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Trade Paperback
200 pages
Sep 2005
Journey Forth

Professor Van Dusen: The Thinking Machine

by Jacques Futrelle

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It was absolutely impossible.

Twenty-five chess masters from the world at large unanimously declared it impossible, and unanimity on any given point is unusual for chess masters. They were gathered in Boston for the annual championships, and not one would concede for an instant that it was within the range of human achievement. Some grew red in the face as they argued it. Others smiled loftily and were silent. Still others dismissed the matter in a word as wholly absurd.

A casual remark by the distinguished scientist and logician, Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, had provoked the discussion. He had in the past aroused bitter disputes with some chance remark. In fact, he was often the center of controversy.

For many years educational and scientific institutions of the world had amused themselves by crowding degrees upon him. He had initials that stood for things he couldn't even pronounce* degrees from France, England, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Spain. These expressed recognition of the fact that his was the foremost brain in the sciences. The imprint of his sullen personality lay heavily on half a dozen of its branches. Finally there came a time when argument was respectfully silent in the face of one of his conclusions.

The remark which had drawn the chess masters of the world into so formidable and unanimous a dissent was made by Professor Van Dusen in the presence of three other gentlemen of note. One of these, Dr. Charles Elbert, happened to be a chess enthusiast.

"Chess is a shameless perversion of the functions of the brain," was Professor Van Dusen's declaration in his perpetually irritated voice. "It is a sheer waste of effort, greater because it is possibly the most difficult of all fixed abstract problems. Of course, logic will solve it. Logic will solve any problem*not most of them, but any problem. A thorough understanding of the rules of chess would enable anyone to defeat your greatest chess players. It would be inevitable, just as inevitable as that two and two make four, not sometimes but all the time. I don't know chess because I never do useless things, but I could take a few hours of competent instruction and defeat a man who has devoted his life to it. His mind is cramped, bound down to the logic of chess. Mine is not; mine employs logic in its widest scope."

Dr. Elbert shook his head vigorously. "It is impossible," he asserted.

"Nothing is impossible," snapped the scientist. "The human mind can reason. It is what lifts us above the brute creation."

The aggressive tone and the uncompromising egotism brought a flush to Dr. Elbert's face. Professor Van Dusen affected many people that way, particularly those fellow scholars who, themselves men of distinction, had ideas of their own.

"Do you know the purposes of chess? Its countless combinations?" asked Dr. Elbert.

"No," was the surly reply. "I know nothing whatever of the game beyond the general purpose which I understand to be to move certain pieces in certain directions in order to stop an opponent from moving his King. Is that correct?"

"Yes," said Dr. Elbert slowly, "though I never heard it stated just that way before."

"Then if that is correct, I maintain that the true logician can defeat the chess expert by the pure mechanical rules of logic. I'll take a few hours some time, acquaint myself with the moves of the pieces, and defeat you to prove my point."

Professor Van Dusen glared savagely into the eyes of Dr. Elbert.

"Not me," said Dr. Elbert. "You said anyone. Would you be willing to meet the greatest chess player after you acquaint yourself with the game?"

"Certainly," said the scientist. "I have frequently found it necessary to make a fool of myself to convince people. I'll do it again."

This was the acrimonious beginning of the discussion which aroused the chess masters and brought open dissent from men who had never dared to dispute any assertion by the distinguished Professor Van Dusen.