A VOMIT OF DIAMONDS
By Boripat Lebel
Copyright © 2016 by Boripat Lebel
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
“It’s like watching a bird of paradise dance,” said Balzac Bouchard in a conspiratorial tone. Soka Mayura smiled in agreement. Their physics lecturer, sporting a bright blue vest and gesticulating furiously at the front of the lecture hall, was indeed putting on a truly exotic show as he expounded the virtues of vectors — a topic which he was evidently wild about. “So full of pizzazz,” the Parisian wit added.
Balzac Bouchard was a stripling of eighteen summers with a lissome figure and middle height. Built with French and Thai genes, he appeared Persian; for his countenance was sharp, his complexion light olive, his hair Stygian, his brows unforgiving, his lashes heavy, his eyes amber, and his nose Greek. In other words, his physiognomy did not need to move much for it to express anger. The color black became him.
Soka Mayura on the other hand had a more amenable appearance; for her frame was short and shaped like an amphora, her head with thick hair cut to resemble a bob, her face round, her skin light, and her gaze gentle. She wore a pair of framed glasses, and her fashion followed a simple rule: t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Disposition wise, hers was as placid as a lagoon, with the intelligence worthy of one belonging in the Advanced Bachelor program — an undergraduate degree for the scholarly one percent.
Five minutes to the lecture’s end, the eccentric instructor surrendered the podium to a woman in her thirties, dressed for serious hiking. She had a slender tall figure, pale skin, dark hair tied back, thin face, and grey eyes. “Hi, I’m Sarah,” she said with a serious smile. The room was all ears. “I’m here on behalf of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics,” she continued, “to make an announcement about the one-week astro camp that will take place at the beginning of the mid-semester break.” “Places for participants are limited” she went on to explain, “so interested persons are encouraged to write a few paragraphs about why they would like to go and how the astro camp will benefit them as part of their application form; applicants with the ten best reasons will be selected for the camp.”
“It’s a great opportunity,” she promised, enforcing this statement with another serious smile. “Mark me down as intrigued,” thought Balzac Bouchard, who was all attention in matters relating to space due largely to the TV series Star Trek Voyager — the precepts of which he adopted in everyday life. “Seven of Nine is my role model,” he was known to say, “and Captain Janeway my moral compass.” It was therefore natural that the young cadet should take an application form with him before exiting T-Three; one of five large auditoriums in the elongated building near Union Court, at the heart of the Australian National University in Canberra.
“Lunch time,” Soka surmised, by way of explaining the bustling square swarming with young people of various persuasions going about their daily habits. “Indeed,” said he, displeased at the messy looking terrain. Initially, they negotiated a route through the throng; however, after many side steps and starts and stops, Bouchard’s patience finally ran out, and from there on he sliced through the mass with attitude.
“That was — impressive,” Soka decided, as they came out of Union Court in much less time than the polite course would have taken them, decidedly. “The animal kingdom is full of examples,” said he, matter-of-fact; “Puff up, appear aggressive, and most people will get out of your way.” Then, the two entered University Avenue, a grand walk flanked on either side by a military row of Lombardy poplars. “I suppose,” was Soka’s uncertain response; for she herself could never pull off what Bouchard had just accomplished. “You are far too nice,” the other pointed out, his tone slotting between compliment and reprimand.
“The astro camp sounds fun,” Soka observed after a pause. “It is an opportunity to be sure,” Balzac concurred in his usual significant way. “Too bad it’s during the holidays though,” she noted, having already made plans to spend the month in Tokyo with family and to meet up with some close friends. “Are you going back to Thailand?” she asked casually. “No,” was the short answer; “My parents are flying to Germany for a meeting, and after that to Venice for a holiday,” he elaborated. “Will you be going with them?” she asked, excited for him; Venice was high on Soka Mayura’s places-to-visit list. “No,” came his simple reply. “No?” she thought, feeling sorry for him.
“What about visiting your grandparents in Perth?” Soka asked, moving on to another possibility. Bouchard shook his head; “They will be at my great-grandfather’s house in France for the entire month of July,” he explained. “In Burgundy?” the other asked in a confirmation-required tone. “Indeed,” came the confirmation. Here Bouchard reflected, recalling balmy afternoons and lemon tarts. “The country is extra picturesque during the summer,” he exclaimed after a nostalgic pause; “And the vineyard near my great-grandfather’s estate is said to be the choicest in the region — not the kind of wines to get drunk on, you understand?”
“It must be very nice country,” Soka pondered with smiling interest. “To be sure,” he affirmed, encouraged by her attention; “Its beauty is supernatural,” said he, improvising quixotic allegories on the spot, “for its climate is mild like the inside of an oyster, its vineyards are Elysian Fields, its rivers sparkle like opals, and its natives chase rainbows.” This verbal grandeur transported the traveler within Soka Mayura; moving her conscious in the same way the mind of a sailor turns to mush when a Siren calls.
“Now I feel like ratatouille,” abruptly stated Balzac, envisioning his grandmother’s garden in Perth, wherein the fruits and herbs de Provence appurtenant to that dish were grown and appreciated. By interjecting this image of food Bouchard broke the spell he had cast over his friend, Soka Mayura, whose one passion ranking above travelling was that of cooking. “What are you having for lunch?” she asked, as she thought about the leftovers she was going to microwave and looking forward to eating them too.
“A peanut butter sandwich,” came Balzac’s instant reply. Peanut butter was Bouchard’s favorite food. During his first handling a jar of the crunchy variety, he had spooned its contents as if crunchy peanut butter were Greek yoghurt with pieces of fruit — indeed, he still did this on occasion. “And maybe some black grapes,” he added for good measure, “speaking of which,” he added with a contemplative accent, “Is it not strange that I should fancy grapes so much and yet find raisins most distasteful?” To be sure, the way he said “raisins” — spitting the word out like bad wine — left no ambiguity as to his preference. “That’s true for me with steak. I prefer rare. Not very fond of well-done steak,” Soka reflected on her own consuming contradictions. “I don’t eat cow,” was Balzac’s closing remark.
At the end of University Avenue the two worthies crossed Daley Road — a drive outlining the back periphery of the ANU campus, whereon a few student accommodations were situated — and then proceeded along its sidewalk to a white stuccoed establishment by the name of Helena Hall. This student accommodation was made up of three interconnected buildings: the central part housed administration, study facilities, and communal kitchen; while on either side of “central” were two towers four levels high, each sardining a litany of studios within. Tall eucalyptus trees shaded the property, their glaucous foliage embalming the air with a Delphian perfume. Lawn and flower beds carpeted the remaining ground, with wild orchids and kangaroo paws being the predominant favorite.
Bouchard’s study-bedroom was on the second floor of the west wing. The fixtures installed therein were to the point: a stainless-steel sink, a mini walk-in wardrobe, a wooden bookcase, a white radiator, a long worktable, a single bed, and a nightstand. In the rear wall above the latter was a tall window affording evergreen views of the abutting patch of forest.
As Bouchard did not collect the unnecessary, his possessions therefore did not add much to the room’s original landscape. Suffice it to say here, its walls remained free from posters, bookcase empty of titles, and work table minimalistic. All other equipages, pens and notepads, chargers and such were stored out of sight where they could not offend his fastidious eye. To quote verbatim the observation made by Soka Mayura upon entering his Spartan sanctuary for the first time: “It looks like—” she said slowly, her eyes opening wide, “a very clean prison cell.”
Helena Hall’s central kitchen was a series of cooking bays, broken into two sides via a column of tables lining its center. Presently, Bouchard and Mayura sat tête-à-tête at one such table, their midday fare ready to be converted to calories. “Do you think many people will apply to this astro camp?” Balzac asked casually, meanwhile peeling the crusts off his sandwich and eating it first. “I would imagine so,” Soka supposed, spooning her stir-fry on a bed of rice; “You should apply!” she added encouragingly. “Oh, I don’t know,” Balzac replied, sounding dismissive; “I don’t think I have the intelligence to qualify,” he opined. “Don’t think like that,” returned she with a sad look; “Besides,” she added, ever the optimist, “You’re really good at writing. So I’m sure you can write something that will convince them to pick you.”
“There is some truth in what you say,” Balzac allowed in a thoughtful manner; “It would have to be a worthy essay though, mind you. Pizzazzerized with the choicest words and verbal adornments from Voltaire’s vocabulary, spiced with the calculating coquetry of Madame de Pompadour,” he added, carried away by delusions of grandeur — as Narcissus became infatuated with his own reflection. “Um, o-kay,” said Soka, reminded for the third time today how strange her friend was; for, although their attachment amounted to a few months now, there remained a lot about him that still needed to be gotten used to.
Bouchard and Mayura became acquainted during their second lecture for physics. The former had ensconced himself into the seat beside her, at the end of a middle row. At one point during this lesson, the professor encouraged the room to discuss a mechanical problem with the person next to them. Like most geniuses Soka Mayura failed at socializing, in particular, at starting conversations. Meanwhile, the only person beside her without a ready partner, Balzac Bouchard, disliked small talk to a violent degree; as she was soon about to find out. “Hi! I’m Soka. What do you think?” she spoke up abruptly and into his face, using up all her courage in one awesome burst of friendship-making. The other stared at her with a blank expression. Blink, blink. Another blink. “Words fail me,” he finally said.
“Do you know where Coonabara Observatory is?” Soka presently asked, her plate almost cleaned. “Somewhere far, far away I’m sure,” said Balzac, biting into a black grape with a resounding crunch. Mayura gave him a flat stare. “Fine,” he sighed, rolling his eyes significantly; “It’s on Mount Coonabara, which is a mountain within Warrumbumgle National Park in New South Wales,” he said, popping another grape into his mouth as if it were popcorn. Then, breaking off a cluster he extended it to Mayura for acceptance. “Um, thank you,” she hesitatingly replied, torn between propriety and desire.
“Anyway, all this talk of astronomy has got me thinking,” Balzac resumed, his philosophic tone and grave expression indicating an academic question was soon to follow; this much Mayura had learned about her friend in their few months spent together, and thus she braced herself for impact. “Given that the universe is expanding,” he laid out the basics, “does this not mean that there is a space around our universe wherein it can expand out towards? And if this is the case, would it not mean that there is another universe around this one, and another one around that one too, and so on?”
“I’m not sure,” Soka slowly replied, thinking the matter over; “But who’s to say that the Big Bang didn’t happen more than once,” she allowed after a thoughtful pause. “I have heard about that theory,” Balzac noted; “but it sounds impossible. Then again,” he reflected, “Perhaps it is no more impossible than a caterpillar pupating into a butterfly.”
“There is also the theory that there is no end to the universe,” she resumed in a by-the-by tone, “meaning that you’d fly around in a loop if you followed a straight course.” Here Bouchard gave her a questioning look, equivalent to a Vulcan eyebrow raising. “Yeah,” Soka agreed, scratching her chin and frowning thoughtfully, “I don’t quite get the full picture either.”
The clock’s alarm rang at exactly five the next morning. Bouchard arose mechanically and slipped out of his bed to silence the noise; it was time for his jog along Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra’s center piece and pleasure park, which on most days was as flat as a mirror. While descending the stairs to the ground floor he unpaused an audiobook from the Star Wars universe; a decisive duel was about to take place, and he was impatient to know its outcome.
“Do you have a favorite Episode?” Soka had asked him on one occasion, during a conversation about the aforementioned space opera. “Personally,” said Balzac with care, adopting a confidential manner lest he be overheard by a fanatic nearby who might start throwing rocks at him for his next comments; “I prefer the prequels. More glamorous, you see.”
As his classes today didn’t start till later that morning, Bouchard had a few hours to look-over his application form for astro camp. “Why should I be among the chosen ones?” he pondered, thinking up a winning response. However a few minutes into an introductory paragraph Bouchard stopped, realizing that this guy sounded really boring. “Borg,” he cursed drily, deleting everything. Then, inspiration struck. He wrote thusly:
“Designation: Balzac Bouchard. Species: Human. Active: Eighteen standard earth years. Materials: Thai and French. Regeneration Unit: Helena Hall. Alcove: Two-one-two. Operating System: Science. Assignment: Undergraduate degree. Performance: Average. Response time: Within normal parameters. Memory: Limited. Network: Upgradable.”
