Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Before they met, Jake Kristopher was sitting in the third row of Woolsey Hall, Yale’s biggest auditorium, glancing up at the balcony behind him. Woolsey was packed with teens dressed up for freshman assembly, on the energetic brink of their first college semester. Sophie Jones was craning forward over the balcony rail when Jake caught a glimpse of her and went still. She had golden hair and wore a white dress with a bumblebee woven on one shoulder. As people around her chatted, she sat alone. She looked younger than everyone else. The longer he stared, the more his feeling swelled that he’d seen her before—no, more than that. Known her.
Sophie found his gaze in the crowd. His black eyebrows were knit together, dark as ocean depths. Her stomach fluttered as if he were a tide pulling her under with him. The jock next to him suddenly turned around and blocked her view with the width of his shoulders. Sophie leaned back, dropped her hand to her gut, and wondered why she’d felt such a charge.
“Is it Sophie
?” Professor Ali Kotak asked, slanting toward Professor Peter Malchik. They sat an inch apart at the Yale Physics Department meeting. Her name, of course, was Sophie Jones—“The Next Einstein,” according to the New York Times
’s profile. In that piece, the three most decorated mathematicians in the world had predicted she
would be the one to answer humanity’s legendary questions about space and time within the decade—the most profound, undefeated ones about what reality is
, with transformative implications for mankind.
“Sophie,” Peter whispered casually.
His Yale-blue bow tie stood out in the room of wrinkled button-downs and rayon polos. Peter was an angular man with prominent knuckles, elbow joints, and kneecaps. He exhibited perfect posture in the drowsy meeting, where everyone faced the chair, a hefty Russian astrophysicist named Pavel Kapitsa, speaking at the head of the table. Meanwhile, Peter tapped his blue pen on the notebook open in front of him, flecking blue confetti, and thinking eagerly, tensely, about how close he was to meeting her after waiting so long.
“…She elected to study time,” Pavel droned, his voice deep. “?‘How can we see time?’?”—Pavel bent his fingers into crisp air quotes—“is her stated research question. Peter will be her advisor, but she’ll run into everyone here at one point or another, and she may approach any of you.” Pavel gave Peter an expectant look, his stare soft under snowy eyebrows.
“Now?” Peter asked.
Pavel nodded and motioned for him to stand. Peter rose as tall as he could at five foot seven. His thin cheeks stretched as he forced a smile, though he didn’t care much for the men and women around him. Most people irked him. He thought Sophie would be an exception. Ever since she’d committed to Yale last winter, she’d become a visual earworm. Sometimes it was her face that came to him: unusually blonde hair in sinusoidal waves down to her waist, her expression cool, contemplative. Peter had a habit of thinking in shapes, which improved his natural memory tenfold. Sometimes he saw her as an apeirogon, a polygon with infinite sides. On the black stage of his mind, she appeared as a bright, magnificently intricate disco ball, with dazzling complexity and limitless potential.
Last year, Sophie had aced the International Mathematical Olympiad—the top math tournament for high schoolers—for the fourth time in a row. The IMO had drawn the most gifted students to compete annually since the 1950s. No one else had earned a perfect score four times. Only one other had aced it three times. Sophie’s world record had ignited a global news cycle featuring her as a prodigy: front-page newspaper articles, including the Times
’s “The Next Einstein,” and TV interviews, including four minutes on Good Morning America
. Peter had a fan’s grasp of her already. From clips, he knew her voice was childlike. Her manner was vulnerable, sweet. Every answer she gave was gentle and… feminine. A girl. There weren’t many at her level of scientific thought, and no one else so young. She was so docile, so un
-intense, that her success seemed to be through no will of her own and instead supernatural. She often tilted her head to the side, seemingly absorbed in something else entirely, as if she straddled reality and a dream. Her long hair added to the mystical quality.
“Hello,” Peter said. “Pavel’s asked me to speak about how I’ll be working with Sophie. She’s been enrolled in a new course, an advanced tutorial, where we’ll be working one-on-one. The plan is to meet once a week for two hours. In between, I’ll assign ten problems, all on time theory. We’ll discuss her solutions together. As Pavel said, she wants to answer the question, ‘How can we see time?’?”
