Waves And Particles
Winning Entry by JHK
Take my bookshelves as a child. Arranged not in alphabetical order, nor by topic, but by the colours of the spines, a kaleidoscopic trip of story books and science tomes. Or my t-shirts: carefully ironed and folded by mother, arranged just so in the cupboard.
It was when I got older that things became more difficult.
Where, as a child, refusing to eat food that had touched other types of food had been tolerated as an attention seeking eccentricity, as a young teenager it was picked upon by the other boys, mercilessly punishing of any variation from the norm. And I couldn’t stand it when a classroom was asymmetrically arranged, with more tables on one side than the other.
I began to find sport immensely stressful, unable to cope with the random uncontrolled chaos, particularly when that chaos involved thirty boys storming around after an egg-shaped ball. My parents managed to persuade the school to let me swim at the local lido instead, which was an altogether calmer place. It was there, I think, that I became fascinated by the movement of particles, the smallest pieces of the universe as we know it. Where human reality is all chaos and contradiction, rank unpredictability and random variation, the way the ripples moved in the pool made me feel calm and at ease: each had an origin, a cause, each was a reaction to some kind of action. It could be explained, mapped, understood.
Unlike human behaviour. Though I haven’t a keen awareness of social hierarchy – I do not, as a rule, set much store by the petty values by which others live their lives – I am aware that I was not especially popular at school.
On one particular occasion, a boy in our class came to school in some especially snazzy trainers, pink and white. He received much acclaim for these shoes. Sitting quietly at a corner desk, eyes turned down while the other boys high-fived and clapped him on the back, I felt a rare pique of jealousy.
After school, I withdrew all my savings and went out and bought the same trainers. Why should I not, also, deserve the respect and admiration of my peers?
Wearing them to school the next day, I was met with ridicule. Even the teachers laughed at me.
Such humiliation. How could the same action have generated such a different reaction? Hot with embarrassment as I changed back into my sensible, clunky black shoes at breaktime, I fantasised about the cool, predictable, rippling waves of the pool.
But I have digressed. I was talking about the attack, and how something, deep within me, saved my life that day.
It gives me some solace, looking back at the humiliations of my childhood and adolescence, that the basis for much of my persecution was precisely the same eccentricity that ultimately saved my life.
As I reflect again on the events leading up to the attack, I think more and more about the interconnectedness of things.
My behaviour at the restaurant that day, for example, was not unlike that of a fluid or a gas, evenly filling a space. Some people are already sitting on this spot, here, next to the window, adjacent to your normal table. Nobody else is present. Where do you sit, then? Certainly not at your usual table, right next to the couple already sitting by the window. That would be very odd. No: much better to sit over at the back, and slightly to the side, evenly filling the space.
After the attack, this was how I explained my behaviour to the police. I don’t think they understood; I believe their conclusion was simply that I was rather unsociable.
And yet if you look at any normal coffee shop as it fills up, or any bar, this is how people tend to behave, reflecting my behaviour that day. Unless there is some extreme disadvantage of a certain spot – a bad smell, say, or uncomfortable chairs – given choice, people behave just like the particles in a gas, filling the space evenly (though usually bumping into one another rather less).
I was somewhat late to the restaurant because a student had found aspects of my lecture difficult. A likeable and dedicated pupil, if perhaps without the reserves of intellect needed to ultimately pursue a career in the field, I chatted with him for twenty minutes or so on various aspects of my presentation.
By the time I arrived at my usual lunch spot, where I have a standing reservation for 1.05pm daily at the centre table by the window, the table next to mine was occupied by a young German couple. It was 1.27pm. If I already been there, and they had sat down, I would not have considered moving; it would have been impolite and, in any case, I am more in control of these things than in my youth.
But that table being occupied, and nobody else there, I requested to be seated near to the back: this would fill the space. It was a dingy corner, and rather near the men’s loos, but that didn’t bother me, and I was soon engrossed in my book.
At 1.34pm, I gave my order to Pascal, the cheery waiter: a green salad to start followed by pork escalope and sautéed potatoes, served on separate plates. Accompanying, I had a bottle of sparkling water.
At 1.45pm, my salad and drink arrived, and I began eating.
At 1.55pm, the German couple settled their bill.
At 1.58pm, Pascal took away my empty salad plate. Around the same time, the German couple left the restaurant.
At 2.02pm, a Ford Transit van packed with improvised explosives was parked at the kerb, approximately three metres from the front of the restaurant.
At 2.04pm, Pascal brought out my sautéed potatoes and a second bottle of water, and returned to the kitchen to fetch the escalope.
At 2.05pm, the explosives were detonated.
It was an overwhelming blast of light and sound. There was a flash, blindingly bright, almost instantly followed by a wave of force that threw me off my chair. Then, there was only a ringing, dull like an ache. Glass and dust everywhere. Pascal came blundering out of the kitchen, and he said something but I couldn’t hear. Pulling me out of the building through the kitchen at the back, he spoke agitatedly again and pointed at my ear. Putting my hand up to it, I found it was covered in sticky, warm blood.
About half of the restaurant had been completely destroyed, the front rows of tables smashed to matchsticks.
