A Cautionary Tale of Time Perspective

Some Progress: The Life and Times of the Smartest Man in the World
By John Boyd

Based on a True Story

Once upon a time, in a place not far way, there lived a man named Joe Einstein. Joe Einstein was not his real name, but it was how the world knew him and, over the years, it had become how he knew himself. Envious classmates had given him the nickname nearly 40 years earlier when Joe had amazed them with the speed with which he completed his high school math and physics homework. Much had changed in those 40 years, and there was more than time that made Joe different from the young psychology students entering wonderfully white Gates auditorium at Futura University that late spring afternoon. Joe Einstein was alone, separated from all others not just by rows of folding chairs, not just by years, but by way of life, by way of being. Joe Einstein was a man out of place, out of time, and—most would say—out of his mind.

Joe lived in a secluded cardboard castle in the middle of a small redwood grove behind ivy- covered Thoreau Hall. His wild silver hair, thick glasses, untrimmed beard, and disheveled clothes suggested that this was a man deeply dedicated to crazy ideas—and to little else. He had no job, no money, no non-recyclable home, no car, no title, and he was not a student in any official sense. At other times and in other places, Joe would have been burned at the stake, hailed as a prophet, or stoned. The present time simply ignored him, which was the most reasonable and expedient thing to do. Normal people treated Joe as a public garbage can, light post, or stalled car, as an obstacle that could be moved but that was almost always more expeditious just to go around.

Years after earning his alias, Joe had not wavered in his quest for knowledge. Without the benefit of a prescribed social role, he did what he wanted, when he wanted, which was to learn without regard for convention. After waking to the rising sun, Joe spent mornings reading newspapers and casually sipping instant coffee under the towering oaks of Adams Square. Days were devoted to classes and lectures for which he received no credit, afternoons were reserved for penning notes to family and friends, and evenings were spent surfing the web at Chaucer Library. Technology, the Internet—progress—opened new worlds to Joe, and he spent years exploring them. Despite his voracious appetite for knowledge, Joe was no closer to receiving a Futura degree than he had been the day he had arrived nearly 15 years earlier. None of this mattered to Joe, for he sought only one thing: some progress in achieving near-zero bizarre accidents and senseless crimes.

Dexter Spetial and Eleanor Grundig sat toward one side of the immense auditorium, four rows behind Joe. Both clinical psychology graduate students, they automatically cataloged the mental frailties of each student as he or she walked by. Eleanor’s most striking feature was not really a feature at all, but something of a reflective mumble. Speaking to Eleanor invariable elicited a rapid string of “uh, huh’s” that, during times of particularly excitement, had been clocked at speeds nearing 30 utterances a minute. Eleanor and Dexter had been at Futura for almost a full year, but Dexter still lived out of his suitcase. He feared that the supremely arrogant act of allowing himself to feel as if he belonged would lead to immediate expulsion. More than anything, he wanted to belong.

Eleanor leaned over to Dexter and asked, “How far are you on your End of Year Project?”

“Haven’t started,” Dexter replied.

“Uh, huh. You haven’t started! It’s due in two months. Uh, huh. I’ve been working on mine for six months, and I’m still freaking out! Uh, huh. Aren’t you worried?” Eleanor exclaimed.

“I’ve been through all of that. It’s just another hoop,” Dexter said coolly.

Truthfully he was worried, but he was not about to admit it to himself, or to Eleanor.

As Dexter finished, Eleanor muttered a closing “uh-huh”, and Professor James began:

“I’d like to start today’s class by telling a true story about a young woman named Kitty Genovese. The year was 1964 and Kitty was a 28 year-old bookkeeper at a successful manufacturing plant in Queens, New York. Kitty was a pleasant, hard-working girl that handled payroll for the plant’s 483 employees. One particular night Kitty worked into the wee hours of the morning so that paychecks would be ready for the workers the next day.

“At about 3 am, Kitty left the plant and drove the few blocks home to her apartment. It was dark outside as Kitty began the short walk to her front door. Suddenly, out of the shadows, came a man with a knife. Kitty fought back bravely and screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me!” A man opened the window of a nearby apartment and yelled, “Leave her alone!” The attacker stopped and walked away. Kitty lay on the sidewalk bleeding. No one came to help.

“Minutes later, the attacker returned and began stabbing Kitty again. This time she continued to fight back and yelled, “I’m dying!” Windows opened, and, again, the attacker fled. Kitty struggled into the doorway of an apartment, bleeding profusely from her wounds. No one came to help.

