The idea for this story originated with a stray thought I had in 2014,
while sitting on a stone bench in the Ancient Agora of Athens
Will a scientist’s life’s work be enough to save the world?
Or will his voice be lost to history?
I balanced my unwieldy burden awkwardly, attempting to protect it as I navigated the uneven path of our neglected history. The few hours they had allowed me would only permit a single sampling, and I knew precisely the spot I wanted – had known it for five decades, since the idea was first conceived.
I had never imagined that it would be easier to get eight million euros in funding than to obtain permission to conduct one brief experiment in the ancient ruins.
As a youth, I thought myself immensely wise. I came often to the Ancient Agora, thinking my Deep Thoughts as I walked in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato. On quiet days, I watched the dust swirl in playful eddies and imagined the echo of ancient voices carried to me on the wind.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing…”
Most days the wind was still, consumed by the voracious babble of tourists chattering in every imaginable language. Myopic travelers read that the Agora was a marketplace, and saw only the tiny stalls that still spring up near the Thesion. Those with some imagination envisioned wealthy men trading in cargo and commodities, funding expeditions to bring unimagined luxuries from faraway lands.
Tourists! Skimming the surface of everything, understanding nothing…
The Agora was the center of everything. Decisions of government were made here! Pronouncements carried out, news disseminated! Long after the Romans built a new Agora in which to conduct trade, wise men spoke here and even foolish ones sometimes listened. This was the place where everything we once valued was conceived.
Even as a teenager, I perceived the slow collapse creeping inexorably toward us.
“I will become a philosopher, or a scholar,” I told my best friend Leandros. “Someone must bring back the voices of Thales and Aristotle, before everything they taught us is lost.” I described to him how the voices of history called to me on the breeze.
“You know,” he replied casually. “The laws of physics say that their words can still be heard, if we could only create instrumentation sensitive enough to hear them.”
In that moment, I knew I would become a physicist. I would make it possible to once again hear the voices of Reason. To bring an end to the madness that seemed poised to consume our world.
I remained a philosopher in my soul, patrolling the marble-strewn Agora until every rock was as familiar as my own hand, ruminating aloud on current events, speaking to the wind and listening for its reply. Even on the most oppressive days, the tiny zephyr seemed to find me, its voice too strong to be mere imagination.
I began documenting my musings, and the words that the wind whispered to me in return. My journal became a Memory Book, recounting our conversations.
“The corruption of my government has led us to the brink of collapse. We have been ‘saved’ only by the punishing compassion of the EU.”
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
“Neighboring Turkey quelled a coup, only to become a tyranny.”
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
“Everywhere, democracy recedes in the face of imagined terrors and oppression of those who are “other”. We have forgotten not just the wisdom of our philosophers, but their aspirations for us, as well. I fear our better selves are being crushed out of existence.”
“The easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.”
I knelt at the center of the Middle Stoa, placing the mechanism on the ground and adjusting the metal legs to level the instruments. A tour guide glanced at me askance from the other side of the barrier, then saw the university credential clipped to my shirt and adapted her monologue to address archaeological research and restoration efforts.
I wondered just what sounds the machine would capture, and was briefly saddened by the probability that I would never know. I would retrieve the machine in the morning, but the computer would take years to parse three millennia of overlapping echoes into discrete sounds. At 78, I could not expect to live long enough to hear them.
Others will catalog the recordings, and it is they who will one day hear the voices of my ancient mentors.
I hoped those future scientists – physicists, not historians or philosophers – would recognize what they must do. Would my entire purpose be lost, my invention little more than an academic oddity?
A gentle gust brushed my hair across my forehead, and I paused to listen.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings,” it murmured. “So that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.”
Well, it wouldn’t be my writings, exactly – but the message was clear. Those who cataloged the data would hear everything that had ever been said here.
I leaned close to the machine and enunciated meticulously, in a tone I usually reserved for the lecture hall.
“It may be too late to prevent our world from crumbling into a morass of greed and corruption. Perhaps that is simply the natural end of all things. But if there is hope, it rests with these wisest of men. For a brief moment, all the world will be transfixed by what you hear. Use that moment to remind the world of these things that we once knew. If anyone can save us from ourselves, it is those whose insights changed the world once before.”
No breeze followed me as I ambled down the familiar path; the ancient voices no longer accompanied me. As I turned the corner, I glanced back at the machine and saw that it was surrounded by wayward torrents of dust.