• The Physics of Decluttering

    by  • March 20, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    Keynote address presented by Doctor Seeya Laterbro
    Transcription services provided by Lisha E. Goldberg
    Art by Dawn Vogel


    Good morning. I am delighted to speak to all of you today at the International Symposium for Highly Frustrated Physicists. It’s been a wonderful conference, so far. Although I have to admit, I’m getting a little too old for the “Bodies in Motion Dance-a-thon.” Anybody else feeling a little sore this morning?

    (Transcription note: Audience claps and laughs.)

    And I’m definitely swearing off any beverage named “Big Bang” or “Cosmic Inflation.”

    (Transcription note: More laughter and applause.)

    Well, I’m happy to see that most of you have already prepared yourselves for today’s “Nikolai Tesla Look-Alike Contest.”

    (Transcription note: Applause.)

    Along those lines, let me give a shout out to Professor Mae Hemm for that gorgeous and fully functional Tesla Coil that she’s sporting in her hair.

    (Transcription note: Applause and whistles.)

    Yes, bravo Doctor Hemm! Speaking of Tesla, I want to share with you a problem that has confounded good old Saint Nick, along with all the other greats in our illustrious field. This issue began with the invention of that utilitarian depository receptacle known to modern science as the armarium repono, or, as some of you prefer to call it, the humble storage closet.

    Because no one has ever actually named this phenomenon, I have taken it upon myself to designate it the Laterbro Paradox. In layman’s terms, the phenomenon works like this. You take a closet that is stuffed with stuff. You remove every piece of stuff from the closet. You dispose of one-half to three-quarters of the stuff. You then fold, organize, and return the remaining stuff to the closet. What happens? The remaining stuff no longer fits inside the closet.

    Over the course of the next week, you repeat the process of disposing, refolding, and rehanging. During this time, you might free up a slice of shelf space here or a bit of flooring there. Don’t fool yourself. Stuff will stuff up those open spaces at supersonic speeds.

    This will lead to a loud, satisfying slam of the closet door, and a promise to attack the closet again “someday.”

    Sadly, you will die before someday ever arrives, and oh look, Einstein would be proud to see his Relative Theory become reality. That’s when relatives, once designated by you as “distant” and “long lost” will come streaming out of some black hole and alight on your doorstep hours before your obituary hits the newspapers.

    Science has yet to figure out how these relatives receive notice of your demise, and how they can so efficiently and effectively box up all the items in your closet and make them disappear. No matter. The end result is that this is the only time in your closet’s existence that it will appear to experience nearly complete emptiness. I say “nearly complete” because your relatives will always leave behind one seemingly useless wire hanger with a bend in the middle. Later in my talk, I will explain how this hanger plays a crucial role in the Laterbro Paradox.

    I see many of you nodding. I see many of you mouthing words like “junk drawer” and “pocketbook.” Yes, indeed, the Laterbro Paradox expands and extends to include any type of storage device or area, whether it is temporary, like a suitcase, or permanent, like an attic. But, for the sake of today’s purposes, I shall limit the discussion to bedroom closets, with the stipulation that this science works for any sort of storage space, no matter the size, the location, the contents, etcetera.

    To examine this paradox in full, technicolor detail, I have created a video that my graduate student assistant will put up on the screen behind me.

    What you now see is a typical closed door to a typical bedroom closet. And here comes an unsuspecting graduate student with instructions to throw open the closet door.

    (Transcription note: Audience laughs.)

    Look familiar? A closet so full that as soon as the graduate student completes his assignment, unidentified falling objects bonk him on the head and knock him unconscious.

    This brings up an important aside. Any prospect you have of winning a Nobel Prize will go straight down the toilet unless you have a stable of graduate students at your disposal. Graduate students are eager, cheap, hardworking, and better still, they are foolish, expendable, and replaceable.

    Present company excepted, of course. The grad student running this video is my nephew.

    (Transcription note: Seeya Laterbro and Nephew Graduate Student nod to each other.)

    So, where do we go from here? Well, if you look at the screen you’ll see that first, we have removed the unconscious graduate student. Then, we replace him with a replacement. This young woman is tasked with the mission of emptying the closet of all its contents.

    Notice how she stops just short of reaching the open closet door and the pile of stuff that has fallen off the shelves. See how she examines the bloodstained floor. Now, she staggers backwards one, two, three steps. See how she tilts her head, folds her arms, and stares. I assure you, this woman is completely versed in her assignment. She simply cannot move.

    Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a classic case of inertia in action. Any ideas what to do?

    I see that many of you in the audience are shaking your heads and shrugging your shoulders. This situation exemplifies why it is crucial for you to keep a stash of graduate students nearby.

    If I may direct your attention to the screen again, you will see that we have sent in another graduate student. This male student has been instructed to look as large as he can, paste a threatening grimace across his face, and wave a draft of the woman’s doctoral thesis in front of the woman’s eyes. Notice how I have soaked this doctoral draft in screaming, red ink.

    Ah, look. Even after all these years, Sir Isaac Newton remains relevant. The opposing forces, in the form of a looming graduate student and the thesis draft, have caused the female graduate student to overcome her inertia. See how she unloads the closet so quickly that we don’t even need to employ time-lapse photography.

    The Physics of Decluttering

    Look familiar? A closet so full that as soon as the graduate student completes his assignment, unidentified falling objects bonk him on the head and knock him unconscious.

    And now that the closet is seemingly empty, the male graduate student returns to his offscreen, anonymous existence, while the female graduate student has been tasked with the job of sorting and purging. She must designate at least half of the formerly closeted items for donation or for throwing away.

    Notice how rapidly the young woman sinks onto the floor. See how her head falls into her hands and how vigorously her shoulders shake.

    What you witness now, my fellow scientists, is a phenomenon that blows the First Law of Thermodynamics clean out of the water, so to speak. Those of you lucky enough to join me at next month’s Physics and Hops Consortium will hear the details of my thermodynamic discovery.

    But wait. I see that Doctor Jack Daniels has just fallen from his seat in disappointment of my refusal to reveal this new theory. So, I will give you a teeny tiny preview of next month’s discussion. This young woman’s meltdown proves that the First Law of Thermodynamics is wrong, wrong, wrong. No wonder its original inventor never became a household name. Just one quick look at this woman proves that energy can indeed be destroyed. Just look how the clutter challenge has crushed this graduate student.

    Ah, thank you Doctors Fender Bender and Graham Cracker for helping Doctor Daniels back into his seat.

    Now, if you will return your attention to the screen, you’ll see that we have tasked three new graduate students with the job of sorting, purging, folding, neatening, and straightening.

    Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, this is the point in our research where we ran out of money and had to fly to the tropical paradise known as Turks and Caicos where we held an emergency fundraiser dinner. This is why the screen now displays images of bikini-clad women cavorting across a beach. Notice how the woman on the left resembles Johannes Kepler without the beard.

    While we researchers were off fundraising, our graduate students were busy measuring the closet’s interior and exterior dimensions, the mass and dimensions of the original stuff stuffed inside the closet, and the mass and dimensions of stuff slated to be purged from the closet.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that the details of these measurement are so technical and so tedious that nobody wants to waste their time on them. All you need to know is that the graduate students successfully purged three-quarters of the items from the closet, and I raised enough money to fund a return visit to Turks and Caicos.

    But I see Doctor Daniels again on the edge of his seat, which tells me that you are all anxiously awaiting what happened next to the closet.

    So, we return to the image of the closed closet door. Remember, when you last heard about this closet, you were told that three-quarters of its original contents had been purged. And here, striding confidently across the screen, is the first graduate student, fresh from his hospital stay. It’s amazing how quickly they bounce back if you promise them just the teeniest of stipends.

    This graduate student has been told that the closet has been purged, neatened, and straightened, so he exhibits no fear as he once again throws open the closet door, and once again ends up with a giant bonk on the head.

    (Transcription note: Audience laughter.)

    What is going on here?

    What you have witnessed is the phenomenon known as the Immaculate Perception. The Immaculate Perception works as follows: The phone rings, you mistakenly answer it, and your mother-in-law announces that she will arrive on your doorstep in thirty minutes.

    As usual, the interior of your home looks like it has recently survived a nuclear blast. Of course, you don’t want anybody, let alone your mother-in-law, to see your home in this state. So what do you do?

    Yes, yes, I hear you all saying the right answer. You shove it all into the closet. Which closet? Obviously, the one that has all that empty space.

