Friday, January 6, 2012

Four Red Dots

The professor entered the lecture hall and surveyed his students on the first day of the new academic year.

Turning to the blackboard, he picked up his white chalk and methodically punched twenty white dots onto the blackboard.

The more "science-geeky"-type students carefully recorded the exact number of dots, in anticipation of possible interrogation on the matter.

The professor intoned:

"All dots are white."

Very carefully, the professor established eye contact with each and every one of the students, before solemnly repeating, even more slowly:

"All dots are white".

Several of the more ambitious students allowed themselves a restrained, scholarly nod, as a sign that, yes, they had managed to follow the argument thus far.

The professor returned to the chalkboard, this time selecting a red chalk.

Tack. Tack. Tack. Tack.

Turning swiftly this time, the professor selected the student who had nodded in the most impressively sage fashion, and asked:

"Mr. Shields! How many dots are on the blackboard?"

"Twenty four dots, sir."

"Mr. Shields, did you not hear what I said? ALL DOTS ARE WHITE. Now. How many dots on the blackboard, Mr. Shields?"

"Oh! Yes! Apologies, sir. Twenty dots precisely, sir."

The Professor held Shields in his steady gaze for a moment, and then shifted it to the young "science geek" he had noticed fervently taking notes throughout.

"Ms. Egosum, how many dots are on the blackboard?"

"TWENTY DOTS, SIR! Exactly twenty. Not a dot more or less than twenty."

And so the professor continued, always asking the same question, always receiving the same response, until but one student remained.

"Mr. Carliss. What say you, then? How many dots on the blackboard?"

Carliss spoke softly.

"There are twenty four dots on the blackboard, sir. Twenty of them are white. But there are four red dots as well. Thus twenty four dots in all."

"But did you not HEAR me, Mr. Carliss? Did I not TELL YOU that all dots are white?"

"Yes, sir. You indeed did tell me that all dots are white. But there are, nevertheless, four red dots. Therefore the answer to your question, sir, is-  there are twenty four dots on that blackboard."


And more silence.

The professor stood perfectly still, as menacing as a pagan god.

At length the smirks among the other students could scarcely be restrained as they awaited in gleeful anticipation the inevitable demolition of poor, strange Carliss. Already his nearest neighbors had subtly arranged their postures so as to introduce as much space as possible between themselves, and the soon-to-be sacrificed victim.

The Professor smiled.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there exists among you one, and exactly one, scientist."

And, turning a last time to the blackboard, the professor erased everything except the four red dots.


With thanks to Richard Salbato, who told me this story and thereby changed my life, and with apologies to the Catholic Science Geek, to whom it is extended as my parting gift.