Sunday, 27 June 2010

Short Story: The Diffusion of Light Particles

I remember meeting Leila for the first time as if it happened yesterday. She was one of three new students who had been assigned to my care for a few hours. A Ph.D. in Physics is no laughing matter, not unless you are in your twenties and rich and pretty. Leila was all three and she laughed or giggled most of the time when I was talking. The other two students, both men, one in his late twenties and the other in his early thirties, were neither young, nor very pretty or even handsome and they had the dour martyr expression that is very common among Ph.D. students. Further, I doubt if they were well off. In fact, I distinctly remember one of the men having a rather pinched and impoverished look. After I finished my discourse on the intricacies of writing up a thesis and submitting it, I asked, ‘any questions?’

The two men had lots of questions. Leila had none. She sat through the questions for five minutes and told me in her accented English, ‘David, I must leave now. I’ll drop into your office if I have any questions. Is that okay?’

I decided to not let the husky voice or the drop dead gorgeous looks sway me. Putting some steel in my voice, I said, ‘sure and if I am free, I might even talk to you.’ My cutting response didn’t have the desired effect. Leila got up, gave me a warm smile which looked practised, and left, displaying a fair bit of leg, an expensive brown handbag dangling from her arm.

After that I saw Leila or her BMW convertible from time to time, mainly because one of the other Research Associates in the department started to date her. Actually it was more like Leila dating Rob than Rob dating Leila. As the girlfriend of a colleague, I couldn’t be rude to her. Heck, even Prof. Brown, the head of the Physics Department, was forced to be polite to her. Unlike other Ph.D. students who made appointments to meet with Professors or Lecturers or even lowly Research Associates like me, Leila was wont to walk into the department unannounced, sit on Rob’s table while Rob struggled to focus on his work and chit chat with all and sundry who walked past.

We all suspected, or assumed rather, that Rob was helping Leila with her Ph.D. I mean, if you are dating a pretty girl who is doing a Ph.D. in an area you know a lot about, you are bound to end up helping her, aren’t you? What was more, some of the folks even believed that Leila was dating Rob solely because Rob’s specialism, the diffusion of light particles, was pretty close to the subject matter of Leila’s thesis. Other than Prof. Quail, no one else in the department focussed on anything close. No one except me, that is. I too worked in the field of light diffusion and it piqued me no end that Leila had chosen to date Rob rather than me. I was much smarter than Rob. I knew that and so did Rob and every one else in the department. Why then had Leila chosen to date Rob rather than me? Of course, I would not have fallen for Leila even if she had chosen me over Rob, but the fact that I wasn’t even approached, rankled.

Rob was rather good looking. In fact he was very good-looking, though a bit of a bore. Actually, he’s a terrible bore even now. I, on the other hand, wasn’t going to set any woman’s pulse racing with my appearance. But surely, Leila wasn’t dating Rob for his looks, was she? She was dating him for his knowledge and I had much more of it than Rob. Why then, hadn’t she considered me? I consoled myself with the thought that Leila hadn’t considered Prof. Quail either and he knew a lot more than Rob and I put together. Of course, Prof. Quail was even less good looking than I was and the dense white beard he cultivated didn’t exactly enhance his appearance.

A year after Leila started her Ph.D., I was offered a lectureship. Rob wasn’t offered one, though we both had finished our Ph.Ds roughly at the same time and on the same subject. I felt vindicated. After I became a lecturer, I no longer had to help Prof. Quail with his research or correct his students’ course work or run errands for him, all of which Rob continued to do as a research associate. I took five classes a week for undergraduate students who piled me with their course work. I continued with my own research and once in while, wrote articles which appeared in journals that very few people read and which most people wouldn’t have even heard of.

Leila never dropped in to see me. Once I accidentally bumped into her in the cafetaria and we ended up sharing the same table.

‘How's the research coming along?’ I asked her.

‘Not so bad. But there’s so much more to do. The more work I do, the more I have to do.’ She permitted herself a small smile.

