The Newton Enigma.  A Novel by Linton Hebert

Chapter 6 a


Cuthbert Georgia, October 24, 9 AM


“Right now we’re invisible,” said Ivan.  “We’re just three people walking down the street in Georgia.  But if anybody else is following us and has the message, they can find the church as well as we can.  And the moment we knock they know who we are.”


It was an ordinary town on a clear autumn day.  The House of Zion was a church visible about two blocks away. 


Jon was trying to superimpose a map of old Jerusalem in his mind with the layout of the town.  It was madness of course.  But he kept thinking about it.  The scale was comparable.  Cuthbert and Jerusalem are nearly diamond shaped, but while Jerusalem elongates to the northeast, Cuthbert elongates toward the northwest.  East running streets in Jerusalem are a little north of east.  East running streets in Cuthbert are a little south of east.  And the House of Zion is on the west side, which would be right for the Holy Sepulcher but wrong for the Temple.  But there is a spring to the north of Cuthbert as there was a spring north of the Temple. 


It was like a tale told by a crazy man, mixing elements of fact and fallacy with complete tranquility.


They knocked boldly on the church door.  The street did not erupt with armed men and armored vehicles.  In fact nothing happened at all.  They tried the door.  It was open.


The interior was clean, almost plain.  Local piety discouraged any sort of ornamentation in a church.  There was a cross on the altar and a simple cloth.  The windows were tinted a pale amber and the carpet was a deep royal red.  But the walls were bare and white.  There were no curtains, fluted window frames, vaulted ceilings, pictures or statues.  Particularly there were no statues.  The pulpit had pride of place, even looming over the altar.  And on the pulpit, as the focal point of the energy of the room, was an open Bible of enormous size.  Organ music was playing softly. 


There were hymnals in the racks in the pews and tasteful little pledge envelopes.  And there were paper fans.  Apparently it was felt that the luxury of an air conditioner did not make up for the racket air conditioning made.  The fans were donated by a funeral home.  They were decorated with exactly the kind of sentimental interpretation-loaded religious imagery that the designers of the sanctuary had been at such pains to avoid. 


“Hellooo,” called Tracy.  An uninterpretable call for patience rang from the far end of the church.  A small man with winter white hair and winter blue eyes came hurrying in.  He seemed pleased to have visitors, although that was inconceivable.  He seemed a little timid.  It was almost as if he was too shy to protest the intrusion. 


“Come in, come in.  The house of God is always open.  I’m sorry I was doing some paperwork back in my office.  I didn’t hear you knock.”


“We are looking for someone named ‘Hap,’” said Jon.


“I would be Hap.  Reverend James Hapgood.  I am minister here at this church.” 


“We have a bit of an odd question.  And we can talk anywhere you like.  But it may be that we are being followed.”


Hapgood twinkled with the indulgent humor generally shown grandchildren and bolted the door.  Perhaps he was just as happy to have an excuse to lock up.  “The house of God is open except when it isn’t.  We won’t be interrupted.  O yes …. James.”  The music stopped.  A lean young black man emerged; evidently he had been practicing at the organ.  “Be a good friend and stay here.  We’re going to be in my office and don’t want to be disturbed.”


“Yes, Reverend.”  James looked cordially at the newcomers.  “‘James, James’ are the names.”  They introduced themselves.


Hapgood settled them in his office and said, “You have my full attention.”


“I’m Ivan.  These are my friends Jon and Tracy.  You know about the skyscraper attack.”


“Yes, by the Purity of Islam.  Poppycock.  Preposterous.”


“Preposterous?” asked Ivan.


“Three reasons it couldn’t be true.”


“Couldn’t be true.”


“For one thing the government has thrown enormous resources into looking for exactly that kind of group.  Never heard of them.  Imagine the resources required to do something like they did to the sky scraper.  Imagine the size of the organization.  How do you recruit for something like that?  You have to have a host of people that are loyal to you.  Imagine finding people who could do it, recruiting them.  Look, if I told you I wanted to do something like that you’d go to the police.  So would most Muslims.  They can’t keep an operation like that secret for very long if somebody is investing the resources to try to find you.  They had to find people who were highly motivated and highly sophisticated.  They even put reinforcing into the forty second floor so the thing would give way all at once.”


“Reinforced the floor.”


