Properties of Lightby Rebecca Goldstein
With Properties of Light, the award-winning author of The Mind-Body Problem gives us “one of the magnificent performances in contemporary fiction, a fusion of the imagination and intellect . . . achingly beautiful, moving, and intriguing on every page” (Charles Johnson). This mesmerizing tale of consuming love and murderous professional envy carries
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With Properties of Light, the award-winning author of The Mind-Body Problem gives us “one of the magnificent performances in contemporary fiction, a fusion of the imagination and intellect . . . achingly beautiful, moving, and intriguing on every page” (Charles Johnson). This mesmerizing tale of consuming love and murderous professional envy carries the reader into the very heart of a physics problem so huge and perplexing it thwarted even Einstein: the nature of light. Caught in the entanglements of erotic and intellectual passion, three physicists grapple with mysteries of science as well as mysteries of the heart with consequences not even their finely honed intellects can predict. “Luminous, incendiary . . . Properties of Light is a novel of cool grace and dark lyricism, lit by the imaginative fire of physics and its improbable cosmologies” (New York Times Book Review).
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New York Magazine
"Chronicles the quest of three physicists seeking to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity theory ... bewitchingly ethereal ... gracefully deconstructs our contradictory impulses." Publishers Weekly
"Goldstein brings . . . an ability to . . . reveal . . . the large and immutable principles that stand . . . behind even the smallest and most intimate gestures." Elle
"Goldstein certainly writes with knowledge of both science and emotion, shining light on both for her readers." Library Journal Starred
"A brilliant novel by a master of the world of ideas, the English language, and the human heart."Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works
"Explores the powerful tension between our desire to know and our desire to love, revealing the dangers inherent in both." Memphis Commercial Appeal
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The essential fact is that I hate her.
My hatred is my cause: material, formal, final. It makes my world for me. I have largely forgotten the feel of things unimplicated in its being. For them, I retain only the words, as empty as plundered graves. The diminishment bothers me less than I would have imagined, there remaining still so much to me, to the substance of my thoughts, the implications of my hatred being many.
Such hatred as mine might be described as obsessive, although the description would be false. Would an obsessive even pose the possibility of his own delusion? The stance of objectivity required in order to ask of oneself whether one is obsessing is unassumable for those who, in fact, are.
This is my first argument.
Does it lead to a more general result, namely that the answer to the question Am I obsessing? must be a logically certified no?
As a matter of fact it does. This is interesting, though not very. I have not produced, by any stretch, a result remotely on the scale of the sublime Descartes's analogously conclusive remarks concerning the question Am I existing? Formally, my argument and his share this feature: the very conditions that must hold in order for the question to be put at all determine its answer. In the case of the Cartesian question, the answer is affirmative, and metaphysics has produced, in the four hundred years since, nothing much better than this. It is not only interesting but supremely practical. What could be more useful than having the means of convincing oneself that one exists whenever the question should arise? Without it, I might degenerateinto a very dubious modality of mind. I might go mad.
Here is my second argument, and it, too, is faintly redolent of the subtle rationalist. There is an affinity almost natural between the Cartesian condition and me. My second argument: Obsession connotes excess, and excess, in turn, unnecessity. If my hatred is obsessive, then it must be possible for me to exist, at least in principle, without it. And yet of all I once thought true of me, it is my hatred alone that cannot be separated from me. Of all else I know I can be deprived and still continue to be, since of all else I have in fact been deprived. But of my hatred? It might possibly be the case that if I ceased entirely to hate that I should likewise cease altogether to exist.
I am a real thing and really exist, but what thing? I have answered: a thing that hates.
My indifference to the world at large is absolute. Outside of my hatred, I care not what exists, nor how, nor why. Properties of matter and energy, of space and time? Less real to me now than the unseen object is said to be to the newborn tabula rasa. No pull left in these subjects to keep me put, I glide off.
I glide away.
My almost universal indifference is all the more remarkable considering that I am, by training, a physicist, once said by some (most certainly by me) to have inhabited a singularity of promise. I might have been expected to preserve some lingering interest in the ultimate constituents of existence. I have none. Were an angel of God to offer me the definitive description of the properties of light (for it was on them and their paradoxical duality, both wave- and particlelike, that my singularity of promise had once largely been focused) I doubt I'd even hear the cherub out. I can attend to nothing but the essential fact, its decoherent history, configurations traced impermanently among ill-defined confusions. One might have thought that I'd know more, one might have thought. It is a warm night and windless. The air hangs still and heavy. One feels that one might float on it, as on a waveless sea. Above, the moon is hanging low, like a puckered-up bulge of a belly.
