••• The International Writers Magazine:
Alvin and the Universal Theorem
What are the odds?
It was a beautiful sunny morning. Alvin had come in wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella.
“You expecting rain?” Gloria, my secretary, asked him.
“Yes, this afternoon.”
“It’s not going to rain in July in San Francisco,” said Gloria.
“It will, in the afternoon.”
“What makes you think so?” I asked, just out of curiosity.
Alvin shrugged. “It’s something I know.”
That afternoon the sky suddenly darkened and the heavens opened up. When it was time to go home, I took a newspaper to hold over my head. “I don’t have anything,” wailed Gloria. “I’ll be drenched.”
“I’ll walk you to your car,” said Alvin, putting on his raincoat and taking his umbrella.
Alvin (his full name was Alvin Oates) had come to work in our office, part of the State’s Office of Management, the year before. Our office was supposed to predict, or try to predict, the state’s economic future. We needed a statistician, not a high-level job. Alvin had an interesting resume. He was 40 years old. He’d graduated from Berkeley with a degree in mathematics, then had taught in graduate school for a while. Then there was a large gap, followed by a series of clerical jobs in state agencies during the last four years.
I asked him what he’d be doing during all those missing years. He glanced nervously at the door to my office. “I, uh, had a sort of nervous breakdown.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes. I was working on a difficult math problem and it was too much for me. Of course, that was back in the days before we had such powerful computers.”
“I see,” I said, although I really didn’t. “Were you in . . .”
“Yes, I was in an, uh, institution. But I’m okay now. I take all my meds. I’d really like to have a job where I do more than, uh, file papers. I can do it.”
I considered. Alvin was a small, rotund man, balding with big round glasses. I could imagine him, if he hadn’t had a breakdown, as an absent-minded professor. His clothes, although clean, looked shabby. Those clerical jobs hadn’t exactly put him on Easy Street. What the hell, I thought, I’d give him a chance. After all, I was a mathematician myself.
A few months later, there was a timid knock on my door and Alvin asked if he could come in for a minute. I waved him in and told him to sit down. Alvin had done his work as a statistician acceptably. He did have a few eccentricities. He munched apples while working at the computer. When he wasn’t munching, he was usually whistling. One or two of the other workers had complained about him but I’d told them to exercise tolerance. He was a Berkeley graduate who was trying to get himself together.
“Uh, I was wondering if you knew a good stock broker?”
“A stock broker? I didn’t know we were paying you that much.”
Alvin smiled, to show he knew I was joking. “I, uh, do have a little money I’d like to invest.”
I gave him the name of my broker and then forgot about it.
After the first of the year, Alvin again asked if he could come into my office, then he announced that he was leaving.
I was surprised. “What happened?” I asked.
“Well, you know, uh, when I asked you about a stock broker. I made a few investments and made some money.”
“Really? I thought everyone was losing money. How much did you make?”
“Uh, about two million dollars.”
Now I was really surprised. “What? That’s incredible. What’s your secret?’
“That mathematical problem I told you about when I had my, uh, breakdown. It’s the Universal Theorem. It explains everything in the universe. I’ve solved it, or a good deal of it. Of course, I had the help of the computer.”
“But how did that tell you what stocks to buy? What’s the Universal Theory?”
“It’s, uh, hard to explain. But one of the, uh, by-products was predicting the stock market. There are other by-products, like, uh, predicting the odds at Las Vegas, but I thought buying stocks was simpler.”
“I suppose predicting the weather is another byproduct.”
“It gives you a pretty high probability. By the way, you might want to leave San Francisco in about two years.”
“The big earthquake? In two years?”
“It’s not a mathematical certainty.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. But what about the Universal Theorem? Could you try to explain it? I am a mathematician, you know.”
“Yes, a second-rate one. It would take a long, long time.”
“Hmmm.." (I did feel a little put out but then again I was never going to make two million dollars) Well, I suppose I should congratulate you. What are you going to do now?”
“I have a lot of more work to do on the Theorem. Someday I hope to completely solve it. Then I’ll write a paper on it and go down in history.”
“I see. Well, good luck.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
Of course, I didn’t believe that Alvin had solved the Universal Theorem, whatever that was. I called my stock broker and asked if Alvin, whom I’d referred to him, had cleaned up on the market. My broker said that was confidential.
“Well, did he make two million dollars? That’s what he told me.”
“Two million? That’s a lot. Sorry, can’t really tell you any more.”
My broker hadn’t been very helpful. Was Alvin really a millionaire now and was he really working on a paper about the Universal Theorem? Or had he suffered another breakdown and was his stock market killing just a delusion? About a week later, I called someone I knew in the Berkeley math department. To my surprise, he’d heard of Alvin Oates. A first-class mathematician, he said, before his unfortunate breakdown “What about the Universal Theorem?”
“Where did you hear about that?”
“From Alvin. He told me he’d solved it.”
“If I were you I’d forget about the Universal Theorem.”
“But . . .”
There was a click on the line. He’d hung up.
Next morning Gloria ushered two men in dark suits into my office. They showed me their identification, some kind of federal security agency. Their dark suits were tight-fitting. I could see they were both carrying guns. "About Alvin Oates,” one said.
“Yes, he used to work here. He . . .”
“No, he didn’t work here.”
“But . . . “
“You understand, he never worked here. You never heard of Alvin Oates. You’ll be getting a memo from your department head later. All records have been destroyed.”
“He told me he’d solved the Universal Theorem.”
They both smiled. “The Universal Theorem,” the first one said. “Do you really believe there’s such a thing? You know Oates was in a mental hospital, don’t you?”
“Then what’s this all about?”
“Do you value your job? And your family?”
“Wait a minute, are you . . .”
The men stood up. “Just forget about Alvin Oates. And about the Universal Theorem.”
“All right,” I said. I didn’t think I had much choice.
Although any evidence that Alvin had worked in our office was erased there was something that had been overlooked. This was a paper I’d found when I looked through his desk. It contained just a few mathematical figures. It took me a long while (Alvin was right, I was a second-rate mathematician) but I was patient and eventually I figured out at least part of it, enough for my purposes. It was so simple it was amazing that nobody had hit upon it before. Over the next year, I discreetly made a number of investments. After that, I quit my job, took my family for a trip around the world and moved to a foreign country (never mind which one). I’d been warned to forget about Alvin but while I traveled I often thought about him. Was he hidden somewhere still working on his problem? Was he back in a mental hospital? Was he secluded in some federal agency? I’d like to be able to talk to him. I’d like to have the full explanation of the universe.
© Martin Green September 2016
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