“Maybe you’ve missed the news.  It seems what they did after reinforcing the floor was line the rooms with plastic.  Then they set water running in.  When the weight was great enough the whole thing came crashing through.  That was a highly professional job.  An organization that could do that would be one you would have heard of.  An attack on that scale and nobody in the group so much as threw a rock before?  Nonsense.”




“And then there is the name.  Purity of Islam.  It’s a prepositional phrase.  That’s not a characteristic Arabic construction.  The French might use it.  Or Americans.  Germans wouldn’t.  Arabs wouldn’t.  Nor the Chinese.  But somebody pretending to be Arabic might do it and not notice there was a problem.”


“And the third thing?”


“Well there is the notion of purity.  That’s a very Christian preoccupation. The radical Muslims are all about getting rid of Satan America, maybe.  They don’t like a lot of things about us.  They particularly don’t like the way we let women, begging your pardon miss, women running around acting like men.  They think women should be secluded.  But that isn’t a Muslim or even an Arabic idea.  It’s Greek.  It was brought into that part of the world by Alexander the Great, and don’t think they’ve forgotten how much they hate Alexander for a second.  If they were really interested in purity, they would change that.”


Ivan said, “But they could be mistaken and still their religion could be all about purity.” 


Hapgood replied, “Look at my church.  Look how plain it is.  Compare that with a mosque.  A mosque is fabulously ornate.  They are at great pains to be sure they don’t break any rules about representing living forms in their art.  But the elaborateness of their art is very different from ours.”


Ivan conceded, “Well Persian carpets are more ornamented than American carpets.  Mine are all one color.” 


“We Protestants have taken the words, ‘Thou shalt not make any graven images,’ and turned it into a general prohibition against opulence.  If it looks too nice, we’re suspicious.  It’s common enough to take things to the logical conclusion.  The Koran forbids drinking date wine.  The Muslims have turned that into a blanket rule against alcohol, although there are those who say they still make the best… ‘Alcohol,’ notice something? It’s an Arabic word.  Like algebra.  Like ‘Alhambra.’  They were the first to discover how to distill the stuff without including wood alcohol, that will blind you, and now they’ve gone pretty much teetotaler.”


Jon offered, “So they took the idea and ran with it.”


Hapgood went on, “As I said, we do the same thing.  We took phrase, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,’ and decided we didn’t quite know what that meant so we seldom say the name at all.  Some people have made even a bigger matter of it than we do.”


“We treat it was like a dirty word,” said Tracy.


“That’s right,” said Hapgood.  “Of course we worry about the graven images commandment, too.  We avoid opulence and think that keeps the spirit of that law.  Technically the law forbids making an engraving of God, which would include any published picture.  But I have never known any Christian who took offence at pictures of God as an old man with a white beard as long as it was a cartoon, as long as the lines were clean and spare, even though it was to all appearances an engraving.  Purity is our obsession.  Idolatry is not something we think about as much.  We mistrust opulence because you can’t have purity and opulence at the same time.”


“So you don’t think it’s the name of a terrorist group?” asked Ivan. 


“That’s right.  Somebody, probably with Christian ancestors, made up the name and thought it sounded Islamic, but it doesn’t.  It sounds Western.  Anyway, you asked me if I had heard of the tragedy.  I have.”


Ivan said, “Well we lost a friend there, a guy named Terra Lane…”


Montgomery,” Hapgood finished for him.  “Oh dear.  Oh I’m so sorry.”  His face fell.  “I had such high hopes for him some day.”


“You knew him?”


“Yes, very well.  He grew up right here in Cuthbert.  His parents go to this church, and he did too.  But he was, how do you say?”


Jon said, “He was gay.”


Hapgood glanced at them as if he was about to ask exactly what the relationship had been among them, but tact forbade it.  “He had always been such a good boy.  We preachers get to know a lot of good boys, and some of them are good just because they don’t have the imagination or gumption to get up any kind of trouble.  Terra didn’t get into trouble much because he was too smart to get caught, or if he did get caught it was something that would make everybody laugh.  He was always into something.  But he had a good heart.  He really did.”


Ivan sighed.


Jon said, “He sent us a message, apparently just about the time the skyscraper was falling.  It’s in code.  Here is what we got out if it.”  He handed over two pieces of paper. 


Hapgood read the message over twice.  Then he said, “Newton.  He wants you to know about Newton.”  He paused as he wrestled with an internal question.  Then, “Do you have a driver’s license?”