That was a repulsive simile.
I once thought that darkness was as real as light, was even more real. I figured darkness to be not the absence of light, but rather light the absence of darkness.
I was an inveterate and inventive theorizer as a child. Instinctively, I read the observable world as a system of coded signs. My theory of darkness was one of my earliest juvenilia, dating from a time while I still lived in the haze of unbroken-in consciousness. I had (still young) to discard it, however, for as a theory it had a flaw: it was untrue. Light is the something, and darkness its privation. I can no longer remember the precise reasoning that led to my rejecting the primacy of the dark. The distinction between truth and falsity has always mattered much to me. A warm night and windless. Summer nights have qualities hospitable to habitations, by old memories and the like, all manner of insinuations carried weightless in thin air. A quiet night steeped deep in summer, yielding itself to all manner of insubstantialities, desires perfectly preserved in the bitterness of mind.
There are others I could hate as well, with all my soul, as I hate her, and yet I don't. My hatred, though essential, is essentially of her, and, in that sense, external. I was not a hating child. Hatred requires an attention that it was not yet in me to squander on people. I had other things to think about. So far as people were concerned, I was largely not concerned, with the sole exception of Jake Childs, who was my father, and Cynthia Childs, née Rosenthal, who was my mother. The world for me was fixed around them, and there was nothing in it for me to hate.
My parents and I were, from as far back as I remember, the best of chums, composing a perfect Platonic solid, so that the running commentary of my contemporaries-nerd! geek!-sounded faintly, like some far-off phantom choir. I suppose I was a nerd and geek, too nerdy and geeky to care. I think the words hardly signified at all. We were what we were, we three, with neatly overlapping interests: my father and I in abstract argument; my mother and I in beauty; my father and mother in me. We all understood one another with a perfect accord, which would have been as gratifying for a well-disposed outsider to observe as would his observance be disruptive of the very state to be observed.
This is a nuisance very central to modern physics.
It was a touchingly typical boyhood, mutatis mutandis, of course, for it is true that at an age when my contemporaries were having their this-little-piggy-wiggies wiggled, I was solemnly reciting the law of the excluded middle-every statement is either true or false, and no statement is both!-and constructing truth tables for propositions of first-order logic. And nights, it is true, would never find the three Childses-Papa Childs, Mama Childs and Baby Childs-huddled around the softly glowing television sets whose jumpy phantasmata were thrown off flickering from the windows of our neighbors. We owned no television but sought what spectacles we craved from the nighttime skies. It was our habit to arrange ourselves on our backs in our modest and mythical backyard, studiously murmuring, even in the chilly seasons lying on the unmade lawn and staring up at softly glowing galaxies, inhabiting a space measured out in units of time, delivered by the speed of light. My mother, her daytime diffidence shed beneath the stars, fingered constellations and supplied the ancient myths to go with them.
And yet, as these things go (they go, they go), we were not, after all, so very different from the huddling masses. Papa Childs, Mama Childs, Baby Childs: we were quite as safe as truth by convention could make us.
I have always lived in academic towns. My childhood home, white on the bottom, with green bumpy shingles on the top, was located in an academic town. It was called Olympia, so that we were, one and all, Olympians.
This is also an academic town, very famous, perversely high-toned. It is where she lives, the reason that, expressly unbidden, I have nevertheless come. Just for the moment I have forgotten its name, the emptied sound has slipped my mind. The stars are threshed, and the meanings are threshed from their husks. It will return to me shortly, the name of this place.
It is far quieter here in the summer than in the other seasons. Unburdened of its students, the university assumes its ideal form. In the silence before dawn, I have the campus to myself, no fear that I will suddenly be confronted by glassy-eyed youths, stinking from the quantities of drink and animal spirits in them. I am exquisitely sensitive to smells. The earth is a swarming confusion of scents, and quite a few of them are noisome.
