The bell tinkled as I opened the door. I stepped inside and it was as if I had entered another world, a world full of comic books. Bill, the owner waved at me.
“Zach, are you back again?” He looked amused.
‘Yeah, I’m just looking for some new Marvel comics.” I glanced toward the back, anxiously wanting to check out the new collection.
Bill smiled knowingly. “Knock yourself out.” He took a sip of his coke, and went back to soporifically scanning the daily newspaper.
I made a beeline to the back of the store. Being a twelve-year-old boy, I love comic books. My parents are divorced, and collecting comic books is one of the only things my dad and I have in common. I ran my fingers along the spines of the dusty books, breathing in the old bookstore smell. My gaze drifted over to a smaller book shoved at the back of the shelf. It was a first edition Marvel comic book. This must be my lucky day, I thought as I headed over to the register to purchase it.
I spent Sunday morning pouring over my new find. I had flipped the book over to go grab some Oreos, when a small advertisement in the back caught my eye. In tiny print, it said, “Universe in a bottle. Build your own universe using our amazing kit! Call today. Only $19.99.” I got my snack and went back to reading, but eventually curiosity got the better of me. I called the number in the ad and got an automated message saying the number didn’t exist anymore. I thought for a moment and then decided to do an Internet search for the toy. To my surprise, the toy was available on Ebay! Someone cleaning their attic had found the toy, and put it up for sale with the message: “An original toy, never been used, box unopened. Only $9.99.” I went downstairs to ask my mom’s permission to buy it.
“I found something really cool on Ebay, Universe in a Bottle. Can I buy it?”
“Is it a video game?”
“No mom, it’s a building kit. You can build your own universe in a bottle. It sounds kind of cool.”
My mom seemed hesitant for a moment but agreed when I persisted.
The package arrived two weeks later.
That night after dinner, I rushed to my room and opened the package. Inside was a box with a faded picture of what looked like a solar system inside a large glass bottle. There was writing on the box in Japanese and at the bottom a single phrase in English that said, “Universe in a Bottle”. For a moment I felt disappointed thinking it was probably some lame toy from decades ago. Opening the box, I discovered tiny glass vials, a set of small sachets containing various chemicals and an electronic unit with a crude LED display and buttons and wires. There was a wide mouthed glass bottle and a large lid with a connector for a wire on the outside and a holding base for the vials on the inside. To my dismay the instructions were mostly in Japanese but there were illustrations for building the toy. The kit had a warning in poorly translated English. “Caution! Do not make explosion! Correctly use amounts.” Following the illustrations, I carefully measured the correct amounts of chemicals into the vials, adding water in some of them as shown and attached the vials in the correct order to the inside lid of the bottle. Next, I had to program instructions into the electronic unit. I programmed the values of “pi” and the gravitational constant. There were many other values that I did not understand and left them at default settings. I attached the lid with vials to the bottle. Then, I plugged in the connector to the outside lid of the bottle and connected the electronic unit to a wall outlet. Finally I pushed the “START” button. At first nothing happened and then … all of a sudden, there was a huge bang and I saw sparks of electricity in the bottle. Alarmed, I stepped back, worried I had caused an explosion. Seconds passed as I waited in nervous anticipation. Then, a milky cloud started to form in the bottle. I watched transfixed in fascination.
The bottle stayed like that for a long time. Finally I tired of staring at it and went to bed.
The next morning I woke to a surprise. The clouds in the bottle had disappeared and several tiny translucent bubbles were floating in the bottle. I stared at the bottle captivated but had to dress and go to school.
After school, my friend Seth came over to my place. He saw the bottle in my room and thought it was cool. I told him all about it. He wondered if I could add life to the “universe”. Then we got around to play video games.
Seth’s question set me thinking. I went online and found nothing except a few links to a Japanese message board about old games from the 1970’s. I posted a question in English on adding life to the “universe.” Several days passed and I heard nothing at all. Meanwhile some of the bubbles in the bottle had solidified and were spinning.
Then, one day I was surprised to receive a response from an anonymous user who had uploaded instructions in badly translated English.
