Episode 9: Trying to do push ups in a top hat

episode-9-push-ups-in-a-top-hatIt took all of Jaxon’s self control to walk out of the hall slowly, in time with the recessional music. He was pumped full of adrenaline and he needed to run or to punch something or anything to let out all the energy crammed into him. Eventually the recessional had left the hall and the tail end, made up of the new students, was milling around the corridor. He drove the base of his palm into the wall, hard.

“Hey, what’s that about?”

Jaxon shrugged. “Got to get it out somehow.” He drove his other hand into the wall.

“I can get that.” Ken seemed unperturbed. “But it might be less destructive to try, I dunno, pushups or something.”

Jaxon turned around. “You think I should drop in the middle of the corridor and start counting pushups?”

This time Ken shrugged. “Got to get it somehow.” Jaxon narrowed his eyes. Ken smiled. “Relax, man. People might get awkward if you punch the wall down is all.”

“That’s why I don’t punch.” Despite that, Jaxon suspected Ken was right. Pushups had never got anyone into detention. He dropped to the floor, strained against his suit and struggled through a couple of pushups. He felt better for it.

“Good idea, man.” Ivor dropped down to join Jaxon. He had forgotten his top hat, which fell off and began to roll down the corridor. Ivor ran after it, swearing.

“Fascinating language for a new inductee.” Ricardo had returned from the senior students’ section of the recessional.

Jaxon scrambled to his feet. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“Did you set him off like that?” Ricardo raised an eyebrow.

“He was trying to do pushups in a top hat,” Melinda said.

Ricardo looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Jaxon or Ivor?”

“Ivor. Jaxon was just doing regular pushups.”

“Have to get it out somehow,” Jaxon repeated.

“I have no objection to pushups, but do try to keep the language printable,” Ricardo said as Ivor returned.

Melinda raised an eyebrow. “I’ve seen worse than that in published literature.”

“It’s an old Earth expression, from more civilised times,” Ricardo said drily. “The Academy won’t prohibit you from using whatever language you like, but by the same token they won’t prohibit me from complaining about it.”

Jaxon could see his point, but– “So how do we know if you’re complaining in your personal or professional capacity? No offense meant,” he added quickly.

Ricardo tilted his head and considered. “Practice,” he said at last. “You’re supposed to be bright kids. Now we’re going back to Mrs McKinsey for your room allocations and then you’ll be free until supper.”

Jaxon tried to keep track of the turns in the corridors on the way back. He could more or less find his way around if he needed to now, he thought, although he understood the Chancellor’s comment about being perpetually lost for a month. He didn’t think it would take him a month. Not that he thought he was better than the Academy Chancellor! Probably, he told himself, she’d been exaggerating.

Mrs McKinsey was dealing with a group of older students when they arrived, but she finished up quickly when she saw them. “I’ll make sure they get to supper, Ricardo,” she said. “No need to hang around. Now, you lot.” She waved a hand at them. “Your rooms are in this corridor and the junior common room is through the door on the other side of my workroom. You’ll be two to a room, which I’ll leave you to sort out while I get your keys.”

Jaxon looked around a little helplessly. The silence was awkward and he figured he couldn’t make it worse. He looked over at Ken. “Well, how about it? Short kids don’t take up much space.”

Ken grinned. “Sure.” The silence having been broken, the others began pairing up. “I thought you didn’t know how this stuff worked, huh?”

“I don’t.”

“Cut yourself some slack, man.” Ken might have been annoyed; Jaxon wasn’t sure. “So what classes are you looking forward to most?”

“Huh. I dunno, really. I wasn’t exactly the school’s biggest achiever. I just like making stuff.”

“Making stuff?”

“Just fiddling. Changing the chimer units in clocks and messing around with the insides of mechs and viewing screens. That sort of thing. I rigged a viewing screen up where the chimer unit’s meant to go in a grandfather clock, once. Made some really pretty pictures once I got the transformations right and stopped burning out cables.”

“Wow, that’s incredible. So you had a visualisation of the sound? I wouldn’t even know where to start. I mean, I could do the theory I guess, but to actually make one – what did you do with it?”

“Nothing really.” Jaxon shrugged. “I watched it for a  bit and then put the chimer back before my parents got home. Kept me busy for a good few weeks worth of evenings, though.”

“But didn’t they want to see it?”

Jaxon laughed. “Not a chance. They’re not that kind of parents. It was fun while it lasted, though. I had it rigged so the screen got brighter when the chime was supposed to get louder. Couldn’t figure out a proper frequency mapping, but I got it so the three main pitches in the chime turned the screen red, blue and green. The way the sounds mix is more complicated than you’d expect.”

Jaxon wondered if he’d talked too much, but Ken looked thoughtful rather than bored. “Yeah, that makes sense. My sister does music lessons and she says what we think of as one sound is usually a whole bunch of them wrapped together. Maybe it’s easier to see that than it is to hear it.”

Mrs McKinsey clapped her hands for attention. “I imagine you’ve all met Mr Nel by now.”