Here Bouchard reviewed his introduction. “At least it’s not common,” he judged after an edit — like a grandson who is trying to remain optimistic about a home-knitted gift. For the body of his essay, however, Bouchard returned to his usual writing style; heavily influenced by favorite novels such as War and Peace, The Idiot, Madame Bovary, Father Goriot, The Charterhouse of Parma, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and other classics equally populated with great figures making fine speeches and stirring up frivolous troubles. “The aristocracy amuses me,” was his reason for preferring titles written before the twentieth century; “They are like birds of paradise with feathers!” Sufficed it to say here, he was a very strange boy growing up.
“For me, it was Star Trek Voyager,” he resumed writing, the most important section whence his worth as a candidate would be judged; “Indeed, the space drama inspired me with astronomical aspirations; for what the show lacked in scientific accuracy it made up by accurately depicting the spirit of science: discovery and study. Thence began my transformation, from idle stargazer with a dreamy expression on his face, to student of astronomy peeking into secrets of the universe that others have unlocked.” Bouchard kept going on in this monologic strain for a while longer, until it was time to leave for class.
Late in the afternoon Bouchard decided on a trip to the supermarket; he was running low on peanut butter. Mayura’s bicycle was thus borrowed for this purpose. Bouchard had earlier owned a bicycle of his own to be sure; however on day nine the vehicle and its appurtenances had mysteriously vanished from Helena Hall’s shed. And while he liked to think himself above worldly possessions — in accordance with the Star Trek attitude he wished to imitate — this disappearance quite annoyed him. “The bandit is lucky I am not Medea,” he reflected after a vain search, his temper cool but his eyes blazing.
The autumnal air smelt a little musty. “Like a forest stripped of its leaves which have fallen onto the ground, and are slowly liquefying into the earth,” Balzac reckoned, as he pedaled across University Avenue and on towards the city’s center, passing by naked trees along the way. Scents in general he did not like, with the exception perhaps of peanut butter. “It’s my opium,” he would say, taking dreamy whiffs from an opened jar — like a person might do when smelling roses. He was a very strange boy indeed, then as much as now.
“I’ll finish my application tonight,” Balzac made plans, meanwhile passing through Union Court at a breezy pace not replicable at midday; “Then send it to grandpapa for an edit tomorrow,” he added, decidedly, “Grandpapa has a way of turning glaciers into sculptures.” Here he entered another boulevard also dropping leaves.
Though Canberra’s main street was a poor substitute for the rue de Rivoli in Paris to be sure, it was not however, without some select distractions of its own. The chief among them was a large mall — that sparkled brilliantly at night like a Galeries Lafayette — surrounded by a panoply of cafés, restaurants and name boutiques not unworthy of a population richer than the national average. Supermarkets of various brands competed in the mall’s ground floor; Bouchard entered one such store, reconnoitering the fresh produce section first.
“Grapes,” he finally espied the fruit of his dreams, grabbing three plastic bags and picking out the choicest clusters from each color in turn; “Really now, I’m sure I do not know how I’m going to survive winter on apples and pears only,” he reflected with a deep sigh. To distract himself from such sad thoughts, Bouchard meandered over to the jams and spreads aisle.
“Natural peanut butter is the most pretentious thing the organic movement has ever come out with,” he opined, eyeing such a jar with perfect aristocratic disdain, as if it were a vulgarity and crime against high society; “It is no substitute for the real thing.”
Provisions thus paid for, the borrowed bicycle was remounted and the route whence he came from retraced. The sidewalks and streets were at this afternoon hour teeming with bipeds and wheels hurrying back to their creature comforts at home. It wasn’t until Bouchard reached the purlieus of the ANU wherein the commotion subsided considerably, and his mind was free to fall back into its usual wanderings. “Now, where was I?” he recollected, unpausing a fantasy involving mutant powers.
Much obliged for the package received today. Such delights I encountered upon its opening. Grandmama’s famous strawberry jam will add extra pizzazz to my peanut butter sandwiches, you may be sure. No preserve can claim its peer, for grandmama is generous with the meat and adds a secret ingredient — lemon, methinks.
Sigh, does not the mention of peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich bring back memories of my summer visits to Perth, when I was but a young sweet boy? To be sure it takes me back to around three in the afternoon, when grandmama would enter her domain and fix me up the most exquisite collaboration since chocolate and hazelnuts married officially, using her famous spread to great effect. Indeed, I have known no greater comfort in life than those times when slowly nibbling my way around the center of a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich, wherein oozed the crème de la crème; meanwhile flipping through a Calvin and Hobbes omnibus, and chuckling at their nefarious deeds. Thoroughly indulged with comfort food and happy entertainment, I fancied myself as rich as Midas. Ah, the halcyon days of a mollycoddled youth.
But moving on from little me. Burgundy in Summer! Great grandpapa shall be most pleased for the opportunity to entertain his son and daughter-in-law with lively conversations interlarded with Hellenic references — as is to be expected from an emeritus professor of Greek literature. And a few days meandering through Paris too, I think you mentioned in your monthly. How glamorous. You and grandmama will be revisiting the Monets and Cézannes no less? Though not an art connoisseur myself, I will say that I derive a great thrill when studying the portraits of Madame la Marquise de Pompadour and her Bourbon set — so full of pizzazz!
Sigh. I am presently imagining Paree, the city of pleasures and elegancies, before the twentieth century as depicted in the classical novels I enjoy reading so much; and for which I am now in the mood to improvise a beginning.
‘A young lady sits in a rococo armchair beside a tall window looking down onto a forest of flowers. She has an exquisite figure, and skin as white as jade. Today she is draped in a pale blue dress worthy of belonging to a daughter of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Her dark hair is pulled up after the current fashion, revealing beneath a melancholic beauty sure to stop Monsieur le Marquis in his tracks; for her eyes are moons, her lashes fans, her forehead marble, her lips Mona Lisa, her neck Nefertiti, and her ears butterfly wings.’
Pardi! I am daydreaming now. Such is the way with minds that wander and leap from topic to topic.
Speaking of things that leap, my latest passion is learning more about salticids, or more commonly known as jumping spiders. They are fascinating creatures, you may be sure. Though small they can carry prey many times their weight while dangling from a silk tread. You can distinguish them from other arachnids by their frontal eyes, which are very big — personally, I think they look very cute. Jumping spiders are also colorful little things; with a courting ritual that would put birds of paradise to shame.
But really now, I am vomiting words. You deserve better reading than this.
Speaking of reading, would you be so kind as to look over an essay I wrote as part of an astronomy camp application form? Please see attached. It is a little meandering in places and overly bulky in others, it is true; and thus, I think, would benefit from your editing chainsaw. Much obliged in advanced.
Meanwhile, hope all is well in the hills of Perth. Are the wildflowers satisfactory this year?
The weather in Canberra is a true autumn: pleasant to the touch but mothy to the nostrils. The fruit selection has fallen off at the supermarkets, I have noticed. Gone are the days of nectarines piled high in abundance; which reminds me of the walks Nana and I used to take down the road, with our pretty hats on and chattering animatedly among ourselves — like two sisters in a Jane Austen novel — to Mr. Offer’s orchard whereat we would buy a box of the plumpest, juiciest nectarines, apricots and peaches arboriculture could engender.
Moving on. I am presently reading a story by Leo Tolstoy, and have noticed that for this particular narrative he has adopted an uncommon grammatical prefix, which is the insertion of a comma before an em dash. I observe that by prefixing such an addition to a parenthesis, it magnifies the significance of that interjection by tenfold. To wit, if I should write:
‘Count Bezukhov dropped himself heavily onto the sofa, — the news struck him like a blow to the chest.’
The comma adds drama by inserting between the statement and the explanation a significant pause, — I think.
Anyway, much obliged for the jam and sweetmeats. Such consideration. On the other hand I look forward to reading your next monthly newsletter, — written any scathing letters to the editor lately?
“I am not much the wiser,” Balzac admitted with a grave frown. He and Soka were in one of Helena Hall’s study rooms, sitting opposite each other at a table to themselves. She had just finished giving him a lengthy explanation on a physics question, it was not an easy assignment. Mayura scratched her chin, in search of another way of putting it. “I’m so dumb,” Balzac thought to himself, annoyed at his disability. There was some truth to what he said, to be sure; for Physics had indeed been his worst subject back in high school. So why was he dedicating three years of his life towards majoring in it? Suffice to say here, Balzac Bouchard lived by the dictum: “If salmons can leap over waterfalls, why not I?” Besides, the boy had a violent curiosity, which drove him to doing things he did not understand fully or at all; the expectation being however, that he would understand them eventually if exposed to them long enough.
A while later, the equations equated and solved as instructed, Bouchard’s frown deepened; “They don’t add up the same,” said he, matter-of-fact. “Hmm?” came Soka’s abstracted reply; she was presently in the middle of solving another Newtonian question, this one more difficult than the first. “As in momentum is not conserved,” he added, sounding very grave indeed; “See here,” and Bouchard showed her his numbers. The other removed her gaze from her work and turned to his papers; “Hmm,” she conceded after a peruse through, her frown deepening. “I don’t suppose we can attribute the missing energy to heat or sound?” Balzac asked, suggestively. “Unfortunately that’s not allowed,” Soka replied, scratching her chin in a puzzled manner.
Following this discouraging comment, Bouchard laid his pen down on the table; decidedly, it was time for a break. “Do you think it’s possible that we’re just holograms in some advanced civilization’s simulation?” he asked, making small talk; or at least his version of it. “Um — not very likely?” was her short reply; head bent and attention fixed upon the problem with the units. Bouchard rolled his eyes significantly, remarking: “Atheists”. The other remained glued to her puzzle but heard his retort, and sniggered quietly to herself in response. “On the other hand,” Balzac continued, speaking a little louder, intentionally. Mayura put her pen down in acquiescence; apparently they were in recess.
Significant news! Against all odds, I have been chosen among the top ten participants that will be attending astronomy camp during the winter break. I am very flattered by this consideration, you may be sure. But it would not have been possible, I think, if it were not for your brutal edits to the essay; which, there can be no doubt, improved my chances tenfold. Again, much obliged for your contribution.
To update you on the state of my studies is to tell you a tale of ominous foreboding. Sigh. Exams loom nigh, assignments multiply, and candles burn unto midnight’s end. Honestly now; sometimes I feel like I’m standing under a waterfall raining dead fish. Whoever said university was an improvement from high school obviously wore his cap on back to front. Indeed, I have half a mind to berate the next ignoramus propagating this untruth with a few choice words and aristocratic indignation.
Moving on. To distract myself from the student responsibilities lamented above, I have taken up a novel by Gustave Flaubert. As is typical of Monsieur Flaubert, it is a saucy tale pregnant with impassioned lovers and sinful liaisons. So very different from the book I was previously engaged in, let me tell you. That one was a Jane Austen title, about prudes and the difficulties they faced on a daily basis. Oh, the horrors of impropriety! Thus, the book amused me a great deal, you may be sure. I would go so far as to call it a page-turner, actually. Indeed, Miss Austen has a way of turning family drama into thriller. But all this is not to imply a preference; for I can enjoy scones and have my macarons too.
But I must be off now; the dead fish won’t pick themselves up you know. Again, much obliged for your edits to the essay — it was like watching a safari nut saw the horns off a rhinoceros.
One chilly evening nearing June’s end, Bouchard stepped out of Helena Hall’s west wing. He was wrapped in a black trench coat — looking every part the Sith Lord dressed to kill. Scowling at the cold air, he walked over to join Mayura who waited under a lamp post in front of Central, her phone in one hand scrolling through a stream of updates from the various media she subscribed to.
“And what is the talk of the town today?” asked he by way of a greeting. “The Hubble Telescope took a new photo,” Soka replied, holding up the screen for him to inspect, knowing his interests in the dark arts of astronomy. Bouchard studied the offered picture with concentrated attention; “A nebular cloud,” he marveled in good humor, “the lava lamps of the universe, is what I like to call them.” So saying he returned to his full height, and they set off together at a leisurely pace along Daley Road, whereon once in a while a car would cruise by at a respectable speed.