Everyone saw the evidence that time was passing—clocks ticked, seasons changed—but Sophie wanted to see time itself. In her college essay describing what she would study at Yale, she’d asked: “What
exactly is passing, and where
is it? How can we see time?” She cited Albert Einstein. In 1905, Einstein had introduced the concept of special relativity, the breakthrough understanding that the three dimensions of space were fused with time in a seamless, four-dimensional fabric. So, as Sophie wrote in her essay, “If space and time are fused in a continuum, why can we see space but not time?” Matter is observable to the naked eye and reduces to atoms. Light, too, is visible—from red all the way to violet—and reduces to photons. “Why not time?” The question lay in Peter’s area of expertise. He’d been studying time for the past decade at Yale while teaching the school’s only class on the subject. In the process, he’d become the world’s most published expert on time theory. He’d opined most extensively on the possibility of traveling back in time. He’d argued in major journals that it was possible to do so through a wormhole, a theoretical tunnel connecting different regions of space-time.
“What’s so special about her?” Peter’s son Benji had asked at dinner last night.
Peter prodded his fusilli.
“You like video games, right?” he asked.
His wife, Maggie, glared at him across the table.
“Yeah,” Benji said.
“Okay, imagine the most difficult, the most awesome game you know,” Peter said. “Imagine the highest level in that game, the one you’ve never been able to pass. Now, imagine you meet someone who’s a better player than you. She can pull off moves you can only dream of—triple-axel over enormous mushrooms—”
“Whoa,” Benji said.
“But she’s never played this game before,” Peter went on. “She’s asked you to coach her just a little bit. And the more you learn about her, the more excited you get because
you know, really know, that with your help, she’ll not only pass the highest level you’ve ever seen, she will win the game.”
Back in the meeting, Pavel motioned for him to sit.
“Thank you, Peter,” he said. “When’s your first session?”
Jake ran into the lecture hall and scanned for a seat. Hundreds of open laptops dared class to start. Their cursors pulsed like pinned clock hands. Conversations—lively, still buzzing with icebreaker questions—dwindled into attentive silence. Jake lifted the collar of his black tee away from his chest and fanned himself with it. He was squinting at the professor below when he spotted a familiar head in front. On instinct, he strode toward her, passing ponytails like pendulums.
“Excuse me,” Jake apologized as he cut across the front row. In the center, Sophie was leaning forward and resting her pen on her bottom lip. Her tight red tee clung to her chest. Her jean shorts were patterned with bright sequined shapes—purple star, green moon, butterfly with two antennae—and fringed at the hem. The outfit seemed oddly young, as if it were meant for someone half her age. When she glanced up at the shuffling noises, Jake waved. His gut feeling about her was stronger now. He had the sense they’d shared something important. He couldn’t remember what, but it had made them similar, as if they’d both been wounded by the same thing. They had been fragile together. They had survived something.
He sat next to her and smiled kindly.
Wait, Sophie thought. How do we…?
PowerPoint slides changed. Sophie faced forward but peeked sideways as he opened his laptop. The man’s muscles were etched like ones in an anatomy textbook: from the deltoid capping his shoulder, to the paired biceps and triceps, to the smaller brachioradialis and flexor carpi on his forearm, and then countless blue veins. Sophie had never seen a harder body. She liked the way it looked alive. His black tee waved at the neckline, suggesting years of being yanked off overhead, big thumbs stretching the stitches. Oh.
Sophie raised a blonde eyebrow so faint it was nearly invisible. From assembly?
That didn’t feel like the full answer. His smile had shown more recognition than that. He had looked happy to see her. She kept peeking at him. He didn’t take many notes. When he did type something, it was a quick clack just a few words long. Still, she could tell he was listening, deeply rooted in this moment. He seemed more grounded than other students scribing every word, as if he had a keen sense for what was important.
This Introduction to Psychology lecture had packed the house. The professor asked a series of questions describing the course. Topics included the brain, dreams, love—“What makes someone attractive? What makes two people fall in love?”—sex and morality, each detailed in a preview. Jake didn’t believe the professor had answers to any of these fundamental questions of existence—who did?—but he stayed for the girl beside him. When the professor finished, thin applause broke out in pockets. Jake, hands on his keyboard, waited as she slipped her notebook into her backpack stuffed with hardcovers.
Sophie had her first meeting with Professor Malchik that afternoon. He’d sent their syllabus that morning, so Sophie knew that today, they would discuss the origin of time. Most physicists agree that space and time were created in the big bang almost fourteen billion years ago. For the first 10-43 seconds of history, the universe fit into a space smaller than a proton. All four fundamental forces—gravity, weak interaction, strong interaction, and electromagnetism—were unified in conditions so strange and incomprehensible that no one has yet described them with any physical laws. At 10-43 seconds, gravity split from the other three forces, and the universe as we know it began to take shape.
As Sophie zipped her backpack shut, she was half thinking about the start of everything and half hoping she and this man would leave at the same time.
She slung her arms through the straps.
