How Matter Becomes Light

Here is a shortened version of something I wrote to commemorate the centenary of General relativity. Perhaps, one day, I’ll grow it into a longer form.





How Matter Becomes Light


There now, Lily, some apple juice, you like that…

Lily lifts her head to drink from the beaked cup. She can feel firm hands lifting her from the pillow, and propping her up. 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.


Beyond dreams, it is 1915. Lily walks cobbled streets that turn her ankles in her only pair of dress shoes. If her father knew… It is a summer evening and the 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. But she must not draw attention to herself.

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. He kissed her, made her lips tingle, told her that her eyes shine like stars. He told her how things will be when the war is over; when everything is perfect and they can be together like man and wife should. Tomorrow he’ll be gone. He has given her the future.

Lily studies late at night after work. He left her enough books to fill her empty wardrobe. The books are full of strange diagrams and symbols that she is learning to de-code. 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 world starts up again. Everyone has gone mad for this new relativity of Einstein’s. It is in the papers. In the newsreels. The speed of light is always the same, no matter where it is observed. No one can agree on what the other sees if he is moving relative to the other. All of space and time is drawn in geometric figures to show the conundrum. Space-time, in which nothing happens that does not affect something else. Even art and literature has taken it to heart. It is a marvellous puzzle. Some say it is just an illusion of mathematics, an artifice. God would not make things so that they weren’t the same throughout His Creation. 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, grey town in England, where nothing moves on. She is fixed in place, caring for her young daughter, Marcie, who everyone thinks is her sister – an afterthought child, whose parents have become old before their time.

  1. It is summer, 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. She teaches in the primary school, where Marcie goes. Poor Marcie will never make a scholar. Not like her mother, who is a scholar still, exchanging naïve letters with a university don who writes articles for a popular science magazine to encourage the young. Lily calls herself Albert. The cheek of it! She pretends she is at school, and she is, in a way. He sets her problems and even sends books. Ones his own son used. Another bright boy lost in the Great War.

The don wants Albert to take a scholarship exam, when he’s old enough. But he can’t, of course. So, eventually, she pretends to be Albert’s aunt, and says the boy died of scarlet fever. They are truly sorry to lose a student with such potential.

In the town where Lily lives, they still think that Lily is a devoted sister to a dull mouse of a girl, a simple, shy, creature whose parents are now dead. Only Marcie’s blue eyes remind Lily of the young man with the books. Years on, 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, in a way, he is still with her. Relativity tells her that the past is no less real than the present, or, indeed, the future. But the memory of him is inadequate. He seems a child, now the same age as Marcie, who is 19, and able only to do the simplest of jobs, working for a kind greengrocer, sweeping floors and polishing apples.

There is another war, another stint in a munitions factory. This time she is a morale officer. The women worry about their neglected children. She chivvies them along. Teaches some of them the basics of mathematics. 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, who would marry such a useless girl? Lily supports Marcie, and the baby, 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. Nuclear fusion. It is how the sun shines. When matter becomes light. Lily manages to send a few of her brighter pupils to university in this brave, new world where women go to university. She hopes to hear from them, but they never write.

Lily tells Victoria about her grandfather, and how he would have been a brilliant scientist if he had lived. Victoria’s life is shadowed by Marcie’s early death from an undiagnosed cancer. And by the Cold War. Lily is strongly opposed to nuclear weapons, and takes her granddaughter to Ban the Bomb marches.

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. A trip to America to see Victoria. Her wonderful house in a sunny place, a husband, very handsome, very clever. Three beautiful children. This is another world that co-exists with hers in England. A world that could have been hers if she had been born half a century later. Victoria shows her a photograph of an old man. Something, something… but what? It makes no sense, but she knows the man with the blue eyes is truly dead now.

Years that could be months, months that could be years. Lily no longer knows. She drinks apple juice from the beaked cup that is offered to her. Tries to remember something. Something, but what?

Victoria. How it is to be 70… Her handsome husband is dead. How many more years has she to go? Where she lives is beautiful. Not like the mean world she left behind in a small English town so long ago. She has forgotten her mother’s face, and wonders if she should visit her elderly aunt, but Lily would no longer know who she is. Victoria’s children are grown and successful in different fields. She is a grandmother twice over. Her little granddaughter is excited about a bright red helium balloon that bobs along the ceiling trailing its shiny ribbon just out of reach. Victoria tells the child about helium, tells her that it is made in stars, giving off light to warm the earth. Victoria tells the little girl that she once worked in a place where they tried to make little stars, hoping to make electricity for the world, but it is a very hard thing to do.

‘Perhaps, one day, Grandma, I shall make you a little star to keep you warm.’

And, watching the seemingly weightless balloon, Victoria hopes that perhaps she will.


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