And is Rob helping you enough? Is it a proper quid pro quo? Are you getting value for your body? I wanted to ask her all that, but I didn’t. Instead I gave her a smile and stirred my coffee.

‘You are very different from every one else,’ Leila said.

‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

‘You are so much more serious. Focussed may be. But you are not particularly fun loving. You look as if you only want to finish the task at hand so that you can move on to the next one. You don’t behave like an academic.’

It was funny how Leila had cottoned on to me. I was flattered as well. ‘I used to be an investment banker. Worked in the City for __________ Bank. Then I gave it up and came back to Uni to do a Ph.D.’

‘I see. That explains a lot of things? Did you make a lot of money?’

I gave a deprecating smile. ‘Actually I did. But money doesn’t mean much, beyond a point.’

‘You aren’t married, are you David?’

‘No. Not any more.’ It was after my divorce that I had moved back to academia, but I didn’t tell Leila that. I am single. I am rich. I am clever. Rob is not so well-off. He is not so clever. If you had any sense, you would have dated me. No, I didn’t say that to Leila, though yet again I caught myself wishing she had thought on those lines.

‘Have you lived in the UK all your life?’ I asked her.

‘I came here when I was eight,’ she replied.

‘Then how come you still have a French accent?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know.’ The elegant shrug was very Gallic.

‘Do you think it makes you sound more attractive?’ I wanted to ask, but didn’t dare. She had a quick temper and was capable of a nasty barb, I knew. I’m saying this because I once saw her have a row with Rob in public. I couldn’t have stayed on and listened to what they were saying, but it was pretty obvious that Leila wasn’t getting what she wanted and that she was unhappy about it.

Rob never brought Leila along to any of our staff functions where spouses and partners were invited. He never even mentioned Leila in conversations where I was present, though it is possible that he wasn’t so tongue tied with others. It was as if he was doing something wrong and he was ashamed of it, One day I actually saw Rob in the library take out a rather elementary book on the diffusion of light particles. ‘Back to basics, are we?’ I asked him.

Rob looked annoyed as he said, ‘and why not?’ He quickly walked out. If he hadn’t I would have told him that I was only joking.

When Leila submitted the first draft of her thesis, Prof. Quail asked me to take a look at it, before he himself did. I had been a lecturer for three years by then and Leila was no longer so young, though she was as pretty as ever. I might as well put it in simple terms. She was still the prettiest girl in campus.

I dutifully reviewed the thesis that ran to around a hundred and fifty pages. “Quantum Diffusion of Light Particles at Low Temperatures” There were a few sections where the author was out of his depth or rather, hadn’t bothered to delve as deep as might be expected. I made a few comments on such sections. On the whole, it was a decent effort and with some tweaking, it could be deserving of a Ph.D. The range of experiments that Leila claimed to have conducted did throw up results that led to a conclusion regarding various mechanisms in the static-energy-asymmetry-temperature plane, which, though not very starling, was original enough to merit a Ph.D.

I could understand Rob’s predicament. If he wrote the thesis at a level that was way above Leila’s, it would raise eyebrows, especially Prof. Quail’s. If he let Leila do it entirely on her own, she wouldn’t get a Ph.D. and he wouldn’t continue to be her boyfriend for long.

Did Leila actually do all those experiments mentioned in her thesis? Someone had done them. Did Rob do most of them? No, he couldn’t have. They weren’t the stuff of rocket science, but doing them all would have been a full-time job for whoever did them. Rob’s thesis and subsequent work was on the quantum diffusion of light particles in the vortex state of a superconductor. It was pretty close to but still very different from Leila’s subject and there was no way Rob could have done Leila’s experiments along with his routine work, unless he had worked eighteen hour days for months on end. I knew that Rob hadn’t done that.

What would happen to Rob once Leila got her Ph.D? Would they continue to live together? I wondered as I went to bed. Sleep dodged me. What was I headed to? A professorship at the University. Lonely evenings all by myself. Wasn’t Rob in a far better state than I was, having Leila to live in with him, though he was quite an idiot?

