Five days after our first snow storm of the season I skipped a day of classes, rode the commuter rail to Newburyport, and biked to the beach. But it’s not the beach I was after, it was much too cold for that. Besides, it was mid-November already, and despite having my heart set at 1:00, my bags packed and my tires filled by 1:30, and the door locked behind me at 2:00, by the time we rolled up to the end of the line, it wasn’t more than an hour and a half til sunset. No, it wasn’t the beach I was after, it was the sky.
I bought a sandwich — to go. Threw in a Snapple as well and pocketed a chocolate chip cookie. I stopped for a map at the Refuge visitor center. The volunteer at the front desk recommended a trail, by parking lot 4, a little ways down the strip. I would check it out, I said. Never made it.
Earlier, in July of last year, in a similar way as this, I showed up on Plum Island with my bike, my book, my bathing suit, and a towel. But I had got delayed, missed a few trains, and wound up scaling the dunes just as the sun’s last rays sank below the cold blue line of the sea. Folks were packing up, folding up, winding up: their totes, their beach chairs, their kite strings. The sands shifted to the march of feet as the beach emptied out. Then I was alone.
Unfolded my towel in the wind and laid it down. The sound was rushing: cacophanous but not unpleasant, with the waves which break on land, the wind which rattles the air, the seagulls swooping and hollering, overhead, to the left, something beating, something else fluttering. Off my thoughts went over familiar terrain. Seven years I’ve known this place, and for others, maybe centuries, yet to me, strangely, it will always belong to Jesse: the Boxford boy with a guitar and his dad’s car, who was eighteen; who I didn’t do right by.
With my eyes closed stretched out on my back I thought I could feel the spinning of the earth. I’m glued to a ball, I thought, on a slingshot trajectory through space. There’s no returning to the same place.
Then, when I opened my eyes I saw infinity.
It was grey-blue.
Funny, I always thought black would be the color of infinity. Black, after all, is the color of the most infinite thing we know. But black, also, is the color of closure, of enclosure, of not-sight and not-life. Black with your hands over your eyes as you count to 10. Black with shallow breaths your warm skin between cold sheets. Black even as your grew fingers; black between the acts. Black is a lack. Grey-blue is overflowing.
So it was, what I saw, an unbroken singleness to the edges of my vision. With no depth or distance, no shape to rest the eyes on–a pure color to fill all space and all souls and that was that.
When once again, the sun set on me, this time in November, I took a picture.
And then another, because I saw this in the sky.
Not long ago, my QFT professor, mid-lecture and mid-semester, struck by a flash of irrelevant inspiration, commanded our theorist TA to construct a cloud chamber for the next section. The TA squirmed, and we were at most uninterested, studying, I think, path integrals at the time. But there was no getting out of it, the professor has said it shall be and so it is.
At first there was nothing. In the darkened room we huddled around the single source of light, stared hard and waited. Five minutes passed. Had it worked earlier? Yes, yes, the TA swore up and down it was lighting up just this morning. We resumed our positions, seven or eight of us in total, our breaths smoking the cold glass. Another minute. Any experimentalists here? I didn’t raise my hand. It was so quiet.
The light source came unscrewed and rolled off the table. Then there was a scramble to retrieve it; then there were ideas, then everyone talked at once. Maybe the cosmic rays aren’t making it through, someone said. Should we add a bit more alcohol? Is the dry ice gone? We should let it warm up first. We should go up to a higher floor. Adjustments were made, some unmade. I said nothing.
Then, a streak. I saw it and one other person. Then, in an instant, another.
“What did it look like?”
Look closer: the chamber was alive. Charged particles at near light speed were criss-crossing like contrails in the sky. Each appearing for a moment, each ignorant of the others. And the air in the room took on this magical quality. Muons, electrons, positrons leapt out of the pages of our textbooks and went dashing through our bodies and skins. A cosmic shower of particles every moment of every day and we were bathing in it, suddenly and permanently aware.
I decided then that I would make a cloud chamber of my own. It would sit on my desk, lit by an LED, waiting. And an infinitesimally small charged particle identical with all the others, created in the upper atmosphere and carrying the momentum of some proton from a distant distant star, for whom the earth and everything on it is just an instant, would, for a moment, and only once, pop into vision, and I will smile its way and say, isn’t it brief but aren’t we glad to be here?