The asphalt paths that crisscross the grassy lawns have gone a mercurial gray and slick with moon. I wander them to all my favorite haunts. It is said to be a beautiful campus, and even I now find it so. It is very beautiful to me.
When I first came here I had no eye for it, for beauty of its kind, gloomy and Gothic and grand. The massive stone and vaulting towers. They diminished me to near extinction. I hate it, quite generally, when matter presumes.
Now, though, I am very changed, and wind my way with something like love past the castellated undergraduate dorms, whose shady courtyards are special favorites of mine. A pool of water catches a fleeting glimpse of moon and me and ripples softly, water against stone. There is a wooden swing that hangs from a long and yellow braided rope, like Rapunzel's plaited hair, an enchanted ladder a prince might scramble up to find his pleasure.
So let me find my pleasure.
The swing moves slightly as I pass, its slow creak trailing after me as I cross the street that once formed the natural boundary of the university, which has now been pushed outward by the vigors of the natural sciences and the other well-endowed departments.
The physics complex, its utilitarian thrust a contrast to the flushed romanticism of the older campus, is being added onto once again, bricks and mortar waiting on the shrinking polygon of lawn, for the funds keep pouring in, converging here like moths to light. It is a celebrated faculty, more so now than ever, three Nobel immortals and seven MacArthur geniuses, this grand university's most grand and favored spot. I can rarely return, but I must stop and stare awhile at the austere structure wherein the labyrinthian physics of the day is made.
I once was a physicist. I had my place here in this world. I was given an office up on the seventh floor, the starry seventh, where the brightest stars are constellated.
It would not surprise me in the least if there were souls within as sleepless as I, even now, at this unpeopled hour, pacing the hallways in feverish cerebration, launching tenuous calculations into the well- kept mysteries of matter's true nature. Some graduate student, perhaps, or very junior faculty member, too alone to have any idea of how lonely he is, as I, too, used to work my way straight through to the first light, astonished to look up and discover that it was dawn. It's best like this, with the dormitories emptied, the rowdy routed, the vacuous evacuated. (I have become a phrasemaker. I have the time.) Those who remain can hear themselves think, as I hear myself think, as I am thinking even now, if you can call this thinking, if you can call this now.
The passage of time is nothing real. It is a chimera spun out of gauzy consciousness, and nothing more, a frightful apparition tossed up by our mixed-up minds. We know this from Einstein's physics, which shows us a time as stilled as spread space. Time is static, the flow unreal: it is Einstein's truth, and it is the truth, falling straight away from the conditions of perfect symmetry imposed on the geometry. The ebb, which seems so terrible and real, which seems to carry off one's every treasure, leaving one like a chest spilled open on the waves: unreal, unreal.
On Saturdays in winter, which in upstate New York are long and hard and character-enhancing, my father and I would take from their peg on the wall in the "mudroom" (for so we called it) the antique wooden skis that he and his older brother, Freddy (killed in a world war I can now no longer name-the first, the second, the third), had used as boys, and head for the gentle hills of Olympia's country club. The change of season enmagicked the golf links, expunging all traces of the pampered scampering after the battered balls of summer. (I have the time.) The transformation rendered these our very own Elysian Fields, recast in winter light, the smell of snow on sugar pines, and my father and I, otherwise ill at ease in our long and graceless bodies, were here become as gliding gods.
Within a copse of sheltering pines, we unpacked the ambrosial bologna and mustard sandwiches, slightly crunchy with crystals of ice. The sweetness of hot cocoa that poured out of the red-and-green plaid- patterned thermos into the red plastic cup that cunningly unscrewed from its top derived some portion of its sublimity from the touch of its heat on frozen lips and cold-parched gullet. These were sensations of the body I can recall with perfect clarity and calm. Exquisite pleasures, yet with no a posteriori retchings of the soul. While we ate, we put aside our shared passion for abstraction and produced only such utterances as applied to the progress of our pleasures. "Another sandwich, son?" "Cocoa's gone." And so, sustained on ecstasy, my father and I would return to the white music of our glissandos, until the early-falling dusk turned the silvery landscape into lead and revealed the cruel edge in the cold.
With something of the godlike still clinging to our forms, we would tramp through the doorway of our little boxy house, my boyish cheeks a burnished tingle, the strange buoyancy associated with the earlier phases of exhaustion floating my arms and my legs.
