The nurse's aide answered the door and led him to the study. The sliding doors were open. As he entered, he was immediately astounded at the number of books crammed into the room. However, he was more astounded and saddened to see the shell of a man that was once George Stewart.

Stewart smiled as his former student approached the bed.

Ball extended his hand. "It is a pleasure to see you again Professor. How are you?" He immediately gave himself a mental slap for asking a man who was dying how he was doing.

"I meant to say..."

Stewart waved a dismissive hand. "I understand Donald. When one is as close to death as I, life's daily greetings can seem out of place. I'm glad to see you but I must admit I am puzzled by this visit. I cannot fathom why you would drop your important work at U C Irvine to come visit your old professor?"

Ball knew this conversation would be extremely difficult. He had practiced what he would say since he first conceived the idea, when he first heard of Stewart's condition.

Motioning for Ball to take a seat, Stewart asked the nurse's aide to bring some tea.

When they were alone, Ball began to explain his visit. "Professor Stewart, I have always respected you as an outstanding scientist. No, 'respected' is the wrong word. I have always been in awe of your intellect. And I have always respected you as a man, a person of honesty and integrity."

Stewart smiled, "I appreciate your comments, he said, "but I'm sure you didn't travel three thousand miles just to compliment me on the life I have lived."

"Professor, I am here because you have three qualities I am seeking in an individual, someone I need to help me prove a theory of mine. It is a theory that goes beyond science to the essence our very existence. You meet my criteria. You are a highly intelligent physicist, you have led an honorable life and you are dying."

Stewart said, "This conversation is becoming more and more bizarre. I presume you can explain your comments."

Ball nodded, "I will try my best Professor. "As you know, I am working at the Super-Kamiokande detector used for detection of neutrinos. I am also conducting a graduate-level course in string theory. While teaching this course, I formed a theory on a subject that I never put much credence in: the existence of heaven."

"Now I am truly lost," replied Stewart.

"You see Professor; I have never been a religious man. I was not raised in any faith. But as a scientist, the more I think about life the more I find it difficult to picture our life force, that energy that each of us possesses, coming to a complete end with our death."

"I can appreciate your observation on life. But I cannot fathom the connection between string theory and heaven."

Ball began to explain his theory.

"One of the estimations of string theory, as you well know, is the existence of not four but eleven dimensions. Presumably, some of these dimensions are too miniscule to be observable. I began thinking about the existence of alternate universes. I thought of our own universe with its three physical dimensions and the fourth, time. I envisioned two alternate universes, each with three dimensions. I assumed time to be a constant for all three dimensions, ours and the two unknown."

Stewart interrupted. "That theory," he hesitated, "would explain the presence of ten dimensions. You are left with one unexplained..." The startled expression on Stewart's face told Ball the he now comprehended the connection between string theory and heaven.

"That is correct, Professor Stewart. We are left with one dimension, one universe that is infinite, a universe of energy, and a universe where physical reality does not exist. The one remaining universe is heaven."

Both men fell silent. Ball continued, "I have thought about the next aspect of my theory a great deal. As I said, I am not a religious man. But I appreciate the good and the evil in the world. If the one remaining dimension is heaven, then what comprises hell? Could it be a continuum of the heavenly dimension, or does it not exist?"

Ball paused for emphasis, and then continued, "I propose that hell does not exist. The reward for an errant life is oblivion. A life that we would label as 'good' is usually an orderly one, or as orderly as circumstances allow. A good person meets his or her obligations, and makes decisions based on consistent principles. There is, in other words, a pattern, a cohesiveness. A person we might call 'evil' is much less bound by obligations to others, and acts and thinks in a more chaotic way. Hence I believe that if you are 'evil', your life force is dissipated for some other purpose and your consciousness, your existence is lost."

Stewart looked at Ball and said, "I must admit your theory interests me. I now see why you require a man who, some would say, led an honorable life and why you require the help of someone about to die. But what is your need for a scientist?"

"History is overflowing," Ball said, "with people who have vowed to communicate with the living after their death. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories, considered those works a minor representation of his entire output. He was primarily concerned with the afterlife and communication from the beyond. What happened after he passed? Nothing.

"Harry Houdini spent a good part of his life trying to contact his departed mother, and in the process debunked quite a few mediums. He vowed that he would communicate to his wife from the next world -- nothing.

"But these people weren't scientists. Even if they had been, the level of technology did not exist to allow them to communicate from that singular dimension. I'm asking you, Professor Stewart, after you pass, to send me a sign. Something that we will now plan. Something that will prove my theory."

Stewart's eyes twinkled as he said, "I think I know just the event."


A few days after Donald Ball's visit, Virginia noticed a steady decline in George Stewart's condition. Every time she saw him she thought it would be the last. Each time she approached his bed, Stewart appeared as a corpse, his complexion gray. Only the occasional rise and fall of his chest signaled that his body still harbored life.

"How are you today, Professor Stewart?" Virginia did not expect an answer but he opened his eyes.

"I don't think I have long for this world, my dear," he said with great effort. "But I am at peace. I have one request of you before you leave."

Two hours later, while making another visit, Virginia was paged by the nurse's aide caring for Stewart.

"The professor passed away."

Virginia went to pronounce him dead. She had lost a patient and a friend. Then she fulfilled Stewart's last request.


Donald Ball was at work when his phone rang.

"Hello, Dr. Ball?"

"Yes, this is Dr. Ball." He did not recognize the voice.

"This is Virginia Madison. I'm a visiting nurse. I have been taking care of George Stewart."

Ball knew immediately the purpose of the call.

"George Stewart passed away today. He told me it was very important that you know when he died."

"Thank you for calling. He was a good man and friend. He will be missed."

"He was a good man. Good-bye."

Donald Ball hung up the phone. He sat alone in his office a long time thinking of what might occur. He felt a chill of anticipation.


Two days later John Coolidge, a graduate student working for Dr. Ball, sat at the computer console connected to the Super-Kamiokande detector. He had seen what the computer images of past neutrino events looked like and detected a few events himself. He was reading a physics textbook when the alarms began to sound. As he looked at the monitor he said out loud, "Holy shit, I'm going to be famous."


Ball looked up from his work as his normally reserved graduate student came running into his office. This usually calm student was in an extreme state of agitation.

"Professor, you've got to come quick! We've just recorded a unique event. Nothing like this ... you've got to come!"

"Calm down John. Now tell me what has happened."

"We've detected a new form of neutrino! It is not any of the three known types -- electron, muon or tau!"

Now Ball was getting excited. "Tell me about its chirality -- its orientation."

"That's the strangest part, Dr. Ball. It has none. It is not left-handed as all neutrinos are. I've got to get back. Are you coming? There might be more events."

"I'll be right there, son."

After the graduate student left Donald Ball sat for a moment alone. He was simultaneously excited and numb. He cried, and then he laughed. He also felt a calmness he had never experienced before. He knew this was a unique event. Because it seemed inexplicable, the event would probably be deemed the result of faulty sensors. But Ball knew better. The new neutrino was the type of particle Stewart had agreed to generate from beyond the grave.


© 2009 Walt Trizna

Bio: Walt Trizna's science fiction and horror work has appeared in various publications, including Bewildering Stories, Black Petals, Hadrosaur Tales, Necrology Shorts, Nocturnal Ooze, and Aphelion (The Superior Species, February, 2007).

E-mail: Walt Trizna

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