5. Outwitting the Laws of Physics
Two years later, when Annie is seven, we find her in a well-appointed workshop of the Hampton Hill Academy for Gifted Children, where a group of girls and boys are putting the finishing touches on a project combining crafts, science, and history. Under the tutelage of an enthusiastic young teacher named Allison they have constructed a model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, accurately scaled and elegantly detailed. An action figure at the top has been dressed in Renaissance garb to represent Galileo.
A girl carefully placed two steel balls of different sizes on a device next to Galileo, cleverly designed to release them by remote control at exactly the same moment. She stepped aside, and a boy positioned a pair of devices directly below the balls; they would measure any difference in the balls’ impact to within a millisecond. Most of the children were gathered around in a circle, their eyes rivetted on the tower, anxiously waiting to see the outcome of all their labor.
An exception was Annie, who sat near a window on a beanbag, talking with a boy named Louis, in a voice low enough to avoid notice by Allison. “What a bore!” she was saying; “what’s the sense of just repeating something that was already done hundreds of years ago? Why don’t we dream up a new experiment that nobody will know how it’ll turn out in advance?”
“Wow, you’re smart!” said Louis. “They’d probably bump you up to the next level, if you weren’t such a pain in their butts.”
“Ha!” she said with a smirk, “I bet I can give Allison a nice sharp pain in her butt before this stupid experiment is over.”
“Yeah?” said Louis, his face lighting up with mischievous expectation, “how ya gonna do that?”
“Just watch,” she said. They got up and stood at the periphery
of the circle just as Allison was saying, “Who’d like to give us a little review of what we’re going to demonstrate today?” A number of students waved their hands and Allison said, “How about you, Alfred?”
Annie whispered to Louis, “I knew it, more prejudice! She always picks him just cuz he’s the only non-white kid in the class.”
Alfred’s complexion was a creamy light brown and most of his hair was done up in thin dreadlocks. He spoke crisply in grammatically flawless diction, a clear echo of upper-class nurture.
He said, “Before Galileo came along people assumed that a heavier object fell at a faster speed than a lighter one. No one had ever thought of testing it out, and Galileo’s main challenge was finding the best way to do it. The weights had to fall a long way in a straight line, so the Leaning Tower was a great solution.”
Annie yawned, not bothering to stifle it. To Louis she whispered, “Yada-yada-yada,” loudly enough that other people picked it up. Allison gave her a telling look, and Annie made a mock-innocent face.
Alfred continued, “But when Galileo’s balls hit the ground at the same time…” Annie had to turn her back to conceal her spasm of silent laughter ~ “it proved one of the laws of physics, and Isaac Newton worked out the rest of them a hundred years later.”
Still tittering, Annie said, “The laws of physics are boring. I think we should repeal them.”
Allison flushed with anger, but kept a grip on it. The Academy was based on strict principles of self-affirmation, positive feedback, and peaceful conflict-resolution; but of course there were boundaries that had to be honored to sustain such an atmosphere. She said, “Annie, you know that can’t be done. The laws of physics are part of nature, built into the universe.”
“I thought they were established by God.”
“Well, people who believe in God could say it that way.”
“That’s what Isaac Newton said.”
Allison was startled, thought for a moment, and said, “You’re right! Newton believed that he was discovering the plan God used to create the universe.”
Annie smiled in satisfaction and said, “God is a personal friend of mine, so maybe if I ask him nice or pray real hard he’ll change a couple of the laws of physics for me. Ya think?”
This outrageous statement was made with such ingenuous charm that Allison was momentarily befuddled. Finally she said, “Maybe we can talk about it later. Right now the rest of the class is waiting to do the experiment.”
“Okay.” As the attention of the group turned back to the tower, Annie winked at Louis and held up her forefinger, as if to say: Now you’ll see.
A girl hit the remote and the balls fell from their perch. There followed a “ping-ping” sound, an audible separation in their moments of impact. A boy checked the meter for the landing devices and reported that the gap was 1.703 seconds. “Something must be faulty with our set-up,” said Allison ~ “either the launcher or one of the landing pads have a flaw.”
“Or God changed the law of gravity,” said Annie; “I was praying with my whole heart and soul!” She had a hard time preventing her innocent mask from breaking into a smirk.
“That’s impossible,” said Allison, less willing to mince words now. “Let’s try it again, and if the interval is exactly the same, it’ll prove that there’s a flaw. We may just have to do a little more work on our project here.”
There was a disappointed “Awwww!” from a few students, but the girl triggered the release again. No one but Louis noticed Annie squinting her eyes as she gazed intently at the balls. There was a single “ping”, and the second ball floated motionless in mid-fall. Everyone gasped in astonishment, and Allison’s eyes darted to Annie in time to see her contorted face before it slackened and the second ball pinged.
“5.612 seconds,” announced the boy incredulously. If anyone had disbelieved their eyes, here was the hard evidence. There was a hubbub of confused chatter from the children, including a girlish wail of “Maybe Annie’s right!”
Allison could no longer disguise the anger on her face. Some plausible tales from friends and relatives had convinced her of the reality of psychic phenomena, and she had long suspected Annie of perpetrating it in acts of mischief. Now she was certain of it, but what could she do? Neither the school code nor state law recognized its existence, so it seemed like an unpunishable offense. She gathered her wits and said as calmly as she could, “Don’t worry, kids, we’ll get to the bottom of this. But it’s almost time for recess, so let’s just dismiss class for now.”
They began walking out of the workshop, most still chattering. When the space in front of the tower was clear, Annie winked again at Louis, then squinted at the launcher. Just as Allison was about to start interrogating her, one of the balls shot out like a bullet and shattered a flowerpot on the windowsill. The children who had not yet exited were agog at this latest prodigy, and Allison rushed over to check the damage. In passing she said softly but furiously to Annie, “You’ll get a reckoning somehow! I’ll see to that!”
She was wearing a thin skirt, and as she bent over the plant it tautened on her behind. Annie squinted and a second shot scored a bullseye on the proffered target. Allison leaped into the air and yowled, while Annie and Louis scooted between the dumbstruck students and out the door.