There would be my mother, her heavy black-framed glasses steamed to white opacity above the trapezoid inscribed between her nose and lips, her two nonslender hands reaching out to me the cup of perfect cocoa, mounded with the sheen of the glarey ethereality known as Marshmallow Fluff. We were very fond in my family of Marshmallow Fluff, a versatile foodstuff that could even serve, when combined with peanut butter between slices of bread, as a main course. The recipe came helpfully printed on the label, on which it was dubbed a pfeffernuss. This was, I believe, my first foreign word, spoken before the age of two. How exquisitely incongruous it must have sounded trickling off my infant tongue, and how my parents must have gloated in the love of precocious me, they did, they did. It is an item in my master list of facts.
Winter has always seemed to me to be the time of our greater undiscontent. Our desires contract with the mercury. Even rapists are appeased. Summer is the ravishing season, releasing the unstaunchable longings. Desire rises up like lubricious water, up, up, and over your head. Learn to breathe it or you drown, alone, alone, your scream unheard.
It is summer now.
It was a blessedly uncomplicated boyhood, as dull as doughnuts. I possessed precisely the blunted consciousness that a child ought to have. Subtlety did not come naturally to me. It is suffering that has tenderized me, pounded me like a piece of choiceless meat. The world, to the child that I was, seemed as straightforwardly self-evident as my meticulously constructed truth tables; no counterfactuals to wreak upon us of regret and longing. There are no Proustisms hulking here on my memory's floor, embedded like an anchor, to be yanked up by a taste. Marshmallow Fluff plumbs no sunken depths.
I come to know of Proust by way of my mother. Each year she reread the entire seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu. It was a habit that made my father and me intensely proud. Who do you think her favorite writer is? he would ask people who had only just met her. Little boys are said to think their mothers beautiful, but I could never bring myself to discern the traces of a beauty that was not there, the difference between truth and falsity having always mattered much to me. Mixed in among the sheet music, from which she and my father played their duets for euphoniums, were a few pictures of her as a girl, looking earnest, fat and sad.
Her coarse, dark hair, striped wide with white, was cut in the same blunt style as the full-cheeked girl in the photos, with bangs arranged ruler-straight across her forehead. There were two vertical grooves set deep down between her brows. They were like the tracks left by my wooden sled in the snow, as if her soft wad of a nose had slid down her face until it finally caught like a rudder on a hidden tree root and stayed put. When I told her this she laughed, while simultaneously two fingers flew up to trace the lines that she had probably never noticed for herself. She was not a student of her face. She had no vanity. She had a girlish voice, though, a shy and girlish smile. Her laughter was beautiful. A substratum of startled gratitude lay permanently beneath her and spread upward into all her gestures. This gave her sweetness.
A supremely American boyhood, mutatis mutandis, as idyllic as if by design. They both died when I was nineteen and a half. A drunk driver came hurtling out of a hidden chaos to fling them out of our shared life and into cold infinity. I was, by no design, an orphan, alone, alone, the cruel edge in the cold a permanent fixture.
Was it called a pfeffernuss? Was it? This is the word that comes to mind, but it makes no sense, and how am I to know, to verify and know? They were returning home from a concert of chamber music presented by the faculty of the music department at the small college in upstate New York where my father taught the impossibility of metaphysics and my mother worked in the library. I was home for the intercession break, returned from California's Paradise Tech, where I was, precociously, doing my graduate studies. A drunk left over from Christmas was careening down the left side of Route 61, in Olympia, New York, a bare fifteen minutes after the music faculty of Olympia College had completed its performance of Schubert's Unfinished (or so have I, perhaps too symbolically, remembered it), which no doubt Cynthia and Jake Childs had applauded until their soft white palms had gone to tingling red. Amateur musicians themselves, they never stinted on ovation.
I can summon my mother exactly as I, sitting cross-legged on my boyhood bed, last saw her: girlishly ablush to be going out with her Jake, struggling into her bulky red-and-black-checkerboard woolen coat, which my father, over six feet tall, held too high for her, who stood barely five, and whose glance of startled gratitude at his habitual gallantries remained firmly fixed even when her glasses were, as a direct result, sent flying from her nose. He was her gallant hero, brilliant, Anglo-Irish, and tall, who had rescued her from the state of being Cynthia Rosenthal, a homely girl who sat alone and read and stared at stars and read and sat alone. I had not accompanied my parents to their concert that evening because, unlike them, I dislike music. To my senses, it is a deliberate din, perversely prolonged. I read once that the music of Mozart is to be compared with the play of light on water. I know something of the physics of the play of light on water and can make no sense of the analogy.