Jaxon followed her gaze to the doorkeeper who’d taken the damaged mech from him. “I’ve met them all, Biddy, but let them call me Cairus. Not much of a one to stand on ceremony, me,” he explained to the class. “Now, if you lose your keys you’ll be explaining that to me, so my recommendation is that you don’t.” He started out into the corridor. “The first room’ll be Adams. Who’re you sharing with, then?”

“Me, sir.” Melinda emerged at the front of the class.

“Alright, lassie, here’s your key.” He handed over a big brass key. “And yours, Bryony. Now don’t lose ’em. Next room is Jenkins.”

Kelly Jean stepped forward and Quintessa edged past the rest of them. Bryony said, “Sorry, sir, what order are we assigned in?”

Cairus just looked at her for a moment before answering. “Order of how much of Biddy’s eye you need kept on you.”

“Is that allowed?”

Cairus snorted. “You want to complain to Chancellor Briggs about it?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that. Honoured to know I’m worth keeping an eye on, sir!” Bryony grinned. Jaxon wondered if anything bothered her.

The next room went to Buhle and Verashni. Ivor sighed dramatically. “Beaten by every one of ’em. And after swearing at the class tutor too.” Jaxon shuffled back into the wall as he waited for the reaction.

“And what did young Arcos do to you, eh?”

“Um, uh,” Ivor spluttered. “I wasn’t exactly swearing at him.”

“Well then.” Cairus handed a key to Ivor. Mark took the other one and they disappeared into their room. That left Ken and Jaxon. Cairus doled out their keys. “The doors on this room are a little wider, which I thought would be easier with the chair,” Cairus said, nodding to Ken.

“Oh. Yes, it’s usually okay, but that helps, thanks.”

“So we’re not really in order of troublemaking, then?”

Cairus smiled. “So you’re planning to cause more trouble than that lot, huh?”

“Oh no, sir. Not planning to cause trouble at all, sir.”

“Well then. Settle yourselves in, lads. Biddy’ll be along to take you to supper when the bell rings. Try not to lose your keys.” Cairus headed off down the corridor.

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Author’s note: Next week in National Science Week here in South Africa. I’ll be releasing a card game called Universe Builder. It’s a bit like Rummy or Go Fish, with special cards that teach you some of the basics of particle physics as you play. You’ll be able to download (for free!) and print your own cards along with the rules. Universe Builder will also feature in next week’s episode.

Episode 8: Induction

episode-8-inductionThey’d been standing in line outside the Great Hall for what felt like hours, although somebody wearing a watch told Bryony it had been less than thirty minutes. She was tempted to start scratching at the floor to see if she could identify what they’d treated it with — it looked soft, but it was handling her high heels without marking. However even Bryony — perhaps especially Bryony — was not willing to be quite so undignified on her first day at the Academy, before she’d even been formally inducted. She sighed.

Melinda seemed to take this as a sign to try to start a conversation. “So, do you guys reckon they’re bringing in a sound amplification system, or are we just going to be projecting really hard once we finally get in there?”

“Probably neither,” Buhle said seriously. “That hall has darn fine acoustics, from what I heard this morning.”

Quintessa nodded. Ivor sighed melodramatically. “I was so hoping for a megaphone to complement my top hat.” Bryony wasn’t the only one to snicker in response.

“I suppose you could think of the entire hall as your megaphone.” Quintessa stared up at the ceiling, which was a long way up even from her lofty height. “It’s the same principle after all.”

“But,” Ivor looked doubtful, “do you think the colours will go together?”

Bryony groaned and steered the conversation away from Ivor’s dress sense. “I never really understood how that works,” she said to Quintessa. “Want to enlighten me, since we’re waiting anyway?”

“Oh, uh,” Quintessa looked embarrassed, but carried on, “well, you know sound is a wave, right? Well, not really a wave, more like a pulse. When you make a sound, we hear it because it pushes the air out from around you, and that pushed together air hits your ear differently, right?”

“Yeah, okay.” Bryony assumed there was a way of filling in all the steps Quintessa had glossed over, but she wasn’t going to say anything that might make the girl any shyer.

“So basically, when the wave — or the pushed together air, anyway — hits a wall of some kind, it gets reflected. Or you can think of it as the moving air bouncing off, if you like. That makes more sense to me.” She paused. “Yeah, think of it as the air molecules bouncing off the wall, whether it’s the megaphone material or the wall of the hall. Then obviously you can set the walls up so that you focus the sound. You know, so that the different reflections enhance each other, rather than all sort of cancelling out randomly, which is what usually happens.”

“Hang on,” Melinda interrupted, “I’m with you so far, but remind me what there is to cancel out?”

“Well, when you push the air together in one place, it has to spread out somewhere else to make up for it, right? Which is why sound can be kind of like a wave, with bunched up and spread out parts,” Quintessa said, still gazing at the ceiling.

“Oh, right, yeah that makes sense. Thanks!” Melinda grinned broadly, but Quintessa didn’t seem to notice.

“So the idea is to get the bunched up parts of the reflection from all the walls to arrive at the same time?” Bryony asked.

