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Short Story

The Physicist’s Mind

Daniel Harper peers into the murky depths.

“You saw him, wasn’t he beautiful?” she says, smoothing her beach towel in the Polynesian sun. “The babies here are adorable.”

He looks up from his paperback and pokes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Look at you,” he says. “Soon as you get a ring on your finger you’re thinking about procreation.”

“Nothing’s different. I’ve always loved children.” Her tanned shoulder points towards him from where she sits on the edge of the sun-lounger. Her brown hair hangs over the straps of a white bikini.

“Should I be worried?” he asks, smoothing some wrinkles in his own towel.

“Nothing to be worried about.”

Ever since her mother had given her the box, the world had shifted for her. She had sat on the couch in her parent’s enormous Paris living room and unpacked the contents – a size zero knitted jacket, a crocheted teddy bear, a tiny pair of red shoes – and began looking at things differently. Now she notices them everywhere: prams painted on carparks, pregnant women, a baby in a bassinet on the plane, like they have been put there just for her.

beach silhouette

He brushes several white sand-grains from his armrest and turns back to the novel in his lap. The other sun-loungers arranged across the beach are empty.

“I’ve left my book,” she says. “No offence I hope, doctor.” She had been labouring through his dog-eared copy of A Brief History of Time.

“None taken.”

“I couldn’t stand that, what was it – ‘Principle of Uncertainty’? What kind of a stupid science is that?”

“It’s quantum theory. Anyway, you were the one who picked it up.”

“What are they saying? That everything is just random chance? What ever happened to destiny? And fate?” She glances at her ring. As a literature student, she likes to point out the oversights of these scientists. But this time he’s not biting.

“There’s a difference between random and unpredictable,” he says. “Coming for a swim?”

She contemplates the water. In the late morning light the lagoon’s hues are on full display: clear glass merges into aquamarine, then a deep royal blue. Waves lap lazily on the shore. So far they haven’t seen much of French Polynesia, but with a resort this beautiful, why go anywhere?

She thinks over the last few days – a church ceremony in the centre of Paris, a champagne reception in the rose garden. “Think it was fate that we met?” she asks.

“Of course it was,” he says. “I was sent to complete your destiny, and you were sent to… cause me trouble.”

“So cruel.” She says giving him a wounded pout. He responds by plucking her from the sun lounge and carrying her off into the water. She kicks her legs and squeals of delighted protest carry across the sand to the activities hut, where the uniformed attendant at the counter shakes his head smiling. Then he continues rearranging the life jackets.

You could say whole thing is like an immense ball, only it has no outside. It’s curved, four-dimensional and inaccessible to imagination – God’s mysterious architecture. As you pan in, a few of the countless points of light grow in the blackness to become spirals and the fabric of it becomes comprehensible. In one spiral, out on an arm, is a yellow star suspended in the emptiness. Revolving in a slight ellipse around it is a blue-green sphere. Down through the atmosphere to the surface, he lies with her, their backs on the lacquered wooden planks, the ocean moving beneath them as they stare out at the stars and the universe.

From their table at the top bar she can see the beach below. Torches line a walkway that reaches out in a perfect arc to overwater bungalows. He has a conical glass with three olives on a toothpick in clear liquid. She watches him adjust the napkin so that the resort logo runs parallel to the table-edge, then he sits the glass precisely at the centre. Across the lagoon the silhouette of the island of Bora Bora rises sharply before the afterglow of the sunset. “You remember the day we met?” she asks.

“I remember Camus.”

He was new at the Sorbonne. She was looking for a copy of The Outsider in the campus bookshop. He had just taken the last one from the shelf. “J’en ai besoin,” he said – “I need it.” Then he added, “but I’ll lend it to you.” Looking him up and down she mentally replaced his shabby suede jacket with a Pierre Cardin suit and a crisp white shirt, and she smiled. “But I need it today,” she said. “Well,” he replied, switching to Canadian-accented English, “we’ll just have to share it. Café or library?” Her arms were folded around some books and she hugged them to her chest. “Café it is then,” she said.

“Just imagine how things could have been. Without Albert Camus we might never have met.” She slides her palms across the table and grips his hands.

“I guess some things are meant to be,” he responds.

