Short Story: The Scientist & The Slinky

I originally wrote this for a magazine competition, based on the theme ‘Spring to Life’. Though it wasn’t successful, it was a light piece that cheered me up after a stressful day. Slightly inspired by a recent science show I went to, which also starred Chris Hadfield…

***

He held a slinky in one hand, the end stretching away from him. ‘Now, if I drop this, what will happen? Will the whole slinky drop at the same rate, the bottom hitting the ground first, then the top? Will it all fall at the same speed? Will the top travel faster, hitting the bottom of the slinky before it all falls?’ The audience seemed to hum in anticipation. Of course, the whole thing would travel at the same speed and the bottom would hit the ground first. Or would it? The scientist continued to rile them up. ‘Well, which is it? Bottom hits ground, top follows, or top hits bottom, then it all hits the ground?’

Everyone seemed to think that the bottom would hit the ground first. It was only common sense. However, sometimes, common sense is wrong. Very wrong. The slinky fell slowly from his hands, the top springing towards the bottom, hitting it, and then it all fell at the same speed. Together. As it fell, the bottom of the slinky rotated in place, before the top sprung back to meet its fellow, contributing to the momentum that propelled it to the ground. The hum of the audience grew. Everyone had been wrong. Time seemed to slow down for a moment. Were they angry they had been wrong? Were they simply confused? Had they been tricked? The scientist held his breath, feeling his suspenders tight on his shoulders and a bead of sweat trickle down behind the goggles. The audience decided they were pleased and the tension left his back. Applause broke out and time sped up. They stood, clapping as he took several bows. It was the final act of the school talent show and the momentum of the slinky had continued into the audience. They were impressed and they were happy to leave, satisfied that their children were talented and their money was making a difference. The scientist stood back and moved into the wings. Taking off his goggles and lab coat, he became once more a boy.

Spiky haired and slender of frame, Alex Mintz was ten years old. He dreamed of growing up one day and becoming a grand adventurer. Perhaps he would journey the world, as a botanist or a biologist, finding new and fantastic flora and fauna. Or maybe even a physicist or astronaut, examining why dark matter was dark and had matter. He wasn’t sure yet. He was only ten. He didn’t need to be sure.

‘Oh, great job Alex!’ Mrs. Rowan exclaimed, clapping all the while. She’d taught him science since he was in third grade. Her hair had changed colours every few months, in all the shades of the rainbow, but her glasses had always remained the same. Winged and tortoise shell, he’d always imagined they were alive, about ready to fly off her face and take the freedom they deserved. Of course that was impractical and impossible but Alex’s imagination had never liked those words.

‘Thanks Mrs. Rowan!’ Alex grinned. He’d always wanted to impress her but had never imagined a slinky would do it.

‘How on earth does that slinky thing work?’ Mrs. Rowan looked puzzled as she held it, testing it for tricks.

‘Well, the base of the slinky, when held vertical, is already being held down by gravity.’ Alex took it back and held it out, the base almost touching the floor. ‘See? So, when you release the top, the tension held in the spring decreases as the two ends come together. There’s not enough energy to lift the bottom end against gravity, but just enough to keep it there until the top end hits it. Then they both fall at the same time.’ He smiled at her. ‘It’s just simple science.’

‘Intriguing. So, are you going to study science at university when you grow up?

His face fell. ‘I don’t know, Mrs. Rowan… My dad wants me to be a plumber like him…’

‘Well, your dad can say whatever he wants. But if you want to be a scientist – go for it! You have amazing potential.’

Alex felt his smile return bigger than ever but then Mrs. Rowan stopped. She glanced around the auditorium. ‘Where are your parents? They should be up here to congratulate you…’

‘Oh.’ Alex felt his smile freeze up. He didn’t want to tell her that they hadn’t been bothered to come. ‘Well, um…’ He gazed around, pretending to scan the room as his mind raced for a suitable story. His mind raced. ‘Oh, Mum had to sleep early. She’s not well,’ he said quickly. It was better than the truth. They simply hadn’t cared.

‘Ah well,’ Mrs. Rowan smiled again. ‘I’m sure everyone enjoyed your presentation. Do you need a ride home? It’s quite dark out now.

‘That would be great. Thanks Mrs. Rowan!’ Alex ran to grab his things before she changed her mind. She made no mention of never seeing his parents that year or the next. Instead, Mrs. Rowan gifted him with textbooks and let him use the school science equipment, often with amusing results.

***

The years passed and the boy became a man. Alex always remembered the praise Mrs. Rowan had given him at that Science Fair. For the first time, someone had validated his love of science.

He met a wonderful woman and together they had a beautiful daughter. Like her mother, she loved to read and make up stories. And just like her father, she loved science.

‘Anyway,’ Alex paused, ‘Honey, could you put the slinky down?’

‘But, daddy…’ She pouted, her hair falling in dark curls over hair eyes.

‘No. Daddy’s telling a story now.’

‘Fine.’ Amanda delicately placed the slinky on the top of the stairs and pawed her hair back out of her eyes. It never did what she wanted. She didn’t understand why they had to tell stories before playing with the slinky.

‘When I was your age, all I wanted to be was a scientist. Of course, I read a lot of books about it and tried to tell everyone all I could about science. But no one cared. The other kids made fun of me for being a nerd.’ Alex stopped as she put her hand up.

‘What’s a nerd?’ Amanda tilted her head. ‘Is it like the lolly?’

‘A nerd is what people call someone who likes doing lots of reading and studying, particularly when other people think they do it too much.’ He picked up the slinky absentmindedly. ‘I did every single Science Fair I could in primary school. Would you make fun of me for liking science that much?’

‘No Daddy.’ She shook her head like he was being utterly ridiculous, her curls bouncing. ‘I don’t think you’re nerdy.’

‘That’s good.’ He paused and measured his words carefully. ‘Now, your mother tells me that you said you didn’t want to learn about science anymore. Why?’ Alex had a feeling about what had happened but all the parenting books said not to ask your kids ‘leading questions’. He suspected they’d been written by police interrogators but there were no references he could verify.

‘Well…’ Amanda stared at the floor, twisting the edge of her shirt between her hands. ‘The boys said that girls couldn’t learn science. I said they were wrong but the rest of the girls said they were right. They said their mummies didn’t even like math.’

Alex sighed internally. ‘You know that just because they don’t like math, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to like it, right?’

‘Well, yeah but…’

‘But nothing. Girls and boys can like whatever they want to. It doesn’t matter what your friends say.’ He felt the echoes of Mrs. Rowan. ‘If you like science and you really really want to learn more about it? Go for it. Same for maths or art or music.’ Alex smiled and held out the slinky for her to hold. ‘Now, are we going to try and get this slinky to walk itself all the way down to the bottom of these stairs or what?’

‘So I can be a scientist just like you?’ Amanda took it and looked at him hopefully.

‘Absolutely. And you can keep the slinky.’

She grinned and together they placed the slinky at the top of the stairs. As the slinky fell and flipped over and over and his daughter laughed, Alex laughed with her. He could almost hear the loud applause of the Science Fair that night. Even though Mrs. Amanda Rowan had known exactly how that science trick worked (he’d taken it from the Year 6 science textbook after all), she had still validated him and made him feel like his childhood dreams were worth something. And he’d be damned if he didn’t do the same for his daughter. That slinky had helped his dreams come to life and he hoped that it would also work for her.

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