Collider

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“So, Dr. Baxter, if an electron can be in two places at once,” asked the student in the front row, “Why can’t I?”
Martha Baxter let out a sigh of frustration.
“I’m sure you’d like to be home snoozing right now, but it doesn’t work that way.”
“Actually, there’s no place I’d rather be,” said Tom Perelli, sipping his coffee, then beaming at his young professor before continuing to speak. “I was making a joke. But I do wonder if you’re ever going to talk about the new macro experiments.”
“Let’s keep to micro for now,” said Martha.
Cocky guy, thought Martha. Full of himself.
Martha Baxter was thirty years old, newly hired as the only female member of the physics faculty at Wyndam State. All she asked was to be taken seriously.
She resumed her explanation of wave-particle duality while Tom Perelli continued looking at her with a grin on his face.
Martha ignored him.
When the class ended, Martha was annoyed to see the cocky student approaching.
Maybe he’ll apologize for his silly comment, thought Martha.

He stood so close to her desk that Martha could smell the French Roast on his breath when he spoke.
“It’s about your office hours. They conflict with my work. I’m holding down two jobs, and I’m a single parent, with a six year old.”
Up close, Martha could see he was quite a bit older than the other undergraduates. His crew-cut had a few gray hairs.
She started to respond, but Tom interrupted.
“I have some questions about the double-slit experiment,” he said.
“But we haven’t covered that,” said Martha.
“I’ve read ahead,” said Tom.
Is he trying to show off? thought Martha.
She could feel his eyes on her as she put on her jacket.
“So what’s your question?” she asked.
“Would you like to grab a coffee and talk about interferometers?”
Martha flinched. Grab a coffee? Was he coming on to her?
“Sorry, I don’t have time. But you can email me,” said Martha.
The semester unfolded. Tom participated actively. He’d raise his hand and ask about walking droplets or eigenstates, often adding witticisms or asides, much to Martha’s annoyance.
Once he even complimented his professor on the sweater she was wearing.
“Nice color,” he said.
Is this harassment? she wondered.
“Do you have an actual question, Mr. Perelli?” she asked.
Tom segued easily from Martha’s sweater to diffraction phenomena and Planck’s chromatic theory.
“These questions are beyond the scope of this class. I can give you further reading…um….if you like,” said Martha.
“I like,” he said with a grin.
A few of the other students smirked, but Martha was not amused.
I have to confront him, she said to herself. He needs to change his tone.
At the end of the next class, she summoned him to her office.

“What’s up?” he asked, taking a seat across from Martha’s swivel chair.
“Mr. Perelli, I don’t feel respected. And if it continues, I’ll report you.”
“Whoah…what are you saying?” asked Tom.
“You are harassing me,” said Martha.
“Harassing you?” he asked, “I’m just enjoying your class and trying to learn as much as I can.”
“Well, you have a very unusual way of doing it.”
“I’m not exactly your typical student. Plus I find physics fascinating.”
“I can tell. Your assignments are superior. But it’s your attitude….”
“My attitude?”
“Well, for instance, I didn't appreciate it when you said ‘That’s a nice color on you.”
“Actually, what I said was, ‘That’s a nice color,’ not ‘that’s a nice color on you’.”
“It was an extraneous comment in any case.”
“I just try to focus on the light side. I’ve seen enough darkness in my life.”

Martha wondered what he meant. She envisioned war buddies maimed by explosives. Or a dying wife. The mother of his child.
For a minute she felt chastened. But then she remembered how uncomfortable she felt when he stared at her during a lecture.
“I don’t mind humor, Mr. Perelli, but….”
“But flirting is a no-no?” said Tom.
“Flirting?” asked Martha.
“Yeah. Flirting. I call it flirting. You call it harassment. Maybe this behavior is both particle and wave.”

“Mr. Petrelli, we’re talking about inappropriate class participation.”
“Inappropriate? But who’s the observer here? We both know that observers influence outcomes, don’t we?”
“Not in this situation.”
“Well, let’s suppose we’re talking metaphorically,” said Tom.
“I’m not following you,” said Martha, looking puzzled.
“It’s okay,’’ said Tom. “There won’t be a quiz at the end.”
He laughed at his own humor and then brought up the old Wheeler experiment.
“Imagine my class comments as photons. They start out as particles, but end up as waves.” he said. “There’s interference, isn’t there?”
His talked faster and faster, punctuating his words with his infectious laugh.
“Do you see where I’m going?” he asked.
Martha wasn’t sure. Maybe I’m really off the mark, she wondered. Maybe Tom Perelli meant no disrespect at all. And all semester long I’ve been misinterpreting. Solving for spin instead of angular momentum.
“All I’m saying is that maybe you are an “harassment beam-splitter” and that changed the trajectory of my flirting, ” concluded Tom.
“I’m still a little confused,” said Martha, her head pulsing with emotions.

“Well, then, let me talk plain English. You’re an attractive woman. And I’m a guy with a big mouth who gets under your skin.”
Martha felt the color rising in her cheeks.
She gulped.
Tom grinned.
They sat wordlessly in the cramped office and looked at each other for a few minutes as if for the first time.
“But you’re my student,” said Martha, finally.
“Right, and you’re my professor. Only until the end of the semester, though. But we’re both intelligent adults. Right?”
Martha Baxter nodded.
“So let’s go,” said Tom.
Martha remained a bit skeptical, but she got up and accompanied Tom Perelli to a café, and nothing in the universe was ever exactly the same again.

About the Author: 
Gabriella Brand was once married to a physics major who brought The Feynman Lectures along on the honeymoon. She eventually read the lectures, but the marriage did not last. This is a true story. Gabriella's writing has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.