How Matter Becomes Light

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Lily can feel firm hands lifting her from the pillow. The afternoon light is fading. Then someone turns on the lamp at her bedside. Better eh? You’d hardly think it’s summer, with all this rain. But for Lily, the moments no longer join, one moment is all there is. One summer is more than enough.

Beyond dreams, it is summer in 1915. Lily walks cobbled streets that turn her ankles in her only pair of dress shoes. If her father knew… Light caresses her. That’s how it is, like a caress she has only just learned to feel. The light seems to penetrate her skin, to bathe her soul in something universal. She perspires gently inside the cotton frock. Her scalp is damp under her pinned-up hair. If she could, she’d take off her shoes and run. Run through the meadow to the cottage where he is.

He says she can have his books. On sure commitment that she’ll read them. Or try. She promised. Some of the books are advanced, but she is a clever girl. He told her about light rays and electricity. How light shining on metal can make an electric current. How light is made of waves that can travel across the universe. Tomorrow he’ll be gone. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again. There are only two possibilities: yes, or no.

Lily studies late at night after work. He left her enough books to fill her empty wardrobe. Some of the books are very old, full of strange diagrams and symbols. Her father wants her to sell them, something to pay for what he’s left behind. But she said no. She’ll return to work in the munitions factory. Mother will look after the baby, and that’ll look proper, if she can hide her swelling belly. She’ll study the autumn, and winter through, before the baby is born. She won’t give up.

The war is over, and the enlightened world has gone mad for this new relativity of Einstein’s. It is in the papers. In the newsreels. All of space and time is drawn in geometric figures. Space-time, in which nothing happens that does not affect something else, and no one can agree on what the other sees if he is moving relative to the other. Even art and literature has taken it to heart. It is a marvellous puzzle. Some say it is just an illusion of mathematics. That God would not make things so that they were true only locally. Others argue that the constancy of the speed of light is evidence of a Divine hand at work. Only, for Lily, life is contained in the tiny universe of a small town in England, caring for her young daughter, Marcie, who everyone thinks is her sister.

1925. Summer, again. Lily walks by the river with Marcie. Flat-bottomed clouds sail the bright blue sky and the sun is a yellow ball with rays like a Clarice Cliff design. Reality is not so simple. She thinks of Eddington’s experiment, showing that light from distant stars is bent around the sun like lines on a tea-pot. Lily teaches in the local school, where Marcie goes in her ugly, grey pinafore. Poor Marcie will never make a scholar.

Only Marcie’s blue eyes remind Lily of the young man with the books. By the late 1930s, Lily has heard nothing about her lost sweetheart. She imagines him lying forever in a field of poppies, in a bloodied uniform, blue eyes open to the endless blue sky, all the dreams of the future drained out. But maybe he has another future, unknown to her. Until she knows, he is both dead and alive.

Lily wonders how Einstein will reconcile his theory with the other new science of quantum mechanics. How can something can appear to travel faster than the speed of light? Two photons entangled. If one is captured, then a corresponding value of the other is known, no matter how far apart. Spooky action at a distance. She is disturbed by the idea, as it undermines all she has come to believe. If she dares to write to Einstein, how would she ask a sensible question? But he world is changing fast, and they say there will be another war. And there is. Lily has to concern herself with things closer to home. Another stint in a munitions factory. This time she is a morale officer. The women worry about their neglected children. Surely the war will end soon… And it does – with a bomb.

Another baby. Victoria. This time it is Marcie’s. Out of wedlock, of course. Poor Marcie dies soon after from a complication of pregnancy. Lily supports the child, teaching at a girls’ technical school. Lily teaches the girls about Einstein’s great discovery – E=mc². It should be used for good purposes she tells her students. It is how the sun shines. When matter becomes light. But she knows now it won’t happen without the helping hand of quantum mechanics.

Victoria grows into a vibrant young woman, and obtains an exhibition at Cambridge for Natural Sciences. She marries a handsome American and they go and live in California.

Retirement, an amorphous time. One year blends into another for Lily, with no one to care for now. Victoria sends her a photograph of an old man, with a letter. She knows the man with the books is truly dead now.

Victoria. How it is to be 70… How many more years has she to go? Where she lives is beautiful. It is always summer here. Not like the mean world she left behind in a small English town so long ago. Her family there is dead. Her little granddaughter has a red helium balloon bobbing on the end of a string. Victoria tells the child that helium is a tiny atom that was first found in stars. That she mustn’t let go of the string.

About the Author: 
Elizabeth Stott has a degree in physics, and worked in industry. These days, she writes fiction and poetry. Her work has been published as a collection of short stories, and her stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, with more to come. See: