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My Home, My Galaxy

Tom Jolly is a retired astronautical/electrical engineer who spends his time writing SF and fantasy, designing board games, and creating obnoxious puzzles. His stories have appeared in Analog SF, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling SF, New Myths, and a number of anthologies, including Shards, As Told by Things, and Tales from the Pirate's Cove. His fantasy novel, An Unusual Practice, is available on Amazon, along with two short story collections. He lives in Santa Maria, California, with his wife Penny in a place where mountain lions and black bears still visit, especially if you own any chickens. You can discover more of his stories at silcom.com/~tomjolly/tomjolly2.htm and follow him at Twitter @tomjolly19 or Facebook @TJWriter.
David Berger looked up from his book when his son Carl walked into the room. Carl flopped down on the couch next to his father and instead of reaching for the TV controller, he just frowned, as though he was thinking hard about something.
"What's up, son?" David asked.
"Well," Carl said, "in science class today, Mr. Anderson was talking about the Milky Way Galaxy, and had this big picture on the wall with a little arrow on a spot of it that said 'you are here.' I asked him who took the picture and he said that no one took it, it was just what scientists thought the galaxy looked like. But how could they know that?"
"Did you ask him?" David said.
"Naw. If I ask too many questions, the other kids give me a hard time," he said. "Anyway, Alicia asked him, but he didn't have a good answer. He said, 'read your book,' but I already read the chapter on galaxies and there was nothing in there about that."
David closed his book and stared at the wall for a moment. "There are a lot of ways that scientists can infer properties of objects without actually seeing them," he finally said. "For example, we can infer the existence of a planet by watching the planet's star. If the star wobbles back and forth at a certain rate, we guess there's a planet orbiting it at that rate. If it dims, we infer that there's a planet passing in front of it, and can speculate on the size, even though we can't directly see the planet."
"Yeah, we learned that two weeks ago. But what about galaxies?"
"Hmm." David twisted to face Carl. "I guess when we see other galaxies and the way they're shaped, we infer that our galaxy must be shaped much the same as many of the others. Spiral galaxies are the most common, so we start with that as a baseline. We look at the local stars that we can see and we know how gravity functions, so we..." he paused. "You know what?"
Carl cringed, knowing what.
"This would be a good time for a live lesson," David said.
"Aww," Carl whined. "Can't you just tell me?"
David acted like he hadn't heard him. "Let's pretend this house is the entire galaxy, and all the knowledge we have about the galaxy is what we can detect from this one room. We can't leave the room, or open doors or windows, or travel outside. We're living in primitive times, and haven't even invented telescopes yet. How much can we infer about the house without seeing all of it?"
"Our house is the galaxy, huh?"
"Our house is our house. But how much could you guess about the house if you couldn't leave the room? What could your science tell you?"
Carl got up off the sofa and started walking around the room. He stopped to peer out a window. The lot was over an acre in size, dotted with white birch and olive trees. The nearest house was barely visible, but Carl could discern movement inside.
"I can see someone over at the Olsen's place."
"What does that tell you about the place we're in?"
"Huh. Um, there are people in a building. We're in a building, so maybe our place looks a lot like theirs from the outside."
"Like seeing other planets, and assuming that Earth is of a similar shape."
"Yeah."
"Okay, what else?"
Carl strolled around the room to a door leading to a bedroom and reached for the doorknob.
David said, "Ah-ah! You can't open the door. You have to figure out the design by other clues without changing anything or leaving the room."
Carl frowned, but seemed to be getting into it. He looked at an open door leading to the hallway. "Here's another door, and it's connected to a room. So I might expect a door-shape to be connected to other rooms, meaning the shape of the house is bigger than just this one room we're in."
David pointed at the front door leading outside. "And that one?"
"Kind of screws up my theory."
"It's a hypothesis. 'All doors lead to rooms.' You haven't done any testing yet, so you don't have enough data to build a theory around."