My two parents, the suddenly entragicked Cynthia and Jake, were both lovers of music in its many varieties. Music constituted the one small point of nonconvergence between my parents and me, and from it proceeded a nonconvergence elongated through all eternity.
The light went out. There was no light, there was no logic. How could it be? It was years before I knew, but then I knew.
We each carry our own designated end within us, our very own death ripening at its own rate inside of us. There are insignificant people who are harboring unawares the grandeur of large deaths. We carry it in us like a darkening fruit. It opens and spills out. That is death. The drunk died too. Had he lived, I suppose I would have learned earlier the qualities of hatred that I now know.
Because I was an only child I was never given the opportunity to hate a sibling. I never wanted one, of course, girl or boy, the difference wouldn't have mattered. I don't think that I ever formulated a conscious desire that no other child appear to wrest from me my exclusivity. The possibility was so unthinkable that it simply never crossed my mind. We composed a perfect solid: pyramidical, self- contained, complete.
She was an only child, too. We were alike in that. And now she is an orphan in the world, quite almost alone as I, the cruel edge in the cold quite almost as permanently fixed, in this town whose name I can't recall, even though it is a name that a young man might wear on his chest like a ribbon, or at least once could, before the young ladies arrived.
Yes, the young ladies now occupy the campus. They sleep in sweatpants in hard and narrow dormitory beds. They take notes in the great lecture halls, where the voices of long-gone professors still echo at these odd hours, mingling true beliefs with false. The women's lacrosse team is a coven of champions.
It was very different when I first came here. The young ladies used to arrive at the briefly unmonked campus only for weekends then, when football games were played or special social occasions declared. The . . . weekend. The . . .
Have I forgotten or did I never know?
And the name of the Fluff-and-nut sandwich.
I would see the young men waiting at the little train station, stamping their feet to stay warm in the winter, the steam rising from their open mouths and flaring nostrils, the long scarves in the dyadic colors of the school wrapped around necks ranging from scrawny to brawny. The nondescript room I rented was not far from the little station. On Friday afternoons, I would often be there to watch the gilded girls alight from the rinky-dink train that connected the town's stop to the main line.
I remember all the girls who stepped off that train as beautiful. Even when bundled up for winter, they were more akin to shimmering orbs of radiance than the more lumpen manifestations of matter who awaited them and who were unspeakably unworthy.
Not that I deemed myself worthy. Or did I? No, I did not. The sight of beauty is naturally intimidating, imposing silence on our quibbling nature. And yet I had discovered, only shortly before my arrival here, the startling fact that I myself was good-looking. I still didn't know what to do with the fact. I believe I never did figure it out. It was a fact that remained only haphazardly attached to my sense of me, that dangled awkwardly. It had been pointed out to me, my second year as a graduate student, by an admirer of the altogether erroneous gender, but it was authentic information nonetheless. I saw that it was true and was amazed. Only someone who had so justifiably earned the hurled epithets-nerd! geek!-could have missed detecting the fact for himself. My father's androgynous symmetry of feature, his taut and pale complexion, conjoined with the eyes and hair of my mother, hair dark and crêpey and eyes speaking extravagantly of soul, had produced in me this dangling situation. I knew enough-I was not an idiot-to know that the fact of my being actually good-looking (I think, perhaps, very) had an intimate connection to the state for which I longed: my addressing, in so many words (which?) one of the alighting young radiants, her meeting my gaze and . . . so on . . . and on . . . in ways I barely dared to distinguish in any consecutive order. I only reveled in the shining obscurity of their ongoing. I had never known such girls as those, not to speak to, to touch with the fingers of my hands.
