Thursday, July 3, 2008

Portraits of Statisticians: Sir George Biddell Airy

In the secret chamber under the Royal Observatory Sir George Biddell Airy sits in the lotus position and draws the world's energy into his body. He's been there for three days now, desperately trying to summon the angel. His joints ache, his mind is screaming, his soul is cracking from the strain, and he has nothing to show for it. Where is the blasted angel, the one bigger than the earth, the one with the holy flaming sword, the one that will settle this wretched problem of the meridian?

The year is 1884 and US President Chester A. Arthur has threatened the very fabric of time and space by requesting the International Meridian Conference: a meeting to establish once and for all where the Prime Meridian would lie for all the nations of the globe. Scientists of the Brotherhood of Deep and Ancient Knowledge were horrified. Arthur, the fool, thought that an official designation was simply a practical matter. His tiny politician's brain thought the plethora of national primes was a problem. He simply couldn't comprehend that these "arbitrary" lines kept the laws of the universe bound to the earth. He couldn't know that switching out these distributed bindings for a single line was no small matter. If the process wasn't handled correctly the earth would fly off its axis, either inwards towards the sun and burning or outwards to the stars and freezing. Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Small-minded men like President Arthur were always meddling in things they didn't understand, and who had to clean up the mess? The Brothers, that's who.

Not for the first time the members of BDAK found themselves regretting that they took the secret part of "secret society" more seriously than others. Clowns like the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati: how secret were they? Everyone had heard of them and could name a couple of famous members. BDAK, on the other hand, was totally obscure, and in consequence had never successfully recruited the rich or famous or powerful. The occasional great man was approached, but invariably found joining some backwater secret society hardly worth his time, even when they promised to reveal the real secrets of the universe. Dr. Johnson had flatly refused the invitation, saying "Bee-dack? Bee-dack be damned, sir; I have better things to do with my time and good name than throw them on some bonfire of obscure iniquity and watch their ashes mount to the sky."

It still stung.

At any rate, there was a distinct lack of political pull in the organization, so infiltrating the conference and bending it to their will was pretty much out. It was then that Sir George Airy's name came up. The statistician had retired from the position of Astronomer Royal a few years before, but he still had a certain amount of critical access. Sir George had never made much of a splash as a Brother. He had never been much of a help at the rituals and was famous for nodding off during the longer incantations.

True, he had a sure hand when it came to drawing a circle of blood around an ancient stone altar, and he certainly knew a thing or two about the true nature of planets, having picked up some techniques for orbital weirding from the unearthly John Couch Adams, techniques that were previously (and strangely) unknown to the Brotherhood. Still, he wouldn't be anyone's first choice for a working as great as the establishment of a single binding meridian that could serve the same function as the many it would replace. But even in retirement he could come and go from the Greenwich Observatory whenever he pleased. This was useful, as President Arthur's wretched little conference had settled on Greenwich as the site of the new prime from all the other arbitrary possibilities, and the working would be most effective and easiest to perform from that location.

Airy's passion for the Greenwich meridian would also be of benefit. As the maps changed, and as world belief in the primacy of Greenwich grew, it would take a conduit who believed in the value of the meridian to focus that belief into the tower of thought energy that would reach out into the heavens and draw the attention of the angel. Summoned correctly, the angel would descend to the human realm and inscribe the new meridian on the sphere of the earth, using the point of his flaming sword to write out all the names of God around the ring, raising the power of the binding by orders upon orders of magnitude and keeping reality in place.

It seemed like a heavy load to place on the 83 year old shoulders of a man they regarded as competent at best. What they didn't know was that Sir George had been preparing for this moment for over thirty years. He had marked out the Greenwich meridian himself in 1851, supposedly as a way of showing the scientific establishment he was the Royal Astronomer and he meant business, but really as a way of increasing his standing in BDAK. He'd even gone the extra mile and done a couple of crude bindings to give the Greenwich line a little extra shine. The Brothers had nodded and said "yes, that's nice George," which in turn rankled, as it was never "Sir George". But over the next few decades, he clung to his belief in the meridian and nurtured it, noting that year by year more maps and charts were marking Greenwich as degree zero. When Arthur's pathetic little showboating conference had been called, Airy had already known the likely conclusion.

When the Brothers came calling cap in hand, tugging their forelocks and using his title, he was more amused than disgusted. He made a great show of his age and infirmity, doubted he still had the acuity needed to do the simplest of charms, let alone a complex working. Oh, but he would try, and he simply hoped that for all their sakes the world plunged into the sun when he failed, as burning would be the quicker death. The Brothers went away with ashen faces while Sir George chuckled to himself.

Later, as his efforts spilled over into a fourth day, he wondered if he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew after all. He was starving down here in this dank chamber. By his estimates the work should have taken no more than two days. Had he merely miscalculated, or was something worse happening? Perhaps his belief wasn't strong enough after all. Perhaps his stewardship of the meridian over the years hadn't been enough, or had been of the wrong quality, or some other factor had escaped his notice. Perhaps the Brothers had been right about him after all...

And then suddenly something clicked over and a segment of his beloved Greenwich Meridian stood before him. It was an obsidian band arcing through the ceiling and the floor of the chamber. Everything else he had ever seen in his life looked unreal compared to it. Sir George reached out to touch the line and found it to be warm like flesh. A mad urge to throw his arms around it seized him. When he did, the line almost immediately began to move. As they passed through the ceiling, Sir George knew he was sharing in the undeniable quality of the meridian, that the earth was the mere geographical abstraction, the line and its creator the physical reality.

He rode his line through the next four timeless days. Eventually his consciousness merged with the meridian, and the motion stopped or at least appeared to, as he was present at every point along the prime. It was beautiful, but it was too much for one man to merge with for long. When it came time to disengage from the meridian and return to his earthly body he felt not sadness, but the deepest satisfaction of his long career. It was a satisfaction both wise and smug. Smug because as he had moved around the world he was sure of one thing: he had seen no angel. The work was his and his alone.

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