A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing–mores the pity
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Paul went over and fetched the bottle of Courvoisier he had sitting on the bar in the corner of his study. He returned to his leather chair, and handed one of the tumblers to Ishmael. Both men sipped in silence, while Ishmael gave Paul time to absorb what he’d told him thus far.
Paul asked, “So please – tell me everything there is to tell about Essex. I am fascinated at the thought of a planet with no women. It sounds like a wonderful place.”
Ishmael nodded in agreement. “There are a lot of advantages, but I have to be frank. There are some decided disadvantages. Since spending this time on your planet, I’ve come to realize that we as a gender are not perfect. Let me explain.”
Ishmael sat back in his comfortable chair, and grew thoughtful. “Having no women on Essex avoids a lot of the conflicts you seem to have on earth. Based on my observations from such television networks as the ID channel and the show COPS, it appears that earth men spend a lot of time alternately fighting with women, or fighting with other men about women. When we fight on Essex, it’s over important things: power and territory.”
Paul nodded. “That’s a great relief, I’m sure.”
Ishmael continued. “And in that vein, from watching the network Home Box Office, and the show Sex and the City, earth men seem very concerned about the length and breadth of their penises. There’s never an issue about penis size with Essexians, because that organ became unnecessary as we evolved as a species. In fact, as young Essexians emerge from cloning, we have special religious shamans knows as Elijahs that remove the tiny remnant of this vestigial protubrance. It only hurts for a second, and our trousers fit better without it.”
Paul asks, “Then without a penis, how do you pee?”
Ishmael looks quizzically at Paul. “Pee? What is this?”
Paul responds, “You know – remove liquid waste from your body. How do you do that without a penis?”
Ishmael says, “Oh – there’s a tube with a valve that runs down our left leg. When it’s full, we feel a tingling in our midsection. We just go to defilling stations and turn the valve. The liquid runs out and is recycled into a key ingredient in beer. Pequod is quite famous for its beer and ale. We find that strenuous exercise with dehydration creates a very dark, liquid waste that really makes our ale quite tasty. Much better than your Guinness.”
Paul was amazed at this – it just made so much sense, and obviously showed that the men of Essex were far advanced over the denizens of earth.
“What are some of the other differences? Thus far, it appears that an all-male planet is decidedly better than having both genders.”
Ishmael said, “Well, no – not entirely. Here’s the problem. First of all, it would appear to be an inherently male trait to lose track of time when engaged in playing or watching sports. From watching the network TV Land and the show Home Improvement, it is the responsibility of the female of the household to insist that sports activities be curtailed. We have no such feature on Essex. As a result, the concept of time has taken on a very different quality, and punctuality is a sign of weakness.”
Paul said, “That really does make sense. When I was watching the curling finals in the 2014 Winter Olympics, I completely lost track of time. My former wife had to remind me three times that her parents were coming for dinner. I nearly missed the last round when Canada took the gold. Say, Ishmael, you certainly seem to know a lot about our television. How have you absorbed so much of it in your time here?”
Ishmael replied, “Oh, I knew about television from quite a while ago. Your signals go out into space, and we were able to pick them up. At the Starbuck University, one of my friends got a Master’s Degree in communication from watching your television. I believe the title of his thesis was, Earth Men are Inept, a conclusion he drew from watching situation comedies from your country. It emboldened me to travel here to right the wrong I told you about.”
Paul could not remember Ishmael telling him about the wrong that had occurred that made him travel to the earth from Essex. But at the moment, he was too caught up in hearing about Essex to want to change the subject. “Please, Ishmael, tell me what other disadvantages come from being a one gender planet.”
Ishmael pointed at Paul’s chest. “If you are lost, how long does it usually take before you stop and ask for directions?”
Paul thought for a moment, and then said, “Well, I seldom get lost, thanks to GPS, but there was that one time when the instrument had me going in circles. I believe I went around the block at least a dozen times before I reset the unit and figured it out. I can’t say I’ve ever stopped to ask for directions. I’ve always had confidence that I can determine the location – eventually.”
Ishmael nodded. “Picture a whole planet of lost men refusing to stop for directions. We have GPS as well, but since men program them, they often get the names of the streets confused. Driving can frequently be hazardous, with men balancing maps on the steering wheel, trying to figure out where they’re going. You have to be careful and swerve to avoid anyone whose face can’t be seen through the windshield.”