“Windows closed, and the attacker returned a third time, nearly 30 minutes after he began his attack. This time he didn’t leave until Kitty lay dead in the street, just a few feet from her own front door. No one had come to help.

“During their investigation the next day, the police discovered that 38 people had heard or seen one of the killer’s three attacks, yet not one had helped or even called the police.

“Why? It is a question that psychologists have spent the last forty years trying to answer. Some social critics suggest that the lack of help is indicative of the general moral decay of our society, but some ambitious social psychologists suggest that this bystander apathy is not due to indifference but to a diffusion of responsibility throughout society. Diffusion of responsibility suggests that the likelihood that someone will help is inversely related to the number of people present. Simply put, the more people that witness an emergency, the less likely any of them are to help.

“Let’s take a closer look at some of the research on this topic…” . . .

Losing interest, Dexter whispered to Eleanor, “Can you believe it only took her 30 minutes to die? I think I’d live longer if I was stabbed.”

“Eleanor thought of replying, “that’s because you don’t have a heart,” but instead only mumbled, “uh, huh,” as she continued to listened intently to the lecture. She had been listening and watching and thought to herself that it takes some people their whole lives to die.

A side door opened as a student arrived late, the wind shifted, and Dexter became painfully aware that he was downwind of Joe Einstein. In his single-minded pursuit of progress, Joe had absentmindedly forgotten to bathe, for the past three weeks. As Dexter cocked his head and struggled to breathe through his nose, his End of Year Project began to take shape. Dexter had been experimenting with a new drug designed to treat schizophrenia that required only bi-annual doses. Initial tests on rats had been promising, but the rigorous scientific validation and endless bureaucratic hoops necessary before human clinical trials could begin remained years away. In Joe, Dexter saw a no-risk chance to circumvent time and, perhaps, an opportunity to make a name for himself.

Less than a week later, Joe appeared at the Futura University Police Department, where he regularly demanded the return of confiscated belongings or funds. Joe believed that he was owed nearly $500,000, all sent by supporters of his quixotic quest to rid the world of bizarre disasters and senseless crimes. This visit was different. Joe lucidly and passionately described how mind readers had assaulted him and injected him with a drug that had caused him to sleep for three days and to wake with an excruciatingly painful headache. After much protestation and an offer to show the officers a mark on a butt cheek, Joe left to face the world alone.

Over time it had become a tradition at Futura to warn visiting speakers of Joe’s possible presence in the audience. Speakers could then direct their attention to the more reasonable members of the audience. Joe sat patiently through talk after talk, his hand politely raised, as he was systematically ignored. No form of discrimination is perfect, however, and, two weeks after Joe’s injection, a speaker accidentally called on Joe.

It was an act that the speaker, a well-respected academician from another overgrown university, would regret. Joe’s comments were an unmitigated disaster, but not for Joe. The talk had described the implications of technological progress on social behavior, an area in which Joe had some expertise. Joe’s subsequent comments were so perspicacious, so cogent—so undeniably brilliant and true—that no one, not even the speaker himself, dared to interrupt. Questions from the audience were immediately directed to Joe rather than the speaker, and Joe patiently answered them in a humble manner that seamlessly wove strands of knowledge into an undeniably beautiful mantle of enlightenment. The session ended in hushed awe. Those in attendance knew that they were in the presence of greatness.

Days became weeks, weeks became months, and Joe became famous within the scientific community. His unique generalist perspective subtly recast contemporary paradigms in a manner that illuminated the previously obscure and led to tremendous discoveries. Joe participated in the unification of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics into a nascent Theory of Everything, published a straightforward solution to the problem of consciousness, and invented several significant techniques used in the fields of nano technology and medicine. Joe also took a keen interest in the prevention of human suffering. Although it was the most difficult problem he faced, progress was made.

Public recognition of his scientific exploits started with a small article in the Futura Daily and quickly escalated to appearances on morning news shows, Larry King Live and Oprah. Time magazine then honored Joe as their “Man of the Year”, and Newsweek countered with a front-page article proclaiming Joe, “The Smartest Man in the World!” Soon Joe’s success as a media sensation and curiosity overshadowed his unprecedented achievements as a scientist.

It was only a matter of time before an enterprising agent sought to corner the market on Joe’s insights by signing him to an exclusive consulting agreement. Joe honestly felt that he had no marketable skills or experiences, but the agent’s people assured him that all they wanted was his time. Without really trying, Joe sold 80 hours of it each week, and his life thus became a long series of meetings, appearances, obligations, phone calls, and emails. In exchange for his time, Joe received more money than he had ever dreamt of accusing the FUPD of confiscating.

