The first thirty years of Henry Talbot’s life were the most promising. He was a bright student through high school, and in college his fellow students often used the word “brilliant” in discussing his mentality; occasionally even his instructors echoed them.
Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went to graduate school and eventually received his Ph.D. as an experimental nuclear physicist. He applied for and got a research position at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the Electronuclear Research Division.
Dr. Henry Talbot, brilliant young scientist, began his career enthusiastically, and ran into a brick wall.
Rather, he crawled up to and against it, for it took several years for him to discover that his life’s route lay not on an unobstructed downhill slide. Those years slithered past before he looked up and realized that he had not revolutionized the scientific world; he had discovered no principle of relativity, no quantum theory.
He stopped working for a moment and looked around. All his colleagues were enthusiastic and brilliant young scientists. Where at school, where throughout his life, he had been outstanding, now he was one of the crowd. What had passed for brilliance before was now merely competence.
Henry Talbot felt a vague need which he perceived liquor might fill. That afternoon he left work early for the first time since he had arrived at Oak Ridge. He had to buy the vodka from a bootlegger, Oak Ridge being in a dry county. But, as in most dry counties, that presented no problem. He stopped by Shorty’s cab stand, across the street from the police department, and asked Shorty for a bottle. Shorty reached into the glove compartment and, for fifty cents over list price, the vodka changed hands. Henry didn’t like to patronize the bootleggers, but he did feel the need for a quick one just this once.
After drinking for several hours in his apartment, Henry Talbot took stock of himself and came to two conclusions:
1. He was satisfied with himself and his life. He had always taken for granted that he would one day be a famous figure in some scientific field, true, but this was actually not so important as, upon casual inspection, it might seem. He liked his work, otherwise he could never have been so wrapped up in it, and he saw no reason for discontinuing it or for becoming despondent over his lack of fame. After all, he reasoned, he had never been famous and yet had been always perfectly content.
2. He liked vodka.
The next thirty years of Henry Talbot’s life, now devoid of promise, were fulfilling and content. He worked steadily and drank as the mood fell upon him, publishing on the average one paper a year. These papers were thorough, the experiments well worked out, without contrived results or varnished sloppiness. The publications were accepted everywhere as solid research papers.
Henry Talbot’s name became familiar in the nuclear field. He did not find his face on the cover of Time, nor was he ever invited to participate as an “expert” on any television quiz programs, yet he was well known to nuclear researchers--at least those in his own country. He was honored with a banquet on his fiftieth birthday. Person to Person once tentatively proposed to visit him, but the idea was squelched, a visit to a more buxom personality being substituted.
Sex never reared its ugly head. He had not had time for it when young, and so had never fallen into the habit.
At the age of sixty-five he retired. He canceled his subscription to the Physical Review, bought a fishing rod, subscribed to the New Yorker, and tried Florida. He started at Tallahassee and fished his way down to Ocala. By the time he had reached St. Petersburg, he had decided to try California.
In California he took up golf. He bought a hi-fi set and a dozen progressive jazz records, advertised as unbreakable. They proved not to be, although in fairness to the advertiser it must be said that Henry Talbot had to exert himself.
He decided to try a world cruise. He left the scheduled tour in Japan and visited the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Tokyo, spending some time there just generally chewing the bilingual rag. When he returned to the United States, he renewed his subscription to the Physical Review, canceled his subscription to the New Yorker, and looked around for another position.
He went to work for the Arnold Research Corporation on a part-time, semi-retired basis. But he had his own lab, his hours were his own, and in a few weeks he was working full time. No one was disturbed by this, he did not apply for more money or recognition, he kept to himself, and he began publishing his one paper each year.
On the tenth year afterward his paper was missing, though not missed. He began to spend less time in his lab and more in the library and behind his desk, scribbling on scraps of paper or staring into space. He was forgotten by the Arnold Research Corporation. He was content with his books and his monthly check.
In his seventy-fourth year, Henry Talbot published a paper in the Philosophical Magazine on what he called the “Warped Field Theory.” The theory was entirely his own, from beginning to end, and constituted--in his opinion--the first real breakthrough in theoretical physics since Albert Einstein’s little idea in 1905. The day the article came out he sat behind his desk all day, puffing on his pipe, not merely content but really happy for the first time in his life.
Life continued undisturbed for three more months. Then Larry Arnold, Jr., came into his office, carrying a copy of the Philosophical Magazine. Larry Arnold, Jr., was not a scientist but, as he put it, he was scientifically minded and was general overseer, public relations man, and coordinator of coordinators of research.
He humphed a few times, groaned as he sat down across the desk from Henry, wheezed twice, smiled once, and said, “Good morning, Dr. Talbot.”
“Good morning,” Henry replied, folding his hands and trying to look humble yet brilliant.