My watching was of a quality distinct, I think, to me. I felt the light of those girls drawing out my own, fingers of light originating in my brain and stretching out from my eyes in a trembling agony toward them, to almost touch, to glance off them lightly. I had felt those luminous digits as a boy, piercing my telescope's lens to probe the dim, dark bodies splayed gently on the wide night sky. Some girls sensed my mystic fingers on them, or so it seemed. Perhaps many more than betrayed in outward signs the sudden flare of gnosis: the shuddering knowledge of emergence, to know and to be known. Keeping apace with the banality at her side, a disappearing fairy girl would cast a quick glance back. I waited for the one who would turn to me and stay, an answering angel.
-Who are you?
-His daughter, then.
-Yes, his daughter, yes.
Now, in this ravishing season, am I become once again a seasoned watcher, returned to this town that encloses my hate. I would follow her anywhere. Through hollow lands and hilly lands. I would find out where she has gone.
I am here.
I pause for a few moments at the end of the block to collect myself. To collect and recollect the essence that is me. I am a real thing and really exist.
When I came here the first time I had not known yet that she existed. It is a fact: there once had been a time when I did not know her, did not love her and did not hate her. I barely knew then that he existed, her father, who was Samuel Mallach, and who was, like me, a physicist, but of even more than singular promise.
He had published an extraordinary paper on quantum mechanics, his paper of 19 . . . . Its year escapes me, though its content had once reconfigured all the world for me.
The knowledge of the physics trickles back, little though I care, I find that it comes back, how stunned I'd been by Mallach's work, the introduction of the so-called hidden variables that had reattached the dangling formalisms of that grotesque theory to a world recognizably our own. His was a feat that had been deemed to be impossible by nearly all who were given to thinking on these matters. Physicists were in a mood to abandon reality to stuff more spectral than material, to the discrete events of observations and measurements, with nonexistence leering obscenely in between.
I had been outraged on behalf of reality, and so, for many decades longer, had Samuel Mallach.
It comes back to me, the cooled-off memory of all my white-hot fervor, the physics that had burned its way through the hours of my nights and days, the hours of my life. Mallach's hidden variables restored the objectivity of matter, which is to say that they restored matter. Mallach's paper deloonied the electron, and put the psychosis back in the psyche, where it belonged.
Samuel Mallach was a great physicist, but with a wound to the soul that proved eventually fatal. His death, the second one, the one more final, was not, in the end, my fault. This I can recall with absolute authority: that I am no murderer. She and her father were wrong to paint me so, to cast me in the form of monstrousness, withdrawing all possibility of pity.
A Fluffernutter! That was the name of my most favorite sandwich, and it was no foreign word at all. There is a treachery in the seeming certitude of memory, and I must accept as a rule for the direction of mind that recollection is as suspect as a discovered liar, hiding a secret shiftiness inside. Pfeffernuss is no thing at all, a nothing in the world at all, but a phantasm tossed up out of lawless associations of the mind, of ideas colliding as in the very jumble of the mad, who also rave and reify, though they are mad, and I am not, in all probability I'm not, the mad almost never pose the question of themselves.
He had done the impossible, had displayed the electrons moving in coherent pathways. Electrons are there, one could say against the cult of scientific obscurantism. Electrons move. But because what he had done was considered by his colleagues to be impossible, the work had gone unseen. The impossible has a way of passing unnoticed among us.
He wandered the hallways of the department like a ghost and was condemned, for his quantum heresy, to teach the course they called "Physics for Poets." But he had taken to his sentence with an unbecoming gladness. It was the first work since the hidden variables that he had loved, although he was far more taken with the poets than the physics. He was teaching Physics for Poets to the baffled undergraduates who had wanted only to fulfill their science requirement without being dragged through the mental anguish that they called mathematics. The tag was meant to convey only what was mercifully missing, but he had taken fiercely to the notion of the noetic poetic.
The undergraduates were, to say the least, underwhelmed. He stood before them and sang songs of Blake. The students complained in droves, even though problem sets were seldom, and the grades, albeit random, were high-ended. Some in his class were sufficiently vexed to transfer to real courses and take the consequences.
He set me to study lines of words of his own choosing. He gave me the Willies, William Blake and William Yeats, poets of glimmer and gloom. That was how he thought to prepare me for the formidable problem that we were once hell-bent on solving, and that would, had we but solved it . . . had we but only solved it . . .
I am Justin Childs, and am something so long as I believe that I am something and am Justin Childs, a thing that hates.
