John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
1 Eighthmonth 17829
It seems that it has been a very long time since I have written you last! I can only explain it by saying that my home computer was on the blink. Something went wrong with the software kludge that lets me type and print your alphabet. We have alien language word processing software at my office in the university, but I feel guilty using it for personal stuff.
I guess I could have written you a letter in longhand, but have you ever tried that? Once you get used to a keyboard, you just don’t have the endurance for writing anything longer than a shopping list.
I had a curious conversation at the office yesterday. You might be interested. I was in the faculty lounge, waiting for the machine that heats up the harng to reach the proper serving temperature. There was another man standing near the machine, a tall, slender guy who must be from Herlup Province, because his skin is as black as Panu’s. He had a wrinkly, wise-looking face, which gave me the impression that if he had been wearing Human-style eyeglasses, he would be looking at me over the rims. You know, that penetrating look that makes you wonder what you’ve done that he’s found out about.
He sized me up for a few moments before he said anything.
“You must be John Anderson!” he said suddenly, reaching out to give me a greeting hug. “I’ve heard a lot about you, but I never thought I’d be so lucky as to meet you my first day on the faculty!” The machine ended its purring with a gentle burp, so he placed his mug under the spout and pressed the blue button. “I hope it didn’t look like I was staring at you,” he apologized as he waited for his cup to fill, “but you looked familiar, and it took a while for me to realize who you are.”
“I don’t understand,” I confessed, “What’s so lucky about meeting me?” It was my turn, so I stepped up to the machine, inserted my mug and pressed the blue button.
The tall man sipped at his harng. “Not as good as home, but what can you expect?” he commented, gazing into his mug. Then he looked up. “You’re the only member of the faculty that’s from Earth, of course!” He beamed.
“Oh, that,” I said. “I’m not really a full faculty member; I haven’t even finished my first doctorate yet. I’m just an alien language instructor in Dr. Fargnon’s department.”
“Really? Elji and I go back a long way,” his eyes smiled. “What alien language do you teach?”
“English,” I said. “I’m a native speaker.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever heard of that language,” he said, shaking his head in admiration, “Then Elji is certainly lucky to have you on his staff. There’s no substitute for a native speaker, especially when the language is so obscure.”
I didn’t comment on that. I really don’t like to be reminded of my origin, but what can I do? Some people here are as forward as they are friendly, and it seems that every living person in the Duchy has memorized my photo from the newspaper. And it appeared only once, four years ago! “I guess you must read that piece I wrote for the newspaper some years back; they ran a picture of me with it.”
“No, I saw you arrive on your bicycle this morning. I asked someone who you were, and they told me,” he explained. “Incidentally, I’m curious to know, what made you such a fitness buff?”
“It started about a year ago when I went on a trip to Halakan to attend a conference,” I said. “I went directly from the airport to the first session of the conference, and didn’t arrive at my hotel until after the banquet. I checked in quite late, so all I wanted to do was take a shower and throw myself in bed. With the time zone change, I had put in a good thirty-six hour day, or so; and my human biological clock works on a daily cycle of only twenty-seven Homelander hours.”
“You must have been tired,” he sympathized, sipping some harng from his mug.
“Yes, I must say I was. Anyway, when I came out of the shower, I discovered a naked fat man in my hotel room!”
“Goodness, what did you do?” he sat down in a chair, preparing himself for the rest of the story.
“Well, at first I thought I had stumbled into somebody else’s hotel room by mistake, but as soon as I finished screaming I discovered the full-length mirror in the bathroom.” The man chuckled. “So right then and there I resolved to get more exercise. Commuting by bicycle is the easiest thing to fit in my schedule. But enough about me. Who are you?”
“Oh I’m sorry,” the man said, “My name Harna Larksmo. I’m an assistant instructor in the cosmology department.”
“That must be a very interesting subject,” I said and sipped my harng. I figured that would be a polite and neutral thing to say.
“Oh yes, it is very interesting!” He leaned forward and waved his mug to emphasize his points, “The study of the origin and structure of the universe is a thrilling subject. Why just last week we had a fascinating forum on the topic of The Purpose of the Universe’.”
“The Purpose of the Universe’?” I repeated. “That smacks a little more of theology than cosmology. I thought you guys would be involved with quasars, quanta, quarks, field theory, the formation of stars, and stuff like that!”
“Of course we are! But surely you know that the universe could not possibly have come about by chance?” With that, facts spewed out of him as fast as he could talk. “Did you know that the universe is just over sixty-six million centuries old? The probability of so many sentient species developing on so many planets in such a short period of time is staggeringly small. So small that rounding it up to zero is overstating it wildly.”
“Just how do we know how old the universe is?” I asked. I went to sip some more harng, but I had already drunk the mug dry, so I set it down.
“By the elements in the stars and planets,” he explained. “At first there could only have been hydrogen around, which the first stars would have converted to helium. The amount of helium in the universe is an important clue to how old it is. Then of course succeeding generations of stars would have produced heavier and heavier elements. There is a very short period of time (on a cosmic scale, that is) during which the elements and chemical compounds from which life can develop are even available. There are other indications: the DNA and RNA compounds are fabulously complex that is is mathematically inconceivable that they developed by chance in a universe as young as ours. There are any number of characteristics of the universe (such as for example the strength of gravity) that if they were off by the tiniest degree, the universe we live in would be impossible. The coincidence, if you will, is staggering. So the general consensus of astronomers and cosmologists is that the universe was no accident.”
“That is indeed very interesting,” I said, resolving to stop by the bookstore on the way home. “So tell me, what is the purpose of the universe?” I fully expected to get a pat answer, like the time I asked Lanni Hargelstope what the meaning of life is. You don’t have to spend much time on Homeland before you discover that what’s a great cosmic mystery on Earth often has a very simple answer on Homeland. Since I already know the meaning of life, I figured I might as well know the purpose of the universe.
“Well, actually, the theme of our little forum was a bit over-exuberant,” Harna confessed. The purpose of the universe is really a theological question, and there are different answers, depending on who you ask. Some say that the universe was created by a single intelligence, and that sentience is the purpose of the universe; others say that the entity destroyed itself by becoming the universe and its plan failed, because sentience is fragmented in so many individuals, and still others say that the laws of probability are themselves a function of the universe so that the characterization of the universe as improbable is begging the question. Our forum wasn’t really concerned with identifying the purpose of the universe so much as it was concerned with hashing out what parameters are placed on that question by scientific fact.”
“I see,” I said quietly. This was much more interesting than I thought. Then I remembered that the Big Bang theory had almost been proved on Earth, and I began to wonder what made it go bang, and why.
Yours in Thorgel Bond,