Professor Somersault was an acknowledged expert in his field. Without a shadow of doubt he was a learned man. He had numerous University degrees and diplomas, in fact he had more letters after his name than within his name, combined with the number of letters contained in his private and University addresses. His field of expertise covered all aspects of Physics, from simple mechanics through to experimental and theoretical Physics, to Nuclear and Astrophysics. His "pet topic" was anti-matter and anti-gravitational fields. He was proud of his achievements and his undisputed status as the "Top Expert" in his profession. This status of being an expert gave him the ultimate confidence in his own infallibility. In fact his own favourite motto was: "Somersault knows it all."
Nobody ever dared to question his expertise and he happily ad freely gave his expert opinions to all and sundry… well, perhaps not entirely freely, as he did charge a hefty fee whenever and wherever he felt he could get away with it. And he did… very often… perhaps even more often than he deserved, but nobody felt qualified enough to question his right to charge whatever fee he deemed appropriate. After all, he was "The" Acknowledged Top Expert in his field.
He was widely admired, even glorified by his colleagues and the media and although many of them were envious of his unassailable status, nobody ever thought of or had the courage challenging or criticising him. It was accepted - however grudgingly - that Professor Somersault really knew it all.
The good Professor didn't sit on his laurels either. He grabbed every opportunity to appear on television, radio and gave frequent, regular interviews to papers and magazines. He simply adored being in the limelight.
The news that Professor Somersault would publicly demonstrate and prove the physical validity of his theoretical work on anti-gravitational fields created a stir world-wide. It fired the imagination of the largely ignorant public no less than it did the professional fraternity's. The public interest was greatly fuelled by the media, with frequent broadcasts of a simulation-video of the forthcoming experiment.
This computer-animated video showed a tower erected on the edge of a hilltop, with a cantilever arm hanging out and a large, heavy metallic ball suspended from it. At the base of the hill stood two large box-like contraptions that would jointly generate the anti-gravitational field, which would arrest at half way the free fall of the heavy metal globe, after it's release from the cantilever arm, and keep it in "levitation" at that point.
The event promised to be a show not to be missed. The best ever illusionist trick could not have generated greater interest than this much-heralded scientific experiment. The event would be performed in front of a live audience, and television and radio from all over the world would broadcast the event to every corner of the globe. The scene was set and it looked like that this event might just overshadow the famous live broadcasting of the first moon landing.
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, between Avebury and Marlborough in England, was the chosen venue for the event by the Professor. This imposing man-made mound - the largest in Europe - which was built around 2500 BC and stands 130 feet high, with the base covering over five acres, has a flat top, which measures around 100 feet across. A steel tower with a flat platform was erected at the Eastern edge on the top of the hill, with a 4 foot wide and approximately 30 feet long cantilevered platform, with safety handrails, hanging over the edge.
A large, silvery metal ball, weighing about a ton, was suspended by a strong cable under the platform, with a control panel for the electronic release mechanism directly above, which would simultaneously activate the two "Anti-Gravity Field Generators" below. The professor drawn up the design, according to his extensive theoretical calculations on the topic, made all the necessary structural calculations too, ensuring stability and safety. Two enormous metal boxes - the "Anti-Gravity Field Generators" - with an array of instrument panels, dials, scopes and multicoloured lights were placed at the foot of the hill, under the overhanging platform and standing approximately 20 feet apart from each other and were joined by thick cables to a huge mobile, diesel driven, electric generator.
The whole set up was a triumph of design, ingenuity, construction and what must have amounted to a large amount of arm-twisting too, as Silbury Hill is jealously protected by English Heritage, an organisation that oversees the preservation of historical sites in England. Under normal circumstances no one is allowed to climb the hill or even to walk up to the base. It can only be viewed from a certain distance, from a nearby car park and observation point, placed on the north side of the A4 Road that runs from London to Bristol via Bath.