Paul said, “So I guess some things are genetic and that might be one of them. Anything else?”
“Just one last thing – do you have any idea how to operate an iron and an ironing board?” Ishmael looked at Paul, nodding encouragingly at the man that potentially held the answer to the one big problem that plagued every man on Essex.
Ishmael looked disappointed. “We have no dry cleaning establishments on Essex. No man has yet figured out how to keep wrinkles out of clothing, much less how to operate the equipment to remove them after the fact. But we may be on to a solution. The latest research indicates that leaving the clothing in the dryer for hours after they’re dry may be a contributing factor to the problem.”
Paul nodded. “I really have no idea on that topic. Sorry – can’t help you.”
Ishmael nodded. “It was worth a try.”
Ishmael asked, “So, Paul, can you tell me about your life? What kind of work do you do? You told me you’re a mathematician, as well as a lunatic? Lunatic – does that mean you are quite fond of earth’s moon?”
Paul chuckled softly. “No, Ishmael, it means that I’m not always in my proper frame of mind. In fact, lately my mind hasn’t been functioning properly at all. I’ve tried a variety of medications, but I just can’t seem to return to the work I was doing before I had my accident.
“Accident? What kind of accident?”
Paul replied, “I lost control of my car and crashed into a tree. I had a pretty serious head injury, as well as a broken right femur and left ankle. My bones have healed, but apparently my head still hasn’t recovered. I need to find a way to get back to the work I was doing before the crash.
“And what kind of work is that? Mathematics – adding, subtracting, stuff like that?”
Again, Paul chuckled. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. I have a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s a very prestigious university. My Ph.D. thesis was on the Riemann Hypothesis. Have you ever heard of that?”
Ishmael shook his head no. What exactly is this Riemann Hypothesis?”
Paul replied, It’s called “The Great White Whale” of unsolved mathematical problems. That expression is used on earth to describe very special things. I’m sure you can understand that. It would be like the Holy Grail in the Bible.”
Ishmael says, “Yes, on Essex, we also call the embodiment of what is most seriously unknown The Great White Whale. But this Riemann Hypothesis doesn’t make our list of items that would qualify for that status. As I mentioned before, effective laundering tops our list. But please – tell me about this Hypothesis – maybe I can help you with it.”
Paul replies, “Bernhard Riemann submitted a paper in a country we call Germany in the year 1859. The title of the paper was, On the Number of Prime Numbers Less than a Given Quantity. He guessed as to how to derive how many numbers – up to infinity – would be prime. Prime means a number divisible only by itself and one. I’m sure you know about that.”
Ishmael replied, “Oh, yes. We call them choice numbers on Essex.”
Paul said, “Well, the attempt to prove Riemann’s Hypothesis has obsessed mathematicians ever since. In fact, others have also been driven mad in the vain search for the solution. Just as Captain Ahab appeared to be driven mad by his obsession for Moby Dick. I’ve come to believe several key clues to the proof lie in the text of Moby Dick.”
Ishmael grew thoughtful after listening to Paul’s description. “Well, I have to say I don’t know how to construct the proof, but I am not surprised to hear that you believe the answer is in the book. We on Essex believe all answers to all of life’s questions can be found with guidance from the book. That is how I came to know how to time travel, and knew that I had to return to earth to right the wrong that was done to my countrymen.”
Paul looked at Ishmael. “But I can’t seem to find what I’m looking for in the text. And when I try to read it out loud, it either puts me to sleep, or causes me to have hallucinations. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re one of my hallucinations.”
Ishmael said, “Well, anything is possible. But I believe you’re approaching this through the wrong medium of understanding. My understanding of cosmic string theory, and therefore my understanding of time travel, came from a non-stop, volunteer reading of the book. It’s something we do on Essex every year, in the town of New Bedford, which is the capital of Pequod. That is the only effective way we have of gleaning insights from the book. Do you have such non-stop readings of the book here on earth?
Paul’s interest was piqued by Ishmael’s words. If that kind of reading could teach Ishmael about the physics of the cosmos, surely a little problem like proving the Riemann Hypothesis could be gotten the same way.