“I read your article,” Arnold said, feebly waving the magazine around before him, “and I don’t mind admitting I didn’t understand a word of it. Well, I’m not a man to hide his lack of knowledge so I went right out and asked some of the men working here about it. They didn’t understand it either. I called up a few people around the country. I--Dr. Talbot, I don’t know how exactly to say this to you. I don’t know what you intended with this article, but it’s got people laughing at us and we can’t have that.”
Henry kept the same humble look on his face; he fought to keep the same expression. He didn’t know what his face might look like if he relaxed for a moment.
“We didn’t expect much research from you when we hired you. Well, we know we’re not paying you much, and we don’t mind if you don’t put out much work. Hell, we don’t care if you don’t put out any work. We get our money’s worth in good will when people know we’ve got an old pro like you on our payroll; the young kids can see we won’t kick them out when they’re all used up. But when you put out papers like this one--” and here he waved the magazine a bit more violently, getting warmed up--”when you do this, and it says Arnold Research Corporation right here under your name, people don’t just laugh at you. They laugh at the whole organization. They think that this whole place is going around doing fantastic research like this--this warped field.”
He stopped when he saw the look slip a bit from Henry’s face, and he saw what was there beneath it. He dropped his eyes and wheezed twice, then heaved his bulk out of the chair.
“I didn’t mean to slam into you that way, Dr. Talbot. You know it’s an honor to have you associated with the firm. We were even thinking of giving you a testimonial banquet next week on your seventy-fifth birthday ... It is next week, isn’t it? Well, what I mean to say is--I mean we all appreciate the good solid research you’ve been doing all these years. It’s just that--well, you won’t fool around like this any more, now will you? And we’ll just forget all about it. No hard feelings.”
He left quickly, and the door closed behind him.
For the first time in seventy-five years, or in the last sixty-nine at least, Henry Talbot cried.
After he cried, he became angry. He wanted to shout, so he left the office early and hurried to his apartment where he could shout without disturbing anyone, which he did. He then took out the vodka, settled Bucephalus, his cat, on his lap and began to pour.
Several hours later Henry Talbot sprawled in the armchair and took stock of himself. He came to two conclusions:
1. At his age, what did he care about fame? He knew his theory was sound, and if the people in his own country didn’t appreciate it, what difference did it make? Now, free from rancor, he could understand how they must have received his paper. They all knew old Dr. Talbot--seventy-five and not dead yet. What a ridiculous age for a nuclear physicist! Now he’s turning theoretical, they must have chuckled. So they started his paper. And when they came to the first unorthodox assumption, when they reached the first of the many mathematical complexities and indeed paradoxes, they must have closed the magazine and had a good laugh over a cup of coffee.
Had the article been written by some unknown twenty-five-year-old, they would all hail him as a new genius. But coming from old Henry Talbot, the article was ludicrous.
Well, he didn’t care. Abroad, he was not so well known. Some countries would not have heard of him at all. They’d read the article seriously, one or two men would understand it. They’d run some experiments to confirm or deny the hypotheses and Henry was confident the experiments would prove him right. He had only to wait. Of course he hadn’t much time left, but perhaps they would do it in a year or two, and perhaps he’d still be here to see it and have the last laugh.
2. He still liked vodka.
It was nineteen years before two Finnish physicists, Arkadt and Findrun, ran the necessary experiments. Of the many who had read the article, some knew Talbot and thus laughed it off, some could not understand it and some understood it and waxed enthusiastic. Eventually the enthusiasm spread to the Finnish Institute for Applied Research where the essential equipment was available. The experiments were an unqualified success.
As soon as the experiments were confirmed, Arkadt sent a telegram to Dr. Henry Talbot, in care of the address which had appeared with his original article, informing him of the happy developments. He and Findrun were still celebrating their spectacular success a week later, this time with Dr. Arrhenial, director of the institute, when Arkadt mentioned that he had sent such a telegram and had received as yet no answer.
Arrhenial smiled into his vodka. “Didn’t you know? Talbot was seventy-five years old when he wrote that article. I’m afraid you were a little too late for him.”
“I didn’t know,” Arkadt replied.
“A shame,” Findrun murmured. “It would have made him so happy.”
The telephone rang and Arkadt answered it. His wife was calling, with unusual news. He had just received a letter from America. Imagine that. From a Henry Talbot.
Henry Talbot saw his face on the cover of Time magazine. He refused a request to appear on a television quiz program. (The contestant the network had had in mind to appear with Henry won his money nevertheless, in the category Theoretical Physics, by correctly naming the year in which Einstein first published his Theory of Relativity, the number of papers which comprised the entire theory, the language in which it was first published, the magazine in which it was first published, the year in which the magazine was first printed, the name of the first printer of the magazine, and the year in which he died.) Henry Talbot was termed “The Dean of American Men of Science” by the New York Times, which paper triumphantly reported that only thirteen people in the world understood his Warped Field Theory. When asked if there was now anything else for science to do, he replied, “Indubitably.” When pressed for more details, he said that his housekeeper always removed his vodka from the refrigerator at three-thirty, and that if he did not immediately return home, it would become unbearably warm.