A Universal Explanation of Toast
I’ve always fancied myself as a particle physicist and this morning when I enter the common room and smell toast, I know I’m going to have my first real scientific success. The assistant is already sitting at the table, and without looking up from her newspaper she slides the little plastic cup of pills towards me, just like every other morning. But I ignore this because I’m here to work.
The smell indicates to me that a slice of bread has recently been exposed to a short but intense burst of heat, in turn caused by electrical resistance in a current-carrying wire grid; the bread’s surface correspondingly raised to the correct temperature for the melting of butter.
But there’s no plate on the table, and neither is there any crockery in the sink. Or even cutlery – apart from a solitary teaspoon that, when I pick it up and hold it against the back of my hand, emits a very slight warmth like a small star destined to end its life by being locked up in a part of the galaxy too far away for any relatives to visit. Or, now I come to think of it, like the universe itself as it continues cooling, as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics. From this I can only assume that the assistant recently used the teaspoon to make herself a cup of tea, and has since drunk it and hidden the mug from me.
While I search in the bin for evidence of teabags she continues to read her newspaper, scanning each line of the cryptic code. An odour of citrus permeates the room but I reject the presence of marmalade as superfluous to my deductions.
I touch the surface of the table and feel water. A damp table is one that has been wiped recently, and a table is wiped because it’s dirty, and it’s dirty because it’s had crumbs scattered on it. From this I can deduce the existence of carbon produced by helium atoms, these atoms themselves being primordial and thus formed in the Big Bang. A slight asymmetry at the time of the Big Bang - perhaps not dissimilar to a fault in someone’s brain - has led to the universal dominance of matter over anti-matter, and a local (at least here in this institution) dominance of toast over anti-toast.
The assistant has nearly reached the bottom of the page and the end of her story, but I have got there before her. ‘I’ve solved it,’ I say, but she still won’t look up so I’m forced to raise my voice. ‘I can prove it all, the existence of molecules and atoms. Quarks, bosons, and the origin of mass itself!’ And because she is always such a polite lady she closes the newspaper, sighs quietly, and prepares to listen to me.
Pippa Goldschmidt lives in Frankfurt and Edinburgh. She writes fiction, poems and essays (mostly) about science, and is the author of the novel The Falling Sky and the short story collection The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space. Recently her work has been broadcast on Radio 4, and published in Mslexia, Litro, the TLS and anthologies such as A Year of Scottish Poems. Please come visit at www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk and @goldipipschmidt