"How can I test without opening the door?"
David smiled and shrugged. "You tell me."
Carl walked over to the front door and stared at it. There was no glass in it, so he couldn't see outside. He put his hand on the door. "The door is warm. The Sun is shining on it."
"Maybe, or it's just warm outside. But now you have some data."
"The front door has a dead-bolt on it, too, and the inner doors don't."
"Good observation. So we're getting an idea about the shape of the house."
"Also, I can see out the window that our house is sitting on the ground. I know there's a force holding it down because I can feel it." Carl gave a tentative jump up in the air to prove his point, thumping loudly on the wooden floor as he came down.
David smiled. "Is there anything we can learn about the thing pulling us down? Without leaving the room?"
Carl sat on the couch. "Lemme think." After a minute, he said, "If we hang two weights on strings and there's an angle between the two strings, we can find out where the center of the object is. How far below us it is. All weights will point to the center."
"Very good. But if there is no angle?"
He thought for another minute, then said, "Either the object is big and flat, or it's so big, that even if it were round, it would be hard to measure the angle."
"Let's test that idea!" David said.
Carl grumbled a little, but it didn't take long to find some string, tape, and two washers to act as plumb bobs. "Hang the strings as far from each other as we can in the room," David suggested. "Then we can take a tape measure and measure the distance between the tops of the two strings, and then the bottoms. If the numbers are significantly different, then the angle is big, and we know we live on a very small planet. If there's no measurable angle, then the planet might be very large."
Once the weights were hung, Carl retrieved a tape measure from the desk and they made the measurements.
"What do we have?" David asked.
"For the top, nineteen feet, six and nine-sixteenths inches."
"And?"
"For the bottom, nineteen feet, four and a quarter inches."
"Very funny. What is it really?"
"That's really it," Carl said.
"Measure it again."
Carl measured again and gave him the same results. They swapped places and David took the measurements. David's lips twisted, his forehead crumpled up like wadded paper, and he stared quietly at Carl.
"We've got a hundred-foot tape measure in the garage," Carl suggested. "You want to try this outside?"
David nodded slowly, staring suspiciously at the floor of the house.
The tiny Korveklian Anistago of the First Particle furrowed its pendulous powlaps. "Dilksputters!" it cursed, "I told you it was a bad idea to let the humans build a house over our hiding place."
"There was no reason to think a human would figure out that a neutronium spaceship was hidden below it. I mean, why would he even think such a thing?"
"He didn't! It was a dilking accident. He's a teacher! We need to relocate, now." His tonkgrits flared angrily, spraying alpha particles all over the floor of the deck. "Find a new hiding place from which to monitor these primitives."
Before Carl could retrieve a tape measure, their house rumbled and shook. David shouted, "Earthquake! Outside, now!" and the two of them dashed out the front door, turning in time to see a basketball sized object plunge skyward, trailing debris from its passage through their cement foundation, living room, ceiling, and roof. The object tore an orange trail through the atmosphere with a screaming roar, then all was quiet again.
David stared up into the sky as bits of wood and plaster fell around them. "Oh, boy," he said. The two of them looked at one another in stunned silence for a moment, then David added, "So what does that experiment tell you?"
Carl was dumbfounded. "Really? We're still doing this?"
David nodded.
Carl sighed. "That some of the gravity holding us down came from an alien spacecraft?"
"Anything besides that?" David asked, and smiled encouragingly.
Carl thought hard, and tentatively offered, "That we know how to find them now?"
David patted his shoulder. "That's my boy."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 8th, 2021


The germination of this story came from the idea that we can learn enormous amounts of scientific information by inference instead of direct observation. But in an age of forced home-schooling, how can you provide lessons that teach this? How much could you infer about your own environment without actually walking outside your home? And what if something went horribly wrong with your experiment? (Side Note: story was written before COVID-19 outbreak).

- Tom Jolly
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