The Box of Space
Once, a little boy whose mother was an astronaut was asked if he’d like her to bring him back anything from her next trip to the space station. She was expecting him to ask for a space helmet, astronaut autographs, or some food sticks and Tang. The boy thought long and hard, and when it came time to say goodbye, went up and whispered in her ear. His mom looked surprised, but whispered back, I’ll see what I can do. Then a limo whisked her off to the site of the rocket launch.
All went well with the launch. During the mission, the boy stayed up late every night to tune in the news and see his mom float by on the cameras, blowing him a kiss and mouthing the words, I love you, Milton! (for that was his name). He got to Skype with her, although he didn’t much like that because her image was a little wobbly, and her voice squeakier than that of the mother he knew. It just wasn’t the same as talking across the room to her, and kind of weird, too, with millions of others watching.
The day came for his mother to return to Earth, and Milton was, of course, very excited to see her and, also, to see if she’d remembered his present. When the limo pulled up outside the house, he could see a line of cars following behind it like a parade. They were full of reporters with notepads and camera-phones. But he didn’t care if they took his picture or not—he burst out the door and down to the sidewalk, where his mother met him; and they embraced and ignored the camera flashes.
After a pause, Milton asked her, Did you remember my present?
And his mother teased him and replied, Present, what present?
But she pulled out a metal box the size of a lunchbox. The box was covered with reflective foil and sealed very tight.
You remembered! The little boy said.
One of the reporters leaned over and asked, What chu got there, junior?
And Milton answered him excitedly, It’s a box full of space!
The reporter whistled.
Then it came time to shut the door, place the box on his bedroom bookshelf, and spend time with his mother. He really missed her.
That night, Milton slept with the Box of Space on the nightstand by his bed. It reflected eerily in the glow from his nightlight, winking like a satellite.
The next morning, he cradled the box in his arms and carried it downstairs, where his mother was sitting around the breakfast table with three of her scientist friends, chatting about her recent trip.
They all asked to see the Box of Space, passing it hand-to-hand and murmuring.
Dr. Rudolph was one of Milton’s favorite guests. As he handled the box, Milton asked him why it wasn’t floating.
It’s a heavy box, Dr. Rudolph answered. Sturdy. But if your mother filled it in space, it’d be mostly empty, not filled with gas like a helium balloon. There wouldn’t be enough air up there to fill a balloon.
What happened to the air that was in the box when my mom filled it with space?
Ah—I guess it was displaced.
Dr. Vimal, seated to his right, had another answer. Maybe the box was empty to begin with, like a vacuum, he suggested. Then, if your mother went on a spacewalk and opened it, space would be sucked in.
Not possible, said Dr. Humberg, the third scientist.
Don’t discourage the boy, said Dr. Vimal.
Can I shine a light into the box to see what space looks like? Milton asked.
I’m afraid not, honey, said Milton’s mother, who wasn’t only an astronaut, but a scientist, too. The light rays would penetrate the Box of Space, filling it with photons. Isn’t that right, Dr. Rudolph?
Right, he said. It’d be kind of like trying to spot your shadow on a cloudy day, only the opposite.
Oh, said Milton. He picked up the box and shook it vigorously.
Wouldn’t do that either, said Dr. Rudolph. You see, Milton, space is inert. It’s not supposed to move, and if it contains any dust or particles, they’re not supposed to move, either.
Too late, chimed in Dr. Humberg. The Box of Space has already been returned to Earth, hence is now part of its gravity field. So those particles would be in constant motion regardless! And because they are subject to the gravitational pull of the earth, the contents of the box are no longer part of the Cosmos, but part of Earth space-time! Fools!
It’s not nice to call names, said Milton, who reached for the box, placed it on the table in front of him, and started to open it.
All of the scientists, even his mother, were surprised. But Milton had watched his mother in orbit and had to see for himself, up close, what space was really like. So he slowly raised the lid, and there was a little popping sound as the seal around it was broken.
And then what everyone saw inside the Box of Space was: mostly nothing. Just a very faint wisp of silvery glitter snaking up into the air.
Maybe a little cosmic dust in there after all, the scientists speculated.
Dr. Humberg coughed like he’d just inhaled some of this dust. He reacted as if Milton had contaminated them all with an unknown alien disease.
Well, if there was truly anything in that box worth analyzing, it’s gone now, Dr. Vimal observed, ruefully.
Where’s it gone? Milton asked.
It’s dissipated into the air all around us, Dr. Rudolph replied.
Milton started loudly snorting air up his nose. I am breathing-in space air! he announced. Aren’t I, mom? Aren’t I?
Yes, dear, she said. My little space-piggy!