By Tom Clark
Like most significant scientific discoveries, my chance contribution to the annals of history came accidentally. The incident opened up a universe of possibilities and shook the foundations of physics. Or so I thought.
When I was young, the little I understood about science fell into the realm of what I could observe: lightning bolts were issued from thunderstorms, ocean swells originated from the wind, and birds remained in flight as long as they flapped their wings. As I grew older, I used a magnifying glass to appreciate life from a spoonful of pond water or binoculars to discern the formidable mountains on the moon. But I was limited to what I could see.
How electricity channeled through a copper wire or how blood coursed through my circulatory system were beyond my ken and frankly left me, a visual learner, feeling vaguely uncomfortable.
However, I was willing to believe the unseen world when it came to genetics. I heard that heredity influenced the color of one’s eyes, their thumbprint patterns, and the likelihood of becoming bald, and, although I knew I could never view a double helix, I took this on faith. With good reason.
You see, I was hopeful—however irrationally—that through the genetic transfer process I would inherit my grandfather’s skills as a master mechanic and carpenter. I wasn’t sure there was a discrete protein that captured this trait, but I was optimistic. Family lore intimated that my grandfather’s skills for framing a house, rebuilding an engine, or repairing a television was the result of something in his DNA, and that was good enough for me. I just needed to put it to the test one day.
Growing up in a modest two story home in Queens, New York, my father ventured into all sorts of home repairs. However, I later realized any “skills” gene he possibly possessed was either dormant or recessive. He dabbled in plumbing, electric work, woodworking, and roofing, but his few successes were illusory. His makeshift attempts at plumbing resulted in a flooded basement, and his electrical shortcuts almost set the house on fire.
In retrospect, my dad was long on intention but dangerously short on understanding and execution. But he did impart on me one piece of wisdom: “When it comes to determining size, measure twice and cut once.”
The point was obvious and a variation of ‘haste makes waste,’ but he also created an addendum: “Strive for great accuracy by noting the tiny line segments at the bottom of your tape measure. Take note those markings indicate the sixteenth of an inch, and they will serve you well.”
Although I knew his advice was intuitively sound, I was suspicious having seen his application in practice. After he cut a two-by-four to a particular length one day, the piece was just a bit long. So he set out to correct things by taking a 22-ounce claw hammer, raising it high over his shoulder and bringing it down with crushing force. Chunks of wood shot out, eye-piercing splinters shot past his forehead, and the now contorted two-by-four lay loosely crippled in place. Dad then proudly explained that sometimes “You just need to make things fit.”
My newlywed wife and I rented an apartment in a two-family home, and I was anxious to impress her with my latent skills. Although I worked as a bank teller, I was confident I could tackle home repairs, even though I understood the repair responsibilities rested with our landlady who lived nearby. But like most things in life, opportunities arise by happenstance, and so it was in my case.
One afternoon while I was moving furniture through the foyer, a rocking chair leg shattered the small rectangular window in the front door—you know, one of those shoebox size glass panels. As I inspected the broken glass, I realized my moment had arrived.
“Hey, no sweat. I can fix this,” I announced.
My wife looked at me with a wan expression and said, “I think we should leave this to the landlady.”
“What, and have her charge $70.00 for a $2.50 repair? No way. I got this. Give me half an hour. I’ll run to the hardware store, replace the glass, and she’ll be none the wiser. Besides, I don’t want you to be intimidated when we buy a fixer-upper someday.”
“I still think it best to have her handle this—besides, when was the last time you replaced a piece of glass?”
“Honestly? I never have, but I watched my father screw up dozens of times. It’s pretty straightforward. You take out the old, insert the new, nail it into place, apply some gook, and it’s done. Easy peasy!”
“Ok, but I still think you’re over-simplifying this. And do you even have the right tools?”
“Yes, ma’am, in the car…”
I hustled to the trunk and from beneath some tangled jumper cables and a musty army surplus blanket I pulled out my Craftsman tool chest. I opened it, removed the tray, and found my tape measure. The metal casing was grease stained, with a few good-sized dents. Apparently at some point, someone had used it as a hockey puck which would have explained the missing belt clip.
I was anxious to see if it still worked. I released the thumb lock and freed the blade, extending it two feet before retracting it into place. So far, so good.
Before I measured the window opening, I removed a few shards from the frame, careful not to cut myself.
I then asked my wife to help. “Nothing like teamwork,” I offered.
With some theatrics, I placed the tape measure inside the opening, shouldering it tight against the right wall while extended the blade to the other side.
“8 and 7/16ths,” I called.
Then placing it on the bottom I measured again.
“11 and 9/16ths.”
Then, to pay homage to the time-honored maxim, I measured again. But instead of repeating the numbers myself I had my wife recite what she recorded to ensure what was written was correct. She agreed.
“Horizontal: Eight and seven sixteenths,” she said.