    Ladies and gentlemen, if you are privileged to join me at the International Olympiad for Physicists, you will hear my talk on the proportional relationship between unexpected visitors and velocity. Until then, you will have to content yourselves with the fact that given the correct incentive, you can re-stuff the closet, brew a pot of tea, bake two dozen chocolate chip muffins, walk the dog, and get everyone in the house into and out of the shower, and still have two minutes and ten seconds to compose yourself before the mother-in-law arrives to experience the Immaculate Perception.

    But I digress. Our true focus is not on the housecleaning or the uninvited guest, but on the ability of a nearly empty closet to attract items to itself.

    And now, up on the screen, a new graduate student faces the refilled closet. The closet door is wide open, and the stuff inside, though crammed and messy, exhibits no immediate intention of falling out.

    We must surmise that this young lady has spoken to the student who made two trips to the emergency room. How can we tell? Because we gave no prior details to this woman about this project, yet she shows up wearing a New England Patriot’s football helmet. Whether this helmet actually belongs to a Patriot or is merely a replica remains to be determined.

    In any event, you’ll notice that the woman is now brandishing a fishing pole with a very powerful magnet attached to the end of the line. We did not tell this young lady to go to all this trouble, we just told her to wave a powerful magnet in front of the closet. Perhaps the concussed friend suggested the fishing pole, or maybe the young woman just wants to add some drama to our documentary.

    As an aside, I urge you to avoid graduate students who show a flair for the dramatic. All it takes is one teeny weeny explosion or an itty bitty radiation leak to send these drama divas scurrying to the dean’s office, the newspaper, or worst of all, to their parents. Then snip snip goes your funding, and there you are having to schedule an emergency trip to an exotic locale where you will work your patooties off sponging money out of your secret sources.

    Fortunately, this graduate student stuck to her job. As you see on the screen, she is casting and recasting the magnet towards the closet, and yet, not a single closeted item attracts her magnet.

    And what does this prove? This proves that the closet does not gain additional stuff through magnetic attraction. To verify this absence of magnetism, you now see the woman holding a Magnetometer in front of the fishing pole magnet. Watch those dials spin. Very science-y looking, no? But more important, it proves that the magnet she used is indeed fully magnetized. Now she holds the Magnetometer in front of the closet. This time, the dials remain at zero, thus verifying that the closet is not magnetized and is therefore not using magnetism to attract objects to itself.

    And so, if magnetism is not the force pulling objects into the formerly cleared out closet, the next logical idea is that we are seeing the effects of a very powerful vacuum. This makes a great deal of sense in light of Aristotle’s decree that, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” In other words, stuff will always stuff anyplace that lacks stuff.

    How a man from 322 BC could predict the arrival of the motorized vacuum continues to amaze, astonish, and inspire me. What’s more, it’s not just nature that abhors a vacuum. Graduate students abhor vacuums, too. Feel free to visit any university dorm room if you need proof. But we must table that issue for another time.

    Ladies and gentlemen, we have proven that neither magnetic magnets nor vacuous vacuums cause uncluttered closets to cram up with contemptible carloads of crap. So, where do we go from here?

    If it were up to me, I would go directly to the airport and head for the nearest Club Med Resort.

    (Transcription note: Audience laughs.)

    But it would be unfair of me to leave you without first presenting my grand conclusion, especially as that would make you less likely to buy my book, The Existence of Existence, available at Booth 42 in the vendor’s room. If you buy my book today, you can pre-order my next book, The Non-Existence of Non-Existence, at half price.

    But enough about me. At last, we have now come to the nucleus of the matter: the awe-inspiring atom.

    Any half-witted physicist will tell you that atoms want to stick together, a property that we call stickiness. Atoms can compress into the teeniest of spaces, a property that we call compression. And atoms can combust and fill up vast amounts of previously unfilled spaces, a property that we call combustion.

    And now, we will assemble all three of these properties together and explain how they work.

    First, the sticky property. All atoms will naturally draw other atoms towards themselves. Do you need proof? Here’s a typical example. Have you ever sat down in a totally empty movie theater, and then along comes another person who sits directly in front of you? Humans who lack a physics degree might naively label the offender a “jerk.” But we physicists know that the offender simply can’t help himself. Your sticky atoms have attracted his sticky atoms.

    Now, imagine sticky atoms confined inside a restricted space such as a closet. Each time you open that closet door, you will feel an overwhelming compulsion to add more stuff to the closet. Just like we discussed in the movie example, this compulsion to stuff the closet with stuff is not due to unthinking human behavior. Rather, the sticky atoms inside the closet are controlling your actions.

