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Brainiac makes universal theories sound simple

If a train arrives in Portland at

10 a.m. and the connecting train boards at 2 p.m., how long will the passengers be visiting the Rose City?

The answer seems logical enough, unless you ask a theoretical physicist. Then you'll get a bunch of gobbledygook about the train as a 'superstring' with gravity forces extending into 10 or 11 other dimensions.

Don't get me wrong. When Stephen Hawking appeared at Keller Auditorium last April, it was one of the most riveting lectures I've ever attended. But I wondered about his description of our universe as the collision of two membranelike structures that exist in a larger space of many dimensions. His theory seemed hopelessly complicated and far-fetched. Ten or 11 dimensions? Please.

Ever since, I've wanted to talk with someone in Hawking's mental range on the issue. And who better to get a second opinion from than a doctor?

Dr. William S. Butts, 89, of Pullman, Wash., came through town last weekend on a two-day train ride to see the Washington State Cougars play in the Rose Bowl. He was accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law, Charlie and Leah, and Leah's granddaughter, Keyonna Knight. His other son, David, met the train.

As science brains go, Charlie Butts has an IQ of 170, and brother David is also no slouch. But Dr. Butts' brain? In college football terms, that's like bringing in the varsity.

Born in Spokane in 1913, William Butts originally wanted to be a theoretical physicist but followed his father into medicine, eventually serving as an Army Air Corps doctor during World War II in Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa. While in Australia, he got a medal for administering morphine to a flight crew that had just crashed on takeoff, while the bombs from their plane exploded some 30 feet away.

This is a man in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and Ben Franklin Ñ someone who studies everything. Mechanical aptitude? He can assemble a microscope and once devised his own diving bell. As a doctor in Pullman, he built the hospital a defibrillator.

His specialty is explaining occurrences from a scientifically plausible standpoint: 'See, I don't believe in magic. I just don't believe in it,' Butts says.

After the train arrived last Saturday, we repaired to the Benson Hotel for some breakfast and talk of the cosmos. I asked him about Stephen Hawking.

'I've read quite a lot of his work,' Butts says. 'I think it's way too speculative. Goodness gracious. I don't even believe in the big-bang theory. Sure, all the stars in our immediate vicinity are moving apart, but after you go to the end of that, what's beyond? It's pretty hard to imagine that the universe is limited. I think the only logical thing is that it doesn't have an end. It doesn't have to.

'Every time we find a better way of seeing far away it turns out there's still universe there,' he says. 'What limits it is our ability to detect it. And it's much easier to assume that it just keeps on going.'

Have you ever noticed how really smart people make complicated things sound so simple? The outbound train boarded at 2 p.m. The good doctor's stopover in Portland had lasted only four hours, yet everything already was making more sense.

Bill MacDonald is a Portland writer and musician.