“Hey,” Jake said.
He towered over her at six foot four. Sophie smiled for a moment shorter than 10-43 seconds before they moved in step with the crowd.
“I’m sorry, how do we…?” she asked.
Her question lingered as he opened the door for them. It destabilized his comfort with her. Why did
he feel like they’d shared a history? On the sidewalk, they stopped and took each other in. Jake’s gaze dropped to the inch of skin between her shirt and shorts. Her short nails were painted white. The bracelets up her arms—unsculpted, soft—were beaded with different phases of the moon, with a sunlike orb in the middle. A starfish glinted in the V-dip of her silver necklace chain. Her face was so bare, Jake saw something Aphroditic in her, as if she’d emerged from something as natural as sea-foam. Sophie took in Jake’s dark hair, tan, and brown eyes. He had a big nose. His lean cheeks pointed to a sharp, clean chin. Up close, she saw something undeniably sober, thoughtful about him. It was in his posture—straight back, low shoulders, balanced—this sense of purpose.
Sun warmed their skin as they stood. Particles of light bounced between them. Some of these specks had just come from the sun, through ninety-three million miles of the galaxy in eight minutes; past stars, planets, and through gas, dust, and empty black soundlessness before touching them. Jake and Sophie stood three steps apart, their bodies connected by light.
“You were at the assembly. I’m Jake.”
To her own surprise, she extended her hand. Sophie didn’t usually feel this comfortable with strangers. The past few days, swarms of unfamiliar people at every turn had inhibited her even more than usual. But here she was. He asked where she was headed. She glanced at her watch: 2:15 p.m. She had to meet Professor Malchik at three.
“Dining hall?” she suggested.
As they walked, they learned that they hadn’t, in fact, met before assembly and started from zero with their questions. Jake was from New York City, Sophie from Westchester. They were both only children—Sophie brightened when she heard that.
At the moment of Sophie’s double take, one-half mile away, Peter sat in his office reviewing his notes. Her syllabus was on his round table. Peter had dug outside the scope of time theory to build his lesson plan, including ideas from astrophysics, biology, chemistry, and psychology to create a spectacularly cross-discipline, one-of-a-kind course. He’d also read about who Sophie might be and how she might learn. How should he coach a prodigy? What were her particular needs? Weaknesses? Peter had read about gifted children in journals, newspapers, and magazines, expensing every new subscription to the Physics Department.
By now, he thought he had a sense for Sophie, without ever having met her. About half of Americans were lonely. Among overachievers, as he learned, that percentage was higher. The statistics had made instant sense to him. Oddly, learning about widespread loneliness had made him feel momentarily less alone. Several studies reported that roughly 55 percent of American adults said they felt like no one knew them well. They lived alone, had major interests they didn’t share, or worked all day in solitary professions. Whole parts of their lives were invisible. About 50 percent of adults said their “relationships weren’t meaningful,” and their ties to others were “superficial.” Against that bleak landscape, eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds who identified as overachievers had the fewest social connections. Half of straight-A students in college went at least one day a week without having a conversation.
People like Sophie weren’t used to intimacy. He wondered if she even realized how lonely she was, given that she knew nothing else. Starting today, she’d be with him for hours every week, receiving his full attention. He glanced at his wall clock—2:30 p.m.—while inside Silliman dining hall, Jake and Sophie claimed seats across from each other at a long table. Arched windows taller than Jake lined the walls. Chandeliers that invited comparisons to Hogwarts lit the high ceiling. Sophie studied Jake’s heaping bowl of Cheerios.
“Great minds…” He pointed to the waffle on her plate.
“You hate lunch or love breakfast?”
“I feel like I just woke up.”
He clearly meant it in the most energetic sense of the phrase. He unclenched both fists like eyes opening to a new day. On the bottom row of his smile, Sophie noticed his teeth overlapped. His top two teeth slanted toward each other, too. She liked that he had a physical flaw. Her heart moved. Jake held up two large fingers and waved them.
“Hm?” Sophie asked.
He lowered his hand.
“You okay? You weren’t here, for a second.”
“Oh.” Sophie took a bite of her waffle. “Nothing.”
He wanted to know.
“I was just thinking,” she said. Jake’s silence coaxed her to continue. She submitted to the change in their conversation, down a level to dip below the surface. “I saw this video on the news at home. Of a baboon.” She shook her head and stared at her plate. “Never mind.”
“And the leopard?”
Sophie looked up. “Yes.”
“That was wild.”
