The Would-Be Physicist

She sat in her tree. Well, it wasn’t exactly her tree. But she sat in it at this time every day, after lunch, and it had become her tree. It was a tree that sat low in the landscape, at the bottom of the mountain. There were better trees with better views, but she liked this one. She could climb it easily, it was easy to sit in, and at this time of the day it had good shade. It was in this time, after lunch, that she had to go around and do some standard checks. Basically she had to make sure the animals were in their usual spots. Or at least, that her allotted animals, in her alloted part of the reserve, were in their usual spots. Really, she just had to make sure the gazelles were still there.

The gazelles weren’t going anywhere, plus no one was hunting them, and the tourists, frankly, found them quite boring. So, instead, she would sit in her tree and think. When she got back to the office she would have to write the same things she wrote every day. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except filling out a form every day to say the gazelles were doing exactly what they were normally doing, could get tiresome. She did this for other animals to. But because of their sheer quantity the gazelles, to her, seemed to be extra boring. They were boring individually. But en masse they were incredibly boring. Now and then a few elephants would roam her way, on a slight detour away from their herd. Those were interesting days. She would run back to the office to fill out forms on those days.

She didn’t want to work at the reserve. She didn’t have anything against it. She enjoyed watching the animals, and the landscape. But the whole point of the reserve was to protect the animals and make sure they had a nice normal life. And if you were doing your job properly, they could have this normal life. But what nobody tells you is that what is nice and normal for the animals, is kind of boring for the people watching them. At least, for people like her who didn’t really have an interest in the finer points of animal biology or psychology. The reserve was offering her and her colleagues a chance to get involved in a research project along these lines, there would even be a chance to visit America. The idea of America fascinated her, but she just couldn’t gather up the enthusiasm to write about animals in a class room. If she was going to spend time thinking about them she would prefer it be out here, watching them, in her tree.

She had wanted to be a physicist. She had seen ‘Back To The Future’ as a little girl and had had high hopes of creating her own form of time travel. When she learnt that physics covered everything from time travel to rockets to how every day cars moved, she was hooked. And she wasn’t bad at it either, she did well in science at school, and even went to an after-school science club where they would make explosions out of custard powder and make rocket ships for eggs. As she grew up she came to understand the various fascinating ways physics applied to life. Which ended up being problematic as didn’t know where to begin. What should she study? And where? What would she do for a job?

The tourists she met on the reserve had these ideas that she was some poor girl from the slums who had never been given an education and to who, this job, had been some kind of blessing. She didn’t know how to explain to them that she was from a lower middle-class family that simply lived far to far away from anything like a respected university physics department. She could have tried harder. Well, she was still trying now. Her 21st birthday was only a few months away. In reality she knew it was never to late to learn, but she felt like if it didn’t happen soon, it would never happen. Her parents most likely could have paid for her to go to university, but her dreams of going to a particular place and study this particular subject meant that she was too picky. Too picky, and in need of more money than could possibly be given. She thought that she had taken this job at the reserve to earn money to go to university in some far off land. The University of California had always been her prime objective, with their Nobel Prizes and contributions to major space programs, it was a place she dreamed of. But, in all honesty, she was here because she was lazy. She had been too lazy to find a good local science course, she had been too lazy to look for a science-based job, she had let time slip away. And almost 6 months after all her friends had left for university she found herself signing up for a training course at the reserve, simply because she was bored. Her family was proud, and would tell people about how she was an independent girl who was working to pay for university. She didn’t have the heart to tell them she was only there because she was bored and, ironically, lazy.

She was mentally chastising herself, as she usually did, in her tree, when a bus came into view over the horizon. It was a bit larger than any of the reserve buses. She suspected that it was full of tourists, ones who perhaps had more money than sense, and had demanded to be allowed into the reserve in whatever air conditioned American monstrosity they had rented for their holiday. As the bus drew closer it struck her that the people inside looked far to mature and sensible to be tourists. There were no cameras for starters. She suspected they were scientists. In fact she knew they were scientists, because she had seen a similar bunch wandering around the office a few days ago. They were from an American university, the same university that were developing a research project and were prepared to train ‘native reserve workers’ to help them. She wasn’t sure whether that made her feel patronised, or special.

They had stopped, not to far away from the grazing gazelles. She had not much else to do, and was growing bored, so she walked down to meet them. They recognised her and began to ask all sorts of questions about the gazelles. It was nice to be taken seriously, but she knew she couldn’t really provide what they needed. The leading scientist, a woman in her 40s, smiled at her. She was taken aback by all this sudden attention and made her excuses to leave. But the scientist had this pleasantly smart and soft manner, and it was hard not to buckle under all that niceness. The scientist told her how interested they had been in her reports on the gazelles, what fascinating insights she had had, and could she possibly help them. She grimaced slightly. She knew that, to most people, this would have seemed like an excellent opportunity to work with what were very educated people. People who could, perhaps, help advance her situation. But she was bored, as always, and couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm for their work.

As she talked to the scientist the other members of the party began unloading equipment from the van. She eyed something that looked like a speed camera. This piqued her interest. The scientist and her walked further into the group. They were discussing a trial run before the research project. Laptop computers emerged from bags and the scientists looked for somewhere to sit. Suddenly more interested in them and what they were up to, she motioned toward her tree. It had a good view, she said, along with good shade. They smiled brightly and thanked her. It was just a tree, she thought. These people were clearly more impressed with her than she was with herself. Her and the scientist followed a small group up the slope as other members set up equipment and took measurements. She thought it was all quite odd, that they were keeping their distance, don’t animal scientist type people want to get up close and commune with the animals or something? She turned to the lead scientist and asked “what is it that you’re all doing here?”. “Well”, said the scientist, smiling, “it’s all gotten a bit complicated. But basically we’re a mixture of different departments, and we’ve put together this project to study how animals move within a herd. We have some animal psychologists, some biologists, but I’m the odd one out. I study animal locomotion. Basically I’m a physicist, but don’t tell that lot. They think we’re all just rockets and time travel”.

Keywords: Gazelle, bus, tree.

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