“I have been thinking about seeds lately,” Balzac started, after a comfortable silence had settled in. “Seeds?” repeated Soka in a curious tone. “Seeds,” confirmed he with a grave nod; “Have you never wondered why the seed of a mango is one and large, while the seed of a watermelon is many and small?” Soka Mayura scratched her chin in a musing manner, remarking: “That sounds like a riddle. And no, I can’t say I’ve given it much thought.”
“Well,” said he significantly; “I have been puzzling it out. And I think the explanation goes something like this,” he proposed, all seriousness, “A mango tree is picky about its environment, it prefers the same conditions wherein its parent is rooted to. Thus the seed is made heavy in order to ensure a short dispersal range. Consider a monkey plucking a mango off a tree, carrying it over to a favorite branch a few swings away. Comfortably installed on its throne, it denudes the seed, and then drops that which it cannot eat onto the ground. Take note that the chances of the seed taking root in this spot is increased by the fact that the location at large, has proven fruitful for its kind in the past.”
“On the other hand,” he continued without pause, in the same hypothetical strain; “watermelon plants are perhaps more resilient. This flexibility allows for a longer range of dispersal, and hence the seeds need to be small so that the animal is able to eat all the contents within the fruit indiscriminately. Now, imagine a raccoon, sneaking up onto a voluptuous watermelon in someone’s private garden. Like a glutton it eats to its stomach’s content, and then returns to its dwelling to sleep off the digestion process. During the next day while exploring the forest, it makes a deposit in some bush. The soil there is acceptable and so the seeds stake a claim. All is fine and well in this scenario, but imagine the alternative case, wherein the same raccoon deposits the seeds onto the middle of a bitumen road. Alas, this is no good. However, not all is lost, for one seed remains not yet evacuated. And so later on fertile soil, the same raccoon does the honorable thing and makes a drop. The dénouement to all of this is, because there is an uncertainty involved, many seeds per fruit therefore becomes an advantageous trait, since it increases the plant’s probability of passing on its genes to the next generation.”
His dissertation concluded, Bouchard turned to Mayura for a peer review. “Um — that sounds reasonable?” she offered, hoping that this was the right answer. It was not. For Bouchard reckoned he learnt best when partially wrong. “You are too kind,” he declared in a dry tone, removing his penetrating gaze from her and looking straight-ahead.
Upon crossing Daley Road and entering University Avenue, Bouchard was struck with a delusion of grandeur. “Just imagine,” he began, placing his imaginary canvas on its imaginary stand for his friend to observe imaginarily; “The year is eighteen-twenty and the aristocracy is once again in vogue. We are two fashionable boulevardiers arriving on the Champs-Élysées in a glazed landau, proceeding at a slow pace and making a big scene. The lower classes gape at our passing as if witnessing Apollo riding by in his flaming chariot. Even our equals droop a little in their cushions; as we are richer than they and far better to look at.” Soka Mayura remained silent and did not at any point contradict him by offering facts from reality; instead, like Sancho Panza the Faithful, she listened to her lofty companion with doubt, but followed him anyway.
“Look,” Balzac spoke up after a pause; “A visitor from the lake,” he indicated a solitary duck waddling under the towering poplars that aligned the walk. “Apparently they become very aggressive in spring,” Soka noted, repeating what she had heard about their warrior-like instincts come hatching season. “You can only imagine,” Balzac replied, giving the innocent bird a death stare. It so happened as a young boy, Bouchard had gotten himself chased by a menacing drake because of his proximity to its fluffy little offspring; ever since then he distrusted the species.
Union Court, although a pumping heart during the day, was at this hour an empty cavern. “I am so very pleased that exams are over,” Balzac spoke up, breaking the silence, which to him sounded boring. “How was chemistry and biology?” Soka asked, having only two courses in common with him: maths and physics. “Chemistry was acceptable,” Balzac allowed; “But biology on the other hand — well, I’m sure I still don’t know what a chromosome is, or what the difference between mitochondria and midi-chlorians are, despite one being fictional. However that may be,” he added, conceding to one point, “I did find the Behavioral Ecology part of the course to be full of pizzazz.”
“Are you taking biology again next semester?” came the follow-up question. “Unlikely,” replied he, explaining: “Too much to remember. I don’t think my brain could take that load of knowledge again. For, as I have mentioned before, my memory works like a hard disk. In that it can only contain so many folders until some have to be deleted in order to make space for new data.” Soka nodded knowingly, and recalled her days back in high school where she had also studied biology, thinking at the time that medicine was her calling; what else was a girl with perfect grades supposed to do? “What are you reflecting on?” Balzac spoke up, noticing that she was pondering silently. “Hm?” said she, awakening, “Oh, just about how I almost went into medicine.”
“Well,” said he, in a significant manner, “at least you made the right decision in the end.” Mayura turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “What?” he remarked, affecting innocent confusion; “Do you not think theoretical physics the fairest discipline of them all?” Here her questioning look turned into a manga flat stare. Again, she had to remind herself that he was incurable. “On top of that,” he continued, “you’re enrolled into the prestigious Advanced Bachelor program, and at the ANU no less. Practically the Harvard of Australia,” he added matter-of-factly. “And the University of Melbourne?” she retorted, referring to the only other university in Australia worthy of being labelled a true rival in the ranking charts. “Yale,” he replied, “obviously”.
Among the eateries that lined Canberra’s main street was the dark brown establishment yclept Coco, wherein the two worthies presently entered. The air within was warm and humid with chocolate, so different from the cold and dryness outside endured during the trek thereto. Mayura took in an audible deep breath and held it in, appreciatively.
The salon had about it a “café noir” ambiance, which in Paris implies glazed wooden fixtures and sultry lighting. A long glass cabinet stretched along the entire left wall, behind which stood gloved clerks picking out confections and setting them into dark brown boxes according to the fancies of the “clients” — for these were no ordinary customers. But of course, the two friends had not trekked all the way here through winter’s wrath just to get takeaway. Indeed, they had come for the full dine-in experience, at which they could expect desserts that came with silver spoons.
Mayura’s moment of gaping and awing at the display was cut short by an inconvenient remark thrown in by Bouchard, who stood beside her with a very different attitude to hers. “I wonder how the seed of a cocoa tree is distributed,” said he, frowning, and making a mental note to google it the next time he was connected to the internet. In response, Mayura’s wide-eyed expression turned into a flat stare. A moment later the two were standing before the maître d’s podium waiting for the next free table to become available; which, unfortunately, took longer than Bouchard’s patience allowed. After some more waiting, a young couple at a table abutting the façade’s glass wall made as if to depart. “It’s about time,” Balzac rasped drily, in a tone one can imagine used by a femme fatale whose seductions have been slow to pay up.
An obliging waitress soon came over to receive them at the podium, and from there they were directed to the table previously occupied by the “two bags of hormones” — a phrase Bouchard liked to apply to sweethearts drunk on love. Thus installed, menu cards were provided for their perusal.
“I’m ready,” Balzac spoke up after a quick read-through, putting his card down on the table decidedly. “So fast?” Soka observed, amazed and confused; for, while the offerings were limited to a select list, all the accompanying descriptions would have given even a seasoned sensualist a longer pause than the time it took for Bouchard to make his decision. “I checked out the PDF menu available on their website,” he replied with a Parisian shrug, then turned to look out the façade’s glass wall, which commanded a gossipy view of main street and the adjacent sparkling mall, while Mayura resumed debating her options, flipping the menu back and forth.
A few minutes later their hostess returned to hear their orders. Bouchard named the chocolate mousse without a pause, and Soka decided on the affogato; some pralines, exotically flavored, were also ordered on the side, to share.
“Seeing those truffles has reminded me of the fungi by the same name,” Balzac reflected with a curt nod in the direction of the chocolate cabinet. “I hear they smell earthy,” Soka commented, turning her spectacles thereto. “More like dirty socks on a rotting corpse,” was his pointed opinion. “Oh,” came the flat response; the kind one saves for amusingly disturbing situations.
“What is a Belgian truffle anyway?” Balzac asked, moving on to the more tasteful version of the appellation. “It’s chocolate ganache rolled in cocoa powder,” she explained, acquainted with all things a foodie should know; “Probably tastes a lot better than the other type of truffle,” she added for good measure, which was meant as a joke. “We’ll see about that,” Balzac retorted, quite serious about the matter. So saying, he grabbed the attention of a passing waiter and imparted the necessary instructions to make it so; thus adding another item to their bill. The waiter listened most attentively and then hurried off to execute the commission.
“Apparently the hot chocolate here is really good,” Soka noted, her nose following a passing tray with marked approval. “Oh?” said Balzac, tracing her moving gaze; “Why did you not say so before? We must try it then,” and he made as if to call a waiter when Mayura stopped him in the act by suggesting not unkindly, that they wait and see if their stomachs could still take it after the first course. Bouchard paused, then slowly withdrew his rising hand; “That would be acceptable,” said he.
Two topics later their conversation was interrupted by a waitress, who placed on the table between them the anticipated desserts. His chocolate mousse came piped in a cocktail glass, with a sculptural twirl of dark couverture floating on top. Her coffee dessert was served as a set: vanilla ice cream dunked into a glass, alongside a cream-jug of smoking café au lait. A saucer with pralines was placed at the table’s center, and these too looked individually expensive. Appetite thoroughly whetted, Bouchard took up his spoon and put his whipped cream to the test. The mousse melted in his mouth like a pat of butter on hot pancakes. He was instantly lifted.
Meanwhile Mayura took out her phone and snapped a commemorative photo of her dish. Then with cautious enthusiasm she picked up the creamer and poured its hot contents all over the cold ice cream. The resulting thermodynamic reaction was an impressive sight to behold; evident from the widening of Mayura’s eyes and the pause of Bouchard’s spoon in mid-air. “It’s like watching a star caught in an ion storm,” Balzac finally spoke up after an extended period of awe, saying what had been on his mind during the whole viewing experience; which strangely enough, sobered Mayura. Cupping the affogato in both her hands, she bent to take a sip — as a little bird does when dipping its beak into a dish of water.
One sip and her head shot up heavenward with a suddenness previously unseen from her, she who was usually so sedate. “What the Borg?” thought Balzac, stunned; was she having some kind of allergic reaction to the drink? No, he shortly realized, seeing her expression. She was on a high. “That was a strong reaction,” he rebuked her drily, recovering his cool; “One would think you had just snorted a line of cocaine.”
Another few scoops into the mousse and Bouchard pushed his cocktail glass towards Mayura, inviting her to give it a try. She was much obliged indeed; but out of deep respect only took a pea-sized serving. Upon returning the favor she was declined. “It’s pretty diluted,” she tempted him twice to no avail. This rejection took her back a few months ago, to the beginning of their friendship when she had made him a similar offer not knowing then about his dislike for the taste of coffee. His refusal on that occasion struck her as being very original indeed. “I do not like flavored water,” he had said.
“Are you appraising its clarity?” Balzac presently asked, observing his friend who was studying a chocolate piece with appreciative scrutiny. Mayura smiled guiltily. “I’m sure it’s flawless,” he affirmed, biting into a praline pregnant with salty honey. Thus following his example — albeit, with less Sardanapalus flourish — she took a few small nibbles on her choice. “So?” her interrogatory friend asked, all expectation. “I like it!” she responded, beaming stupidly.
There is an old adage that says the sweetest stories often have the bitterest endings. It is a proven fact of life, evident from the feelings the two worthies presently felt moments after their sensual happiness began its descent into the abyss which is the human digestive tract. Mayura let out a sadly happy sigh as their waitress cleared the table.
As the two worthies stood waiting for the crosswalk lights to turn green, their attentions were forced across the road, whence a group of young people in a boisterous mood made loud noises to pass the waiting time. “Going out to celebrate the end of exams I guess,” Soka observed with a curious look; for, despite having months to assimilate to undergraduate culture, the sight of students in provocative clothing marching down to gin palaces never ceased to amaze the open yet conservative nerd within her. “That’s nice,” Balzac replied with perfect aristocratic indifference.
