by Mark Dorset
|Quanto the Minimum
[Editor’s Note: In this excerpt from Where Do You Stop?, Peter
Leroy recalls Miss Rheingold, his seventh-grade general science teacher,
and the unforgettable movie that she showed in class one day. —MD]
MOVIE that Miss Rheingold showed us was called Quanto the Minimum.
It was developed, or at least sponsored, by the telephone company, and
it featured a tiny cartoon character, Quanto the Minimum himself, who explored
the constitution of matter as it was then understood. Try as I might, I’ve
been unable to scare up a copy of this film to review for this book, so
I will have to rely on memory to summarize it for you.
As I recall, Quanto was an impish sort, sarcastic and
even a bit nasty. He seemed always to be telling us, the captive audience,
how stupid or ignorant we were. This abuse started right off the bat, when
Quanto stood with his little hands on his cartoon hips and said right at
us, “Hey, kids, I'll bet you think you're really something, don't you?
Ya-ha-ha! Well, get this--you're really mostly nothing! Just wait
till I get through here. You'll find out that you're mostly empty space.
Ya-ha-ha! Come on! Come on along with me! I'll take you on a remarkable
voyage of discovery--from the farthest reaches of the universe to the tiniest
heart of the tiniest atom--from the vastness of your ignorance to the tiniest
little twinkling photon of enlightenment, which is really about all I can
realistically expect to pass on to you with the budget they've given me
to work with. So hang on! You're in for some surprises. You're about to
find out that most of everything is nothing.”
Quanto did take us on a remarkable voyage, as he promised,
but he was a difficult guide to follow because his style, like Miss Rheingold's,
was discontinuity. He jumped from one topic to another with no more transition
than saying, “Wow! That was really something. Aren't you excited? I am.
I'm really excited!” Then, foom, off he'd go. He seemed to
whiz right off the screen and rocket through a radioactive blue miasma
for a couple of seconds, eventually reappearing in another location, calmer,
a little worn out, breathing heavily, his snazzy red outfit torn here and
there, to tackle the next topic. “Whew!” he might say. “That was quite
a ride. Where are we? Ah! Alamogordo. Wait till you see this.”
We saw many things, a fascinating jumble: an atomic bomb
blast flipping battleships like toys in a tub, solar flares lashing out
like the whip my favorite movie cowboy carried, a Tinkertoy lattice that
represented the molecular structure of some crystal or other and made chemistry
look like lots of fun, and more. We learned a word that all of us went
around using whenever we got half a chance since it was such a pleasure
to say. It began with a funny buzzing, hissing, and shushing, generated
a lot of saliva along the way, and its ultimate syllable made my mouth
a cavernous space in which a howl resounded. This wonderful word was Zwischenraum,
the word Quanto used for the empty space that is most of everything, the
nothing that permeates and separates it all. . . .
Among all the marvels in Quanto the Minimum, however,
the universal favorite was a demonstration of the mousetrap model of a
fission reaction. In this demonstration, a Ping-Pong
table was covered with mousetraps, densely packed, but set at angles
to one another, so that the model wouldn't seem to be regularizing matter
too artificially. All of the mousetraps were cocked and ready to spring,
and resting on the wire bail of each was a Ping-Pong ball. An announcer
appeared at the side of the Ping-Pong table. Quanto leaped onto the screen,
said, “Keep your eye on this guy,” and leaped off, laughing.
The announcer waved his hand toward the Ping-Pong table,
taking in its entire magnificent array of cocked traps and ready balls,
and said in defiance of all logic, “This is Uranium 235.”
Then he went on to explain some things he seemed no clearer
about than we were. He seemed to keep losing the distinction between the
Ping-Pong ball he was holding as the Ping-Pong ball it actually was and
the neutron it was meant to represent. Whenever he said that a neutron
was used to bombard the Uranium 235 he made a dart-throwing motion with
his hand, suggesting that the bombarding process was a heck of a lot like
dart throwing, or at least that was the impression it left on most of us.
When he had finished his taxing explanation, he said, “And this
is the result,” and with coy insouciance tossed the ball into the array
What resulted may or may not have been a good demonstration
of what occurs during nuclear fission, but I am certain that I will never
see a more vivid demonstration of an idea that my parents had tried to
hammer into me back when I was just a kid, before I took up junk browsing
as a pastime, whenever I became bored on rainy vacation days and pleaded
with them to mitigate my boredom with a new model airplane kit or a dozen
comic books. What they said--and this Ping-Pong ball experiment so spectacularly
proved--was, “You don't need model kits and comics to have fun. You can
have a lot of fun with the things you find around the house if you just
use a little imagination.” Definitely so, provided you could find a few
dozen mousetraps and Ping-Pong balls.