Just as Joe’s life had settled into a semblance of normalcy, Dexter went to the press with the story that he had injected Joe and made him sane. At first Joe had not wanted to believe it, but, when a blood test revealed elevated enzymes that could only have been produced by the medication, Joe could no longer deny reality. A public debate raged around the ethics of injecting Joe—and others—and about whether Joe’s intelligence was really his or if it was somehow store bought. Dexter enjoyed the notoriety, and Joe began to wonder if he was normal after all.

Weeks later, Joe received a phone call that changed his life. He didn’t answer it. After a hectic 14-hour workday, Joe was too busy replying to the 47 emails he had received in the time it took to drive home from his office. In the morning when he listened to his voice messages, Joe discovered that the call had been from his father. Joe’s mother had been watching TV the night before and had had a mild heart attack. She had asked Joe’s father to call Joe when she first arrived at the hospital. Ten minutes later, Joe had not moved when the phone rang. It was Joe’s father, and this time he was crying. Joe’s mother had done well through the night, but as the sun rose she had slipped into a coma and quietly stopped breathing. She was dead. After some debate, Joe’s assistant cleared his schedule and arranged for him to attend his mother’s funeral in Ohio. After a small but beautiful service in Joe’s hometown, family and friends retreated to the comfort of the home in which Joe had grown up. While Joe sat talking on his parents’ familiar tattered couch—a couch that Joe had offered to replace just months before—his young nephew climbed atop the armrest, his eyes red from crying. “You’re the smartest man in the world. My mom said so. Uncle Joe, why do people have to die?” the boy asked earnestly.

“I don’t know, Timmy,” Joe whispered, “I don’t even know if there is an answer to that question. It is just the way the world is, and we have to learn to accept it.” Joe could see that his answer did not satisfy the boy, or Joe, but the boy was polite enough not to repeat the question.

“Where do people go when they die?” the boy asked, continuing down a list that many shared.

“If you are good, you go to heaven. That is where your grandma is right now. She is in a better place,” Joe replied, surprised by the inadequacy of his own answers.

While on his way home three days later, Joe gave himself what he had decided was going to be his last injection of medication. The news of his decision spread at the speed of light, though many thought the news a joke. After all, why would the smartest man in the world give up a life of envy? Joe was rich. He was famous. He was the American dream. What more could he want?

Public denial of Joe’s decision festered into anger as the world realized that it was going to lose its only living superhero, its most treasured icon. Grassroots organizations shot up around the world with a common goal, saving Joe Einstein. Some argued in coffee shops that the medication had lost its effectiveness and that Joe had slipped back into his paranoid past. Others argued in courtrooms that Joe was a public resource that should be protected, like a historical landmark, national park, or water supply. Through it all, Joe maintained a quiet resolve that most found disconcerting. Fortunately for Joe, the laws were written long ago and were difficult to change. In the end, Joe won his battle to be himself.

Joe’s final public appearance as the smartest man in the world occurred on Larry King Live with Dexter Spetial. During their segment, Dexter argued forcefully that the medication had side effects that had impaired Joe’s decision-making ability, that Joe was clearly no longer sane. Why else would Joe willingly return to an anonymous life so pathetically similar to the lives that billions of others had already lived?

“How can you give up all of this? You have been given fame and fortune, and you are going to throw it all away,” Dexter marveled.

“Yes, but think of how much time I will have to miss it,” Joe replied. “Joe, think of all the good that you have done, and think of all that you could do. Don’t you feel selfish depriving the world of your presence?” Larry asked.

“My goal is not to be selfish. My goal is to be myself. I have done my part. Now it is up to others to do theirs.”

“Joe, as smart as you are, don’t you worry that you are making the wrong decision?” Larry asked in closing.

“Of course I do, Larry. Nevertheless, I have faith in myself, and I believe that I am doing the right thing. Dexter may be correct in one sense. I probably will lose much of what the world has given me. But in losing the world, I will regain myself.”

Then one day he was gone, back into the abyss between normal lives. Most were too busy to notice his absence immediately. Some took days, some took weeks, some took months, and some were oblivious to the entire Joe Einstein episode. Others contend that they see him still, although few believe their claims. Even now, if you see a man you believe may be Joe Einstein, be thankful for what he did for us during his brief reign as the smartest man in the world, and think of what you could do for him—and others—if only you had the time.