At the trial, an inspector giving evidence said it was miraculous that nobody had been killed in the attack. My choice of table that day, by whatever strange logic, undoubtedly saved my life. Remarkably, of all those caught up in the bombing, I sustained the severest injury: the complete loss of hearing on my left side, caused by a wave not unlike the sort that used to soothe me as I swam. But nothing actually touched my ear – just a wave of compressed air, formed by the same harmless particles that surround us every day.
The deafness is my own personal imbalance. I will be, forever, lopsided. It helps remind me that we are indeed imperfect, and we all have our flaws. I have discovered for myself that our lives are not like the ripples of a wave: the course is never so steady, nor so sure.
The fire comes at you like a wave.
You only have nanoseconds, but your brain goes into overdrive. A million thoughts explode across your synapses, scattered like particles across your mind.
Of course, the first of these is “why didn’t I cut the blue wire?”
Cutting the red wire may not have been the problem; bombs are complicated things and full of tricks. But the puzzle is annoying because you know there won’t be any time to solve it. Never finding the answer becomes momentarily more annoying than being blown to pieces.
Of course, you do find your thoughts drifting back to your imminent demise, but thankfully, other thoughts take precedence. My personal theory, admittedly formed is a certain amount of haste, is that your brain does its best to send you happy thoughts before you die.
Love is the most powerful of these, a feeling rather than a memory.
I think of Carol, but she appears to me as flashes. Her smile comes first, in so many different ways: that birthday where she dropped the cake, our first date, that time we kissed in Brighton at midnight, when we walked in the forest where I proposed. These images are facets of a vast gem. A million sides and moments that make up the whole of who she is and who I knew her to be.
This brings another wave, a feeling that washes over you and wraps you in it completely. I don’t know if this new wave is my love for her, or her love for me, but it washes over me with an undeniable strength. It is filled with particles of sadness, because I will be gone. Love, like light, is both wave and particle it seems. But there is a strange comfort in the sadness. I will be missed. I have placed a mark on the world, and touched at least one other life. It all meant something. Even if it leaves sadness behind, it also leaves love and memory.
It begins a smile inside me, but one that will never reach my lips as there simply is no time.
The wave of fire hits me, and I become particles.
“Come on Al, tell me what the big secret is?” pleaded Conrad.
“I haven’t sent it off for publication yet,” said Al, unbuttoning his waistcoat as he relaxed back into the green, leather seated booth.
“What could you have possibly written that is so hush, hush? Is it a scandal?” whispered Conrad.
“Well, I’m sure some folk might see it as one,” smiled Al.
“You can trust me. You can’t tell me you’ve written something spectacular and then not tell me what it’s about. Have you got it with you?”
Al, nervously touched his leather case, which was protectively jammed between his leg and the side of the booth. He couldn’t tell if anyone was listening. But, he reasoned that nobody could hear the physical ink of written words, and so he unbuckled the bronze clasp and held out his master-piece.
“Read this bit, and then you’ll get the gist of what I’m proposing. But read it to yourself. This has to stay between you and me until publication. Do you understand?” he murmured.
“You have my word and my honour, Al.”
As Al, handed the manuscript over, he realised the room seemed eerily quiet. As though the space and all its occupants knew he was about to change Conrad’s understanding of something thought to be already understood. Although he knew what he had written was most likely correct, he realised there were many who would challenge him. He was nervous about finding out whether Conrad, was going to be a believer, or a disbeliever.
Conrad, grabbed the manuscript and silently scanned it over the places Al, had indicated. After he had read the implicated lines, Al, noticed Conrad’s vision shift back to the very start of the page.
Al, twiddled his thumbs as his stomach churned in suspense. Conrad, finished reading the page and continued flipping over the next pages.
“So,” said Al, to break the silence. Now that what he’d written was being witnessed, he felt like he couldn’t wait any longer for the forthcoming debate.
“I just need to read over this a bit more. But, are you serious?” asked Conrad, hardly looking up.
“It would be rather embarrassing if I wasn’t. But, I’m sure I’m correct about this Conrad,” said Al.
“But, but… this is a big deal, Al. It does make sense and, well, I’m quite shocked. It’s almost like a slap in the face. How could we have not considered this before?” he asked, having started to read the whole paper from the beginning.
Ten minutes passed in silence. Al, just sat and watched his friend read, while Conrad, couldn’t turn the pages over fast enough.
“Look Al, you’re a clever guy. I’ve always known that. But this, well this is a big surprise. Even I didn’t know you had this in you. Are you sure about this? I mean really, are people going to take you seriously? You’re just a patent clerk,” stated Conrad.
“This nugget of glory was conceived by my mind whilst it was dwindling at work. You cannot dispute the math here. I’m sure of it. This is the only way it makes sense, so I don’t think it matters that I’m just a patent clerk. Thank God I am, otherwise I might not have had time to understand the math behind this science,” whispered Al.
Conrad, gazed at Al, in disbelief for several moments.
“So, you are theorising, waves and quanta?” he said.
“Yes, contrary to popular understanding that light photons travel from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in a wave, I am suggesting that a wave-particle duality exists. Light travels in waves and particles Conrad.”
“If you’re right, this is going to change the foundation of science. You do realise that?” he gasped.
“I’ve plenty more ready to follow that theory,” smiled Al, pleased that Conrad, appeared to be a believer. It wasn’t often that people took him seriously.
“Albert Einstein, you are going to change the world. Fancy that,” said Conrad, who grinned and shook his head.