In the viral video, a leopard killed a mother baboon just feet from her nest. Right after, the leopard found the baboon’s newborn. The little monkey looked left to right, disoriented. It tried to run away, but the leopard won and carried the baby up a tree in a steep climb. After the leopard lay down, she released the monkey and… licked it. Again. And again. The leopard went on to nurture the monkey as if it were its own.
“What about it, though?” Jake asked.
She shrugged. “That there’s something about weakness we all respond to. Imperfection, flaws. Across animals.”
“That feels true,” he said.
“Anyway,” she said. In searching for the next question, she reverted to the one she asked herself most often. “What do you want to do after graduating?”
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a great question. I just don’t get asked it very often. By people our age, I mean.” He leaned back to balance on the rear two legs of his chair. His hands gripped the wooden edge of the table. Tilted precariously, he wondered how much he’d reveal so soon. He pulled himself forward to land. “Do you know who Lionel Padington is?”
“From Padington Associates.”
“Right.” Lionel had started one of the biggest investment funds in the world, the global Padington Associates, now managing over $50 billion. Lionel himself was worth $4 billion. “I’d like to do something similar.”
“Hm.” She pushed a square of waffle left, right. “Why?”
Jake had never articulated why out loud. No one had asked, and he’d never volunteered that he wanted to be rich. At best, “I want to be rich” sounded sterile or selfish, and at worst, evil. “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story,”
Jake’s senior-year English teacher had said once. If people knew his, they’d understand.
“Well, what about you?” he dodged. “What do you want to do?”
She took a slow breath.
“I’d like to figure out how the world works. There’s so much more here than we know.” She pointed in a circle around the room at unnamed, magical invisibilities. Jake pretended to complete her circle and pointed to himself. She laughed. “A lot of people think science is sterile”—Jake’s ears pricked up—“and heartless and boring, but not me. I’ve always had this feeling that there are eyes in everything, that the world is alive down to the atom. But we grow up and start to see things the way we expect. We stop questioning, listening, but I think the universe is always talking to us: through symbols, our guts, or feelings we can’t explain. I want to know as much as I can, especially about the big building blocks of reality.” Jake pushed his food forward an inch and thoughtfully clasped his hands. “So I study time. I’m sorry. I’m not usually so…” She gestured at her mouth.
“I love it,” he said, earnest.
“If you could have any dream come true, what would it be?” he asked.
“I’d want to know everything. You?”
“I’d want to have everything.”
“What?” she asked as he shrugged.
“There’s just a lot of shame around wanting to have.”
“I’ve thought about that, something like that. Whenever I feel weird. When I see there’s no one else doing what I’m doing, or making the choices I’m making, I tell myself people are hive creatures, if that makes any sense.” Jake shook his head. “So, in a hive, everyone has a role, even if we don’t understand it. They all serve a greater purpose. It’s not about any bee in particular, even the queen bee. When a queen dies, the hive replaces her. It’s all about the hive.” Dishes crashed suddenly in the kitchen. Sophie looked up at the wall clock behind Jake: 2:55 p.m. Professor Malchik’s office was a ten-minute walk away.
“So—” he began.
“I have to go,” she interrupted.
Jake noticed they were the last two in the dining hall. He nodded, stood up. They stacked their trays on metal racks, left, and walked down four flights of stairs to pause at the door leading outside. Their hearts beat faster as each placed a palm flat on the stained-glass pane. Around their hands, silhouettes shifted across burgundy and green. Sophie glanced at the shadows suggesting Frisbee on the quad, but Jake looked singularly at Sophie, his chin angled down, close enough that his breaths warmed her nose.
“What’s your phone number?” he asked.
Sophie kissed him. They froze in a wishbone angle joined at the mouth. Jake was following her lead, mirroring her touch and pressure. He waited—interest piqued, hair rising on the back of his neck—for her to budge so he could too. Their lips stayed barely interlocked, exasperatingly surface-deep. Sophie lifted her hand and held one side of his face. His neck was warm, his jawline smooth. She licked his top lip. Jake carefully followed suit. She leaned in to him, and he pulled her body closer, slowly, until she pulled away.
“Can I have your phone?” she asked.
He fished it out of his pocket. She entered her number, handed it back. When they locked eyes, she felt his gaze on her as if she were the only other person alive.
“It was nice to meet you, Jake,” she said.
Jake became so absorbed wording his first text to her—How soon could he see her again? Did she want to study together? Walk anywhere? Get dinner?—that he strayed blocks beyond his dorm, past the Popeyes that cut a soft line between the students and the locals, and into a part of New Haven he’d never seen before.
Peter was sitting alone in his office at 3:29 p.m.
Where was she?