“Yeah, because if the bunched up parts and the spread out parts arrive together, it all sort of smooshes out, right? Which is why it’s normally hard to hear things from far away when there’s been lots of reflecting.”

“There’s some awesomely cool design that goes into constructing rooms with proper acoustics,” Buhle added. “It’s really important for stuff like music concerts, but the maths is a bit beyond me at the moment.”

“Well, that we should be able to fix.” Mathematician Dustborn stepped out of the Great Hall into the corridor where they were waiting. “Always good to see students eager to learn. Now, the procession is about to begin, so make sure you’re ready to enter when Ricardo calls you. No last minute questions?” He looked along the line. “Cold feet, anyone?”

Somebody giggled, but the mood had turned serious.

“Very good. I’ll see you again in a few minutes.” Dustborn whipped off down the corridor to join the procession of Mathematicians.

He had barely disappeared around the corner when the processional music began, the sound from the Great Hall’s pipe organ swelling out, audible even in the corridor. Buhle gesticulated wildly at the back of the line, which Bryony, at the front, assumed was some kind of comment on the acoustics of the hall. She thumbs upped and turned her attention back to the door. If a surname starting with A meant she was going to lead the hundred and thirty seventh class into their induction, she would do it with flare and look like she’d been chosen for the job.

When the music stopped, she heard a woman speaking in the hall, although the words were too muffled to make out. After a while she seemed to be replaced by a man, who Bryony thought might be Mathematician Dustborn. She was still wondering when the door swung open and Ricardo appeared to beckon them in. Fixing her best smile on her face, Bryony stepped forward, looking, she hoped, more confident than she felt.

Things went surprisingly quickly from there. They lined up in front of the wide wooden podium and the scarlet-gowned mathematicians, as they’d practised in the morning and repeated after Dustborn

“I accept a position as a student within the Mechatropolis Academy for Mathematical Sciences and I promise that, through my conduct, I will uphold the honour of the Academy. I will seek knowledge and value truth above all in my research. I will uphold the duty of the Academy to the people of Mechatropolis and to all humanity.”

Upholding the honour of the Academy was rather vague, Bryony thought as the academic gowns were brought forward by a man in Mathematician’s red, but she supposed the Academy could afford to be vague. Nobody was refusing to sign up because it wasn’t exactly clear at what point behaviour would no longer be tolerated. And since it wasn’t clear, people would probably get off with a warning if they did push the boundaries a little. Not that she was intending to push boundaries. Much.

“Bryony Adams.” She stepped forward and Dustborn draped the gown over her shoulders. She struggled for a moment getting her arms through the sleeves. “I induct you into the Academy of Mathematical Sciences. Welcome!”

She grinned like an idiot all the way back to her seat and hardly heard Dustborn inducting the others as the excitement swam about her head. She’d done it! It had actually happened — she was a fully official student at the Academy with a plethora of exciting new discoveries ahead of her. She sighed and relaxed into her chair as Dustborn called, “Quintessa Modicena, I induct you into the Academy of Mathematical Sciences. Welcome!” She joined in the cheers of the crowd then and again for “Buhle Nkosi, I induct you into the Academy of Mathematical Sciences. Welcome!”

When they were all seated, Dustborn gave a short speech aimed mostly, she thought, at the parents in the audience. Then he handed the podium to the Academy’s Chancellor, Naledi Briggs, a short, dark woman with hair dyed the scarlet colour of her mathematician’s gown.

“It seems appropriate to welcome you again, now that our newest members have joined us. So once again, to my fellow mathematicians, mayor and council, students, parents and members of the public: welcome! An especially warm welcome to our newest students and my best wishes to you all.” She gestured to indicate the Academy building. Dropping her voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper, she added, “I got so lost in this building, I was late for every lecture for the first month of my career. I seem to have managed despite that, so take hope!”

Oddly enough, Bryony did find it comforting that even this startling, successful woman had found the Academy overwhelming once. You could learn to handle anything with enough effort, she supposed.

“I would also like to make a special point of welcoming Mathematician von Rejk back to our teaching staff.” Mathematician Briggs turned back towards the rest of the mathematicians. A heavyset man rose and nodded to acknowledge her. “Mathematician von Rejk has been working with our colleagues at the spaceport for the last several years, although many of our senior students will remember him. His teaching and research here will cover several areas of mechatronics. Please welcome him back to the Academy.”

Bryony clapped politely, but behind her she could hear a couple of students whooping enthusiastically. Apparently Mathematician von Rejk had been popular.

“Our speaker this afternoon needs no introduction and so, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to welcome to the podium Keegan Govender, the mayor of Mechatropolis.”

The mayor didn’t get any whoops, but then mayors were less interesting than mathematicians. At least, one would expect the kind of people who went to an Academy induction to think so. The mayor was a slender, balding man dressed in a well cut suit. Bryony didn’t think he had Ricardo’s style, although he spoke sensibly about the importance of the work done at the Academy. She might even have listened properly if she hadn’t been too busy wondering if Mathematician von Rejk would be teaching her, when they would get their timetables and what would happen once the ceremony was over.

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