The houses, well placed on their tender spreads of lawn, are all in darkness at this hour. There are ancient trees and expensive shrubs sealed up in smug shadow. The trees, coated on top with the thin milk of the moon, shiver slightly.
A heavy limb cringes with a drawn-out groan, and the low leaves mutter with the prejudices of matter.
How full of false opinions the vegetative souls are.
The sign that stands at the end of the block is lit by moon and gives its name. This is Bagatelle Road. Each home on it aspires to another place, another time, aspirations very characteristic of these surroundings. There is not what I would call an American house on the entire length of Bagatelle Road, nothing like the American house of my perfect-solid boyhood.
From my place beside the moonlit signpost, I can only just make out her house. The disturbances in the field disturb the patterns of my seeing. There is a field of forces radiating outward from that house, and this field is highly charged for me, uncohering my history.
What thing am I? What thing?
The lines of force hum louder, a humming like that of electrons surging through hot wire, a mosquito in one's ear whose hum is madness.
Every instant now is a lifetime full of passions and perturbations, intermingled with the scents of the past, so that the breath of her shampoo, which had once pierced me through and through, now pierces me again. I did not gasp aloud, I do not think, I do not gasp aloud, only one must take them all more slowly or be whelmed over, move less eagerly than one would wish.
Eagerness, above all else, must be resisted. Eagerness would be the end of me. What is required is a detachment perfectly cold. What is required is to move and not be moved. Nothing shall move me. I am Justin Childs, and the essential fact is that I hate her. It is an English Tudor, very elegant and self-contained. It, too, appears to be given over to darkness, like its night-musing neighbors, but I know better. This is not, by any means, my first night visit, and I know that even when she does manage her few fitful hours of sleep, lamps are always left burning, testament to her uneasy soul.
She is frightened of darkness, but she dreams, I think, of fire. I see fire in her dreams.
Quite often I find her up, wandering her big and empty house in the small hours, leaving lights on wherever she goes.
And I am here, and I know by that humming, whose noise is like madness, that she is near, within this house, and that, afraid of the night, she waits it out, awake.
It is a beautiful house. Its dimensions, too, once diminished me, passed over me like a felt eraser and left me smudged, but now I am changed and less subject to erasure. The house had once belonged to her maternal grandparents. It was her mother, the long-gone Dotty, I at least called her Dotty, whom I had learned adroitly to despise, who had brought the wealth into the family, the evidence of which had served to deepen the disorder of my state on my first visit here. It becomes a physicist to be a materialist only in the most abstract of senses, asserting that all is matter, that the properties of matter in motion are the properties that there are. What business had a theoretical physicist with so much wealth? And Samuel Mallach was a most unworldly man, an otherworldling who wandered the hallways of his department unnoticed, a man with no sense of intellectual fashion, a defeatist slope to his person, and the odor of the old insanity still wafting faintly about him. Each madness has an odor of its own, and most of them are nasty.
She has finished her schooling. She is now formally, officially, schooled. She has as many degrees as I. But she has come home, and interred the diplomas in some unvisited bottom drawer. She is an heiress, having come into legacies of more than one sort, of money and memory and more. She lives alone in the beautiful home where she grew up, in this town that comports itself with a dignity so perfected it has almost the marmoreal aspect of death.
It is strange of her to have returned. Did she think the deviance in my coordinates would carry me away, cancel my essence and nullify my hate?
I am her hidden variable.
Around to the back, where the opaque architecture gives way to glass. It was one of Dotty's last projects, to break her house open to transparency, so that there is a dazzling eruption of unloosed light, of photons streaming reckless into night, summoning from out of the nearby woods the hosts of fragile creatures, beating furious wings in light-fed frenzy, while others, immobilized by love, are flattened on the glass as if painted there, wings outspread, a breathless attending upon the blaze from within.
Dressed in a long white robe, and she is wintry pale in high summer, and we are separated only by the frozen breath of this thinnest glass. She sits immersing a straw tea basket into a porcelain cup, slowly dipping down and up, a meditation on the infusion of green tea. She is beautiful still, while I am so ruined, although she, too, has been retouched by calamity. A few odd years have passed, some three or five or seven, and still her hands and arms are marked by the discolorations that were left behind, the ghosts of flames still reaching toward her shoulders, and beneath the robe there is a leg that must limp, and the memory of fire still burns loudly in her dreams. I do not see her dreams, but still I know, and I have watched her eyelids shiver frightened over visions.
