A Fuller Heart

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Her gray, wispy hair danced in the wind as she gazed cautiously at the young man. Her cheeks were pinkish from the cold. She stood with crossed arms.
The young man cowered at her piercing eyes.
“Please. This is all I want to do,” he said.
Sadness filled the old woman’s heart. She thought of the treacherous journey ahead of him. The rejection letters. The pressure to publish. The unholy sprint towards tenure.
He continued the conversation they were having earlier. “I know that I fixate on details. But that world is beautiful. You must know that.”
She sighed. Then she spoke.
“Squeeze your eyelids to a slit and look at that street lamp.” She pointed to the distance. Dusk had not quite arrived but the street lamps were already on. “What do you see?”
He took some time to respond. “I see long, shimmering lines in place of the street lamp bulb.”
“Quantum physics tells us that the probability that light travels a certain path is related to the time it would take to travel that path. When you make a slit with your eyes, you force light to travel through that slit to reach your eyes. Once light passes through your eyelids, the time it takes to continue in a straight line or to bend around your eyelid before finishing its journey is practically the same. So the light you see ends up arriving from many angles. As a result, you see a long, shimmering strip of light.
“Now think about a fridge magnet. Inside that magnet are a million, billion, billion electrons, behaving as if they are spinning, though not really spinning, producing the magnetic field that pins your favorite picture to the fridge.
“All of this beauty comes from the quantum world. It exists so that gigantic creatures may witness—through subtle hints—the splendor of the atomic world.”
She smiled uneasily. “So, yes, I know how beautiful that world is. Its existence is not limited to chalkboards and textbooks. It is the world around us.“
They stood next to a tall building. He was not looking at her anymore. He was focused on the trashcan nearby. Long, melancholy moments passed. Then he spoke, softly.
“Why won’t you write me a letter of recommendation?”
Her eyes became moist. “I don’t think you’re disciplined enough,” she replied.
“So you’ll deny me the chance to know that world as you do?”
“It’s not that, I’m just not sure what my answer is,” she hesitated. “I just…”
“There are only two possibilities: yes or no.”
“Then the answer is no.”
Again, he looked away in silence. This time an eternity passed before he responded.
“Well, thank you for everything.”
She nodded with as much warmth as she could muster. He walked away.
She entered the building and rode the elevator up to her office. Standing in front of her office door, she glanced at the nameplate that said Prof. Emeritus as she fiddled with her keys. Then she entered, greeted by the smell of old books.
Through the large windows she gazed at the campus. There were so many buildings. Smaller buildings. Buildings she towered over.
She had not had a graduate student in years, but she could recall the eccentricities of every graduate student that she had ever had. She had not been to a conference in years, but she could recall a haze of hotel rooms and drinks after dinner.
She stared at the wall. She checked her email. She sat in silence for an hour. Then an incredible thought occurred to her. Terrible and clarifying.
She had known hundreds of students deserving of a nameplate of their own. Hundreds of students with shattered dreams who fled like refugees to do other things. She could not bear to see it happen again.
She had done the right thing.

A few days later, he arrived at her office.
She saw him and put on her armor. Her mouth was straight. Her eyes were piercing again. For a moment, he said nothing. Then he spoke without warning.
“I know I’m not as disciplined as you’d like. That’s not why you won’t write me a letter. I know why. It’s not your right to steer me away from misery. In doing so, you also rob me of the happiness I might attain.”
She was shocked. He had dived into her mind and surfaced with a perfect copy of her thoughts.
“That’s probably right,” she replied weakly. He was curious and full of passion. Discipline could be learned, but curiosity and passion were the fuel that made discovery burn.
She hesitated.
“OK, I’ll do it.”
Anguish made way to nervous joy. He was relieved. “Thank you.”
She nodded but avoided his eyes. “I’m busy now.”
After he left, she stared out through the window at the other buildings and wondered if anyone shared her pain. She squeezed her eyelids almost shut and let some stray photons bend around them. Then she closed her eyes and tried to forget about the quantum world, in hopes that she might return to it with a fuller heart.

About the Author: 
Vivek Amin is an optimistic but slightly damaged physicist barreling through life with high hopes.