The evening’s temperature continued to drop as they sauntered back to Helena Hall; walking with a little hunch of the shoulders and hands tucked deep within pockets. It was such the kind of inclemency to stimulate warm thoughts in steaming quantity. “The affogato was so good,” Soka reflected in a dreamy tone, savoring every detail of the memory whilst it still lasted, fresh in her mind. “You did react to it rather strongly,” Balzac agreed, recalling her sudden possession after the one sip; “I’m still deciding if you need to be exorcised,” he added drily. She gave him a flat look.
A few minutes later Soka asked conversationally, “Have you read any short stories from ancient China?” “I have not yet indulged in that pleasure,” Balzac replied with gravity; “Are they anything like the novels I read?” he asked, referring to books written before the twentieth century, his preferred genre. “I don’t think so?” Soka replied, scratching her chin. “In that case do educate me,” he insisted with perfect aristocratic interest.
“Well, there was this one story about a young man who lived in a village,” she began to narrate, recalling the particulars and situation; “supposedly the handsomest man in China at the time. His name was Wei Jie, I think. Apparently his family was famous for beautiful people. One of his female ancestors was so beautiful that when the Emperor passed by the village and saw her, he married her and she became an Empress. Anyway, Wei Jie was also very beautiful and wherever he went people would gather around to look at him. He became quite famous because of this. One day he left the village to visit a nearby city, and when the people in the city knew that he was coming, they all went out onto the streets to see him arrive. By the time he entered the city the streets were completely blocked, and the crowds surrounded him such that he couldn’t go anywhere. As Wei Jie had a weak health however, he couldn’t stand the heat or the suffocating air, and so became quite ill. They had to carry him to bed. A few days later he died.”
Here Bouchard raised an incredulous eyebrow; “So the moral of the story is,” he said, hesitantly, “looks can kill?”
A little further into their journey home, a big question entered into Bouchard’s thoughts. “How do you suppose the universe expands?” he asked. “Hmm,” Soka mumbled, unconsciously reaching to scratch her chin; “Maybe initially,” she began, adopting a speculative tone, “the expansion was due to the kinetic energy left over from the Big Bang?” Bouchard was all attention. “But once it was converted into gravitational potential energy,” she continued, again, speculating, “the expansion slowed down. And then at some point dark energy kick-started the expansion process again, maybe?” Bouchard reflected on this explanation; physics came to him much slower than it did for her — the poor lad.
“Hopefully astro camp will answer some of your questions,” she pleasantly added for good measure. “Oh I’m sure I won’t understand any of it,” Balzac countered with perfect aristocratic indifference. Mayura sighed inwardly. Bouchard’s proclivity for self-deprecation was not an attitude she liked to see in him; there was something awfully Dostoyevskian about that frown he assumed during such moments of doubt. “You’re too hard on yourself,” she gently chastised him. The latter gave a Parisian shrug, remarking, matter-of-factly: “And you are too kind.”
The mornings here in Canberra are cold — Siberia cold. Each dawn I curse the inclement weather while tracing the curves of Lake Burley Griffin, one goal obsessively set in my mind; that of hurrying back to my heated room, therein to bask like an exotic reptile lazing under its heat lamp in a private terrarium.
Even during the day the temperature rises to a disappointing vertex. Fabrics upon fabrics are layered on. It is a heavy load. One which, when walking to lectures, and with the wind slapping the face like a bucket of iced water poured down the head, prompts some cruel desires for a big fur coat made from a polar bear.
Nevertheless, yesterday my friend and I braved the dreadful conditions for a trip into town, our destination being Coco, the haute couture of chocolates. And Borg! were the desserts worthy of surviving into the next generation. I ordered a chocolate mousse. Indecently delicious. My companion had the affogato; which evoked an emotional response so powerful she could have been the face of an energy drink. Besides our private choices we also had a plate of pralines to share. You should have seen us both, chatting and indulging the little sweetmeats like two Roman Dominas exchanging gossip over a dish of olives.
But enough about times now gone by, let us turn to the future; whence tomorrow astro camp begins. The program takes up a full week; broken into four days of lectures on campus and the last three days at an observatory.
Actually, I’m still rather amazed at being included in the chosen ten. Perhaps the judges thought it prudent to throw in a person of average means, intellectually, into the bunch, so as to show for publicity’s sake, that they were by all appearances an accepting race.
Alas that is all I have to report for now. But anticipate your next letter I do. For what troubles have you and Nana gotten yourselves into this month? I am keen to know. Likewise, you may count upon receiving a history of my own adventures at astro camp. What strange things will happen during that time I cannot predict, though I’m fairly certain that it will be very alien indeed.
On Monday morning at the pre-planned time, Bouchard left Helena Hall and headed in the direction of the Physics domain, wherein a modern building painted asteroid-grey was base to the ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “The ANU’s Starfleet Academy,” he inwardly remarked, approaching the front entrance with a growing delusion of grandeur.
Standing in a circle in the building’s foyer was a group of people, among them, Sarah, the aforementioned announcer; and with her a few participants who had arrived early. Bouchard walked over to join them. “Astro camp?” Sarah asked with a serious smile. “Yes,” Balzac replied, almost saying indeed. There were a few faces in the present group that he did not recognize. Fortunately however, there was one individual in the small crowd whom he could attach himself to. This person was Perry Zimmerman. A good-natured fellow who reminded Bouchard of a teenaged Obi-Wan Kenobi; having boyish good looks, towards the short side, with brown hair and calm blue eyes. Naturally he was also very wise; an Advanced Science student worthy of interning at Caltech during the summer.
Zimmerman greeted Bouchard with a friendly nod, which was curtly returned. The conversation in the circle resumed where it had left off; something physics related. Bouchard did not contribute; for in this crowd of smart strangers, his attitude shed its Anna Karenina skin, revealing beneath a raw Jane Eyre.
The party, when all those concerned had arrived, was made up of five first years and five second years, with an equal number of men and women represented. More than half were in Advanced Science, and those that weren’t had no doubt tried. For this reason alone, Bouchard could not help but feel that his presence somehow depressed the group’s average IQ. As further proof of his unique position, most if not all candidates spoke as if they were serious about a career in astronomy, unlike he who had applied simply to realize a hobby. “I stick out like a spider on a bed of daisies,” thought he, frowning uncomfortably.
In a domed lecture theater, perhaps modelled after a planetarium, the group assembled; picking up the week’s agenda on their way in. Bouchard sat next to Zimmerman, and both perused the program while waiting for it to officially begin. “It would appear we’re going to see some stars this morning,” Balzac remarked, inspecting the names on the first page. The commencement address was to be given by the college dean, and a Nobel laureate was booked as first guest lecturer. “Probably to inspire us,” Perry offered with a knowing grin. So saying, the morning lectures did indeed proceed with that exact goal. The Nobel laureate did not disappoint, delivering his research in a manner to be expected from scientific nobility. “Such a capable orator,” Balzac made a mental note; “I wonder how he escaped political recruitment.”
Come lunch time the group removed to the break room; wherein ingredients to make a sandwich were laid out on the central table, ready for assembly according to the tastes and preferences of the person intending to eat it. “No peanut butter” Balzac noted, surveying the provided selection of sandwich fillings and not finding his standard choice; “Is this to be my fate for the next six lunches?” he added with an emotion perhaps more pertaining to the phrase “why hast thou forsaken me?” His first option thus absent, Bouchard settled for a vegetarian ensemble, not trusting the origins or makeup of the cold cuts and ham.
Entertainment during this indoor picnic was provided by a second year student, mature-aged with curly dark hair and a round figure. Her name was Maxine, and her personality embodied the spirit of champagne. Her hair bounced with every laugh. “What’s a female astronomer called?” she asked, courting the attention of all present in the room. Some suggestions were made. Though none said “lady of the night,” which was the answer she soon provided with evident gusto.
At another point in her act, she adopted the air of a tragedy queen. “I married young,” she began, relating her history; “I was a housewife for many years, in the country, baking pie and all that. But then one day my husband asked for a divorce, and so I became depressed for a while. A few years later I decided that I needed to do something with my life, I needed to move on. And so I enrolled at the ANU. I chose astronomy right away because it was something I had always thought about when I was still young and pretty. Of course; now I’m just pretty.”
The lectures in the afternoon were decidedly heavier than those delivered in the morning. The orientation and inspiring speeches apparently over. “All I understood from Dr. Hansen,” Balzac remarked to Perry once said speaker had left the room, “is that the Lagrangian equals kinetic energy minus potential energy.” This confession was delivered with a disturbed expression. “His lecture just explained the derivation of that equation,” Perry said simply. “Oh,” was Balzac’s flat response, feeling very dumb indeed. But then, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, his passions returned aflame. “But why must we use spherical, polar or cylindrical coordinates?” he posed significantly; “With their thetas and phis, when I am perfectly content with x, y, z.”
“They’re basically just different ways to approach a problem,” Perry explained, radiating an Obi-Wan Kenobi calmness, which never failed to smooth out Bouchard’s frowns; “For example,” he continued in that casually wise strain of his, “if we’re looking at a symmetrical system, then polar coordinates are probably more useful. But if there’s no symmetry then Cartesian might be a better choice. Generally speaking, we assign whichever coordinate system makes calculations easier.”
“Indeed,” Balzac responded after a pause, the information thus assimilated.
The next three days of astro camp passed by like the first — a concatenation of lectures from nine to five in the domed lecture theater resembling a planetarium. Topics were presented by their respective enthusiast, covering many observed and theorized phenomena.
From black holes:
“I wished they’d just call it a black sphere,” Balzac said to Zimmerman after a lecture on black holes; decidedly, the two-dimensional nomenclature was irresistibly misleading when one had to imagine a singularity in three-dimensional space. “I’ll pass on your request to the IAU,” Perry quipped with a good-natured smile. “Please do,” drily retorted Balzac; “For if they can turn Pluto into a common rock, then I’m sure changing the name of a phenomenon we can’t even see shouldn’t pose much of a problem.”
“ So one way to travel back in time is by moving faster than the speed of light,” Balzac reflected, turning to Zimmerman with a dubious Vulcan eyebrow raising. “According to special relativity, a tachyon could theoretically do that,” Perry allowed, nodding wisely. “And how do tachyons differ from normal particles? I didn’t quite follow the math,” Balzac freely admitted; for as far as he was concerned, stupid-but-willing-to-question was better than silent-and- staying-ignorant. “Think of it as two speed ranges that share the same barrier which is the speed of a photon,” Perry explained; “Below the line you have a normal particle requiring an infinite amount of energy to accelerate to light speed. While above you have a faster-than-light particle that needs an infinite amount of energy to decelerate to the speed of light.”
“Indeed,” said Balzac, arriving at an understanding; “Assuming they’re out there, I wonder how we could detect them. In Star Trek Voyager, tachyon particles were always present where there were temporal distortions,” he recollected, “Speaking of which, are black holes temporal distortions?”
To multiple cosmologies:
“The universe has multiple histories?” Balzac whispered to Zimmerman in the middle of another lecture. “In theory, yes,” Perry quietly replied back without removing his gaze from the lesson, adding: “Applying the path integral formulation concept to cosmology tells us that our present universe evolved from one of many possible pathways, or histories, with varying probabilities.”
Nonetheless, despite the speakers’ sparkling eyes and encouraging nods, Bouchard found most talks hard to follow; the slides seemed to flicker by like a phantasmagoria on a wall, and one theory sufficed to sedate him more than two Valiums could hope to affect. Thus, come Thursday afternoon, space in all its glorious resplendence appeared to him larger and more confusing than it ever did before.
“I’m mentally exhausted,” Balzac commented, as he and Perry walked down Daley Road towards their respective residential halls. It was a little after five; the sun completing its projectile descent, and their surrounds cooling down like water freezing into ice. “If it’s any consolation,” Perry chimed in, “I’m not sure I got that last lecture either.” Bouchard considered this comment; then in the manner of his idol, Seven of Nine, replied: “Is that an observation or a condescension?”