Held captive on the glass, wings outstretched and unmoving, the light- headed moths and light-headed me, pressed flat against the smooth, hard surface, while she, the object of our stares, gazes down into her steaming tea, the lovely lovely lovely of her face still partially, mercifully, veiled, while I am ruined. I am Justin Childs and am something so long as I think I am something, let him who would deceive me try his best, I am and am and
I must strengthen myself before those eyes, their held hue and life and light and sight, her slender hands wrapped round the pale green cup, whose contents go untasted, for her musing mood is on her. I know the mood but not the musings. Her musings are her own. She has an inner life, that is the sorry truth. They mostly do, to some extent, but she takes it to the extreme. There is a universe in there, a curved and closed infinity. So beautiful a form: why could it not have been the all? The image in the mirror, why could it not have been the all and all?
The love-tales wrought with silken thread
By dreaming ladies upon cloth
That has made fat the murderous moth.
Read Yeats, her father had instructed me. Read Blake. Having lost his physics, together with his senses, to the devastations of vast sorrow, he was desperately seeking it in poetry. He's mad, I thought, but I'll still get the physics from him. I'll get the glorious physics out from him.
She has stolen it from me. She took from me the ancient dream of fire and divinity, to plunge into the fire and emerge a god. She has stolen it from me.
Behind the glass, she dips her tea and doesn't see the silent congregation gathering. The glass is thick with watchers.
I am a real thing, and really exist; but what thing? I have answered: I have answered.
Sometimes she reads and sometimes writes. I have seen no mathematics in her writings, but that proves nothing. Her imagination, like her father's, travels other paths.
Dawn will be here soon. Wearily she'll climb the stairs, leaving the lamps still lit below, to burn away into invisibility in the daylight. Motionless we watch, the famished moths and famished I, pressed up against the glass, while behind us, there is an erupted madness of movement, a dry fluttering as if of émigrés from Hades, starers starving for the light, driven past their limits by the properties of radiance, their need pressing like the weight of mortality within, so that occasionally, as now, there is one so sent by desire that it dies against the glass, with the sound of something fragile breaking. It is a shatter barely sensible against the treachery of things too transparent, the soft sound of some too soft creature dying softly for the light.
Even so, it is heard within.
She starts and looks up quickly, the gnosis of green tea forgotten, the hot liquid spilling over trembling hands, and the violence of the shudder pulling all her features along with it, so that she is, for the moment, an ugly woman, an unchosen girl cast out of the golden net.
In her eyes there is an articulation of terror so stark it seems that of a very small child. Or something drawn by a child.
It makes one smile to see a child's hand scrawl across the features of that face, unforming their beauty.
A sight to behold, she stares back at the starers thickly clustered on her glass . . . one of whom is smiling.
She believes in ghosts. Poor child, she believes in me.
What People are saying about this
A marvelous book, full of light of its own. Bridging the chasm between fiction and physics, it comes up with a single engrossing reality as radical as a unified field theory. In this eloquent book, physics is the necessary preliminary to life, and life, ultimately, the noble expression of physics. Properties of Light is at once the most logical and most ecstatic fiction of our age.
Meet the Author
Rebecca Goldstein is the author of four novels, including THE MIND-BODY PROBLEM, and a collection of short stories, STRANGE ATTRACTORS. Her work has won numerous prizes, including two Whiting Awards. In 1996, she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, where her work was concentrated in the philosophy of science and was supported by a National Science Foundation fellowship. She resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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It's been a long time since a piece of fiction has so entranced me. This really is novel-writing at its best: beautifully written, touching, and subtly interwoven with big ideas. Though science usually leaves me cold,this story of three physicists on a quest for truth makes for a feverishly passionate read. Not only are the erotic entanglements (and there are quite a few of these) impassioned, but the physics itself is impassioned, and I was suprised to find myself almost as exited about the scientific journey as the emotional. If former masterpieces such as 'The Mind-Body Problem' and 'The Dark Sister' haven't already won Goldstein her place in the cannon, then she has certainly secured it with 'Properties of Light