For Professor Somersault - this figure of national treasure, this infallible giant amongst the humble, this shining example of outstanding brilliance, the acknowledged best amongst scientists - the English Heritage reluctantly relented and gave its endorsement for the use of one of its most jealously guarded prehistoric sites for an experiment, that would undoubtedly turn out to be the most significant advancement in the field of human scientific endeavour.
The fields around the hill are fertile farmlands and as they would have to be opened to the curious public, as well as the media and other invited dignitaries, the experiment had to be scheduled to take place after the harvest. The first Sunday in October was therefore earmarked for the great event.
It turned out to be a brilliant, calm, sunny day with mild temperatures, the perfect day for such an important event. A large stand was erected facing the tower for the invited dignitaries, who arrived from all over the world. Another stand was prepared for the media and huge television screens were erected in various parts of the surrounding fields for the general public. Enormous crowds of people - full of excitement and anticipation - gathered to observe the events. The Professor - who was an accomplished expert in playing to the crowds - was in his element. He decided that he alone would be "centre-stage" and he was therefore the only solitary figure on top of the tower, whilst all the technicians and assistants were relegated to the foot of the hill, to man and supervise the machinery.
A military band from the Queens Guards played for the invited dignitaries and a specially composed "Trumpet Voluntary" for twenty trumpets, and played at the highest volume through the public address system, heralded the moment when the solitary figure of the Professor, standing at the control panel on the cantilever platform directly above the metal ball, would press the button to release the ball. All eyes and television cameras were focused on the Professor. A hush descended over the fields as the final chords of the trumpets faded into the air and the Professor triumphantly pressed the button. The ball was released, went into a free fall… and landed with a thud at the foot of the hill.
The crowds, watching with breath abated, stayed silent. The tower shook violently and started to tilt over the edge. The Professor grabbed the handrails with both hands, but as the tower's tilt gained momentum and finally collapsed, spilling the instrument panels and the Professor over the edge, he finally lost his grip, fell on the steep slope of the hill and rapidly rolled, with several somersaults, to the bottom, where he ended up in a contorted heap…
The dignitaries on the stand, with their chins dropped, remained silent. The crowd, watching the events with total disbelieve, now burst out in a roaring laughter. There was something comical and utterly satisfyingly hilarious, watching an acknowledged expert spread out at the bottom of a hill, after an uncontrollable stumble, looking contorted to the point where nobody could tell which part of his anatomy was which and where.
And so the experiment ended in a fiasco and went into history and being remembered as the experiment, when an acknowledged expert proved two points to all and sundry, namely that pride precedes a fall, and that at the end neither he nor anyone else, could tell his arse from his elbow….
© P. J. Oszmann (2005)
Illustration: Arial view of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, England, by the A4 London-Bristol Road.
The above story is of course fiction. However it is based on some real characters I encountered during my long professional carrier, experts, whom I defined as "People who know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing". One such "expert" - amongst the many I encountered - was a professor in clinical pharmacology. Like our Professor Somersault he too had more letters after his name than in his name. At one of his lectures I attended, about half way through the lecture his projector packed up. His slides were his "cue cards". Without the cues he was lost; he could not finish delivering his lecture. So much for "expertise"…
I placed the fictional events in a well know prehistoric site, the origin and purpose of which baffled "experts" for longer than anyone can remember. The site is currently undergoing very expensive "renovations", as the "experts" - digging tunnels into the mound in their search, in earlier years - made a mess of it and undermined it to the point of possible collapse. When I wrote the story I knew nothing about the tunnels or the problems, which were highlighted in a very recent news item. These tunnels are another proof - if one needs any - that "experts" can make a fantastic mess of whatever they are "experts" in and touch.
For the name "Somersault" I went back to my youth in Hungary. There was a radio program in the early fifties, a series of comedy sketches, where one of the characters was named "Bukfenc" (Pronounced: bookfentz). The translation of bukfenc is somersault. His catchphrase was: "Bukfenc knows everything."
Now you know everything too… you are an expert on experts now… so watch out for the big tumble…