“Um, the former,” said Perry, looking a little bit surprised. “In that case he was probably teaching it wrongly,” Balzac replied in a decided manner; for, as far as concerned Bouchard, Perry Zimmerman’s intelligence was above doubt. “Anyway,” Balzac continued, slapping Zimmerman’s humility to the side, “The only thing I learnt today is that Karl Schwarzschild derived his solutions to the Einstein field equations in the trenches when not being fired upon by the enemy. Actually,” he added, pausing, a frown developing, “I’m not sure I understand that either.”
“He was definitely an interesting guy,” Perry agreed, nodding to that effect. “Speaking of Karl,” said Balzac familiarly; “What are tensors anyway?” and he turned to Zimmerman with a questioning look. “They’re just vectors,” was Perry’s simple reply. Bouchard raised an eyebrow. “If scalars are zero rank tensors,” Perry continued, knowing the import of that raised eyebrow — the advent to a flood of questions if not sealed properly with prompt explanations; “and vectors are first rank tensors. Then a second rank tensor is just a vector where all its components are vectors.”
“So,” said Balzac, hesitantly; “Tensors are like what? Super vectors?” Zimmerman appeared amused by this conclusion; “That’s one way of putting it,” he confirmed, wisely amused. Bouchard sighed.
“Did you know that a jellyfish is actually a colony of tiny organisms?” the latter moved on to a more agreeable topic. “Yeah,” was Perry’s casual reply. “That’s nice,” said Balzac dismissively; “I only found out recently, and so I did some searches on Scopus and read a few journal articles that quickly brought me up to speed on the matter. For example, I now know that jellyfish are at least ninety-five percent water. And contrary to popular belief, they do age. In the sense that the cloning process wears them down after a couple of years, and as a result they start to produce less healthy polyps. But at its prime,” he added, now near excitation, “the oral arms of a jellyfish are a good source of protein, and their bell caps are rich in minerals such as sodium and chlorine. Both body parts are valued in Chinese cuisine you may be interested to know, where the bells are sliced into salads and the arms are served cold with a dipping sauce.”
Some dozen steps later they parted.
How do you do? Fine weather in Tokyo? Everything here is all-right; except for the inclemency which has me warming up to the idea of climate change. Honestly, how bad could an increase of two to three Celsius actually be? Of course, come summer I will be asking for an ice age.
Presently, Helena Hall is as empty as Hogwarts must have been during the Christmas break. The shared bathrooms are private for a change, and the communal kitchen is always clean. If my life followed the events in War and Peace, then this period is Peace.
The first half of astronomy camp concluded this afternoon; four days of lectures upon lectures communicated in a language I am foreign to. Fortunately, I had Perry Zimmerman as my translator. He is patient and explanatory. With him it is like talking to you. Actually, I think you two would make a stable diatomic molecule.
Speaking of pairs, there are two personalities in our astronomy group that have made an impression. The first is a mature-age second year student, Maxine; whose theatrical wit could find a career in stand-up or opera. The second is a first year Korean from Brisbane, Minho whose confrontational English gives me reason to believe that his English teacher was a German. If the latter person sounds familiar, it is probably because you have met him at one of those barbeques the faculty is so fond of holding for its Advanced Science students, exclusively.
The second half of astronomy camp will be spent at Coonabara Observatory. We leave tomorrow morning. The journey thereto is an eight-hour drive — just knowing it makes me bored. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to touring the insides of the many optical telescopes on site; for they should be far easier on the eyes and ears than the past four days of theory.
These evenings I have been reading essays by Voltaire. He is a singular man with the genius of multiple men. He writes about politics, philosophy, literature, society, and the works of Isaac Newton in a witty and page-turning way. Voltaire is no Einstein to be sure — he is a da Vinci! I am a fan.
That is all for now.
At fifteen minutes to eight o’clock on Friday morning, Bouchard arrived with his travelling bag at the carpark attached to the asteroid-grey building of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics before departure time. Said car park was empty, save for an obvious white van. Upon reaching the vehicle, the door opened for him and a gust of warm air escaped from within. He climbed in, greeted his fellow inmates with a clumsy smile and ensconced himself in the first seat near the sliding door; his bag was helpfully passed on to the back of the van, where a neat stack was beginning to form. A few minutes later, Zimmerman sat beside him across from the aisle.
The day was bright sunny day without the warmth. Empty paddocks and waves of wheat made up the passing scenery. Sarah drove on without appearing to need a map, a feat that told of her many journeys to the Coonabara Ranges. The road took them past a few towns along the way, most boasting at least one international fast food chain, its yellow neon sign glaring “Like the Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings,” observed Balzac to Perry, who understood such comments. Suffice it to say here, seeing the greasy joints effaced the apple pie charm Bouchard associated with country life.
Maxine provided comedy relief throughout the otherwise tedious trip. At one point she called for science jokes; many persons willingly satisfied her request. Little chuckles quickly moved to uncontrollable giggles, and soon to full out laughing fits. And though Bouchard’s voice could not be heard among the general hilarity, he did, however, listen in on the verbal orgy with polite interest.
“Perry,” said Balzac, turning from the window back into the van. “Yeah?” he returned, welcoming the distraction; at this point they were five hours into the trip. “What’s Planck’s Law again?” Balzac asked, recalling a lesson on Tuesday. “Planck’s Law?” Perry repeated, retrieving the information; “The lower the temperature of a black-body, the lower the average frequency of its emissions,” he said, as quick as a calculator. “So a black-body at almost zero kelvin would emit practically zero infrared radiation right?” Balzac reflected, an idea gestating in his mind, the gears of which were grinding away loudly enough to intrigue Zimmerman. “Pretty much,” Perry confirmed, looking at Bouchard curiously; “What are you thinking?” his expression seemed to ask. “I see,” Balzac returned, as if realizing something for the first time, after a long period of ignorance; “so that’s why we can’t detect black holes using infrared cameras.”
The van reached the summit of Coonabara around four in the afternoon, cruising to a stop in front of a white house. “This used to be where the astronomers stayed back in the sixties,” Sarah explained, when they were all out of the vehicle and standing before the petite manor; “But since they built newer accommodations further up the road, closer to the telescopes, it’s been kept as a guest house.”
“Looks like a bed and breakfast,” someone commented. “Or a haunted mansion,” chimed in Maxine, adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Haunted?” replied Sarah with a serious smile; “Only if you count the rats.” This remark gave Bouchard pause. It was as if someone had cast a freezing spell on him. In fact the entire group turned to look at Sarah, nonplussed. The latter was grinning. “I’m joking,” she said with a dismissive wave. A few laughed the shock off, however the prodigy of cleanliness remained cursed.
Through the vestibule one by one they trickled into the drawing-room, forming a pool at its center; no one sat. The room was tall, carpeted, and arranged around a hearth. “Due to the limited number of bedrooms,” said Sarah, “you guys are going to have to pair up.” Bouchard became rigid, his fears materialized. Reluctantly, he turned to Perry — the second best choice after solitude. “There are four bedrooms on the second floor and one on the first,” Sarah explained once the five pairs had been formed. “Where are you staying?” Maxine asked, more curious than concerned. “At the main quarters up the road,” was the simple reply. “Is it nice?” Minho asked bluntly, turning his thick head of hair to Sarah. “Not really,” the latter replied drily, her signature smile arising; “All the money went into building the telescopes.”
While Bouchard appraised the advantages and limitations of each room individually, Zimmerman followed behind with a husband’s acquiescence. “No,” said Balzac, his head poking into the second room. Two noes later Goldilocks found her porridge. “This one is acceptable,” said he, casting a sweeping glance at the piano nobile of the petite manor; spacious, two beds, matching couches, and an en-suite bathroom. Though a few other pairs came by to inspect the place, no one challenged Bouchard’s claim — had they, he would have shot them a Medusa’s gaze.
“Perry,” Bouchard called, striding out of the bathroom with a beaming smile, “the floors are warm!” Perhaps a simple luxury taken for granted in the villas of Lake Geneva, but for a boy acclimatized to the Mediterranean climate of Perth and sultry noon of Chiang Mai, floor heating technology was impressive. “Come try walking on it,” he urged in earnest. Amused and grinning Zimmerman followed his friend, whose child-like curiosity was always contagious.
As astronomical observations began earlier in the evening during winter months, Sarah called everyone down to the drawing-room and told them that the kitchen would be serving dinner soon. So saying, she led the group out the house and up the road, a shepherdess herding her flock to greener pastures. The main lodge was a one story, elongated complex. “Do all the astronomers live here?” Annika asked, a young lady with gorgeous blonde hair. Sarah shook her head, her ponytail shaking with the motion. “Only the visiting astronomers stay here,” the latter explained; “full-time staff live in a nearby town. I’m told they’re treated like rock stars down there.” Maxine chuckled, her curly hair bouncing like springs. Sarah climbed a few steps and opened the door, holding it for the rest to go in.
“Can I sleep here tonight?” said Maxine, the smell of a hot meal from the adjoining kitchen perfuming the refectory. Sarah shook her head fondly, last to enter, and invited them to sit down at the long table in the center. “People should start arriving soon,” she said, consulting her watch. Sure enough a few minutes after her prediction, men and women of varying ages, but all dressed in the latest hiking fashion, began to emerge through the door.
Sarah introduced them to the newcomers with quick personal introductions and their purpose for being here. In return, the scientist would give his or her reason for being here too; and once the job descriptions had been explained, the forenamed would make some little remark apparently humorous. Thus the younglings did not remain shy for long; their eccentricities found allies in these men of science. “Nerd culture never ceases to amaze me,” thought Balzac Bouchard, studying his peers interacting with their older counterparts in a sociable setting. Henceforth, the ambience within the mess hall evolved from small talk to talking loud.
“Free food!” Maxine exclaimed, the first in line from their group. “I’m bloody hungry,” came the blunt remark imparted by Minho. Bouchard, in fifth place, surveyed the buffet table with calculating interest: bread rolls, corn on the cob, roasted chicken, salad, and a tray of brownies wrapped in plastic. “I guess they want us to eat our vegetables first,” he observed to Zimmerman, six of ten. Their serves high, one by one the young ones returned to their table with plates of joy.
The schedule for Friday night, according to Sarah’s verbal agenda, included visiting two telescopes in action. “And by extension,” thought Balzac, “observe the astronomers in their natural habitats.” To optimize this viewing experience, the group was to dissolve into two coteries. Headed by Sarah, Bouchard’s school included Perry, Minho, Maxine, and Annika.
“Coonabara Observatory has a few telescopes,” Sarah narrated, leading them up the road and leaving the creature comforts of the barracks behind; “the telescopes belong to various international institutes, but are collectively managed by the ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. We’ll be visiting two tonight and another two tomorrow night. The sky is clear so we might see a few things,” she added, appraising the heavens.
Some dark distance later, they approached what appeared to be a two-story building with a domed garret loftily perched on top — protruding from its flat roof like a zit on a patch of skin. “This is the second oldest telescope,” Sarah explained, as they climbed the slope towards the darkly lit mansion; “it was built in the late forties, and is mainly used for spectroscopic measurements.”
At the door, their leader pressed a buzzer. Her call was replied a minute or so later, the door swinging open to reveal a be-spectacled man in his mid-thirties. He introduced himself as Karl. “Karl here,” said Sarah, as they filed within, “has quite an interesting background, don’t you Karl?” The latter smiled good-naturedly. “Let’s see, you were born in Germany,” Sarah began with a serious smile; “Grew up in Italy. But your mother-tongue is Spanish. Am I missing anything?” Maxine whistled in appreciation. “I think you covered it,” Karl chuckled humbly, his accent original.
To reach the second floor where Karl presided over his dominion, a spiral staircase had to be ascended; the first in Bouchard’s experience. The control station was a desk bearing multiple monitors displaying on each four images of stars in black and white. Karl began an explanation about his research, to which Bouchard only half listened; the contents of the room were distracting. “It is only observable in the southern hemisphere,” Karl explained. Bouchard smelt what must have been a cup of cold coffee. “I am interested in young stars in particular,” was said in the background. Bouchard’s eyes travelled afar. “By looking at the emission spectrum I can deduce the chemical composition…”
“Indeed,” Balzac thought to himself with high amusement; “This must be the highest paying night job in the world.”
