welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Short Story

Diminished Responsibility

Mark Pinder sees physics turn into metaphysics when an experiment goes wrong.

On Thursday 12th March 2020, Philosophy PhD student Joseph Riemann went missing. He was last seen by Carol Andrews, a Student Welfare Officer at the university. This is her account of their meeting.

Joseph hadn’t made an appointment; he just showed up. His hair was a mess, and he had bags under his eyes.

“How are things, Joseph?” I asked, once he had introduced himself.

“I – I feel like I’ve – I’ve lost control!” he stammered. I gave him time.

“I was dancing, with this girl, the Physics girl, I knew I shouldn’t have. But I couldn’t stop, I mean, really, I couldn’t stop.”

“Why shouldn’t you dance with her?” I asked.

“That’s not why I was there – I – I could see myself, and – I should have stopped. But I couldn’t – and now I’ve –” He paused, took a breath. “I need your help. Can you help? Please.”

“Start at the beginning,” I said.

His hand clenched, just for a moment, and his eyes fixed on me. They were red.

“Wednesday – yesterday, I think – I had a meeting with Lucy. Lucy Wade. My supervisor. I’m a PhD student.” Professor Lucy Wade had come onto my radar before. I kept silent as Joseph continued: “She had an – an opportunity, she said. She’s been working, collaborating, interdisciplinary stuff, with Dr Singh, Physics. She had this idea, I think, and apparently he’d made a breakthrough – he’d designed, built something… They’d tested it, it was safe, and they thought it would be good for my research – I do metaphysics, paradoxes – and they thought…”

I asked what Dr Singh had built. Joseph looked down. “The plan was simple, easy. I would go. Just a day. Lucy remembered I go to these lectures on physics – General Relativity, just background stuff – and I would go there, wait outside. Till after the lecture. And it worked fine. Dr Singh seemed, I don’t know, nervous – but it worked, just like he said. I was – I was – there…”

“Where were you, Joseph?”

“In Dr Singh’s lab, in Physics – still – but alone. So I just went along to the lecture room, like they’d said. I sat on the grass verge just outside. During the lecture on, er… Tuesday. Nothing had happened, I would have remembered, and I knew exactly where I’d be, so we could learn – really learn – what would happen. Lucy gave me these dark glasses, a different shirt, a hat. She said that no one would recognise me, not even me. She said I wouldn’t even recognise myself!”

“Joseph, what did they ask you to do?”

“Nothing. Not really. I’d run up to… myself… coming out of the lecture theatre. Nothing had happened then, so I couldn’t have been there. So we’d find out what would happen – splitting worlds or whatever – if I turned up. It didn’t matter what I said, Lucy said, just something memorable. I thought I’d say that the future was coming – ironic prophet, or something – and then just run off. I’d then keep out of sight… Lucy had given me cash for food and for a hotel room to lie low – to catch up…”

“Professor Wade gave you cash for a hotel room?”

“No, no. That’s not important. Just to catch up. But this girl… she came out first…”

“Out of the hotel?”

“Of the lecture. I recognised her clothes – this blue top with a big white stripe, and I guessed I’d seen her in the lecture. I called out, ‘Were you in GR?’ She nodded and just came over, just like that. ‘Couldn’t tell you what he said, though,’ she said: ‘Never thought I’d miss the days of Lorentz transformations.’ She asked me if I knew what a manifold was and I fumbled my words. She laughed. ‘Me neither,’ she said. People were coming out now, and I still had time – I had all night – so I just asked her, out of nowhere, if she wanted to dance. Then I saw myself coming out, and I remembered, it wasn’t inside that I’d seen her, but here, on the verge, laughing, with a guy in a hat and sunglasses, and he took her hand and spun her – you know – dancing…” Joseph paused. “I knew I should stop, but I’d seen this. I’d seen it – and it’s like something changed – like the duck – the rabbit – a Gestalt shift… and I – I couldn’t stop myself. I said I’d take her dancing, and I took her hand, and we laughed, and I span her and …”

“Just as you’d seen someone else do that before?”

“No. Not – not someone else – I – but…” His eyes widened. “Everything’s changed. I’ve lost the feeling… I can’t control my actions. It’s like they’re controlling me…”

I frowned. “Who’s controlling you, Joseph? Professor Wade? Dr Singh?”

“No, no, you don’t understand, it’s not them. It’s not anyone. I’ve just – it’s like – I’m in chains, you’re in chains, they’re in chains – but none of you know… But seeing me, remembering it all, I felt them – I felt the chains. And now I can’t unfeel them… It had to happen, I had to spin her; I couldn’t stop. No one could – you couldn’t, they couldn’t, none of us… We’re – we’re chained, fixed, trapped – we’re not –” His hand reached forward, as if reaching for me. “ – not free.” I pulled my hand away.

“You don’t understand – you don’t believe…” He rose from his chair. “I should go – If I’m calm she’ll listen, understand. Lucy. This is her thing – I’ll, I’ll… Sorry…” He stood up and started to leave. I called after him, but he didn’t turn back.

Professor Lucy Wade and Dr Gursharan Singh deny any knowledge of the events Joseph Riemann related to Carol Andrews on Thursday 12th March. A woman matching the description of ‘Physics girl’ was identified, and she confirmed that a short conversation, and dance, took place between her and a man wearing a hat and sunglasses after a General Relativity lecture on Tuesday 10th March. However, she was unable to confirm his identity.

© Dr Mark Pinder 2020

Mark Pinder is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X