Her second pina colada is working its magic, and there he is across the table all handsome and fit and relaxed. She’s always looking for the chance to challenge him, and the physics book has given her some valuable ammunition.

“You know I can’t stand that book. I cannot believe things can be so… random,” she says. This time she sees one of his eyebrows rise a fraction.

“Einstein said something similar.”

“Of course he did.”

“He said ‘God does not play dice with the universe.”’

Voilà, my genius is proven.”

“Sorry baby, not really. Einstein was probably wrong. He just couldn’t stand the quantum physicists.”

“What is it with scientists? They get so wrapped up in their own little worlds they can’t see what’s really going on. What about faith and love? What about destiny?”

As you descend toward the couple on the wooden planks, time is nearly standing still. She lies on her back with one arm behind her head and a white sheet wrapped around her. The end of the sheet is suspended in the breeze, making ripples that are barely moving. His head lies on her stomach; the fingertip of her fine-boned hand rests on his shoulder. A cigarette glows at the corner of his mouth and the smoke rising from his lips hangs in an arc in the breeze.

Panning in on the man you see light blue eyes. Closer still, irises reveal pits and peaks, from sky-blue to cobalt. Photons of light swim into the pupil and end their interstellar journeys by hitting his retina in immense slowness. Flowing along with the signals that course down the optic nerve, you curve through a tract to the occipital cortex at the back of his brain. Electrons and electrochemical impulses crackle, modulated by a cocktail of a thousand neurotransmitters.

“So Einstein was wrong?” she asks, and sips her drink. It’s strong, and it warms her stomach.

“Maybe. But the quantum guys were definitely right about one thing.”

“And that is?”

He leans his elbow on the back of his seat, takes off his glasses and searches for the right words. “Scientists used to think the future of the universe was totally predictable,” he says, “Planets, stars, particles, all moving around on predetermined paths like a giant clock. But quantum theory shows you can only predict things to happen – the movement of particles I mean – with certain probabilities. So human beings can never see the future. That’s just the way it is.” There it is, the thing she’d been looking for: the spark of his mind filtered through his electric blue eyes.

“So that’s it,” she says.

“That’s what?”

Humans are stuck with uncertainty. God knows what’s going on.”

He flicks his hand. Not according to the experts,” he says. “Stephen Hawking even called God an ‘inveterate gambler’.”

“The nerve of it. Scientists!” She folds her arms and looks away to the beach. He moves to respond, but pauses, and slips the last olive into his mouth.

Down on the twilit sand there’s a scene from her childhood holidays, as grass-skirted dancers wave their arms among the torch flames. Bored looking couples sit together over dinner at the beach restaurant: the dining dead. A little girl finds a coconut shell and holds it up before her dancing mother. The image stirs something inside her and she nods and says, “I want one of those.”

“Come on, we agreed on this. You know we can’t right now. We’ve got too many other things to do first. The trip, the flat, my career –’

“What if I don’t give a damn about all that?”

“What? Are we going to live off your parents’ money forever?” He waves a hand in the air, almost knocking over his martini glass.

She clenches her teeth. Why is he so obsessed with money? The one thing they never have to worry about.

“Another drink, madam?” It’s the waiter. “Sir?”

“No, thank you,” she says.

“Babe, it’s a big deal to make a person,” he continues, softly now. “It’s not something you do just because you’re in some tropical paradise and you’ve seen a few cute kids.”

In his cerebral cortex the incoming signal focuses itself: an image of the night sky inside him. He feels her presence beside him, and a premonition of fatherhood appears like a ghost. He’s pushing a child on a swing; ropes from a gnarled branch blur upwards to invisibility. It’s the vaguest picture of an imagined future. Memories from their day swim in the background – splashes of mid-air water caught silver in the sun, the aquamarine lagoon behind her, peals of delicious laughter – and in them, the possibilities for his next thought are born.

The shells of the lobster halves are the brightest red. His college friends back in Montreal used to take photos of meals like this to brag about online. Instead he tries to capture it in his actual memory, something to hold onto after the Facebook posts have sunk out of sight down the timeline. On each plate beside the lobster sit a square of potato gratin, two spears of asparagus on a creamy foam base, and three immaculate lemon slices. Champagne sparkles in crystal flutes. Next he looks across the table: she’s wearing a figure-hugging black dress, hair tied back, admiring her ring again. There’s something incredible about the way she carries herself – poise or something. He could never quite put it into words.

