Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Painter and the Physicist

While I settle in to my writer-in-residence position at the Science Faculty, here's a piece of science-inspired flash fiction I wrote last year, which was read by an actress at a Liars league event in London (you can listen to the reading here) This story is entirely fictional, not based on spending any time with physicists or painters, or the two together! Just from my imagination.

The painter and the physicist
by Tania Hershman

The curtain is pulled back.
Yes? Says the assistant.
I've come... to see. To see the painter.
And you are...?
I... I'm the physicist.
One moment, says the assistant and the curtain falls back again.

The painter doesn't turn round.
Send the physicist in, says the painter, cleaning a brush.

The physicist sits on a stool, watching as the painter chooses colours.
So, says the painter, you're a physicist.
Yes, I... Theoretical physics.
Unseen. You imagine what's there.
The physicist is uncomfortable, shifting a little, the stool leg rocking. The painter is mixing two colours on the palette. The physicist watches the painter and wonders how it works, what the eye sees, what the eye knows.
I suppose, says the physicist. Yes, that is certainly one way to put it. Some might say we, umm, guess. We are just guessers. I mean, well, educated guessers! He laughs, shortly, quickly.
Electrons, says the painter. What do you think an electron looks like?
Looks like? An electron?
Does it have colour? says the painter, licking the tip of the paintbrush.
I... I don't...
Don't think, says the painter.
Blue, says the physicist, who doesn't see the painter grinning.
Blue. A blue electron.
Yes, says the physicist, whose mind is trying to ask what the relevance of this can possibly be to current research projects. Cobalt, says the physicist, unsure exactly what shade this. Or azure.
Cobalt, or azure. Very specific, says the painter. Wavelengths make all the difference, don't they.
Yes! says the physicist, who almost falls off the stool. The way a colour hits the eye. I mean.. I'm not a biologist, of course, I'm not familiar with the structure, the rods and the cones and...
Neutron, would that be white, says the painter, who has now added several brushstrokes to the canvas.
Well, I suppose so, although now that you ask, I imagine them more as, well, grey. The physicist looks at the canvas and wonders if a question would be appropriate at this point. Your painting, says the physicist quietly.
You want to know if I know what it is going to look like, says the painter.
You don't have to... please don't feel you, I mean, I just came to.. It's your..
There is something, says the painter, turning away from the canvas and towards the stool where the physicist, uncomfortable again, is fidgeting. The painter holds up the brush and then holds it out. Something. I can see it out of the corner of my eye, a hint of it. But, if I try and look at it directly, it vanishes. I have to move towards it...
Slowly, yes, says the physicist. Like a small animal, or a child. So you don't...
Scare it, says the painter. The painter smiles again, still facing the physicist. Theories, says the painter. For you, too?
Yes, says the physicist, who hasn't thought about falling off the stool for quite some time now.
Later, when the canvas is half-covered, the painter puts the brushes down and suggests they go for a drink. In the pub corner, the physicist has a single malt, the painter a glass of dry red. The painter picks up the physicist's glass and holds it to the light.
Look at that, says the painter. The shades of gold.
The way the photons hit the liquid, some are reflected, some pass through.
It shimmers, says the painter. Hard to capture that, hard to express the movement, the angles, the flow.
I could, says the physicist, tell you about flow, give you equations, write it down on a napkin.
Xs and ys, says the painter, grimacing.
Hey, says the physicist, tongue loosened. Those are my colours.
What colour is an X? says the painter, sipping the dry red, thinking of ochre, scarlet, black.
Green, says the physicist, who has never imagined it before, but now, once the word emerges, sees it all over the blackboards, the whiteboards, the pages of notebooks.
And if I said to you, X must be pink, says the painter.
No, says the physicist. Wrong.
Aha! says the painter.
Oh, says the physicist, and grins. I see. And if I said to you, paint the sky brown...
It's been done, says the painter, who doesn't like to be predictable. The physicist nudges the painter's elbow and then wonders where the boldness comes from.
Are you telling me, says the physicist, that there is no wrong?
Oh, says the painter. I don't... well. I couldn't. I mean...
Aha! says the physicist, getting up. Another round?

The next day, the painter paints; the physicist teaches a class. The day after that, they sit together again, in the pub. The following week, the painter visits the physicist. In the space between them, colours flow.

To read more of my short and short short stories, please visit

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