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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
December 19, 2005

Merry Gravmas

from "Minds, Machines, & Evolution"

"Is that you, Li?"

Cheng Xiang called, looking up from the notescreen propped against his knee. He had been amusing himself with a few tensor integrals to clear his mind before taking his morning coffee. The sounds of movement came again from upstairs. Moments later, his ten-year-old son appeared, floating down the staircase on an anti-g disk.

"Good morning, father."

"Merry Gravmas."

"And to you." Li hopped off the disk and stood admiring the decorations that the family robot had put up overnight. There were paper chains hanging in hyperbolic catenary curves and sinusoids, Gaussian distribution bells, and pendulums wreathed in logarithmic spirals. In the corner opposite the total-sensory cartridge player, there stood a miniature apple tree with binary stars on top and a heap of gaily wrapped gifts around its base. Its branches were adorned with colored masses of various Platonic shapes, a string of pulsing plasma glows, and striped candies shaped like integral signs. "It looks nice," Li said, eyeing the presents. "I wonder what Santa Roid has brought this year."

"You'll have to wait until your brother and sister get here before you can open anything," Xiang told him. "What are they doing?"

"Yu is sending off a last-minute Gravmas present to a schoolfriend over the matter transmitter to Jupiter. Yixuan is helping Mother program the autochef to cook the -turkey."

"Why does everyone in this family always have to leave everything until the last minute?" Xiang grumbled, setting down the screen and getting up. "Anyone would think it wasn't obvious that the ease of getting things done varies inversely as the square of procrastination."

Li walked over to the window and gazed out at Beijing's soaring panorama of towers, bridges, terraces, and arches, extending away all around, above, and for hundreds of meters below. "How did Gravmas start?" he asked his father.

"Hmph!" Xiang snorted as he moved to stand alongside the boy. "Now isn't that typical of young people today. Too wrapped up in relativistic quantum chromodynamics and multidimensional function spaces to know anything about where it came from or what it means. It's this newfangled liberal education that's to blame. They don't teach -natural philosophy any more, the way we had to learn it."

"Well, that kind of thing does seem a bit quaint these days," Li said. "I suppose it's okay for little old ladies and people who--"

"They don't even recite the laws of motion in school every morning. Standards aren't what they used to be. It'll mean the end of civilization, you mark my words."

"You were going to tell me about Gravmas . . ."

"Oh, yes. Well, I presume you've heard of Newton?"

"Of course. A newton is the force which, acting on a mass of one kilogram, produces an acceleration of one meter per second per second."

"Not a newton. The Newton. You didn't know that Newton was somebody's name?"

"You mean it was a person?"

Xiang sighed. "My word. You see--you don't know anything. Yes, Newton was the messiah who lived two thousand years ago, who came to save us all from irrationality. Today, December 25, is his birthday."

Li looked impressed. "Say, what do you know! Where did this happen?"

"In a quasi-stable, in a little town called Cambridge, which was somewhere in Britain."

"That's in Europe, isn't it?" Li said.

"Oh, so you do know something."

"My friend Shao was in Europe last year," Li went on distantly. "His parents took him on a trip there to see the ruins. He said it was very dirty everywhere, with the streets full of beggars. And you can't drink the water. It sounds like a strange place for a civilization like ours to have started from."

"Strange things happen . . ." Xiang thought for a while. "Actually, according to legend, it didn't really start there."



"How do you mean?"

"Supposedly it was already a holiday that some ancient Western barbarian culture celebrated before then, and we stole it. It was easier to let people carry on with the customs they'd grown used to, you see. . . . At least, that's how the story goes."

"I wonder what the barbarian culture was like," Li mused.

"Nobody's quite sure," Xiang said. "But from the fragments that have been put together, it seems to have had something to do with worshiping crosses and fishes, eating holly, and building pyramids. It was all such a long time ago now that--"

"Look!" Li interrupted, pointed excitedly. Outside the window, a levitation platform was rising into view, bearing several dozen colorfully dressed people with musical instruments. The strains of amplified voices floated in from outside. "Carol singers!" Li exclaimed.

Xiang smiled and spoke a command for the household communications controller to relay his voice to the outside. "Good morning!" it boomed from above the window as the platform came level.

The people on board saw the figures in the window and waved. "Merry Gravmas," a voice replied.

"Merry Gravmas to you," Xiang returned.

"May the Force be proportional to the time-derivative of your momentum."

"Are you going to sing us a carol?" Xiang inquired.

"But of course. Do you have a request?"

"No, I'll leave it to you."

"Very well."

There was an introductory bar, and then,

"We three laws of orbiting are,
Ruling trajectories local and far.
Collisions billiard,
Particles myriad,
Planet and moon and star.
O-oooh . . ."


(Originally published in Minds, Machines, & Evolution, Bantam Books, 1988, reprinted by Baen Books, 1999)

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