“Vertical: eleven and nine sixteenths.”
“Ah Houston, I copy that.”
Although we confirmed the dimensions, something didn’t sit right with me. And then it hit me: it was something I couldn’t see.
I knew that glass expands and contracts with changes in temperature—too tight a fit risked a future crack—so I needed to make an allowance, perhaps backing off the measurement a bit. With some degree of satisfaction, I was now integrating the laws of thermodynamics into my project. I shared the insight with my wife, who nodded absently. I took her demure as confirmation of my budding genius.
We then left for the neighborhood hardware store. The premises had a depression-era feel, suggesting galvanized nails, machine oil, and garden fertilizer. At the counter sat a grizzled old-timer and I asked him where I could get glass cut. He pointed wordlessly toward the rear.
Under a dull fluorescent light, a pimpled, sleep-eyed teen appeared. He barely raised his head, seemingly annoyed someone had interrupted his daydream. My wife handed him the paper.
He studied it, then looked at me.
“What type of glass?”
“What type? You know tempered, plexiglass, tinted, annealed, shatterproof?”
I detected a probing glare from my wife.
“Uh, you know, the regular. It’s for a front door.”
“Oh, so you want float glass.”
“Yes sorry, I wasn’t clear. I assumed you only carried ‘floating glass.’ Good to know you have glass options like the big retailers on the highway. Next time I need ‘flexey’ glass, I’m definitely coming here.”
I could swear the teen’s eyes met my wife’s, and she displayed a pathetic smile.
The teen then withdrew a pane from a rack and laid it on a padded surface. Next, he fingered a tool resembling a dentist’s instrument with a tiny wheel on one end. He set a straightedge across the glass, ran the tool across the glass from top to bottom. Apparently the tool didn’t cut properly; the glass remained intact. But then he shifted it to the edge and gave it a sharp snap. The glass broke cleanly.
“I guess the cutter wasn’t sharp enough, huh?” I suggested.
“Uh, no. Actually, it’s plenty sharp; that’s why it broke clean.”
Embarrassed, I quickly reached for a can of turpentine and looked at the warning label, nodding.
He ran the instrument to the other side and finished the job.
“What else do you need?”
“Uh, the little nails. I think they’re called brads. And the caulk to seal the glass in.”
“Sure, glazier’s points and Dap 33 glazing compound. You got it.”
“Oh, is that what they call nowadays? Slick marketing, I guess. Boy, they give everything a fancy name so they can charge more.” Again, the teen smiled at my wife.
“You need a putty knife?” he asked.
“Sure, why not. I probably have one in my Craftsman tool chest, but I have so many tools in there it is hard to find things. It never hurts to have an extra, you know, so add that to my tab.”
With that he placed the glass between thick corrugated cardboard, added the supplies and handed over everything in a large Reliable Hardware plastic bag. Total cost: $12.65.
My wife and I returned home in silence, me deep in thought and anxious to get on with the project, and she likely wondering how this would turn out.
In the foyer, I arranged my tools and supplies like a neurosurgeon before operating. With great care, I removed the glass, grasped it with both hands and raised it for the test fit.
The pane didn’t break, though in hindsight that would have been welcomed. I found the glass was smaller than the opening. I mean significantly smaller. Without hesitation I turned to my wife: “That idiot! I knew I should have checked the size when we were at the store. That kid was so disinterested. Great, now we need to go back.”
“You may be right, but I wouldn’t be so quick to blame the boy.”
I felt annoyed that she had come to his defense.
“Do you still have the dimensions?” I asked.
She reached into the bag and retrieved the paper-slip. “I wondered how it could have been so far off,” she muttered. “I have a thought. Hand me the tape measure? I want to measure the glass.”
“That’s a waste of time,” I said. “Let’s just go back and get another one ASAP.”.
“Indulge me for a minute.”
Impatiently, I handed her the tape measure. She measured across.
“Well, that’s weird,” she said.
“Come over here and look for yourself.”
“I really don’t have the time for this. Can’t we just go?”
“Measure the glass yourself,” she said.
“I’m not measuring. The glass is too small, end of story. I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. Remember, I measured twice.”
“The width. What do you get?” she insisted.
Reluctantly, I pulled on the yellow metallic ribbon, laid it across the pane, and said: “Eight and seven sixteenths.”
“And the other side?”
I rotated the glass. “Eleven and nine sixteenths. So what?
“Notice anything unusual?”
“Okay Houston, you have a problem.”
“Why are you saying? The kid screwed up, not me.”
She said nothing but handed me the paper. On the first line appeared the figures 8 7/16” followed by 11 9/16”. Even allowing for some expansion, the glass matched the dimensions on the paper. I felt lightheaded. “Impossible!” I shouted.
“Remember, you measured it twice,” my wife said.
My throat constricted and I said: “I don’t know how, but apparently I messed up when I took the original measurements. Okay, lesson learned. Let me do it again.” My voice betrayed defeat.