I followed the instructions as best as I could, reconnecting the vials and reprogramming the electronic unit. I checked the bottle every day, but I couldn’t tell if life was forming. On the other hand, the “planets” appeared to be getting smaller. Eventually I had to use a magnifying glass to see them. Then one day I could see nothing at all and the bottle seemed empty. Worried, I had done something wrong, I looked online for any information but found nothing. I went back to the instructions in the box and found mention of a Dr. Tozoku Moratzi, professor of physics and cosmology at Tokyo University. It seemed the kit was inspired by his work. I found his Wikipedia page. Most of the information was about his academic work and made little sense to me. Then my heart leapt as I read a brief mention of the toy, “Universe in a Bottle”. Around thirty-seven years ago, a Japanese toymaker Majinto built a kit based on Dr. Moratzi’s theories. The toy was not a success and had sold only a few hundred kits worldwide. Majinto had eventually gone out of business.
That was as far as Wikipedia went, but it had a link for Tokyo University. I explored the site and eventually I found Dr. Tozoku Moratzi’s email address.
I wrote an email to the professor.
“Dear Dr. Moratzi,
My name is Zach. I bought an old but unused kit for “Universe in a Bottle” on Ebay. I built the universe and saw the planets start to form and also spin. But then the planets grew smaller and smaller and now they have disappeared and the bottle seems empty. Has something gone wrong?
Three days later, his secretary responded.
I am Dr. Moratzi’s secretary. He is not in good health and cannot email you himself. He did answer your question though. The planets have not disappeared, they are moving farther away as the universe expands. He also said the bottle is not really empty but filled with invisible dark matter.
I hope this helps,
Now that I knew the truth, I was somewhat relieved. Days passed. Something troubled me. I could not be sure if the instructions for forming life had worked. I decided to send another email.
“Dear Ms. Hayakawa,
Thanks for your response. Sorry to trouble you again. I found instructions online for forming life in the “Universe in a Bottle.” I have attached the instructions to this email. Please ask Dr. Moratzi if the instructions are accurate.”
The secretary responded a week later.
I am very sad to inform you that that Dr. Moratzi passed away late last night. In his final days, he was in a coma so he couldn’t speak. We did ask your question, and he appeared to nod. We can conclude the answer is yes. Your first email filled Dr. Moratzi with much happiness. He thought you might be the only person to have successfully built a universe from the kit. The chemicals had to be mixed in the exact proportions in order for it to work. Unfortunately, many children who bought this toy had trouble with that step and lost interest. You are very fortunate to have done it correctly.
We wish you the best,
That night, I had a strange dream. I was floating in space surrounded by an infinite blackness. I looked around me, and I saw a faint light far away in the distance. I tried my best to move towards the light. I appeared to be gliding through space the way somebody swims through water. All of a sudden I was close enough to see that the light was actually from many glowing planets. The sight filled me with delight. I recognized them. These were the missing planets from my bottle! I then realized that I was inside the bottled universe. But, when I tried to touch the planets, they started to move away from me, really fast. I moved towards them, desperate to not let them get away from me again. But, they only moved farther away. I tried moving faster and then I was falling. I was falling down, down, down, but I couldn’t see the bottom. A strange music, both beautiful and eerie filled my ears. As I fell, the music grew louder. It built up to a crescendo, like a million voices chanting together in unison. I kept falling, surrounded by blackness, all around me.
I woke up in a sweat, and anxiously glanced around me. I was in my room, and my bottle was still sitting on my desk. I breathed heavily. It was just a dream. A very strange dream, but just a dream all the same. I stared at the bottle for a very long time. It seemed empty as before but something had changed. The bottle now contained something else, an unknown presence, something that was not nothing.
To this day, my bottle still stands on my table. My mom wants to throw it away insisting the bottle is empty but I refuse to let her. Although I would like to know what is in the bottle, I want to believe it is not really empty but filled with a mysterious force and energy.
When I am troubled, I stare at the bottle, and I think of that tiny universe out there, slowly drifting away. I am filled with wonder, mystery, and hope.