I’ve long been fascinated by physics. I lack the math to pursue it at more than a basic level but the mind set, the desire to explain everything in a elegant but truthful way, while still understanding that every explanation is an approximation and therefore not entirely truthful, resonates with me.
Fifty years ago, it was fashionable in England to discuss “the two cultures” proposed by C.P. Snow: those who were educated in science and those who were educated in the arts. It was assumed that they would struggle to understand each other and that, in England the arts would always look down on the sciences.
I always found the division suspect. It seemed to me that those who were the best in their field have always understood that the relationship between imagination and truth is fundamentally the same in both science and art..
However, I have sympathy with the view that the English are more comfortable with the output of mediocre minds than with those who challenge the orthodoxy of the day. I think, fifty years on, Snow would be more concerned by the fact the Business Studies/Information Technology/Media Studies are viewed as having enough academic rigour to justify awarding a degree in them.
In this story, I tried to join Snow’s cultures by taking one of the basic building blocks of physics, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and use them to explore an emotional journey.
The podium should have dwarfed the slight young woman standing beside it, but she was too full of energy and excitement for that. Her personality grabbed at the students in the lecture hall and said “Hey! Listen up. This is gonna be fun.”
Perched on the highest row of the auditorium, professor Sheila Redmond whispered to her husband, “She really is a remarkable young woman, Anthony.”
Anthony Redmond looked sideways at his wife, taking in the intensity of her gaze and the affection in her voice. Anthony knew a remarkable woman when he saw one.
“Welcome to Physics 101. Today we’re going to examine Newton’s laws of motion,” Angela announced to the auditorium. “I know, been there, done that, bought the T-shirt at high school. But this time I want you to think about what it means not just what it says.”
Sheila saw frowns appear on some of the earnest young faces below her. Two rows down one boy said, “What’s to think about? Newton’s been dead for hundreds of years. This stuff’s like, old.”
“There we have it folks, the Beavis and Butthead approach to science,” Angela said, pointing at the boy but spreading her gaze across the room. “Hey dude, what new ideas do you have? Science isn’t about novelty and invention, we leave that to engineers.”
Angela waited for the laughter to die down, then her tone became more serious, “Science is about discovering what has always been true but not always known. Each discovery gives a new context to old truths but the truths are no less true for all that.”
The professor watched the reaction of the crowd. Angela’s words struck a chord with a few but most were carried forward simply by the strength of her smile. The professor found herself smiling too, she knew from personal experience that Angela could make old things feel new; in the few weeks since they had become lovers she had felt younger and more like her true self.
“So, as you all know, the first law states that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, a body in motion tends to stay in motion in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This is also known as the law of inertia. Great. Looks cool on a t-shirt. ‘Newton says we get stuck in a rut unless we meet something unbalanced.’ But what does it mean for you and me?”
Sheila knew what it meant for her. She had been at rest in her marriage, floating in calm waters with good fishing, until she’d met Angela. Sheila took her husband’s large hand in her own while she watched Angela steer the class. She felt the strength and of his grasp. The contact warmed her. Maybe she hadn’t really been completely at rest, just at a point where she had passed the rapids of courtship and child rearing and was flowing slowly towards the sea. According to Newton she should have continued in this gentle drift, and probably she would have, if it hadn’t been for an unbalanced force called Angela.
When Sheila was a college student there were no female professors of physics. Physics was a man’s universe. She had loved the universe but not the men in it. Even as an undergraduate, it had seemed to her that many of her peers were driven by a twisted passion; they went at the universe like it was a can of their favourite food and science was their can-opener. Sheila had always seen the universe as a dance that she was part of, she could feel its beat in her blood; science was a means of learning the steps. Her approach had been odd then, it was irritatingly fashionable now.
Sheila had grown used to being odd, assuming it to be an unalterable attribute, like the colour of her eyes, until she met Anthony. She had decided on impulse to learn the tango. Not wanting to make a fool of herself in front of others, she had opted for one to one lessons. Anthony was her tutor. He was tall and beautiful and he knew how to lead. In his arms she felt safe and excited, as if many things were possible and all of them were good.
The first lesson should have lasted an hour. Three hours later they were still dancing. The transition from dancing to lovemaking was so gradual and so inevitable that later Sheila was unable to say exactly when it had happen. Anthony maintained that he had started to make love to her from the moment that their eyes met, that only the form of the lovemaking had changed.
For forty-eight hours they couldn’t bear to be parted. They danced and ate and made love and in between they used words to confirm the things that their bodies already knew. He told her of falling in love with the tango while backpacking in Argentina. She told him that particle physics was the whale-song of the universe. She confessed her alienation from her colleagues, saying she felt like a fish out of water. Anthony had laughed, “But you are not a fish and that is the problem. You are a dolphin swimming with sharks and feeling odd because you have the urge to leap out of the water into the sunlight and they do not.” She knew then that he was the man she would spend the rest of her life with.