Soon after, led by Karl, the group clambered up a narrow stairwell and through a trap door in the ceiling to emerge within the domed garret outlined before when they were climbing up the slope. “It’s like a bird cage,” Annika commented, standing at its center. “A bird cage?” Karl repeated, glancing around as if seeing it for the first time.
The telescope was a monumental white cylinder clasped at the base by a blue fork. “Do you mind explaining a bit about how the telescope works? Karl,” Sarah suggested. “Sure,” Karl replied, rubbing his hands together; “So incoming light enters the telescope and hits a large hyperbolic mirror near the base,” he explained, pointing along the telescope as he did so; “this light is then reflected up onto a smaller hyperbolic mirror mounted above the large mirror. The light is then focused back down through a hole in the large mirror where it forms an image; this image is then sent to the computer and displayed on the monitors in the office downstairs,” and here he turned back to face his audience, “Almost all modern telescopes are setup in this arrangement,” he added for good measure, as if to remind them that it was still a worthy telescope despite its years.
“It doesn’t look like it’s from the forties,” Minho critiqued. “It’s been repainted,” Sarah explained. “And also modernized,” chimed in Karl, indicating the spaghetti of cables that ran around the floor; “It used to be that you had to come up here and move the telescope manually. Now I can just tell the computer to do it,” said he, in hint of relief in his tone. “Do the original controls still work?” Maxine asked, gazing at what appeared to be a monitoring console taken from a hydropower station of yore. “Sure,” said Karl, “they still work. Do you want to see?” Everyone nodded. “Okay then,” was his easy reply.
The dashboard was covered with a variety of buttons, toggles, meters and whatnots, for which Karl gave a quick run-through. Then, to begin his demonstration in high showmanship fashion, the lights were turned off with a switch. “Well that was dramatic,” Balzac mouthed to Perry. Next, a button was pressed, and the roof made a blood-curdling screech as the shutter slid open; whence starlight flooded in like a sunbeam through a prison slit. Another manipulation resulted in the coming to life of the telescope. It was a slow and noisy process, as the tube was large and the controls awkward. Someone, probably Maxine, suggested cuing in the famous soundtrack from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Ultimately, it took a few starts and stops before the eye could be aligned with the peep-hole. “That is why I use the computer,” said Karl, decidedly.
Back in the control room downstairs wherein concluded their tour, the docent turned with good nature to his visitors; “Do you have any questions for me?” he asked. “I do,” Maxine said pertly, “Do you get bored here all by yourself?” Karl chuckled amiably; everyone took this as an affirmative.
“The Dome”, as it was called by the locals, was a gigantic domed tower, shell to a telescope spanning five meters in diameter; thus making it the largest spyglass at Coonabara Observatory. “Whow,” exclaimed Minho, craning his neck heavenward. “And this is only five meters?!” Maxine chimed in, thinking about the famous Keck domes in Hawaii which housed ten-meter telescopes.
At the entrance, a warehouse-sized door, they were received by a man in his mid-forties with a portly figure and sunny personality. His name was Eric. And he reminded Bouchard of the titular robotic blue cat in Doraemon. “Hello, hello!” said Eric, beaming widely. “Hi Eric,” Sarah replied, representing the team, her serious smile at breaking point. “So good to see you!” said he to Sarah, then to the rest: “Welcome!”
The Dome differed somewhat from the previous facility presided by Karl, in that the paneled corridors, designated areas and bustling activity therein, all gave the observatory a weaponized space station impression versus the latter’s Dr. Frankenstein’s house. And unlike the latter’s tube, The Dome’s telescope was hollow and held in place by a thick horseshoe-shaped grabber, itself propped up on a base frame that could have past for a bronze sculpture in Sweden.
“It looks like an ion cannon,” Balzac observed, leaning over the balustrade which encircled the structure. To arrive here they had ridden an elevator to the fourth floor, and then climbed an extra set of stairs. The others, aside from Zimmerman, seemed surprised and amused by Bouchard’s remark; not expecting such a reserved and grave-looking young man to say such things. “Ha, ha,” Eric laughed; “Actually, someone once compared it to the inside of a Death Star!” Bouchard did not mention that that was his first thought too; for he went with the ion cannon comparison because it sounded less nerdy.
“What have you guys been observing?” Sarah turned to Eric. “For the past three nights we’ve been pointing at the Magellanic Clouds,” Eric replied, becoming more serious now, as Sarah’s question had not been delivered lightly; “But we’re a bit behind schedule at the moment.”
“Is something wrong with the Cassegrain cage?” Perry asked, indicating the crew of technicians working on a catwalk platform at the bottom of the telescope, appearing to be engaged hurriedly in fixing a technical issue. “Yes!” Eric exclaimed, excited that someone recognized the serious trouble The Dome was currently facing; “One of the components was replaced this morning,” he explained, “But the strange thing is, it didn’t fix the problem!”
After a brief stop at the control room, where three operators sat separately interacting with their respective consoles, the tour headed for the Coudé room. “This is where the magic happens!” Eric said dramatically; “All the collected light rays are focused in here.” It was a messy room with cables and connected apparatuses. “Air con, really?” Minho gruffly complained, hugging himself. “The machines can get really hot,” Sarah explained. “And they’re very expensive to replace!” Eric joked.
It was nearing eleven o’clock by the time Sarah dropped off her charges back at the guest house. The other group had already arrived and were assembled in the drawing-room, filling it up with a lively exchange that was only amplified by the merging. A French evening ensued. The kind one reads about in novels that repeat verbatim the dialogues and meaningful glances exchanged during a private party hosted by a great lady in Paris; events which frequently take place in Bouchard’s own creative writings. For example:
“With an address in the Faubourg Saint-Germain was a handsome baroque mansion; it belonged the House of Chichi and had been built during the height of Madame de Pompadour’s influence over at Versailles. Within, chandeliers fountained from ceilings and portraits worthy of belonging in the Winter Palace decorated walls; a Parian marble staircase communicated between the floors and sets of glazed furniture turned rooms into living spaces; ornaments from across the seas gave purpose to its stands and vases of exotic flowers perfumed the air. In short, all the things that announce taste could be found in this house, whose present occupants included the Dowager Duchess de Chichi and her recently ennobled grandson Zola, known henceforth in high society as Monsieur le Duc de Chichi.
Gathered in the red salon on this summer evening were important ladies and statesmen of the upper echelon, men of letters and celebrity artists, whose geniuses the aristocrats poked and prodded with the condescending interests of a child jabbing at a washed-up jellyfish. Presiding over it all like an Empress of China in her imperial court was the exuberant Madame de Chichi herself; a thin-figured woman with an expressive face and a body that perpetually shook with gesticulations — a thousand words conveyed in a single wave of the hand. This grande dame was tonight attired in black to better contrast with the set of chunky rubies she loaded on for the occasion. Indeed, her personality was still full of pizzazz despite the winters she had endured.
‘That hair!’ exclaimed Madame de Chichi, passing by a mature socialite while making her rounds of the salon. ‘These old things?’ to a compliment of her jewels. ‘Jealousy is the one thing love and hate have in common,’ she remarked after listening to a saucy scandal involving a countess, her husband, and her other man. ‘You’ve never tried paprika?!’ was the dumbfounded question addressed to a sojourning Romanov. ‘But if all art was tasteful then where would you be?’ she said to a school of art critics. ‘I don’t miss the old days one bit. I adore my neck,’ was her response to a reminiscence of earlier decades. ‘Fame is the cheapest form of power,’ she quipped to a group discussing a rising political figure whose reputation preceded him.
While all this high humor took place, over near a tall window commanding a gossipy view of a polished street whereon escutcheoned carriages and glazed landaus passed by on their way to other mansions, three young nobles stood talking familiarly about things of existential import. Among them was Zola de Chichi; a youth of one-and-twenty summers with a slim figure and medium height, light skin, black hair and green eyes.”
Returning to present time and geography, Maxine filled the role of Madame de Chichi of the Faubourg Saint-Germain; leading the brouhaha with the effervescence of a lady worthy of being noticed by Louis XIV of France. “That one is full of pizzazz,” appraised Balzac Bouchard, thinking of casting such a personality in one of his stories.
“Nerd!” exclaimed Maxine at Perry, whose explanation of quantum transportation proved most enlightening. “Oh, Minho,” was said at one point with an affectionate shake of the head. “Rome is the mature version of Game of Thrones,” stated to a person who wondered about the differences. “Probably astrobiology,” replied to a question regarding her field of interests. “I’ve always been attracted to little green men,” the tongue-in-cheek reason. “Let’s play charades!” suggested at a later stage. “You can only use astronomy-related words or phrases,” was the rule.
“I’m not sure if I’d want to be an observational astronomer if it means spending months in a creepy house at night all by myself,” Annika commented, in regards to Karl’s isolated situation. “You scared?” Minho retorted with a mischievous grin. “It is lonely,” the former pointed out, not unreasonably. Indeed, the encounter had been a reality check to all the young and aspiring stargazers in attendance.
“Does it make sense for a scientist to be wary of the supernatural?” a person from the other Coonabara group posed for all present to consider. “Why not?” was Minho’s fast contribution. “That’s actually a good question,” said Maxine, momentarily sober. “I believe so,” Balzac spoke up, the philosophic nature of the question emboldening him to share his thoughts; “for rationality and imagination are different chemical reactions in the brain.”
“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” Perry noted, nodding wisely. “History provides many examples of scientific men who were slaves to their active imaginations,” Balzac continued, encouraged by his audiences’ kind attentions; “Take Isaac Newton for example, a brilliant physicist who pursued alchemy during his free time and in secret. Or Wolfgang Pauli, the genius behind the Pauli Exclusion Principle, who was convinced that it was not a coincidence when things broke or malfunctioned in his presence. In fact, I’m sure the latter was chilled to the bones every time he experienced the Pauli effect.”
“Good point,” the same person from the other group conceded, pleasantly surprised to hear Bouchard speak animatedly. “That’s exactly what I was going to say,” Minho confirmed, adopting a complacent posture for comedic effect. “And I knew you were going to say something like that!” Maxine exclaimed at Minho; thus having the last laugh.
“Where are you from?” a second year with curly brown hair asked an unsuspecting Bouchard. “Thailand,” was the latter’s mechanical reply. “Really?” Minho looked surprised; “I thought you were Egyptian or something,” he said, puzzled. “I’m also half French,” Balzac added. “Ah,” Minho returned, all made sense now. “I have a friend living in Bangkok,” Maxine joined in, matter-of-fact; “I visited her a couple years back. It’s so hot there! I swear, you could fry an egg on my face!”
“When did you move to Australia, Minho?” Annika asked her new Korean friend. “At the beginning of Year Eleven,” the other replied curtly, though well-meaning. “And is your family still in Korea?” Maxine asked, all curiousness and gossip once more. “Yeah,” he confirmed, “I stayed at a boarding school in Brisbane.”
It was one o’clock by the time the soirée broke up. Though whispered tête-à-têtes continued behind closed doors well past two. “Perry,” Balzac called from the other bed. The house was heated, comfortable and dark. “Yeah?” came the reply. “Can you tell me about gravitational lensing?” Balzac asked; it was terminology he had caught Karl, or was it Eric using. “Now?” Perry returned, his usual calm broken by a hint of incredulity. “Are you busy?” retorted the other. “All right,” said Perry with an acquiescent sigh. “In simple English!” Balzac reminded, imparted in the manner a child might adopt when dictating the story arc of his father’s bedtime narrative. “Basically,” said the gentle man; “strong gravitational fields cause light to bend around massive objects like galaxies, which means that astronomers can study objects that are behind them simply by looking at their halos around it.”
Not surprisingly everyone woke up late that same morning; luckily, their program did not start till later during the day. Sarah came by the guest house at half-past eleven. “Tired?” she asked, grinning knowingly at the party assembled in the living room; decidedly hung-over. “Today we’ll break up into groups again,” she continued, herself alert and ready for action; “We’ll walk around the campus in the afternoon so you get a feel of the place, and then tonight visit another two telescopes. But first, I’ll take you guys for,” and she consulted her watch, “lunch I guess.” So saying she led them once again to the refectory.
