The Problem of Light
The problem of light is, what could it be? A wave? Or a particle? A shimmy, or a stick tracing o’s in the mud? From Aristotle on, people argued this—until Paul Dirac declared light to be both, not in a mystical way so much as a flirtatious one, light being a wave if you ask it a wavelike question, a particle if you ask it a particle-like question. The answer you get depends on the question you ask. This you can prove with the mathematical theory of quantum fields. Or this is how Dirac’s research gets presented, though I imagine this formula too has its transcription, simply what you get if you ask Paul Dirac a paradox-like question.
Such power to the shape of our interrogatives.
If I ask you a soul-like question. Or one of dust.
All of us have a problem with light here. Very little nine months of the year, then so much. You asked me the other day why you see huge and absurd straw hats on everyone. We have a milder light, less heat, than many places. This is you humorous, but it is true: hats like ribboned platters, round rafts. We dry up inside, my doctor tells me, through near-universal vitamin D starvation. Even a short sun every day could heal our psyches and our bodies. But the light is fearful.
Our scientists have interrogated it, trapped it, turned it solid, a hail of illuminating pellets.
Early August: tomatoes small and hard, the color of limes; toadflax purple and girly pink; strep-throated lilies. The powder-blue ball on the flowering nettle, a baby’s rattle with a bite. So many flowers and foods, really, what good would it do to name them all? If I do, it will only be because I like to say them: balm and toad and mallow; lupine, lavender, bishop weed. I planted them; I care for them; I find excuses to say their names. They themselves have only their seasons, as things do, like the neighbor in my building in long-ago Elizabeth who beat his wife on a schedule. Every Friday. Or as your father beat your mother, evenings and weekends.
To think we had our overlapping schedules of crying women.
The use of quarks has been an exercise in faith for physicists. These bits of being can’t be known; they can’t be proved; they can only make other parts of the universal equations work out. If a cabbage fit into those equations, people would say, “Look, here is the most fundamental thing, a cabbage.” And on the tiniest level, the things of the universe follow their own laws, or no laws, vibrating between wave and particle, jumping around.
The way you look down the street and see house after house, very similar, smallish houses built around the turn of the twentieth century, the same flowers and vegetables and fruits everywhere, even on the strip beside the road, a bantam hen or two cackling down the street. But within each house the quark of individual existence follows its own laws. Some have just a mother, always in a bathrobe, screaming. One has a man mourning his wife of forty years. One offers a meal of fresh perch and fresh morels, and around it children group themselves.
Our sun, in summer, does not like to go away. It lingers until ten; it fades like a houseguest leaning on the doorframe. In the early evening it pins our chairs to the walls and pings through the emptiness of the lace on the window. It pools—and I do mean this—on the kitchen floor, the kitchen of the duct-taped cabinets and scuffs on the floor, our own sub-subatomic parts. We gather around the table and have poultry and just-picked greens, eating with our hands in the manner of another culture.
At night, light seeping through his blinds, our son can’t sleep. This too is a problem. As we sit with him, he persists with questions: How can we be so sure we love him? Who were we before him? Have we taken drugs, been arrested? What bad things have we done?
Dirac was famous in physics for being “the strangest man,” as Niels Bohr put it, not spiritual like Einstein or so proud he wouldn’t flush the toilet like Rabi, but silent, with his occasional outbursts pulling at all the bewildering strands of human behavior. At Cambridge a joke had it that a unit called a dirac was a unit of one spoken word per hour. Dirac climbed trees in his three-piece suit. He loved Cher. He disliked poetry but missed out on at least one successful extension of his work, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, on the grounds that the theory had no beauty.
Then Dirac married, ended up with four children, and changed: he learned to tell jokes; he laughed. And slowly his mathematical insights drained away. He had always said his equations existed without language, could not be presented with language. Dirac would not let you say it was hot unless you could cite an exact number, as if he found words to be chronically guilty of untruths. I imagine him sitting at night with a young child, struggling with those questions, the early ones, such as why the sun comes up and leaves and where the dead retriever buried under the plum tree has gone. Dirac had no love of religion, no softening for a child. He also had no chalkboard and no equations, only the diracs he must pay out.
Though Dirac slowed down, most of what matters in twentieth-century physics builds on him: he forecast antimatter, fermions, weak force, the principle of conservation of strangeness, where particles like strange quarks resist mixing with other particles that are strange, but at times, going against principle, they do.
In a Dirac-type way, here we are, out of our memorable spins: your vodka Christmases and segregated parks, my Budweiser factory with the neon raptor diving. Summer sweeps on, and the garden keeps producing these flowers I haven’t planted: snapdragons, foxgloves full of the drug fortifying our nephew’s heart, white carnations this year—what you wore in your lapel as a boy to signify your mother’s death. And though the chickens have done laying for the day, they are still squawking, angry or celebrating or just passing time, down the road.
Susanne Antonetta has had essays and poems appear in the New York Times, Orion, the Washington Post, and other venues. Her most recent book, Inventing Family, a memoir and study of adoption, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Honors for her Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir (2001) and A Mind Apart (2005) include a New York Times Notable Book listing, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Sci-Tech Book notice, selection as an Elle Reader’s Choice finalist, and many others. She is also coauthor of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. “The Problem of Light” is for Bruce Beasley, un bel muse.
“The Problem of Light” appears in our Spring 2012 issue.