The film ended. The fluorescent lights stuttered and flickered
“We just have time for a few questions,” said Miss Rheingold.
Hands shot up all over the room. Miss Rheingold beamed
with pleasure and satisfaction.
“Yes, Spike,” she said.
“How do they get those Ping-Pong balls to stay on the
mousetraps like that?” She was poised to take notes.
“I--I don't really know,” said Miss Rheingold. “Um, Peter?”
“Do you think a little piece of tape would do it?” I asked.
“If you curled it around and stuck it back on itself, the way you do when
you want to stick something up on the wall without using a tack?”
“I guess it would,” said Miss Rheingold. “But that's not
“Rubber cement,” called Dave Botsch, from the back of
the room. These were the first words I'd ever heard the overgrown thug
volunteer in a classroom in the seven years that he'd been attending school
with me. Even his highly persuasive arguments about the wisdom of my giving
him portions of my lunch were mostly nonverbal. “You can steal it from
the supply closet in the art room,” he elaborated. “First cabinet on the
left. One little drop on each ball. Let it dry a little, so it's just tacky.
Then set it in place. Carefully.” With that he lapsed again into his accustomed
silence and did not break it again from that day to the day he quit school
nearly four years later, when he said something that I remember as “Yaaaaahhhh!”
“Well--” said Miss Rheingold. “And you, Bill?”
“Can you use just regular mousetraps, or do you have to
get that model 235 they were using there in the movie?”
It took Miss Rheingold a moment to recognize what a depth
of misunderstanding underlay this question. When she did, her shoulders
and the corners of her mouth dropped simultaneously. “Oh,” she said, or
perhaps she just moaned. The bell rang.
We hear from time to time about the power of an idea to
influence people, as individuals and in the mass. Usually it's politicians,
religious fanatics, or pop philosophers who expect to use ideas to whip
people into line, but the most powerful idea I've ever encountered had
nothing to do with phony promises, false gods, or bogus ontologies. It
was that table covered with mousetraps and Ping-Pong balls. Now that was
a powerful idea! I would guess that, at minimum, 95 percent of the students
in Miss Rheingold's class walked out of the Purlieu Street School that
afternoon with the firm determination to make whatever sacrifice might
be necessary to acquire a Ping-Pong table and a couple of dozen mousetraps
and balls, and recreate the experiment we'd seen in Quanto the Minimum.
I know that most of us didn't actually do it, but that isn't surprising.
In time the task must have come to seem too hard, or much less important
than other tasks that came along, or even just plain silly. It takes a
special mind to stick to a determination to do something just for the hell
of it, the kind of mind my great-great-grandfather Black Jacques Leroy
had and few others do.
I wanted to ask one more question before I left, so I
stopped at Miss Rheingold's desk, where she sat on the edge watching the
class converge on the door, pass through it, and expand into the hall.
“Venturi,” she muttered.
“Miss Rheingold?” I said.
She pressed a hand to her honeydew brow. “Peter,” she
said. “I hope this isn't another question about mousetraps.”
“No,” I said. “Oh, no.” Actually, I had wanted to ask
if the traps had to be aligned precisely as those in the film had been
and, if so, whether it might be possible for me to come back after school
and see Quanto the Minimum again so I could memorize the arrangement, but
I could tell from the way she ran her fingers through her shandy hair that
for some reason Miss Rheingold didn't want to talk about mousetraps, and
I certainly didn't want to annoy her, so I said, “No, no. It's about my
question, 'Where do you stop?' I tried to find the answer in the library,
but they don't have any books there that have anything about it. All their
books are kind of simple.”
She smiled. I was pleased to have caused it.
“I think I can help you,” she said.
The smile that came to her lips, the twinkle that came
to her eye told me that my discovery that the library's books were too
simple for the Big Questions had all been part of her plan for me. I was
supposed to discover that the question took me beyond the obvious sources.
I was supposed to come to her, or to go elsewhere, but in any event to
expand my horizons. I must be getting somewhere, I reasoned. She went to
the storeroom and returned with a book even thicker and heavier than our
general science text.
“Try this,” she said.
It was called Elementary Introductory Physics Made
Easy for Beginners (Book One). I tried to read it. I really did. My
problem was that I understood only a portion of what I read, and the portion
I understood was not the portion that conveyed most of the meaning. I moved
my eyes along the sentences, did my best to pronounce the words, and used
my dictionary quite a lot, but so much of what I read was incomprehensible
to me that . . . it resembled coleslaw: discontinuous but recognizable
shreds of cabbage in an indescribably complex entanglement, with an opaque
sauce that almost fills the Zwischenraum. Remarkably, I managed
to derive two ideas from the first chapter. They were these:
Things get very much more difficult to understand as you get very much
closer to them.
As Quanto said, “Most of everything is nothing.”