As was planned, they spent the afternoon touring the grounds like school children at a museum; their teacher acquainting them with the exhibit’s history and purpose. None of the buildings were entered though as they were locked from the outside; its rulers leading vampiric lifestyles and only returning to their haunts come twilight. “It’s less creepy during the day,” Annika observed, as they walked up to the house with the dome on its roof. “Karl’s place,” it was now referred to; coined by witty Maxine no doubt.
Towards the end of their excursion, as if turning a bend in the river and coming face to face where the water falls — gasp, they came upon an enormous satellite dish perched atop a windmill-like tower. The locals called this radio telescope “The Dish”; naturally. It was a reasonably large structure, though shorter than The Dome. Apparently famous too; having made an appearance in the movie “The Dish”.
Sarah pressed the buzzer next to the door; The Dish was the only structure at Coonabara Observatory to operate during the day. “Let’s see if we can get a tour inside,” she said with a serious smile, adding in a conspiratorial tone: “Don’t tell the other group.” A dozen or so seconds later they were welcomed in by a happy man who went by the name of Andrew.
“I was a consultant for the movie,” Andrew affirmed, as proud as a patriot. “Cool!” said Maxine; the others nodded in agreement. “Though many of the scenes were filmed on sets,” Andrew conceded, “a few important ones were shot here.” So saying he took them through these sacred locations. “In all of the scenes were you see the dish turn,” said he, walking, pointing, and narrating like a tour guide in Beverly Hills; “That was me in the control room inputting the commands!”
The control room did not reflect its half a century age; redone, decidedly, to resemble a bridge on some research vessel. “The dish has to be monitored constantly,” their guide explained, importantly; “For example, when it’s windy outside, the dish has to be returned to its stationary position.” A person in the audience asked how that might look from outside. “An upside down umbrella,” he quipped without pause. “Do you mind explaining a bit about how the telescope works? Andrew,” Sarah suggested.
“Of course,” said Andrew, obligingly. You see, many celestial objects in space like stars, pulsars, quasars, galaxies and nebulas among other things, emit radio waves,” he explained in a manner belonging to a scholar, a drastic departure from the fanboy attitude of before; “The radio waves hit the dish,” and here he demonstrated with his hands, cupping the palm of one to represent a dish, and stacking his fingers on the other to denote incoming radiation hitting the dish; “are reflected into the aerial and converted into electric currents, which we can then use to determine the composition and motion of the source.”
For the full Dish experience, they were given hard hats, taken up to the top of the tower and shown the machine responsible for turning the telescope. The room smelt funny, and the gears were smirched in black oil. “As you can imagine,” Andrew spoke in a tone of lost opportunity; “this part was filmed on a set.”
By the afternoon’s end, whatever energies had been replenished at lunchtime were all expended. However, the tour was not quite over yet, apparently. “One last stop,” said Sarah. So saying she took them up to an observation point. “Whow,” Minho noted, speaking for everyone. The view of the Coonabara Ranges from this height was truly grand. Appearing to Bouchard like waves of green ocean during a tempestuous storm.
Supper was a hearty fare, in that it was good for the heart. Conversation on Bouchard’s side of the table revolved around the tedious process of publication. “Once you submit your paper to a journal,” explained a forty-something astrophysicist in a cartoony t-shirt and puffed vest, “the editors will either reject it right off or send it to two academics to review it. Not being rejected right off is your first victory. Your second one comes months later when the reviewers give you a chance to make revisions. At this point the editor usually gives you anywhere from a few weeks to less than two months to respond to the reviewers’ comments. Then,” he said with mock exasperation, “you re-submit your manuscript, the reviewers go through your responses, and if they like what they see then they’ll approve your paper for publication.” Here Maxine interjected: “And if they don’t?” The astrophysicist shrugged his shoulders; “Then you either beef up the manuscript and submit it to another journal or,” he added condescendingly, “you look for a journal with a lower impact factor.”
Stomachs thusly warmed with dessert — steaming apple crumble, a welcome treat on a Saturday forecasted to be very cold — the students soon set off to make good on their respective engagements. Bouchard’s school drifted off towards the telescope helmed by the famous Dr. Macnamara; an observational astronomer who won himself a reputation by identifying many of the solar system’s most flamboyant comets. “Dr. Macnamara was Eric’s supervisor,” Sarah noted to the group, as they waited in front of a small rectangular bunker whence the professor emeritus presided.
When the door flew open, Bouchard saw hair before he saw Dr. Macnamara — an Einstein puff. “Enter! enter!” said an old man with a kind countenance and smiling eyes, enthusiastically motioning for them to step in. The office was small and cluttered with the fingerprints of professorship. “Sit, sit,” he insisted, making more seating room by pushing things away on a spare table. Then rubbing his hands together like one does when anticipating a succulent pig, he said: “Now, what can I do for you?” His guests eyed each other uncertainly; this was going to be interesting.
At one point while deep in answering a smart question from Perry, the phone rang. Dr. Macnamara shuffled over to answer it. Meanwhile, Bouchard turned to Zimmerman; “So are tailless comets common?” he asked. “I think they’re quite rare actually,” said Perry; “most comets in our solar system have ice on them, hence the tails.”
“I’ll be back Sarah,” said Dr. Macnamara suddenly, setting down the receiver; “Josh asked me to record a movie for him on the tele. It starts in half an hour!” So saying he grabbed his keys and made an exit. “Just like that?” Minho commented drily. “He’s known to be a bit, unpredictable,” Sarah decided, not sure what to make of this event either; “However if he’s driving all the way back home,” and she checked her watch with a frown, “then he’ll probably won’t be back anytime soon.” Ten eyebrows were raised. “Surely Dr. Macnamara isn’t driving all the way down town just to record a movie on TV?” Annika spoke for them all. Sarah only smiled seriously in response to this; your guess is as good as mine, it said. “He is not unlike,” Balzac reflected in amusement as the events transpired; “the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha galloping on his dying steed to save a misrepresented damsel in distress.”
Suffice it to say here, by the time the other group came over for their turn with the famous but absent Dr. Macnamara, the good knight had not yet returned from his quest. “Just imagine his expression when he comes back and sees a different set of faces in his office!” Maxine mused, chuckling at the prospect; which, sadly, she was not to be part of.
As the group walked over to its next engagement, the main conversation revolved around the point of creation. And though Bouchard did not understand the astrophysics behind it all, he could however appreciate its philosophical significance.
“General relativity assumes that inflation occurred due to quantum fluctuations at the Big Bang singularity,” Perry explained; “resulting in the appearance of energetic particles in empty space, an event which is possible because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”
“Yeah, and before the Big Bang there was nothing, not even time,” Minho interjected, matter-of-fact; cosmology being a topic of great interest to him. “The laws of physics didn’t exist either,” Maxine joined in, not one to be left out.
“What about the quantum correction model?” Annika asked Perry, inviting him to finish explaining the differences. “The quantum correction model predicts no singularity,” said the latter. “I.e. no bang,” Minho interjected again. “Yes,” Perry agreed, not offended by these interruptions; “the concept surmises that the universe didn’t have a beginning and is also unlikely to end in a big crunch.”
“But I thought the cosmic microwave background proved the Big Bang theory,” Maxine returned, citing the discovery of heat waves believed to be remnants of the divine explosion. “It does to an extent,” Sarah allowed, weighing in on the discussion; “However if we’re being entirely honest here, the Big Bang theory only accurately describes events after the initial singularity, not at or before the point itself. The math gets a bit fuzzy as time approaches zero. That’s why the quantum correction model hasn’t been thrown out the window yet.”
Anon, the group stopped in front of their last telescope for the night, and perhaps the final telescope for astro camp itself. The building was irregularly shaped: a cubic barn about four, five stories tall with a slanting roof. A general pause ensued whilst all eyes inspected this alien structure. “It’s not your typical design,” Sarah confirmed, sensing the general confusion through the dark; “But that’s not the coolest part,” she added with a playful grin, “see there.” Bouchard followed her pointing finger, trying to discern what it was she meant. “It’s sitting on a disk,” Minho observed with his usual bluntness. “Yep,” said Sarah, nodding; “the platform rotates the telescope as it tracks an object in the sky.” Maxine whistled appreciatively. “That whole thing?” Balzac thought, speechless.
“It was built during the early eighties,” Sarah narrated, matter of fact; “As you can imagine, pretty futuristic for its time. Today the telescope time is mainly given to postgrads collecting data for their theses. So I suppose you could say it’s been turned into a sort of training facility.” The young ones looked hopeful. “What’s the telescope’s diameter?” Perry asked, his expression contemplative. “Two point five,” was the answer; “modest by today’s standards.”
A marked hatchway allowed outsiders within, and through this portal they entered the edifice. Sarah entered last and closed the door shut behind her. All was darkness. “Well this is just awkward,” said Maxine flatly. “Any source of light can potentially ruin your results,” came Sarah’s voice from somewhere, “so the darker it is around your telescope the better. Only the control room is light-proof, sort of. Now,” she said, switching to a more commanding tone, “there’s a stairway that leads to the control room. But you need to be really careful climbing it.” So saying, she made her way to the front of the group to find this ladder.
One hand gripping the cold rail while the other pinched the jacket of the person in front of them, they slowly made their way up the stairs. “A caterpillar train climbing a cave wall,” Balzac analogized to himself, his feet landing uncertainly on the next step. Who knew the life of an astronomer could be so much to the advantage of Hades; one misstep or a wrong turn, and you could find yourself drinking from the Lethe. As if reading what was on all the young minds, Sarah confirmed: “There’s been a few accidents. But mainly broken hips and a few bruises, that sort of injury. Nothing serious.” From her tone, she could have been talking about getting a paper cut while working in a paper mill. “That’s. Nice?” Minho remarked, in front of Bouchard. “Sarah doesn’t wear hiking attire for show,” Balzac observed, inwardly.
The Moirai sisters must have been in an indulgent mood this darkling eventide, for the train arrived at its terminus corporeally intact. There was a general sigh in the air as Sarah opened a door at the top and ushered them within. “This must be the red light district,” Maxine cracked up, causing everyone to laugh; for the small closet-like room they had just entered was dimly lit by a single red light bulb. “Decontamination chamber,” Sarah corrected with a serious smile; “Need to let your eyes readjust to light before we enter the control room.” The party stood still for a moment, Sarah timing their acclimation.
Through the adjacent door they finally arrived at the promised land. This room was slightly warmer than outside. “Thank the Borg,” thought Balzac. A grey-haired woman came up to greet them. She was the principal controller. “Hanah’s been here since the beginning,” said Sarah, introducing them to the grande dame.
The control room could have passed for Karl’s office were it not for the large operating station at the side, complete with antique monitors, buttons and joysticks. “It’s like a video arcade,” Perry commented with a boyish grin. Hanah chuckled good-naturedly, as a grandmother does at her grandson’s jokes. “Of course,” said she, in a wistful manner; “these days it’s just a few clicks on the computer.” So saying she shook the mouse, waking the computer up from its power nap, and dropped into her chair. “Saturn should be visible tonight,” was the suggestion.
Shortly after clicking in a few commands, the building began to shake. Balzac spun in confused surprise; “What the Borg?” thought he. Everyone else, apart from the seniors of course, appeared equally as unprepared as Bouchard was for this turn of events. Perry and Minho each muttered a startled “whoa” while Maxine shared some choice words. Annika held onto the station for support. The structure was making its famed rotation.
When all came to a standstill, Hanah furiously inputted some more commands and voila! a mini Saturn appeared on the screen, rings and all; albeit in black and white. “Aww, no color?” said Minho, disappointed. “Sorry,” Hanah replied, smiling regretfully; “The photos you see on posters have all been photoshopped.” For some reason this revelation — that of a thing pizzazzerized to appeal to a wider audience — made Bouchard think of raisins covered in chocolate; decidedly the only tolerable way to eat mummified grapes.
Some minutes later, when the novelty of mini Saturn began showing signs of decline, Sarah consulted Hanah, asking: “Is it ok if I take them up top?” The latter thought this a great idea and so readily consented. “Up top?” Maxine voiced with renewed interest, her eyes rolling to the ceiling.
