In a small, warm, windowless room to one side of the lab three balances stood glistening on a bench. Each balance was enclosed in a glass case with sliding doors. Two chromed pans – the scales – were suspended from the cross arm. Quantities were placed in one of the pans then quantified by the systematic addition and subtraction of weights to and from the other pan. While this is, of course, very much how potatoes, say, were purchased in the years before pre-packaging, it is the matter of tremendous accuracy which exercises me in this instance.
Beside each balance was a box, in blonde wood, containing a bed of purple velvet artfully slit and pouched so that a series of tiny weights could be lodged in it only in strict series. The largest of these tiny pieces, the 10 gramme, was bung shaped and bore a little knobbed handle by which it might be conveyed to the pan. Below 1 gramme a significant change took place. No more bungs: now leaves. Wispy leaves of shiny silver metal, rectangles and squares, all with one corner slightly turned up. Each with the gramme fraction impressed on the top side. These weights were not to be conveyed by hand – a pair of tweezers was provided so that the weight of human grease could not distort the reading.
I was amazed when my father told me of the dangers of grease. I realised that even if the obtrusive and widely reported ordinary secreta are discounted, the body wiped clean, we still carry on our hands, preceding even the fingerprints, a fine film that will give weight to all that we touch, however lightly. And, as I already knew, it wasn’t a one-way thing. The toucher, the hapless bearer of exudate, makes a deposit; he leaves some molecules. But he gets some back. Not, presumably, as many as he left. Unless it was butter, say, or jam.
It may be felt by some – the macrophiles – that the quantities under discussion are negligible. That they’re beneath consideration and at the end of the day who cares? People who feel like that are clearly unaware of the unreliability of matter. They don’t understand that we’re walking through mist all the time. Everything is boiling. It’s not touch and go, it ‘s touch and swap.
The end of edges and the unreliability of envelopes preoccupied me greatly and have stayed with me ever since, evolving into a central axiom of a set of occult principles that helped make sense of the world. Possibly they made nonsense of it as well. They were occult to the extent that I never talked about them to anyone. Not because I thought they were loopy. I just held my peace and ruminated on them.
I would sit in the balance room and weigh things, marvelling at the number of decimal places that could be added after the main figure. I wondered if it were possible to weigh things down to the last molecule. I imagined that if such a balance were to be made then the final, ultimate, definitive weight could never be determined for more than a moment because atoms and molecules would be jumping on and off all the time.