A Grain of Sand

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Much to the surprise of his family, who thought he would never take an interest in that kind of amusement, Little Tommy woke up early and went to the beach. And he got the toy shovel and bucket with him! It was the first time he spontaneously approached anything childlike. Digging holes in the sand, who would thought? Well, not just any holes, of course. Tommy spent the whole day working on an incredibly intricate design, perfectly round holes of different sizes, connected by straight grooves and organic ridges, all carefully spread through an area the size of a small house. He walked with so much care between the lines in the sand that no one dared disrupt it. When they first got to that lakeshore, he stood there watching the low and slow waves, looking at his clock every ten minutes, looking up when the first stars started appearing. It was something. But the next day he was back to his books, searching the internet and making calculations no eight-years-old would for any amount of candy or pizza. His mother had to take the notebook to force him to sleep, only to find it in his hands again the next morning. Then, with no warning, he left all his research on the table and went to the beach with a shovel and a bucket. Through the day, a small crowd gathered to watch the strange kid remodel the sand as if he was under some kind of spell. The drawing gained complexity, resembling a dungeon model with small staircases and even some tunnels. The weather seemed to cooperate with him, not throwing too much wind. He allowed a sandwich for lunch and the application of some sunscreen only after his father told him he might not be able to finish if he became dehydrated or got sunburns. From time to time he went to a deck to see his work from above and look at his clock. The afternoon was almost over when he put on the final touch: a last groove going a few centimeters from where the water reached. Then, with his finger, he wrote at the side of that last line “8h43PM” and went to the dock.

As beautiful as it was, nobody understood it, especially the time written on the side of that line. The curiosity of it made the crowd grow as the clock got closer to the numbers on the sand. Little Tommy’s mother was caring for him, making sure he drank his whole juice and ate another sandwich, when the people started reacting to the arrival of the event. As if it had been rehearsed, the water reached the groove exactly when the second turned in the 43rd minute after eight. Then, moved by what could well be magic, the water filled the grooves in the exact amount not to overflow, dancing through the ridges, passing under the tunnels and, to the bewilderment of all, even go up the small staircases. The water filled the perfectly round holes to the limit without ever touching anything but what the boy dug. It was incredible, the kind of thing no one not there would believe if told. Little Tommy watched letting just the slightest smirk of satisfaction and went back home as soon as it ended. He would explain later that in the first day he noticed the minuscule tide, which was only possible due to the size of the lake, large enough to be influenced by the moon that would be exactly above them that week. From then, all he had to do was calculate the amount of water displaced by the tide and create the drawing to match the exact volume of this displacement, controlling the speed and direction of the flow through the shapes and curves in the sand. Fairly simple. The beautiful dance of the water while filling the holes? A mere sub-product without real value.

Tommy never ceased to amaze those around him. He started reading almost as soon as he started talking, and when he discovered the numbers, they became practically an obsession. He was a mathematical genius by five, tackling with ease complex formulas and conjectures, never finding any problem he couldn’t solve. A few months after that performance on the beach he solved Fermat’s Last Theorem, a full ten years before the first successful proof was published. He thought it was too easy and never bothered even telling anyone about it. His parents had no clue what the legal notepad filled with calculation was and threw it out after asking Tommy if he wanted to keep that.

The jump from mathematics to engineering was only natural. Before starting high school he was already well advanced in many different branches, never letting any problem without a solution. When his uncle asked him if the boy would be interested in looking at his busted TV, he didn’t just fixed it. He disassembled the set, studied the circuits and analyzed its system. In its core, it was quite a simple machine. Essentially a computer with a stripped out operation system, able to perform only a limited number of commands. He identified defects in the TV’s original project, realizing how far the companies would go to enforce the planned obsolescence. Then, since electronics engineering was, of course, one of the many areas where Tommy excelled, he rebuilt it almost from scratch. After his alteration, the TV not only started working again, but better than before and, although he didn’t stuck around to see it, would never show any problem again. He left for college soon after.

Even though nothing on his behaviour or his expressions would indicate it, Tom was anxious about finally beginning his higher education. Had he paid attention to his emotions that one time, he might have found out what his hopes for such a place were. He was simply looking for a challenge, something that would occupy his mind in a way none of the previous exercises had. His teachers stimulated him to pursue the unsolved conjectures, and broaden his search towards other fields. Over the course of his work as a student, he paved the way for reinforcing solid structures through geometry and trajectory paths involving slingshot acceleration from celestial bodies, forever changing the way the world would understand engineering and astrophysics and developing a whole new branch in mathematics on the way. All that before receiving his PhD in the record time of two years. While others got excited with what he could do, Tom grew unrested. College proved, as everything else, bellow his capabilities.

