The ejected capsule will not re-enter the docking bay. If this were deep space, lives would be lost…
I give up on reassembling the space-age vacuum cleaner, and flop onto the couch. Glancing across the room, I ask, “So, what’s it like, not being able to hear conversations, or read a book?”
I’m not sure dad heard my question, but he smiles, then answers, “Peaceful.”
We sit for a moment in silence. I look at my silver-haired father, his head resting on the back of a lounge chair in the holiday home rented for mum’s 80th birthday weekend. Despite his blindness, he has just vacuumed the house and attempted to empty the bright red machine. He didn’t actually find the compartment where the bits of dead skin cells lurk, but he had fun pulling apart every other component of the ear-rending, cosmic dust-sucker.
“For most of my existence, I have not followed conversations or read books,” he reflects. A surprising statement. I wait. It is nice to sit quietly with dad, away from others; away from the never-ending bustle. It won’t last long.
My siblings and their kids have already left, and we are in the room where, last night, after many hours of noisy conversations about… I can’t remember what… (oh yes… conjectures about the Australian son of Charles and Camilla)… the room had suddenly hushed. Dad had quietly begun to speak to all assembled, not about mum on her 80th, or about media gossip… He’d launched into a narrative on the structure of the nuclei of atoms.
His intelligent and loving in-laws listened politely with only an occasional awkward shrug. I was delighted. Dad’s monologues usually ramble off on endless tangents, rendering them impossible to follow. But last night, he kept it focused and simple. He was responding to mum’s announcement that “Peter has recently had a paper published in the Australian Journal of Physics*.”
“What’s it about, Pete?” my uncle asked. And, for once, dad’s narrative was eloquent… comprehensible even… but then, I have the benefit of quite a few shared conversations on the nature of nuclear bonds; the forces of sub-atomic attraction and repulsion; and the quandary of the sum of the composite particles being more than their independent masses. I’ve even tried to read dad’s latest paper, but confess I didn’t understand a word.
Last night, however, he’d made the story personal. He went back through the decades of discovery; the clues he’d found along the way; key papers he’d read; scientists he’d talked with; posters and articles he’d published; and subsequent correspondence from physicists in Russia and Japan. But mostly, his narrative conjured up memories of the colourful hard plastic balls, drilled with holes and joined by bits of dowel that filled his study when I was small; and the conglomerations of ping-pong balls held together with dobs of glue that littered our family room when I was a teen; and how they grew to larger and larger clusters as he progressed through the periodic table (and the table-tennis supplies of the local toy-shop) to prove his theory of a bonding energy of predictable mass at the core of all atoms, thus resolving the quandary.
As the morning sun peaks around drawn curtains, dancing on motes of dust behind his head, dad quietly says, “Most of my time, I’ve been scattered amongst the elements of the cosmos. The time for reading or conversations is only brief.” I look at his smiling face, eyes closed, head resting on the back of the armchair. “It’s a peaceful letting go… this time of life…” he explains, “a preparation.”
“An interesting way of looking at it,” I comment. He opens his eyes and faces me. “I remember my mother’s mother, after my grandfather died,” he says, looking wistful. “She was as deaf as a post, and her eyes were quite useless too. We would shout into her listening trumpet and she would smile and nod. I can picture her standing at the kitchen table, making us sandwiches. She was a cheerful, peaceful soul.”
“Would you like a cup of tea, or coffee?” My mother has entered the room. Her habitual question is answered by my father’s predictable, “Whatever you are having, my love.” She does her impatient sigh thing, and says, “It is a simple question, Peter. You must know what you want!” followed by a long-suffering glance at me. I shake my head and look away. Surely, after 56 years of marriage, the exchange could have moved on to a less explosive, “I’m about to make a pot of gunpowder tea. Would you like to join me?”
I guess, all nuclear bonds have a strange conjunction of forces. Two positively charged protons naturally repel one another, and no number of neutrons diminish that. But, as dad’s models show, each nuclei also has an invisible energy that holds its constituent parts together, lending weight to the atom.
I smile. If most of our time is spent as dust, scattered in vacuums throughout the cosmos, it would seem that the time for conversation and hot drinks is indeed, very brief.
“I’ll have tea, please.”
Anne M Norman, April 2016
Why not try and read dad’s article here. Maybe you can understand it.
For the alphas out there who are less dense than myself,
this is the main motif in Eb minor: ΔEb=Δmc2=ΔEn-ΔEc
If you’d prefer to work your way through the periodic table with a more tuneful melody, try Tom Lehrer’s Song of the Elements
The day after writing this article and publishing it here on wordpress I decided this really did need a song of its own. And so I began composing a piece for shakuhachi, voice and bass – an exercise only, as I had no bass player to perform it with. Many months later I rearranged it for viola, voice and shakuhachi and recorded it with the wonderful Emily Sheppard. And here it is: