I heard the scratch of fountain pens from other students working nearby in the library, but only one man captivated my attention. Philipp Lenard. I reached for the article by the noted German physicist and began reading. I should have been reading the texts of Hermann von Helmholtz and Ludwig Boltzmann, assigned by the professor, but I was drawn to Lenard’s recent research on cathode rays and their properties. Using evacuated glass tubes, he bombarded the tubes’ metallic electrodes with high-voltage electricity and then examined the rays. Lenard observed that, if the end of the tube opposite the negative charge was painted with a fluorescent material, a minuscule object within the tube began to glow and zigzag around the tube. This led him to believe that cathode rays were streams of negatively charged energetic particles; he dubbed them quanta of electricity. Putting down the article, I wondered how Lenard’s research might impact the much-debated question about the nature and existence of atoms. Of what substance had God made the world? Could the answer to this question tell us more about mankind’s purpose on God’s earth? Sometimes, in the pages of my texts and in the glimmers of my musings, I sensed God’s patterns unfolding in the physical laws of the universe that I was learning. These were the places I felt God, not in the pews of Mama’s churches or in their cemeteries.
The clock in the university tower struck five. Could it really be so late? I hadn’t even touched the day’s assigned reading.
I craned my neck to glimpse out a well-positioned window. There was no shortage of spired clock towers in Zürich, and the clock hands I saw confirmed that it was five. Mrs. Engelbrecht was Teutonically firm with her pension dinner schedule, so I could not linger. Especially since the girls would be waiting, instruments in hand, for some predinner music. It was one of our little rituals, the one I loved best.
I organized my papers and began to slide them into my bag. Lenard’s article sat on top of the pile, and a phrase caught my attention. I began reading again and became so engrossed that I jumped when I heard my name.
“Miss Mari?, may I intrude on your thoughts?”
It was Mr. Einstein. His hair was wilder than ever, as if he had been running his fingers through his dark curls and willing them to stand on end. His shirt and jacket looked no better; they were rumpled almost beyond recognition. His disheveled appearance was at odds with the careful mien of the other students at the library. But unlike them, he was smiling.
“Yes, Mr. Einstein.”
“I’m hoping that you can help me with a problem.” He thrust a stack of papers into my hand.
“Me?” I asked without thinking and then chastised myself for my obvious surprise. Act confident, I told myself. You are every bit as bright as the other students in Section Six. Why shouldn’t a fellow classmate ask you for help?
But it was too late. My self-doubt had already been revealed.
“Yes, you, Miss Mari?. I think you’re quite the smartest in our class—by far the best at maths—and those Dummkopfs over there”—he gestured to two of our classmates, Mr. Ehrat and Mr. Kollros, who stood between two book stacks, whispering and gesticulating wildly to one another—“have tried to help me and failed.”
“Certainly,” I answered. I was flattered by his assurances but still wary. If Helene were here, she would urge caution but also push me to forge a collegial alliance. Next term, I would need a lab partner, and he might be my only option. In the six months since I had entered the physics program and sat in class with the same five students every day, the others had shown only the basest civilities and an otherwise practiced indifference toward me. By his daily kindnesses in greeting me and occasionally inquiring into my thoughts on Professor Weber’s lectures, Mr. Einstein had proven to be my sole hope.
“Let me see.” I looked down at his papers.
He had passed me a nearly incomprehensible mess. Was this the kind of unorganized work that my fellow students were doing? If so, I did not have to worry about my own efforts. I glanced over his messy computations and quickly spotted the error. It was laziness, really, on his part. “Here, Mr. Einstein. If you switch these two numbers, I believe you will arrive at the proper solution.”
“Ah, I see. Thank you for your assistance, Miss Mari?.”
“It’s my pleasure.” I nodded and turned back to the business of packing up my belongings.
I felt him peering over my shoulder. “Are you reading Lenard?” he asked, surprise evident in his voice.
“Yes,” I answered, continuing to pack my bag.
“He isn’t part of our curriculum.”
“No, he isn’t.”