“How can we see time?” the syllabus asked, first page unturned. His composition book underneath was filled with notes from his own reading on prodigies. He flipped through it idly—three thirty now—and happened on the phrase “intellectual companionship.” He’d underlined it, figuring Sophie would be starved for it. People her age didn’t talk to each other. In one study, nearly 100 percent of millennials said they were better able to express themselves by text than in person. Peter felt like a sociologist reading through research on the “devoicing” epidemic. For Sophie, he’d wondered, who’d been there just to sit and talk? Beyond that, who’d had the intellectual capacity to engage with the full breadth of her mind? To ask about her morning, what she ate for lunch, and then, just as seamlessly, what she thought of the fact that when you line up the angular velocities of planets in their orbits and put them into a ratio, we find what is considered our major and minor musical scales today? Is there a rhythm to the universe? Peter wondered if anyone had ever spoken to her for hours. He flipped the page. Of course, no matter how acquainted he felt with Sophie, they still hadn’t met. 3:31 p.m. Had something happened to her? Right as he stood, a knock sounded on his open door.
“Hi, Professor Malchik,” Sophie said.
He put his hands in his pockets.
He removed them.
“I’m so sorry I’m late.”
She presented as even younger than she already was. The line of midriff between her red tee and shorts was unprecedented in the physics building. He gestured for her to sit and then did the same. Her apology lingered. It’s all right
, Peter wanted to say, but he found himself unable to lie. He flipped almost to the end of his notebook and stopped on the first blank page. He realized he had not shaken her hand. When he’d pictured their meeting, he’d always imagined shaking her hand and saying something prescient, optimistic.
“I expected to start earlier.”
“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Peter waited for more. She did not speak.
“I was prepared to start at 3 p.m.”
“In a course devoted to time
, a difference of time
is in fact the most important kind of difference of all.”
He glanced at the syllabus, listing topics for their session. When he looked up again at Sophie, her head was tilted to the side, a half smile on her lips. In a flash, her smile vanished. She righted her head. Was she distracted? In all his dreams of right now, in all the research he’d done for their semester, he had never imagined delinquency.
“There was a man, Claude Shannon,” Peter said suddenly. He massaged his temples. “In 1948, his paper on information theory—it was pivotal, enormous. It outlined the system for what became today’s telephones, radio, TV… Do you know when he first had that idea?” He looked into Sophie’s light blue eyes.
“Nineteen thirty-nine. Ten years before.” Peter tapped the table ten times for emphasis. “Shannon’s work during that time wasn’t linear, either. The ideas came and went for him throughout those ten years. Progress, then none. Again and again. He had to obsess for a decade.” Peter paused to recharge. “I am telling you this, Sophie, to say that genius work takes time. To excel in any one domain, you need to stay committed for years. Years
.” He paused again. “Today, you were half an hour late. That means your insight will come half an hour later, if at all. I’m sorry to say this, but you are thirty minutes less than what you might have been.”
She nodded faintly.
“I won’t be late again,” she promised.
Peter recognized the fear in her voice. He had a habit of scaring people out of conversations as he focused too much on the meaning of what someone said and not enough on the person speaking. Over the years, Maggie had pointed that out.
Last week, Maggie had invited another couple over for dinner. The woman was an anthropology professor at Yale, though Peter did not catch her name or how Maggie knew them. This professor and her husband—whose name also eluded him—had just returned from a cross-country road trip. She had only just started to describe the vistas of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon when Peter interrupted to ask how many miles they’d driven in total—5,360
—and in how much time—two weeks
—so that was four hundred miles a day, he deduced, and going at sixty miles an hour, almost eight hours a day on the road. Peter fixated on whether they developed backaches from the sedentary position. When the woman showed a video of the gorge, Peter fixated on the telephoto abilities of her iPhone and asked what magnification could she zoom to exactly? How many frames per second? Pixels? His interrogations reached a dead end when one of the couple clammed up, too afraid to invite further scrutiny. At that point, Peter pivoted to extremely literal, mundane lines of discussion, such as, What time did you get up today?
Peter knew he was difficult. His manner could make people feel as though they had drifted empty-headed through life, from one accepted uncertainty to the next. His obsession with the crux of things could be terrifying, but he attributed his faults to caring about the truth. It wasn’t that he was insensitive, he thought, it was the opposite. No one else cared as much
as he did. Other people seemed content to glide unconsciously through life, happily unsure why the stars were the way they were, driven by immediate gratification and five trivial senses. Sophie, he’d hoped, was like him. She wanted to get at the heart of the matter.
He looked at his wall clock, ticking.
“All right,” he said. “To the start of time.”