In an ambitious first book Lee Okan draws a daring parallel between the life of the universe and our own lives and loves. Here is a remarkable weaving of metaphysics and physics, in dreamlike writing as much poetry as prose. Here is a fiction aware of its construction – and willing to let us witness its sequences and discoveries.
— Danielle Legros Georges, Poet Laureate, City of Boston
Excerpts from The Lives of Atoms
“Tell me a story,” she said. The scientist’s wife turned her face towards his. They lay in bed in the darkness as car lights flickered off their walls. The sudden roar of a commuter train rushed below their window. When its clamor dissolved into the night, the tremor of the rails quieting, they folded in together against the tumult outside their windows, their world, and the scientist smelled the sweet breath of his wife as she repeated, “Tell me a story.”
“What kind of story?” Aslan asked her, kissing her hairline. Her face was in the well of his chest, a hand draped over his side. She was his beauty, she was his. He kissed her hairline again as she paused below his chin. Manu exhaled and all her sweetness, of flowers and the dinner she ate with her pink lips. She sighed and told her husband, “Tell me the story about atoms.”
Aslan brushed her hair back away from his lips and cajoled her; surely she did not want to hear about atoms, the data screens, the numbers he analyzed all day. He was not very good at telling stories at all, darling, why do you want me to tell a story at all, at all about atoms?
“Because,” she answered with a feline yawn and pressed closer to his body, “Because you talk about atoms as if they were people, too. Tell me what they did today.”
He had studied physics for so long, the subject was sewn into the fabric of his life. He could not detach it from one holiday or another summer, and it always was, always breathing in the background of his life as the seasons fell and the seasons fell. And he had studied atoms for so long, he stuttered once or twice to tell the story, pulling in different directions, until beginning with the universe and bosons, but changed his mind mid-sentence and told her the story of entangled atoms.
· · ·
Sometimes, the scientist began, seemingly independent particles become intertwined. For example, let’s say that there is an atom in Turkey, he said touching her thigh with his finger, while in Cambridge, and he kissed her face, there is another atom. Even though the atoms may be far apart, they are no longer independent of each other. When one is touched, he said, touching her thigh, the other reacts, he said, touching her face.
One particle knows what measurement has been performed on the other, and with what outcome, though separated by long distances.
Our particle in Cambridge, asleep in bed after a shower and a long day, drifting off to sleep feels a sudden tickle on her thigh. And so Aslan tickled her thigh. Our other particle in Turkey, yearning to return home, waiting in the airport after delays and deluge of administration, feels a sudden tickle on his thigh. Each suddenly knows what the other felt, despite distance, despite time.
· · ·
There are two types of particles that I have observed, the scientist said. There are bosons and fermions.
Bosonic atoms are social. They don’t mind having each other around. Whenever there is a potential to trap them, they all accumulate happily in the center. Regard- less of how many of them there are, they gather on top of each other; they do not mind the lack of personal space. They are very good at talking to each other; they are very effective, and collectively show similar behavior. Sometimes you can’t even tell one apart from another.
And when you look at them, they seem like one entity even though there are many and many of them. They talk to each other simultaneously and they have strong relationships with one another. And these bosonic atoms, when they come together, because they are so similar seeming, in the end, they don’t show a variety of characters. They fail at showing distinct individual identities.
Our examples are photons, which constitutes light, and graviton, which constitutes gravity.
We can say, the scientist added, That they are responsible for enforcing the general orders in the universe because they are social.
And then there are the other kinds of atoms called fermionic atoms. Unlike bosonic atoms, they have strong characters. Once a place is occupied by one of them, the others do not want to be close by. They care about their personal space. You can say, the scientist laughs, they are anti-social.
Because of that, when you put many of them in the same place, depending on how many there are and depending on the place, they end up making very different, complicated structures. As a whole, they are responsible for the variety in our universe.
And those are the reasons why there are so many atoms with different characters.
Lee Okan is a writer based in Boston. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales. The Lives of Atoms is her first novel.
Copyright © 2018 Lee Okan
Cover photograph from the collection of Lauren Leja.
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 or scholarly journal.
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