• Carla Ra

Grandma's advice

Updated: Feb 25

Grandma once dyed her hair pink when she saw mine blue. In her youth, she was an accountant; also a mechanic, and the manager of a shoe factory. She was a woman ahead of her time and faced many adversities because of it. Passing the torch to the women in the family, she supported me and my mother in every step we took. And she knows me better than I know myself.

“What’s wrong, my dear?”

“It’s work, Grandma. Nothing much,” I brush it off. “My equations are rebellious.”

Grandma puts down the recipe book she has been skimming through for the past fifteen minutes, rests the right elbow on the mahogany kitchen table, and grabs her chin. I have her undivided attention.

“Tell me about it.”

After a car accident took my grandfather away when my mother was only three, Grandma had to provide for her three children by herself. She let no one tell her what to do. More importantly, she let no one tell her what not to do. Inspired by her, I went against my mother and became a physicist. When I announced my career choice, Grandma bought books by renowned scientists, such as Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. She wanted to be a part of it.

“It’s the cosmological model I’m working on. It defies one of the most famous theories of physics,” I explain.

Granny keeps nodding, now with both hands holding her delicate, wrinkled face, forcing me to keep talking.

“There are two seemingly incompatible theories to explain nature: quantum physics, which deals with the microscopic world, and general relativity, the one that describes the macro-universe. I am trying to unify both domains, to build a quantum theory of gravitation.”

I pause and stare at her, waiting for questions, but Grandma just mumbles, “Very interesting.”

“What I did was to quantize a classical cosmological theory to understand how it would change under the influence of quantum effects. The result was controversial. According to my calculations, the theory of the Big Bang is wrong.”

Grandma’s eyes widens and she gasps. She knows of this theory. Everybody learns about the Big Bang. The initial singularity, the beginning of space and time, romanticized into a big explosion. The universe started with a bang. Grandma’s cheeks turn pinkish as she asks briskly,

“What happened, then? What is the alternative?”

“There was a previous universe that shrunk until a minuscule volume and then inflated again into ours. We call this motion of contracting and expanding a bouncing. So there wasn’t a singularity, but a bouncing.”

Grandma is amazed, but suddenly the sparkling eyes give place to a stern gaze. After a few seconds lost in her thoughts, my concerned Grandma says,

“I understand. It is hard to defy well-established institutions. I imagine your career might take a hit if you pursue this line of work, right?”

I hold my breath, and I nod. If there is one person who knows how to challenge traditions, it is Grandma.

“I think you may need some guidance to deal with it. I know of someone that can help you,” she says wistfully. “I read about a quantum coach in the newspaper a few days ago. He gives career advice.”

My loud sigh does not stop Grandma, and she sprints to search for the newspaper in the living room. I follow her, trying to explain in a hurry that what she’s thinking has nothing to do with my work. Quantum coaching is a scheme that uses this name to shamefully sell itself as science.

“Grandma, there is no way quantum theories would be used in this context, our world is not quantum.”

She halts and turns, looking at me blinking in a daze.

“But you’ve just said the universe is quantum.”

This observation makes me jolt. I’m such a lousy scientist! I should be more careful with my words, or else I can create more confusion than clarification. I hug Grandma and apologize.

“The Cosmo was once really tiny. Everything there is today was compressed onto a small volume, at the Planck scale. At this moment, the universe was microscopic and quantum effects became relevant. This is the timeframe right at the beginning of the expansion, before inflation. That is the moment I research, Grandma. I am looking deep into the past, it is not a theory to apply today.”

“I see.” Grandma sighs and makes a puffy face. She is upset that her suggestion was not useful to me. I tighten my arms around her.

“It’s ok, Grandma.”

“Well, darling,” she says, “then you have to trust your equations. It is not you who are challenging the Big Bang theory, it’s quantum physics that’s doing it.”

I lean back to look at Grandma’s face, amazed by what I just heard. Grandma’s warmth flows from her tiny body into my chest. She is wise, and she is right. It is not my fault, it’s quantum mechanics’ undoing! Grandma rubs my back and pets it twice.

“Oh, I remembered now,” she cheers and dashes from the corridor to the living room, with me in her tail. She grabs a magazine on the couch and flips a few pages. “I saw this, and it reminded me of you. I am practicing it. It is quantum yoga. Look, this pose is called enlightening entanglement.” She sits on the carpet, bending in an impossible manner her surprisingly fit body. “Come on, do it with me!”

Ah, Grandma.

I sit down by her side, trying and failing to contort into this position, being completely obfuscated by my grandma’s youth.


Carla Ra

Cover image by blickpixel from Pixabay.


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