I was sitting in this deserted bar in the middle of Jerusalem; it was a weekday, and it was getting late. One of the last customers besides me was a short man with black curly hair and pitch-black button eyes, who looked a bit like Dopey. We are in the early 1980s here. We got into a conversation, and when he heard I was a physicist he got all excited. He took a napkin and flattened it out on the table, next to his bottle of beer.
"I need five minutes of your time," he said. "Just five minutes."
"OK," I said. Five minutes didn't seem a big deal.
He started drawing on the napkin with a pen. Circles of different sizes that were all connected, forming some sort of a wheel.
"All here is vadder," he said. "Lot's of it." He drew a line that divided the air at the top from the water at the bottom, just in the way Creation is purported to have started a few thousand years ago. He said that all these circles represented balloons filled with air. Half of them were below the line, immersed in water, and the rest up in the air. The biggest ones were on the lower right of the drawing, close to the lowest point. They were supposed to be pulling upwards with a powerful force.
I had decided to humor him but now I began to see my limits.
The balloons on the right were supposed to drag up the other balloons behind them, forcing the upper ones to go down into a funnel on the left that was supposed to compress them in the process. All went around in a big circle, in and out of the water. He explained to me that for each balloon popping up on one side there was another one diving down into the funnel on the other side of the drawing.
Fifteen minutes had already passed and I was still confused. The reason why the wheel with the balloons should go round and round on its own escaped me.
"Wait," I said. "The funnel wouldn't really compress the balloons, but rather deform them, squeeze them into an elongated shape."
"But," he said, "all se balloons are connected."
"What? They are connected? You mean the air in them is connected by tubes? You never mentioned that part before."
"Well, I mention it now. Sey are connected. Sey communicate. Sis is the technical expression, I'm not making sis up. If one of se balloons is squeezed, se surplus air goes into se two neighbors."
"But if all balloons are connected, and air can go from one into the other, why should the big ones be pulled up? Here is my real problem: Why should the air stay in the big balloons on one side, keeping them big, in the first place?"
"I'm a deep sea diver. I know vat I'm talking about. I did experiments for five years. A big balloon has a big pull, believe me! It has an unbelievable pull. You see, I vent vis sis idea to the Energy Department already. Sey told me Vat on earth are you talking about? Sey laughed because sey couldn't understand it. Sey are not se brightest."
"I don't want to laugh at you," I said. "But I agree with them it doesn't work. Because . . . because (I hesitated spelling out the deadly word) it would be a perpetual motion machine."
This didn't impress him in the least: "Sen tell me what's wrong vis it."
"Well, the air would go from one balloon into the other, rather than pulling the lowest one up."
"How do you know?"
"Something must be wrong with your device because there are no machines that create energy from nothing."
"But sis one uses air! And vader!"
"Air or no air, trust me, it wouldn't work."
Getting up from the table, after we had agreed we had exhausted all of our arguments, I asked him if I could keep the napkin with the drawing, as a souvenir. It was my first visit to Jerusalem, after all, and I kept tickets to the museums and other memorabilia. I kept them for God knows what, for an album one day perhaps.
"Absolutely not!" He quickly snatched the napkin away from me. "You look at it, you sink about it, you make big money!" He looked serious, like he meant it.
"Right," I said. "I'll write you a postcard when I'm rich."
We parted with a handshake.
You can take the fact that I'm still not rich, after all those years, and that I never wrote him a postcard as a further proof that perpetual motion machines will never work in this world.
Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer living in New York City. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. He has published a number of short stories and prose poems in, among other magazines, Eclectica, Offcourse, Fiction Fix, Hamilton Stone Review, Conium Review, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, theeels, Infiniti's Kitchen, StepAway Magazine, Textobj, and Wasafiri. Frank is a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His website franxfiction.com carries links to all his literary publications.