“It’s so amazing here,” she says. “A million miles from your problems. You look at things back at home, and you wonder what it was that worried you.”

“Doesn’t get much better,” he agrees. But for him life at home is a distant memory. The concrete of the campus, the grey coffee from the machine outside the library, the near-ascetic life of the physics post-doc. Sometimes, when the ideas were really coming, he would hardly eat. He would just sit in his cramped Paris apartment, scribbling at his desk until the early hours, the language of mathematics pouring out onto the pages like sacred hieroglyphs, revealing to him some small truth no-one else had ever seen, territory previously known to God alone. He uses the word ‘God’, but he doesn’t mean it like she does. For him the word almost means the greater universe, its order and its apparent design.But now it’s all faded into the background.

“When you’re in a place like this,” she says, “all the plans you made, all… bouf… disappear. You have to rethink them all again.” She looks at him carefully.

“You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Don’t worry, whatever is meant to happen will happen.”

“God has it all worked out does He?” He likes to tease her about her religious leanings.

“He does, and the sooner you get used to it, the sooner we can get on with life.”

The gateau arrives and she sits forward on her seat. He fixes the teaspoon, which wasn’t quite perpendicular to the handle of his espresso, and watches her pass a large piece of chocolate over her lips. “Well if God has it all planned out,” he says, “and He loves human beings generally, why does He create people He knows are going to make bad choices? If He knows He’s going to condemn them to Hell, why does He make them in the first place?”

“Don’t give me that old predestination argument again.”

“Come on, it’s true isn’t it?” he replies. “It would mean that that sort of God is evil himself. It doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re getting yourself in real trouble here.” She suppresses a smile. “You just wait till I get you back to the bungalow…’

Inside his brain, as you swim down one of his neurons’ tangled connections towards a synaptic gate, you see the neurotransmitter molecules – oxytocin, endorphins, alcohol – slowly jostling. Some are inside bubbles at the gate, waiting for the electric charge that will release them. Particles inside molecules, entangled with those of ten thousand adjacent cells, smear into different possible locations, different possible results, ready like the hammer of a pistol.

She sits on the edge of the bed in the low light, tangled in the white sheet. On the lamp table his camera sits next to rolls of film in a neat row on his leather-bound notebook. Her three Louis Vuitton suitcases are stacked beside it on the floor. Her hair is tousled and she tilts her head as she lights a cigarette. What is that word he can’t find? Poise? Grace…?

Poetry. She looks like poetry.

“Have you seen the fish down there?” she says. He peers over the edge of the bed to where the glass section in the floor of the bungalow reveals clear water. Bright fish dart in beams of light.

“You know, I think you’re right,” he says.

“Of course I’m right. But what the hell are you talking about?”

“What if the universe is like, say, a giant clock, designed by God,” he suggests. “He’s not playing dice: He knows exactly where things are going – cogs and gears, ticking along just as He planned. Every particle from the hydrogen in the sun to the atoms inside our heads. But here’s the thing: He’s built this clock so our brains won’t be able to read the time.”

“Are you still thinking on that?” She wraps herself in the sheet and sashays through the open doors to lie on the lacquered wooden deck.

“There is a destiny, in ultimate reality!” he calls out from the bed. “But in the physical world, if humans can’t know the future, then we still get to have free will. What do you think of that?”

“I think you’re crazy.”

He pulls on some boxer shorts and goes out to join her. The end of her sheet is waving in the breeze. He lies back with his head on her stomach. She runs her finger softly across his chest to his shoulder, and passes him the cigarette. He hangs it from the corner of his mouth, takes a deep drag, then watches as his stream of smoke is stolen by the night air.

“You really want this, don’t you?” he says. “A baby?”

“I really do.”

“You know what I think…”

In a single molecule a particle wavers in its different possibilities in the field – God’s mysterious architecture. The man’s decision reduces it to a single position. There’s a flash as a new signal fires in his brain. “What the hell,” he says. “Let’s do it.”

© Daniel Harper 2017

Daniel Harper is a short-story writer based in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Big Issue, Sleepers Almanac, Page Seventeen and elsewhere. @danharper321

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