Crucifixion Variations

Crucifixion Variations

by Lawrence Person

Illustration by Shirley Chan

I was in charge of the Jerusalem Project because I loved administration more than physics. Philip Morley destroyed my world because he loved physics less than God.

I was performing that quintessential university administrative duty, filling out grant proposals, when Phil burst into my office with the news.

“We’ve got it!” he said. The expression on his face was one of absolute, rapturous joy, almost frightening in its intensity. “I’ve found Him!”

Him. There was no mistaking the capital letter in his voice.

Phil had documented the existence of Jesus Christ.

It was the culmination of three years, five hundred thousand man-hours, and several million dollars’ worth of research. It was the single most important achievement in physics since the initial decoding of subquark event waves, and the most important historical discovery since—well, ever. In short, it was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough that would crown our careers and make Phil and me famous for the rest of our lives. I should have been ecstatic at the news.

Which I would have been, except that I’m an atheist.

Philip Morley was my polar opposite in almost everything: passionate, hot-tempered, blunt, stubborn, lively. A devout Christian—a evangelical Baptist no less—Phil was a double shock for someone who had always thought of evangelicals as white trash in bad polyester suits.

He was also a genius.

Within the exalted intellectual confines of my profession, I have known exactly three geniuses on a first-name basis. One was a Nobel Prize winner, the other Dean of Sciences at a major university at age forty-three. The third was Phil. The sheer power of his intellect was a source of both wonderment and envy to me, since I had long ago reconciled myself to the fact that, as a particle physicist, I was a hopeless mediocrity.

At one time that revelation would have pained me. Like so many of my compatriots, I had come into the field an intellectual virgin, bursting with enthusiasm and painfully naive. I saw myself as a Heroic Scientist, marching in lockstep with Einstein and Hawking to do battle with the universe and wrest from it answers to the Big Questions.

But that was before slamming into the wall of my own intellectual limitations, before realizing I was merely smart in a field overburdened with brilliance. In a profession where most important work is done before you’re forty, I was painfully aware of my status as an also-ran. After that brutal realization I kicked around for a while, just good enough to land a succession of non-tenure-track assistant professor posts as the academic equivalent of a migrant farmworker. In all likelihood I would have spent the remainder of my days teaching freshman physics at community colleges had not events intervened.

An old undergraduate roommate had become one of the field’s leading lights, landing a hot, hard-money project at a major university, and since it involved my dissertation subject he used his pull to get me on the team. Even then I might never have heard of the Jerusalem Project had not that same friend’s premature stroke resulted in my promotion, at which point I discovered my talent for running people far exceeded that of running a phased sub-quark collision chamber.

Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach; and those that can’t teach, administrate. I thought that rather funny when I first saw it taped amidst a cluster of cartoons on my faculty advisor’s office door. Once I fell victim to it I found the joke was on me.

Still, you learn to enjoy the things you do well. I found I could write reports, balance budgets and court potential donors with polished ease. My initial project was finished on time and under budget, producing more than two dozen papers for the researchers and grad students involved—including just enough with my name as co-author to satisfy my publish-or-perish requirements for the next decade. My initial success led to being put in charge of a second project, and then a third, each another feather in my administrative cap.

Listen to any successful science administrator long enough and you’ll hear a chorus of frustrated sighs about the paperwork morass keeping them from their first and only true love: pure research. “Oh, if only I could get away from my desk and get back into the lab,” they opine, “I’d be a happy (gender specific noun here).” A few of them, the ones who had actually done important research in their youths, even believe it. I make the same noises myself now and then, but only to maintain the image.

In truth, the siren song of fundamental research no longer carries any allure. Been there, done that, and I’m better at pushing papers. I’ve finally found a position where mediocrity is a virtue.

Not that I’m bitter.


After all, I have precious little reason to be. I earn a high salary, live a good life, and am quite comfortable basking in the glow of reflected glory. Years of personal turmoil leave you with a distinct appreciation for stability.

As an ex-alcoholic, Phil was another great fan of stability. By his own admission he had spent two hard years drowning himself in a bottle before grabbing Jesus as his life-preserver. It was Phil’s brutal honesty about those years that had finally convinced me to hire him despite his spotty record—and his religion.

Phil’s work had been impressive for the first twelve years of his postdoctoral career, downright shoddy during his two on the bottle, and finally ground-breaking during the five since recovery. But as good as his research record was, it couldn’t hide the fact that most of his colleagues thought he had an ego the size of Canada. “Brilliant researcher, fucked-up human being,” was one colleague’s blunt assessment.

Worse still, Phil wasn’t just a Christian, he was an aggressive Christian. At his old position, he had frequently precipitated shouting matches over such less-than-current events as original sin and biblical inerrancy. For a confirmed atheist, a physicist who talked about Jesus and redemption with the same matter-of-fact confidence he discussed quarks and leptons was at the very least an annoyance, and at worst an actual danger. Bible-quoting fundamentalists were fine for bankrolling the athletic department’s slush fund, but a tangible menace when evangelizing unwilling colleagues. The last thing I wanted was some wild-eyed fanatic proselytizing the grad students.

I had discovered Phil’s distinctively mixed record when first reviewing applications for the Jerusalem Project’s Head Researcher. With his negatives in mind, I had shuffled Phil’s folder beneath the six other qualified candidates, where it had stayed until, late one sleepless evening, I had finished everyone else’s relevant papers and started in on Phil’s.

Unless you speak math, explaining how and why Phil’s work was light-years beyond anyone else’s would be impossible. In fact, there were parts of it I had a tough time sledding through myself, pages where the text was all but lost amidst bristling fortresses of difficult sub-quantum phase-change equations. But after digesting it, I was convinced of two things: Philip Morley was twice as smart and qualified as anyone else for the job, and, if I read his equations correctly, he could cut six months to a year off the project’s scheduled completion date.

Which left me with a problem.

Genius was all well and good—in its place. Some of physics’ smartest minds are also among its more congenial personalities, and such blessed individuals are a true pleasure to work with. But the sort of genius that didn’t give a flying fuck about anything outside its own peculiar intellectual orbit was a royal pain in the ass. Give me a mediocre but solid researcher over a prima donna any day. Shaving six to twelve months off a project meant nothing if it was going to take ten years off my life.

And finally, of course, it comes back to religion. Despite my protestations of cheerful tolerance, I took a secret, perverse pleasure in undertaking the Jerusalem Project merely for the opportunity to be there when it failed.

And that’s why I hesitated to hire Phil. What if he disproved the existence of Jesus and refused to admit it? What if he refused to certify the results, or insisted on rerunning the experiment until he succeeded? What if he tried to falsify the results, to cook the books in order to avoid facing up to the fact that the religion which had saved his life was a hollow he?

I never seriously contemplated his actually succeeding. I had long regarded Christian dogma as a mishmash of romanticized fraud, improbable fantasy and maudlin sentimentality. It was a two thousand-year-old con game designed to keep the priestly class in wine and women without forcing them to soil their hands performing real work. The idea that such Luddite absurdities as “scientific creationism” drew their inspiration from fact was something I considered beyond the realm of possibility.

Unable to resolve this mental conundrum, I finally decided to meet Phil in person. That way I could see if he acted as bright as his papers or as dumb as his reputation.

When I stepped into the lab, the holotank depicted a single man standing on a stone ledge, stunted bushes and trees peeking up through the rocks behind him. In front a small crowd, perhaps as many as a hundred, stood watching him speak.

“There,” said Phil softly, pointing, his smile still wide.

H ...

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