Andrea Barrett – “The Ether of Space” from Tin House #47 “The Mysterious” Spring 2011

Where you lived and what you knew determined what you expected to see. Once the moon was a smooth glowing orb, and then it had mountains and seas. Once Jupiter wandered alone, and then he had moons; once orbits were round and stars stayed still in space. In earlier books, she’d traced those changing perceptions. Now she was trying to write about the universe beyond the solar system. Who first thought those glowing specks were other suns, like ours? Or that some were island universes, far beyond the Milky Way?

She is Phoebe, a 41-year-old widowed mother with a young son, living with her parents, as writing books for the general readership about science does not pay enough for her to remain on her own, or to return to her original, pre-mom profession of Astronomer. It is just after World War I. Thanks to a solar eclipse that provided the means for experimentation, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is gaining ground, changing physics by eliminating the troublesome need for an ether. And an established scientist named Oliver Lodge defends the existing view of the ether as the substance that permeates space and, in fact, captures personalities after death – including that of his son, Raymond, who died in the war.

Phoebe becomes obsessed with the conflict between the two theories. She is outraged that a scientist of Lodge’s stature would talk mumbo-jumbo about an afterlife, rather than using mathematics and the scientific method to prove or disprove theories. But she can’t stop thinking about it: this ether that may contain her husband’s soul. “Lodge must be wrong, he has to be wrong. If he’s right, then Michael’s been within my reach this whole time and I could have been talking to him. I could be talking to him now.

Her son, who has been a bit distant of late, attends a lecture with her. He is enthralled, but they don’t discuss much of it. Later, she finds out he’s written a paper for English, which concludes:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think…. I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart. What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

It’s a beautifully written story, moving slowly and thoughtfully in a slightly lush but restrained voice that feels right for that time just before the Roaring Twenties, the time that created the Lost Generation. Sir Oliver Lodge, professor of physics and mathematics, was one of the creators of radio (it was a crowded field) and invented spark plugs among other things. And he was tethered to the dying ether by his son.

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2 responses to “Andrea Barrett – “The Ether of Space” from Tin House #47 “The Mysterious” Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: Andrea Barrett: “The Particles” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012 « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: The Last Page | A Just Recompense

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