    Question: Can you continue to fill a closet once it looks filled? Answer: Yes! Because atoms can compress themselves into impossibility small spaces. We know this to be true because of the continuing craze over skinny jeans.

    Just how much can an atom be compressed? Aha! This is my most amazing discovery yet! An atom can be compressed infinitesimally!  How? Because compression forces the atom into the fourth, fifth, and sixth dimensions, and even beyond! What this means, my fellow physicists, is that a closet could theoretically hold an unlimited amount of stuff.

    This is why, when you pull everything out of the closet, and then return less items to the closet, you will always end up with a full closet. Do you see? You can never fully empty a closet, because you can never fully retrieve all the items which have been compressed into the fourth, fifth, or sixth dimensions! The items in these inaccessible dimensions will continually compress or expand themselves in direct proportion to the amount of stuff added to or removed from the closet.

    Shocking, no?

    But wait! What about Einstein and this Relativity business? Didn’t I tell you earlier that relatives will empty a closet after you die? Doesn’t that nullify my theory?

    No, not at all. Remember that single bent hanger that gets left behind after the relatives have dispersed? That single bent hanger, ladies and gentleman, singlehandedly forces all the other closeted items to remain in a compressed state in the fourth, fifth, and sixth dimensions! Because of that single hanger, the closet only appears empty to the human eye.

    And what happens if someone were to remove that hanger?

    Ah, well, thanks to Mother Nature, even the densest amongst us possesses a strong survival instinct. We know, even if it’s just on an unconscious level, that we must leave that hanger in place. Because if anyone were to remove that last hanger from that seemingly empty closet–

    Yes, I see you all nodding. You get it. If that last hanger were removed, then the compressed atoms would have nothing holding them back, and KABOOM!  All of the closeted items that we had squeezed into the alternate dimensions would now burst through at intergalactic speeds.

    My friends, when you have matter compression and decompression on an atomic level, do you understand what this means? Placing atoms under extreme duress and then suddenly removing that stress can only have one horrible, earth shattering outcome.

    I realize that my talk of fifth dimensions and nuclear catastrophe sounds like it comes directly from a science fiction television show. Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you, I’m not just making stuff up. As a degreed scientist with many articles and books to my name, anything that I supposition, no matter how fantastical, is completely rooted in science fact. As opposed to anything a science fiction writer suppositions, no matter how realistic it sounds, is based on pure poppycock.

    And now, just one last closet phenomenon to address. What causes an obviously overstuffed closet to–

    (Transcription note:  The room becomes silent as the following announcement is heard over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse the interruption. Ahoy pirate cruise ticket holders. Please make your way to the dock now. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to sail the Marie Curie and walk the Max Planck.”)

    As I was saying–

    (Transcription note: Audience rises. Many shouts of “Yo ho ho,” and “Arrr.”)

    Ladies and gentlemen, just one more minute of your time, please.

    (Transcription note: A few scattered shouts of “Later, Laterbro.”)

    You’re all leaving? Every last one of you? But I didn’t tell you about–

    Oh, hell.


    Doctor Seeya Laterbro graduated with a double doctorate in Physics and Chemistry from MIT’s prestigious correspondence program, Prank U. Laterbro received worldwide recognition with the publication of his first book, You don’t have to look like Einstein to be a Physicist (but it definitely helps in a job interview).

    Dr. Laterbro was recently selected to serve aboard the International Space Station, where he will host NASA’s new television series, Far Flung Fashionistas.

    In his free time, Dr. Laterbro enjoys hanging out with his llama and knitting sweaters with his protege, Ms. Oopsie Daisy.


    Lisha Goldberg started her professional career as a technical writer, then switched to teaching science to elementary children. She enjoys writing short stories and poems. Her hobbies include playing piano, assisting at a riding school for special needs children, and creating artwork with mosaic tiles.


    Dawn Vogel has been published as a short fiction author and an editor of both fiction and non-fiction. Although art is not her strongest suit, she’s happy to contribute occasional art to Mad Scientist Journal. By day, she edits reports for and manages an office of historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business and tries to find time for writing. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. For more of Dawn’s work visit http://historythatneverwas.com/.


    “The Physics of Decluttering” is © 2017 Lisha Goldberg
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Dawn Vogel

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