Ivan took out his wallet, opened it and handed it to Hap.  Hapgood looked at it carefully and handed it back.  “What did he have on the back of his neck?”


“Purple birth mark.”


“Favorite drink?”


“Mineral water,” said Jon.


“Good enough for me.  All right, you know Newton was a scientist, probably the greatest scientist ever.”


“Of course,” said Tracy.  “Even I have heard of him.”


“His discoveries involved gravity and optics,” Hapgood went on.  “In optics he entered a world in which light was thought to be a wave.  He persuaded everyone it was a particle.  But that’s odd, because he was a very spiritual man himself; you wouldn’t have expected him to be drawn to a mechanical description.  Later a man named Maxwell persuaded everyone it was a wave again.  Now we think it’s something that resembles both, but which – begging your pardon – sounds a lot more like a spiritual than a mechanical mechanism.  Einstein used the word ‘spooky,’ which means no more nor less than ‘spiritual.’”


Ivan protested, “I thought Einstein was a very spiritual man, too.”


“He was, but he usually kept that out of his science.  As far as astronomy goes, Newton entered a world dominated by a man named Kepler, who predicted the motions of the planets according to geometry; a planet moves in an ellipse, an oval, around the sun, and its speed varies so that over any time it sweeps out the same area as at any other time.  It moves faster when it is closer to the sun.  Newton persuaded everybody that there was a ‘force’ called gravity.  This force pulled things around.  In the end, Newton’s force and Kepler’s geometry give the same predictions.  Newton took it into other areas, such as the tides, but that is just an elaboration of the same idea.”


“The same idea,” said Ivan. 


“Yes, then along came Einstein who explained that it was all geometry again.  There was no force.  But there was mass, something Newton had been the first to notice.  Space – reality itself – was warped by the presence of mass, so that things appear to travel in curves but they just travel in a straight line in a warped time and space.  And that includes a fly in baseball.”


“Well, yes,” said Ivan.  “I guess that is spooky.  The ball comes back down because the entire ballpark is warped.  I thought it just fell.”


Hapgood smiled, “Einstein altered his equations because the most obvious form of his theory had the universe begining – time, space and energy together – as a single flash of light.  He lived to see that flash – well it evolved into a flash of light – to see it be accepted.  It’s was called the Big Bang theory; now they called it the Standard Model.  Now you can talk about spooky, but the ‘Let there be light’ notion gives me the willies even now.  It’s very spiritual.  Too spiritual.”


“And it was too spooky for Einstein,” said Ivan.  “I’m with him.”


“So you have the picture of this Newton, a very sincere and very spiritual man, if more rigid about some things than you would wish, looking at the spirit-saturated thought of his time and turning that thought into belief in a huge machine only to have history turn it back into something spooky again.”


“Don’t they say he was an alchemist?” asked Jon.


“He took an interest in alchemy.  He wrote a great deal, but like others he was secretive about his alchemy.  As a child he listed a lust for gold as one of his many sins.  And as an adult he became head of the mint and ordered counterfeiters executed.  In between he made a more systematic effort to turn other elements into gold than anybody has before or since.”


“He had counterfeiters executed even though they were doing about what alchemists were trying to do,” said Tracy.


“More or less.  So don’t ask me to explain Newton.  I haven’t a clue what he was really all about.  O yes.  He and a man named Leibnitz both discovered calculus.  Most simply put, that consists of taking a line on a chart or based on an equation and figuring out what the slope, the rate of change, of that line is.  Or figuring out what the area under the line is.  It turns out that the same mathematical steps that give you the slope done backwards give you the area.”


“Engineering depends on calculus a lot,” said Jon. 


“As well as on Newton’s laws of motion,” agreed Hapgood.  “Anyway, here was a man who was the greatest scientist who ever lived, and his discoveries – except for the concept of mass – were reversed in the end.  But what he really gave us was he renewed the idea that any mechanism that works should be expected to work at any time, in any place and on any scale.  The ancient Greeks would have felt comfortable with that but not Newton’s world.  Western thought was still influenced by a notion called the Great Chain of Being.  Things were lined up more or less as God, angels, humans, animals, plants and stones.  Each level was ‘higher’ than the next and obeyed different laws.  It was shocking to think that something a heavenly as a star could obey the same law as a rock.”


“Aren’t we in kind of a hurry?” asked Tracy.  “We could be interrupted any time.”


There have been 1,957 visitors so far.


Home page.