Author’s note: The following is a (slightly) fictional story inspired by true events.
It was a distinctly non-academic activity that led me to become a scientist. At some point in the fall of 2006, three small fungi were plucked from a cow-pat in the Netherlands. They were cleaned, dried, and packaged, and then shipped to a store in Amsterdam, where, a few months later, they were bought for twenty euros by my friend Rand during his month-long backpacking tour of Europe. They remained at the bottom of his pack for the rest of his trip, and were then transferred to the inside of a sock, stuffed inside a Thermos, and placed at the bottom of a heavy green duffel bag, where they endured the 4,000-mile journey over the Atlantic Ocean to my hometown of Lenox, Massachusetts. They stayed in Rand’s sock drawer for several months until, on New Year’s Eve, they were removed from the drawer, driven to my house, chopped into tiny bits at the bottom of a Dixie cup with a pair of kitchen scissors, and swallowed by Rand, me, and our friend Creston with a bottle of Stella Artois.
Rand was a swimmer in high school, and at that time, only two years after our graduation, he was still lean and active. He was considered a mediocre student until the unexpected triumph of our senior year humanities teacher, who ignited in Rand a previously undiscovered passion for learning, and he finished the year with one of the class’s highest grades. My parents always spoke of him with equal measures of concern and affection: he was the one spotted stealing flats of soda from behind the Pizza Hut; he was the one put on probation for smoking pot behind the cemetery; he was suspected in a prank involving a golf cart “borrowed” from the local course and the drive-through window of the local McDonald’s.
We’d ingested in my basement at about 10 pm, and, figuring that there remained several hours before the ball dropped, decided to take a walk. We put on coats and scarves and went out into the Berkshire winter. My house is situated at the end of a long dirt road, nestled against the flank of a wooded hill, and we decided to go to a spot where a clearing in the woods permitted a view of the entire valley—the scattered, lit houses, the frozen lake, the contours of the somnolent hills. Tonight was the first big snow of the year. It was falling thick and heavy onto the ground, and the absence of wind allowed it to accumulate on the branches of all the trees. We walked in silence along the carpeted path behind my house. There was no sound except that of the snowflakes landing on the leaves and branches above us, and the echo of passing trucks on a distant highway.
The euphoria hit me as we emerged from the woods and took our place on a boulder at the top of the clearing.
“Oh,” I said.
The low-lying clouds were reflecting the light from Pittsfield, the nearest town. The luminous yellow of headlights and street lamps seeped into the valley.
Rand lit a cigarette and gestured down to the lake, parts of which were visible between gaps in the trees. “They say in a week or so it will be frozen enough to fish on.”
Creston said, “My brother’s already been ice-fishing up at our cabin in Maine.”
“Catch anything?” Rand said.
“Nah,” Creston said.
We sat in silence for a while, Rand pulling on his cigarette, Creston drawing designs in the snow with a long tree branch.
“How you doin’?” Rand said. “Daniel?”
“Good,” I said. “Fine.”
Rand suddenly grew restless. He stood up, flicked his cigarette into the clearing, and plucked one of the brown stalks of tall grass emerging from the snow. He swished it from side to side, then put it in his mouth, then started swishing it again, moving slowly down the side of the clearing. From my boulder I watched him, watched him and his restless arms, which were the instruments of a restless mind. I myself was born with an analytical mind—a mind given to words, questions, and numbers. I watched Rand and wondered how he’d respond if I called to him suddenly and asked him what he was thinking—indeed, whether he’d even be able to answer. I noted my own experience, and felt sure that no amount of words would be sufficient to cross this divide. There was something attractive, though, in such unanswerables. These were the kinds of questions you could spend your life studying: a lifetime grasping at fragments of the great mystery of consciousness in the hopes of pinning them down to earth.
We stayed a little while longer, watching the clouds moving over the valley, then Creston got up and started back down the path, and Rand and I followed. Halfway down the path Rand asked me again how I was doing and patted my shoulder. When we got home my parents were in the kitchen, so Creston and I, feeling self-conscious, made a beeline for the basement. Rand, however, stayed behind and chatted amiably, his ability to charm apparently unimpeded by his altered state. Down in the basement, we turned on the TV, and when Rand came down he and Creston started up a game of ping-pong. I sat on the couch and watched the newscasters interview various celebrities against a backdrop of Times Square.
Creston and Rand finished the game and sat on the couch beside me. It was 11:50 and the panning television shots depicted an increasingly ebullient and seething mass gathering around the brightly lit ball. The crowd appeared to move and breathe as a single organism, and this energy seemed to infect the walls and surfaces of the room around me, and I saw the carpet breathe in unison with the crowd, and the lamp flicker with the neon lights, and the ceiling rise up and as far away as the skyscrapers on TV. At some point the countdown started and ended, but by this point I had moved from the couch to sit on the edge of the rocking chair, and had propped my arms over my knees. Rand came down with a bucket and I threw up into it. He draped a blanket over me and I don’t remember much else from the night except that at one point, as the countdown had drawn near, I’d pointed to the television screen and said, “A billion people are watching that ball right now.”
“I know,” said Rand.
“No, but think about it! A billion people, each with their own feelings, and troubles, and passions, and desires: all of them looking up together at that ball right now.”
“I know,” said Rand.
Daniel Yudkin is a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, where he studies moral decision-making and authenticity. He received his Ph.D. from NYU in 2017 and was a graduate of NYU’s Science Communication Workshop. Learn more at www.danielyudkin.com.