When her mother asked her why she had married a man who knew no physics and had barely any math, Sheila had said, as if stating the obvious, “Any man can be taught physics, Anthony knows how to dance.”
Stealing a glance at Anthony, sitting beside her in the lecture theatre, she smiled to think that, in the end, physics had seduced him just as the tango had seduced her. He was listening to Angela’s lecture not just with attention but with enjoyment. He was a remarkable man. In fact he was the most remarkable person she had ever met… until she met Angela. She squeezed Anthony’s hand and returned her attention to the lecture.
“Ok so you’ve been stuck in a rut and you meet your unbalanced force – what happens according to the Second Law? Any volunteers?” Angela left the podium and paced the front of the auditorium, looking as if she was warming up a crowd at a rock concert. She stopped near a guy in the front row who was typing steadily on his laptop.
“You look like you’re well enough connected to know Newton’s Second Law,” Angela said, “wanna remind the rest of us?”
The guy blinked at her and said, “Newton’s Second Law states that the speed and direction of movement is the outcome of the strength and vector of the force and the mass of the body being acted upon.”
“I knew you were well read. A wireless connection to the Internet is a wonderful thing isn’t it? So what does the Second Law mean?”
“It means that the less mass you have, or the more force there is, the faster you’ll be moved in a particular direction.”
“Good! Force versus mass plus direction.” Angela emphasised her point by miming throwing a shot-put. Sheila wondered if she was the only one in the auditorium who was distracted by the movement of Angela’s breasts during this demonstration.
Sheila didn’t think of herself as a lesbian. On the whole she’d usually found women were more attractive and often more interesting than men but she’d never felt a sexual attraction. Even now her attraction was not to women but to Angela. It was the force of Angela’s love that had brought her to this point, in a direction set by Angela’s sexual desire, and her own lack of mass.
Angela’s desire had come as a surprise to Sheila. They’d been working late on Angela’s PhD. Sheila had been in the Zone: with all of her attention was focused on abstract thought. She’d stepped outside of space-time and become a conduit for math so beautiful it made her want to cry. There were few people who could keep pace with Sheila in the Zone, Angela not only kept pace she became part of Sheila’s creative process. It was as if they shared a common consciousness. When the breakthrough came, when they finally captured their thoughts in an equation that said everything, Angela kissed her. It started as a celebration, at least on Sheila’s part, but it soon became more than that, it became one of the most magical moments of Sheila’s life. Sheila found she wasn’t focused on abstract thought any more, all of her attention was on heat and softness and sensations that strummed through her body. Angela led and Sheila let her. The orgasm, when it came, left Sheila breathless, surprised and grateful. It felt as if she was coming back to life.
Sitting in the lecture theatre, thinking back to that moment, Sheila wondered at why it had moved her so. She had an active sex life with Anthony. She wasn’t starved of sex or love and yet Angela had swept her away. So what accounted for her lack of emotional mass? Perhaps it was that, with her children gone and her life settled, she had fewer desires, fewer goals, fewer connections.
In the weeks that followed, Sheila had let Angela make love to her again and again. She never initiated it but she never resisted. Now Angela wanted to spend the night with her and Sheila didn’t know how to respond. Somehow spending the night made things more concrete, more certain. It would collapse the probability wave and make her choose 1 or 0.
“Ok,” Angela said, “Now we get to my favourite law: Number Three. Now repeat after me: ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction'”.
Angela made the class repeat this three times. Some of them were laughing. Some of them just looked bemused.
“So what was Isaac getting at with this one?” she asked.
A girl in the middle of the auditorium thrust up her hand as if she were still in school. Angela nodded at her and the girl said, “It means that everything balances. You can’t touch without being touched.”
“Yes!” Angela said, “That’s exactly what it means. Every movement towards is also a movement away. All movement has a price.”
This made Sheila shiver. Did moving forward with Angela mean moving away from Anthony? Was she the universe going to make her pay a price for her lack of mass, her unresisting collision with this unbalanced force.
“She’s good”, Anthony said. “She reminds me of you.”
Sometimes Sheila wondered if Anthony was telepathic. She was swept with a wave of affection for him that made her want to cry and smile.
She didn’t want to leave Anthony and she wouldn’t give up Angela. Sheila knew that there was more to the universe than Newtonian physics could explain. The real world is not always mechanical. Newton’s laws break down at the extremes: when there is enough gravity to bend space- time or when things are small enough to be influenced by quantum events. Life is both a wave and a particle. Shroedinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead until you open the box.
It was time, she decided, to step outside the vectors and balanced forces of Newtonian mechanics and ride the probability waves of the new physics. God may not play dice but that doesn’t mean we have to follow his example.
The lecture was over, the class was emptying out. Angela was smiling up at her, waiting for her approval.
Sheila took her husband by hand and smiled at him. “Come with me,” she said.
It was time for both of her lovers to meet…
© Mike Kimera 2000 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without written permission from firstname.lastname@example.org
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