Being perfect gentlemen, the ladies were allowed to go first. In the meantime, Hanah invited the three remaining males of the species to settle themselves in the lounge corner; made up of threadbare sofas, a used coffee table and near it, a kitchenette whence midnight stimulants could be prepared. For entertainment Hanah opened up a conversation, which, to Bouchard’s disadvantage, progressed from easy to technical rather fast. But so as not to appear disengaged and thus offend their hostess, he listened in on the wise exchange with a caveman’s wonder. This went on for more than fifteen minutes.
They all heard the comedienne before they saw her burst through the door. Minho thought out loud; “Finally!” said he in an exaggeratedly exasperated voice. The boys walked over to join Sarah.
The door opened out onto a railed balcony. “Oh Borg,” thought Balzac, as he emerged into darkness, the July breeze splashing over his face like a bucket of iced water. “We’ll stand here for a few seconds,” Sarah commanded; “so our eyes get a chance to adjust.” A dozen foggy breaths later the four began to slowly make their way up the stairs, eyes partially blind and hands gripping the icy balustrade with appropriate concern for tomorrow. “This is bloody dangerous,” Minho decided out loud.
When he reached the top, Bouchard could just make out a railed bridge spanning across the summit of the slanting roof. They shuffled over to its center. “We’ll stop here,” said Sarah: her command was obeyed immediately; “and hold onto the rails. It’s windy.” She did not have to tell them twice. Looking down from the bridge, Bouchard could just make out the silhouette of a telescope poking out slightly from the roof’s aperture. “It’s like looking into the eye of a Cyclops,” Balzac said to no one in particular. “Um, Balzac?” Perry whispered beside him. “What is it?” returned the other, still trying to make out the giant black eye below; “Do you see something?” There was a momentary pause. “Try looking up,” came the suggestion. Bouchard did; and his jaw dropped. The Milky Way in all its sinewy resplendence and sparkling excessiveness appeared to him like a vomit of diamonds on a carpet of infinite darkness.
Silence reigned for some time over the four humans standing atop the barn-shaped observatory out in the Coonabara Ranges, the sheer awesomeness of space and infinity overloading their sensoria beyond comparison with any past experience. “Bloody hell,” Minho gasped at last, first to break the silence. “Pretty much,” chimed in an equally awed Perry. “To be sure,” said Balzac, gazing fixedly at the spectacle with fanatical worship, as if beholding a vision of Venus stepping out of her shell. Sarah smiled at the youths’ short but loaded responses; she agreed with them all.
“Ready to go back?” Sarah asked after another five minutes had elapsed. “So soon?!” Balzac returned, reluctant to move from the view despite feeling like his blood was congealing from within. “Well,” said Sarah uncertainly, there was a schedule to follow on the one hand; “A few more minutes then,” was her final offer. This extension appeased him for the moment.
The five disciples dropped off at the guest house, Sarah proceeded on to the barracks and there prepared to call it a night; for tomorrow promised to be another long drive back to Canberra. Her recruits on the other hand joined their fellow comrades in the living-room, whence another soirée was extemporized. Biscuits and tea were provided, courtesy of the Coonabara Observatory kitchen.
Naturally, Madame la Comedienne was the lady of her household; as involved as Madame Geoffrin of the rue Saint-Honoré when presiding over her famous dinners on Wednesdays, whence the intelligentsia of Europe flocked over to her salon to make love to philosophy, and she, its head mistress, directed their thoughts as a hypnotist influences the minds of others with mesmerism, or drew out their opinions as a surgeon-in-charge extracts a tumor from the brain. All this is to say that Maxine ensured conversations flowed in surplus, that everyone was included and amply teased.
“How did Dr. Macnamara react when he saw you guys?” she asked the other group at large. “He didn’t,” was one answer. “As in slowly,” another chimed in. “It took him a few seconds to realize we weren’t you guys,” said a third. All present chuckled in great good humor at this scene.
“I’ve finally gotten around to watching The Big Bang Theory,” Maxine informed her circle later on; “It’s hilarious!” Nobody objected. “Sheldon is such a character,” chimed in a second year with curly brown hair, from the other Coonabara group. “Actually,” Maxine thought aloud, turning to address Bouchard with wide eyes; “You remind me of Sheldon Cooper!”
“Yeahhh,” Minho protracted the word, as if it all made sense now. “That’s kind of true,” Annika agreed, seeing Bouchard in a new light. Perry smiled knowingly. Meanwhile those from the other Coonabara group, who had not been around Bouchard long enough to draw such comparisons, observed the string of revelations and its victim with curious interests.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Balzac responded with perfect aristocratic innocence. “Wait, really?” Minho interjected, not picking up on the sarcasm. “Oh, Minho,” Maxine dramatically sighed in acquiescence. The party went on past one.
“Perry?” Balzac called from his bed, where he had tucked himself like in a cocoon; “Do you think we’ll find an exoplanet with life on it during our lifetime?” This was a question Zimmerman had himself on occasion pondered, thus he had a ready answer; “The Kepler telescope has already found exoplanets in the habitable zone,” he allowed, “and that’s just from looking at a relatively small patch in the night sky. So yeah, I guess the odds are in our favor. However unless we can actually send a satellite over there to confirm its existence, we’ll never be a hundred percent sure.” There was no response.
“Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong century?” Balzac asked, after an interval had elapsed; the image of stars sprayed across the night sky still fresh in his mind. There was something melancholic in the way he asked that question. “Is that how you feel?” Perry asked, his tone gentle, wise and sympathetic. “Sometimes,” the other admitted with a grave sigh; “I don’t know. Maybe Star Trek has corrupted me.”
Come Sunday morning Sarah and her ten followers departed Coonabara Observatory in their white van; most sitting in the same spots as when they arrived. Minho, who had a passion for all things soccer, started a conversation with Perry on the topic. “You watching the game next week?” he asked enthusiastically. Bouchard filtered out everything after this prelude; he did not watch sports, nor did he enjoy playing them.
Two hours into the road trip, and not able to figure out a problem by himself, Bouchard required Zimmerman’s genius. “Perry,” Balzac called, engaging his friend; “So we know that light gets trapped in black holes. But what happens to the light once it’s inside?” he asked with a gravity that immediately put the other in a frame of mind to answer. “Hmm,” Perry murmured, frowning wisely; “There are probably some weird time effects that might affect the light’s behavior,” he mused to himself, “and I’m pretty sure that light doesn’t just pool at the center. Because light is always in motion. So it probably gets converted into another form of energy.” Here Bouchard ventured a guess: “Heat energy?”
“It’s likely,” Perry allowed, though he didn’t sound entirely convinced. “So does that mean it’s hot inside black holes?” Balzac asked with interested concern. “I’d imagine it’d be pretty hot near the center,” Perry supposed, nodding. “But no heat escapes,” Balzac chimed in, “or else we would have been able to detect them using infrared cameras.” A pause. “How is it that the heat cannot escape?” Balzac resumed. Zimmerman appeared to consider this for a moment. “Heat is transmitted through collisions between particles,” he recollected, “but since no particles can escape the gravitational field of a black hole, the heat remains trapped. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some weird state of matter at the center. Things should behave very strangely there.”
Later that afternoon the van and its occupants entered a large town. “We’ll stop to have dinner here,” Sarah spoke up from the driver’s seat, shaking up her passengers from their drowsy languor; “there’s a burger place here that’s really good. I always stop on my way back to Canberra.” Minho perked up; “I’m bloody starving!” said he in his usual manner. “Typical,” Maxine observed, shaking her head fondly. “What?” returned Minho, a guilty smile on his lips.
The diner was humid with sizzling meat. “This is the bomb,” Maxine declared, hands clasping a sizeable hamburger dripping juice. The others murmured some noises in response; their mouths masticating huge mouthfuls. “Don’t you eat meat?” Minho accosted Balzac, whose fish sandwich stood out from the majority’s minced cow parts. “I never really developed a taste for it,” was his simple reply.
As the journey’s end grew nigh, a sort of campfire camaraderie settled within the van; the earlier energy usurped by reflections and friendly remarks.
“So after listening to all the lectures and visiting the telescopes,” Sarah spoke up from the driver’s seat, addressing the group at large; “any ideas on which areas of research you guys might be interested in pursuing?” There was a brief pause while everyone considered their answers; for the good-natured seriousness of her tone deserved a serious reply.
“I’m thinking of stellar evolution,” ventured a second year from the other Coonabara group. “Definitely something to do with exoplanets,” chimed in a young man with curly brown hair, also from that cohort. “Cosmology,” Minho stated, matter-of-fact; the first voice from Bouchard’s team. “Astrobiology seems pretty cool,” said Maxine, not one to be left out or outdone; “What about you Annika?” and she turned to her sitting companion. “Maybe astrochemistry?” Annika supposed; though still not sure how she felt about midnight observations. “Astroparticle physics,” asserted a bespectacled young lady, her head held high and sitting erect. When it came to Perry’s turn, no one was surprised by his choice: Theoretical astrophysics.
“And you, Balzac?” Sarah asked after two more answers had been added to the pool; apparently she had been keeping count. Nine pairs of eyes turned to Bouchard. “What the Borg am I going to tell them,” he thought with great unease; “all the good ones have been taken.” So thinking, he made one up on the spot. “Astrophilosophy,” he offered. “Is that a real field?” the bespectacled young lady inquired primly. “Why not?” retorted Minho, coming to Bouchard’s aid; whether intentional or not did not matter to the latter, he was grateful all the same.
The van entered ANU’s grounds around eight that evening, which was approximately as the agenda predicted. Sarah was kind enough to drive through Daley Road, returning each student to his or her respective abode. “Thank you Sarah,” Balzac said politely, descending in front of Helena Hall. “No problems,” she replied, turning to face him from the driver’s seat, a serious smile on her lips. “See you later,” said Perry. “Yeah, live long and prosper,” Maxine joined in, to the amusement of the rest in the van. Bouchard rolled his eyes and waved them a dismissive goodbye.
As the van drove away on an empty Daley Road, Balzac reflected: “Astronomers are a curious species of scientists. Nocturnal creatures, solitary habits, hiking fashion, and their favorite food is apple crumble.”
On the steps leading into the building he hesitated for another moment, cold though it was, and glanced up at the heavens to see—
“Meh,” was his appraisal of the city’s night sky; “Just a sneeze of stars.”
When his usual bedtime hour approached, Bouchard did not feel the least bit sleepy; perhaps having something to do with the two late nights in a row he had just been put through. And so in spite of it going against routine, he did not slip into bed when the clock struck ten; instead installed himself at the table and turned on his laptop. “I might as well do it while it’s still fresh in my mind,” Balzac reckoned, logging into his Gmail account, from where he began to draft the promised email for his grandfather in Perth; a task he approached with the enthusiasm of a vicomtesse writing an epistle to her Parisian friend, the lady marquise, during a sojourn in Saint Petersburg.
I have returned from astro camp, and as was pledged in my previous communication, its history shall now be related to in this letter. But before beginning the narration so long awaited for, I am inclined to provide a warning. It is this:
The letter is pregnant with similes and lofty words. High English with a dash of paprika. It cannot be helped. For its author is as addicted to verbosity as the lavish Assyrian King, Sardanapalus, was dependent on his stimulants.
It all began a few months back, when our pizzazzy and effervescent physics professor Nikolai Romanova ended his vector topology lecture on a cliffhanger…”
About the Author
“Boripat’s continuing passion is to explore strange industries, to acquire new knowledge and ask many questions, to boldly learn something he did not know before.”
Thus, Boripat studied theoretical physics, wrote about fashion, and took an internship at an online marketing company. Currently, he edits papers intended for peer-reviewed journals, conducts research in social science, and manages a creative nonfiction blog.
Boripat’s interests are varied, but his greatest joy comes from attempting the difficult.
To contact him, email: [email protected]
A Vomit of Diamonds follows Balzac Bouchard, a first year student at the ANU, whose violent curiosity and natural interest in astronomy motivates him to apply for astro camp; a one-week event awarded to ten select candidates. AVoD is a long, short story full of pizzazz and physics; perfect for the reader who can appreciate delusions of grandeur and stomach words such as tensors and geodesics.