The scientists at The Milliken Institute congregated in The Room like they did every day, as if today was just like any other day. The Ball sat on the big mahogany conference table. Occasionally someone would pick it up and stare at it, roll it around in one hand, or toss it from hand to hand. Impromptu games of catch had been known to break out from time to time.
A hushed buzz of conversation arose from little knots of scientist clustered in various parts of the room, some in front of nanoboards covered with simple diagrams or complex equations. Throughout the room laptop and handheld computer keyboards emitted their muted click-clacks, creating a soothing aural backdrop sounding not unlike a summer's grove infested with cicadas. Some scientists appeared to be fast asleep, eyes closed and ear buds pumping who-knows-what secret music into their private heads.
The ball appeared to be a puzzle of interlocking wooden pieces cunningly assembled into a very nearly completed solid sphere. It was about the size of a baseball and could easily be held in one hand. Indeed, every hand in the room—and very, very many others not currently in the room—had so held the ball. Individual pieces of the ball were labeled with symbols that were visible on the surface of the sphere—the numbers 0 through 9, the days of the week, chemical elements, and very many other things were represented by the symbols.
The ball had been discovered by Dr. Jonas Milliken (a microbiologist, no relation to the oil drop Milliken) nearly 100 years earlier. Dr. Milliken had steadfastly refused to disclose exactly how he happened to come by the ball. However, he did lock the first two pieces together and prove that the entire lot could constitute a sphere. By the time of his death 15 years later about a third of the sphere had been assembled, although Dr. Milliken had made no further important contributions to the effort himself.
No progress had been made on the assembly of the ball in a very long time, but nobody was distressed about it. For decades the ball had been the main focus of all the world's scientific study. Amazing strides had been made in all fields of endeavor as the world's finest minds collaborated and the ball gradually came together. The greatest breakthroughs came when disparate branches of science which normally were not imagined to intersect suddenly coalesced and a piece of the ball fell into place. I myself was honored to be part of the team that had, some years ago, accomplished one of the most recent, apparently successful moves. Some mathematics which I had developed, as part of my doctoral thesis, to explain an obscure property of a certain unusual boson decay trajectory had been applied to predict the perturbation of the orbit of a planet in a ternary star system with one sun going supernova. Astronomers using the Hubble-3 space telescope soon found just such a star system and verified the prediction. Subsequently we proved that this meant that the piece of the ball labeled with an isosceles triangle should be rotated 180º—well, its sounds cryptic as I write it here, but I can assure you that scientists around the world understood it perfectly and they were thrilled by its implications.
But then again, we could be wrong. Many times over the years the ball had been disassembled, sometimes down to almost its bare component pieces, and reassembled in a whole new way. This was never, ever a disappointment, because it was always a mark that great progress had been achieved.
On this day that seemed so much like any other day, at a particular moment late in the afternoon, a mathematician named Melinda got up from a beanbag chair in the corner of the room and approached the ball. A handful of nearby scientists watched with bored curiosity as she picked it up and contemplated it for a few moments. Then, just as dozens of people had done hundreds of times before, she tried to slide the last remaining piece, a thin sliver marked "Null" on its end, into the last remaining crevice in the ball. Unlike all those other time, this time piece slid neatly into place. The ball was complete!
Instantly all the laws of space and time unfolded before the scientists' astonished eyes. We were filled with giddy joy as the walls of the room receded to infinity and gravity was canceled. We floated disembodied in … existence. Galaxies and subatomic particles were our playthings. Our minds joined as one, yet without losing our sense of self, and we could see how it all works. Everything! It was so clear.
Someone took the ball and moved one of its elements ever so slightly. The cosmos pinwheeled and a whole new set of powers became available to us. The past and the future were ours to examine. The universe's 19 and 27 dimensions unfurled before us. Gleefully we disappeared into the arc of one dimension and reappeared as giants in another.
We gazed wonderingly at he ball and began to realize that the meanings of the symbols were plain. "Mon", "Tues", and "Wed" would give us power over the days of the week. The numbers would allow us to manipulate algebras and calculuses in ways we had not heretofore imagined. With those pieces marked with symbols shaped like the continents we could remake our geography and geology in any way that pleased us.
A scientist, the one we had playfully dubbed "Mr. Spock," took the ball and stared at it thoughtfully. Raising one eyebrow in the manner of his Vulcan counterpart, he said quietly, "Suppose instead of "Null" we took "imaginary Null," and instead of inserting it into the ball, we drew it out…" The group collectively gasped, stunned at the realization of what stupendous new dimensions of power and energy would be unleashed!
After a moment the project manager reached for the ball. She pinched the "Null" piece between the nails of her index finger and thumb and withdrew it from the ball by about a millimeter. With an unheard"Crack!" the laws of space and time resumed their usual functioning and the room snapped back to its normal dimensions. We gazed at each other, each and every one of us feeling incredibly fulfilled and satisfied. The puzzle of the ball, we all recognized, had been certainly and finally solved. And yet, this was clearly just the beginning of a whole new epoch of scientific discovery. There was so very much to say that no one said anything at all. There was just no good place to start.
Finally the project manager broke the silence. "Let's all go home, have a nice dinner with our loved ones, and get a good night's sleep. We'll meet back here tomorrow to discuss all of this."
Melinda, the mathematician who had placed the final piece in the ball, spoke up. "I have just one question I'd like to raise. It's not directly about what we just experienced. What I'd like to ask is, who built this ball? I mean, on the surface it's just a simple wooden puzzle, a child's toy. Any master woodworker could have crafted it. But who could have harnessed the laws of space and time and infused them into this ball? What sort of energies fuel it? What technologies give it its mighty powers? Where does this artifact come from? Did Dr. Milliken create it himself? Did it come to him from the future, or from an alien race in a distant galaxy? Did he obtain it from another dimension? Was it given to him by God herself?" Nobody answered, because nobody had any idea. So we all went home, as the project manager had suggested.
I walked through the grounds of the institute with Hollings, as was our habit. As we passed under the gold leaf arch that spanned he institute's main gate, the answer popped into my head.
"Hollings," I exclaimed, "I know! I know who made the ball!"
"Oh," Hollings acknowledged, fully believing that on this incredible day, that this incredible mystery, too, should be solved. "Who?"
"Nobody!" I answered. "I mean, not nobody, but anybody. You see, the ball is just a simple child's toy. We can go down to the store tomorrow and pick up another one, and it will have exactly the same powers."
"I don't understand," said Hollings.
"Don't you see?" I cried. "The power isn't in the ball at all. It's in us, in our minds. Soon we will be able to achieve the same ends without any ball at all. It's just our knowledge come together at last. We're finally beginning to truly see how the universe actually works. We're finally beginning to understand!"
Somewhere in heaven, Dr. Milliken smiled.