Law of Conservation of Sadness — Or, When Einstein Lets You Down
On the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Sigal Samuel presents a short story about what happens when the famous scientist can no longer be trusted.
I had been dating Ben for two weeks, three days, eight hours, twenty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds when my best friend, Jay, got dumped. I biked to the Legion on Main Street and found him nursing a Pilsner. I ordered the same, pulled up a chair, took a gulp and said, “So. What happened?”
“She accused me of magical thinking,” Jay sighed. “She said I have a chronically pessimistic attitude and a pattern of paranoid ideation.”
I shook my head in sympathy. It was hell being accused of such things.
“At least you’re in good company,” I joked, gesturing at the lushes around us. I recognized most of them. This was the usual Thursday night crowd of writers and artists and other creative types whom Jay’s now-ex, with her PhD in psychology, would have dismissed with a diagnostic grin.
In the vacuum of Jay’s miserable silence I could hear strains of conversation drifting over from the next table. The creative types were talking about super-fast neutrinos. The super-fast neutrinos that had, apparently, broken the speed of light. One of the older writers, a bearded poet I’d once had a major crush on, whispered, The square of the hypotenuse ain’t what it used to be. He sounded shaken. I thought, who could blame him? If what we’d heard on the news turned out to be true — if scientists had found particles that could travel faster than light — it would upend a century of physics.
“So much for Einstein, eh?” Jay said. “So much for the theory of relativity.”
Again I shook my head in sympathy.
With downcast eyes, Jay asked, “How are things going with you and what’s his name?”
“Ben,” I said, as the image of my gorgeous, shy, lanky, freckled, painfully perfect boyfriend rose within me. I tried, and failed, to keep the giddiness out of my voice. “Oh, you know. Comme ci, comme ça.”
Jay, who had known me since kindergarten, wasn’t buying this act. But he seemed not to have the energy to press me for details. Staring into his Pilsner, he said, “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Wait, what?”
“You. Me. Haven’t you noticed that whenever one of us is starting a new relationship, the other person’s relationship is going up in flames?”
I had noticed.
“I mean, can you think of a single time in our lives when we were both happily in love?”
I could not.
“And it’s like, why can’t we ever both be happy at the same time?”
Yes! I thought. Yes! I was so relieved to hear him say this that I gave his hand a little squeeze. It was true! When I was up, he was down. When he was up, I was down. The minute one person embarked on a new relationship, all giddy and starry-eyed, the other person’s relationship inevitably fell apart. I’d never mentioned it before because it had always seemed in bad taste. When your end of the seesaw was rocketing skyward, it seemed callous to be crowing about your newfound height, and when you felt your heels scraping pavement, it seemed petty and jealous to grumble about having been brought so low.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, squeezing his hand again.
“It’s like, you and me, our combined sadness always remains a constant no matter what.” He gazed into his Pilsner as one would gaze into the eyes of a fortuneteller. “Sometimes I think it’s the only constant holding this universe together. Like if we were to both be happy at the same time, the whole thing would suddenly implode.”
“What do you mean?”
In answer, he grabbed a napkin from a nearby table and a pen from behind his ear. For a few seconds, my ears were filled with the sounds of his scribbling and the raucous cheers of the half-dozen veterans playing shuffleboard and darts behind us. Then he pushed his oeuvre toward me, saying, “Voilà. The Law of Conservation of Sadness.”
The napkin stated: Sadness can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred through space and time. The total amount of sadness in the universe remains constant.
“Yeah,” I chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be crazy if it were true.”
“How do we know it’s not?”
I blinked. Then he took the napkin back and started scribbling again.
In addition to being a creative type, Jay was also shockingly good at math. His proof, or theorem, or whatever it was, filled up the first napkin and overflowed onto a second. It began, Let Jay’s happiness = x and let Amy’s happiness = y, and it invoked something called the chain rule. I didn’t really understand its technical aspects. But when Jay pushed it across the table and read it aloud to me, I gave him a knowing look.
We’d always had faith in Einstein. What could be safer? He was a smart old geezer with fluffy white hair and a bowtie. If you couldn’t trust that, what could you trust? He said God did not play dice with the universe and we believed him. He said nothing travelled faster than light and we believed him. Now he’d gone and betrayed us, and we were shaken up. If the theory of relativity was wrong, our whole way of looking at the world might be wrong. Who could say for certain that the Law of Conservation of Sadness was no law? Could anyone be sure — really, really sure — that its constant was not part of the hidden architecture of the universe? Maybe it had been ruling our lives for years, unseen and unsuspected. In the hazy bluish light of the Legion, anything seemed possible.
“But why this constant?” I inquired in the name of science or self-pity. “Why us?”
Jay shrugged. For a few minutes, he wondered aloud if maybe it was a conspiracy. Jay was full of conspiracy theories about how the world was specially designed to screw over people like us. Writers and artists and creative types. Human beings were doing it all the time — politicians were cutting funding left and right — why not the universe?
Perhaps because Jay was being so pessimistic, I kicked off into the bracing air of optimism and said, “Maybe it’s not a conspiracy, though. Maybe it’s a gift. Like, the universe wants to make sure that when one of us needs the other person, the other person will always be there, ready to help. Because, can you imagine if we both got dumped at the same time? It’d be a disaster, right? We’d both be sitting here, drunk off our asses, with nobody to give us a lift and no safe way to get home.” Warming to my metaphor, I said, “This way, it’s like the universe is ensuring there’ll always be a designated driver.”
Jay said, “Neither of us owns a car.”
“Right, so, okay, but —”
“You never even got your license.”
“Right, but my point is, maybe it’s not a conspiracy. Maybe it’s a gift.”
“Maybe,” Jay said, unconvinced. He added something else but it was inaudible.
“I said, I miss her.”
“I’m never going to be happy again.”
Although Jay was exhibiting exactly the type of attitude his girlfriend had bemoaned — or maybe because he was exhibiting it — I told him not to worry about her. I reminded him of her brainy but fickle nature. “I bet you anything she’ll be calling you within the hour, begging you to take her back,” I said.
“Maybe,” Jay said, unconvinced.
And because he was staring at the napkins, I stared, too. It was a crazy thought, but you had to wonder. What would happen if you jumped off the seesaw? If you upended the stars?
Jay let out a deep sigh, an incredibly miserable sound. The napkins fluttered away from his hands like birds. I laced fingers with him and wondered.
From behind the bar, a screechy female voice announced last call. I thought of something Einstein had once said: It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid. It should be possible, yes. But when all the familiar laws deserted you, and all you were left with was some absurd law penned on a napkin by your lonely inebriated friend, what then?
“Give me your phone,” I said.
“Just do it.”
Jay slid the phone across the table. I dialed Ben’s number.
“Amy?” he said, all puppy-dog eagerness. “I was just making spaghetti, do you want to come —”
“I’m seeing someone else,” I said. “It’s over.”
I hung up. Jay and I stared at each other over our Pilsners.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Now,” I said, “we wait.”
A moment later, Jay’s phone began to ring.
Sigal Samuel is the author of the novel (HarperCollins 2015).