He turned his head towards the unpredictability as a way of, at least, being surprised. Stock brokerage proved to show some of what he searched for, with so many uncontrollable variables acting at the same time, and the ever changing human factor involved in the trades. But, in the end, it was all numbers, and it was just a matter of getting to know the signs and acting within the narrow window of opportunity that opened and closed every day. For a while, he rested on having to watch for those signs and perform his calculations at full speed, and the short reaction time kept him on his toes. But that was not what he really wanted. There was some excitement in the stock market, and certainly personal gain, but no challenge, not for him, not the kind he wanted. In time, just like everything else, Thomas got bored with it.

His genius, however, became widely known. After giving up the stock brokerage – not without suggesting a few key changes in how to watch the market and make even more profit, or course – he spent some time at his alma mater as a visiting lecturer. If he couldn’t find a challenge worthy of his brain, he could at least amaze a few students by showing the way he was able to look at the world through its numbers. No one believed at first when he explained the sheer simplicity with which he solved the most complex conjectures. He would have lost count of how many times he told the story about Fermat’s Last Theorem if he wasn’t, you know, him. Teaching gave him, at least, the satisfaction of sharing something of himself with others. Because even if there wasn’t any mystery for Thomas in the world of numbers, he could never feel like belonging anyplace. He was a rare specimen, Thomas, and one where even rarer quirks had appeared all at once. The odds of finding someone else like him were way less likely than being hit by a meteor and a lightning at once five times in a row. He calculated the statistic. That experience as a teacher led to other invitations, and he travelled the world to talk numbers to the young minds.

A circus freak. A well-regarded one, one that everyone listened to and respected, but a circus freak no less. He knew that, to every crowd to which he spoke, out to everyone who listened for his hour-long explanations, only a handful was really capable of grasping the complexities of what he thought was so simple. The ones who could understand it and even try to talk to him as equals, not enough to match the fingers in one hand. Most of the time, he talked to the amusement of others, no more. He climbed the stages and proffered his life’s work so that people could experience a little of the potential of the human mind. He wasn’t really reaching them. In the long run, he would be set aside as the memory of a fun afternoon where some brainiac guy talked about things too abstract to even pay that much attention. Thomas, the freak.

There was nothing abstract about numbers, about the math of the world. But knowing the laws that secretly govern everything, even human nature, was useless if there was no one else to talk about it. The world would never know that, through eyes that see only numbers, it remain as beautiful as ever, maybe even more so. Thomas didn’t understand poetry, even if he was able to tell for sure if a person would find a particular poem good or bad based solely on the rhythmic values of the text and the fashion choices of the reader. Well, he didn’t understand the poetry of the words, because his numbers sang to him all the time. But they sang to him alone, and what good is poetry if you can’t share it? The world made sense for Thomas, but he had no one to explain it to.

He settled for the circus freak life, enjoying the perks of at least having renowned universities as stage. He was convinced his mind would be better used elsewhere, but he had run out of challenges to defeat. With all the time as his disposal, he only dedicated a few hours a day for finding new solutions to old problems. The rest of the time he passed seated at a bench near one of the many parks in one of the many college cities he moved from time to time, watching the birds fly while predicting his movements influenced by the wind, of exploring the amount of nuts a squirrel could amass within a given area, of even calculating the exact amount of leaves of grass on the ground – a mere question of extrapolating the average number of a given area to the total and correcting the result with an algorithm. Thomas’ resting mind was still filled with math.

It was a spring afternoon when he watched a friendly soccer game between elementary students. He saw his predictions of when the fastest player would get tired, when the boy who insisted in shooting from far away would finally score, and even the situation where the goalkeeper would twist his ankle due to the way he always landed after jumping to catch the ball, all turn out exactly as he calculated. They were having a time out and one of the boys, panting heavily with the extra effort so his body could cool at the rate of one-thousandth of a degree with every exhale, came to him with the ball under his arm. He wanted to know if Thomas was indeed the smart professor who could always get a math problem right. He amused the boy by saying that with the force of the kicks and the unleveled terrain in which they were playing, his ball would likely be loose on one of its stitches by then, which of course was accurate. Both teams sat in front of him and started shooting questions for him to answer. They were mostly simple equations, and the boys were more interested in the speed of the answer than in the explanation, but it was the first time Thomas had felt something remotely like fun in a while. When the whistle sounded the approaching of the second half, they all dispersed back to the field. The boy with the ball remained for one last question. He wanted to know if Thomas had ever, in his entire life, got any calculation wrong. The answer didn’t come as quickly as the others and he had to join his team.

It was no. The answer was no. From the first contact Little Tommy had with the numbers, to the first really complex equations Tom was exposed to in college, to the ultimate challenges graduate students defied Thomas with, he had never got an answer wrong. Not one time. An unlikelihood ever greater than him being the only one of his kind since the beginning of the human race. That evening, alone in the visiting scholar’s residence, Thomas pulled the trigger of the gun with the barrel pointed exactly between his eyes. He didn’t have time to calculate the speed of the bullet.

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