Somehow, my wife seemed pleased I had taken responsibility. Perhaps she judged this as a major step forward in maturity, though I was concerned this could be weaponized in the future. I could hear it now: “Remember the time you…”
So, with the admission behind me, I took the dented tape measure in hand. I was not the least curious how I originally screwed up; I just wanted to put this behind me. So I placed the tape measure inside the void where a perfectly good window had existed two hours earlier.
“Ready?” I asked.
“All set. What do you have for the width?
I extended the blade across to the other side intent on an accurate read.
“Okay, here goes….Eight and uh…hold on a sec.”
“What is it?” she asked.
I paused, looking carefully at the bottom of the blade, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. Somehow, the words involuntarily parted from my lips: “Eight and seven sixteenths.” The foyer started to spin.
“That makes no sense,” my wife said. “Remember, it was short a lot on all sides before. Okay, forget that. Do the height instead.”
I stretched the blade again.
“Eleven…and…nine-sixteenths.” I had to overcome my newly acquired speech impediment to say this. My knees buckled. The room spun faster.
She weighed in: “But give or take an eight of an inch, those dimensions match exactly the size of the glass. And you already showed me that the glass is way too small. Something isn’t right. What’s going on here?”
I thought that what was going on was truly remarkable, rocking the fundamentals of physics and cosmology. Although the replacement glass problem was disturbing at one level, I now felt a calm come over me. Things were now entirely clear. You see, in our humble apartment, we had stumbled upon the portal to a multi-dimensional universe.
I noted that this extra-dimensional window existed where a small nondescript pane of glass once existed. And the irony was not lost on me. While scientists contemplated if another universe existed inside a black hole, it was an earth-bound tiny rectangle that held the key. No need for quantum mechanics. Forget the Hubble telescope. It was here all along. Perhaps the universe had always made this available to us, but we were too busy or naive to catch on.
So, it had fallen to me to find that conventional mathematics no longer applied because of a wayward rocking chair. I could be recognized as a great man of science, not as the humble teller who worked at a local savings bank.
I dropped the tape measure to the floor and slowly extended my arm through the portal.
“What are you doing?”
“Reaching through space-time. I’m trying to connect to the fourth dimension.”
“What? Get serious for a second.”
“I’m dead serious. What time is it?”
“About ten after two.”
“No, not ‘about.’ I need the exact time.”
“Two twelve. Why?”
I explained that what we were encountering would be noted in every elementary science book one day and we needed to document this for posterity. She looked annoyed.
“Would you cut it out and figure out what size glass we need before the landlady stops by?”
“Listen, replacing the glass is totally unimportant. You need to grasp the significance of what just happened.”
“Enough of your nonsense. Let me measure.”
“Go ahead. Suit yourself, ye of the non-believers.”
She picked up the tape measure, pulled on the clip, and measured across the opening.
“Okay. Here you go. Width, ten and a little more than a quarter inch. Height, thirteen and a bit more than a half inch.”
“Well, that makes no sense,” I said, chuckling. “You’re way off. Measure it again.”
She did and her numbers agreed with her last figures.
“How in God’s name are you measuring?” I asked.
“Simple. I just measured across the space. How were you doing it?”
“I inserted the tape into the opening and measured across. I was going for a higher degree of accuracy.”
“Show me,” she demanded.
I placed the tape measure against the right side of the opening, pulled out the blade until it reached the other side. “See? Eight and almost a half. How did you get ten?”
She laughed. Not just laughed. She laughed hard, doubling over, starting to cry. It took her a whole minute to compose herself, though every time she tried she broke down again. I sat there unnerved. Finally, she recovered enough to say, “Big mistake. Don’t you see?” She laughed again. “You had the body of the tape measure inside the opening.”
“So what?” I asked.
“Look at the base of the tape measure. You see the two arrows on either end? Read what it says in-between.”
Sheepishly, deathly afraid I would be vanquished to the ranks of the forever ignorant, I read the label: “Add two inches.”
With that, my wife chuckled, and with a dismissive wave she walked up to our apartment, having slain the dragon, leaving me to struggle through my death throes.
An hour later found me back in the paint department of Reliable Hardware. To my chagrin, the teen appeared from under the counter.
“Back again,” he said cheerfully. “Missing something? Need some paint to match the door?”
“Not exactly. You see, my wife wrote down the window dimensions incorrectly. I need another piece of glass.”
I handed him the paper with the original numbers crossed out. He examined it carefully and smirked. “It seems that it was off exactly two inches on both sides. Any idea how that happened?”
I avoided eye contact, stared down at my sneakers, and said, “I told my wife to measure twice, but she was impatient. You understand?
He took a new glass sheet from the rack, measured the width, applied a straightedge, scored the glass with his little wheel and then said, “Yes, I understand completely.”