This is the story of the Kobayashi Maru I pulled in 9th grade Earth Science class, circa 1988. It is among my finest accomplishments.
There we sat. Jean jackets and mullets. Acne and ennui. Begrudgingly studying the many spheres: biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, whateversphere.
This day concerned a simpler sphere – a ball – and the effect of the earth upon it. We were learning about gravity.
The teacher – nice guy but stern – explained that, thanks to the nature of gravity, and potential and kinetic energy, a ball cannot bounce as high as the height from which it’s dropped. You’ve seen this countless times. Each bounce has a successively lower apex until the thing peters out and comes to rest.
As he explained this, a magnificent thought took shape in my mind. I was 14 with a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t like rules. And here before me, all around me, was one big fat whopper of a rule. An irrefutable, fundamental fact of the universe: GRAVITY.
I raised my hand and, with a casualness inversely proportional to the magnitude of my claim, said, “I disagree. I think it can bounce higher.”
There were laughs, and the teacher wasn’t having it. “No really,” I said, “I can do it. I’ll bring a ball tomorrow and show you.”
Now, this is no story of magic or delusion. Physics is Physics. I couldn’t possibly alter the nature of gravity. But I could, and did, alter the operational definition of a ball. And so that night I applied myself to the construction of the greatest ball ever made.
The heart of it was a standard helium balloon, around which I paper-mached a sphere of newspaper. The balloon’s tapered shape left a cavity inside the bottom of the sphere, within which I placed a raw egg as ballast, nestling it in a hole cut into the nadir of the sphere.
When finished it was a big, unwieldy, misshapen thing. A busted Death Star. Yet also: an audacious invention. An engineering marvel. And a brazen exercise in cheating. I was proud.
Next day I stood before the class and held it aloft. No one knew anything of its innards. I must’ve looked clownish. The teacher was pure skepticism and annoyance. But there I stood, reveling in the virtue of defiance.
I released it.
I hadn’t tested it, so I was going on faith. The weight of the egg took it down slowly and I wondered if it would hit hard enough to crack that sucker open and release its yolky ballast. Slowly it sank. Long seconds went by. And finally, as gravity brought the thing to the ground, truth and the moment collided.
It rested several moments as the egg leaked out, then tentatively began pulling away from its snotty deposit. Slowly it rose, trailing yolk and albumen. Quicker then. Up. Up past my knees. Passing my chest, my head. Up past as high as my hands could reach. Up past the origin of its fall. Up to the ceiling, where it bounced, petered out, and finally came to rest.
I don’t remember the class’s reaction. Only the teacher’s. He dismissed it outright. It didn’t count. It was cheating.
He was right.
But he’d failed to learn the lessons taught in class that day. That ingenuity arises in the face of impossibility. That a thing is not always what it seems. That some things you can’t change, but what you do with them is another story.
And that when things fall down, bounce back – higher – however the hell you want to.
This post was originally published to The Listserve on 3 Jan 2013. This version has a few trivial edits.