That was it. Rob just wasn’t smart enough to make up those experiment results after doing just a few of them. Someone had actually done those experiments. And I knew that Leila hadn’t done them. Or maybe she had. May be I was deluding myself that she was not hardworking just because she was pretty. May be she had been spending all her evenings slogging her pretty ass off.

Quantum diffusion of light particles at low temperatures was not exactly my specialism. I focussed on dynamic light scattering and my Ph.D. thesis had been a study of soot particle sizes in a laminar propane-air diffusion flame. Who else had done research on quantum diffusion of light particles at low temperatures? May be Leila had paid a research associate at some other university to carry out experiments Rob had designed for her?

Simon Davis! Prof. Simon Davis! How could I have forgotten Prof. Davis, the most eccentric academic I’ve ever known? A man who wore orange trousers to class, rode a Harley Davidson and was considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the intricacies of the diffusion of light particles. Prof. Quail couldn’t stand him, though it was more because he was jealous rather than on account of Prof. Davis’s eccentricity. A couple of months after I enrolled for my Ph.D. Prof. Davis’s Harley Davidson had crashed into the rear of a slowing truck. Rob would have known Prof. Davis a bit better since Rob had enrolled three months before I did. Prof. Davis I knew, used to devote a substantial chunk of his research time on the quantum diffusion of light particles at low temperatures.

The next day, I hotfooted it to the library as soon as I woke up and went to the archives’ section where Prof. Davis’s unpublished papers were filed. I knew what I was looking for and I was not disappointed. Rob had done a good job, filching only some of the experiment results from Prof. Davis’s work and doing it a random manner so that even if the person reading Leila’s thesis was familiar with Prof. Davis’s work, he would not easily figure out the plagiarism. If I hadn’t suspected something, I too might have been easily fooled.

I went to work with a beating heart. I had a class in the morning. Before I left for my class, I sent Leila an email, my first email to her, asked her if she could drop into my office sometime in the afternoon. ‘Prof. Quail asked me to review the first draft of your thesis and it will make things easier if you could clarify a few things in person,’ I wrote.

I had a quiet lunch after my class got over and I went to my office. My heart was beating very fast, as if it would jump out of my ribcage. Damn that Leila, I thought. If only she could reply to my email and tell me if she would turn up or not. From what I knew of Leila, she would turn up at a time of her choosing, dressed to kill and looking her stunning best.

I wasn’t wrong. At around four thirty when I was preparing to leave for the lab, Leila sauntered in. She was dressed in an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a posh discotheque.

‘David! So you are reviewing my thesis are you?’ Leila made it sound as if she was convinced and there could be no doubt in the world that, I was doing my best to help her get a Ph.D.

I took Leila through the various comments that I had marked up the previous night.

‘Oh David, you are so kind. So, if I, if I fix these thingees, my thesis will look good, no?’ Leila was almost purring like a cat.

‘Yes, it will look very good. In fact, it will look so good that….’

‘I will get my Ph.D, won’t I? Please, please, say Yes David.’

‘Yes, you will. What’s more, if Prof. Davis were here, he would have been so happy to see such a good thesis on the quantum diffusion of light particles at low temperatures. It was his favourite topic, you know.’

Leila was silent. How stupid could that woman be? Her mouth opened like a surprised goldfish and she gawked at me. Why didn’t she ask me who Prof. Davis was?

‘I assume you are familiar with Prof. Davis’s work?’ I asked her gently.

‘And it’s not just you, someone else might also get into trouble,’ I said.

‘I don’t care about Rob. He’s an idiot!’

I suppressed a smile. If I had any doubt as to how long the Rob-Leila romance would last, once Leila got her Ph.D, they were dispelled forever.

‘I ought to inform Prof. Quail, you know.’

Leila was silent.

‘Unless, that is, you are kind to me. As kind as you have been with Rob’ I think my voice trembled as I said that.

Leila’s looked very angry for a few moments and then she grasped what I was getting at.

‘I can modify these experiments a bit better than Rob. In this form, Prof. Quail might sniff out the truth. He might read the whole thesis. Sometimes he does. But if I mask them a bit more and give you a clean chit, no one will know.’

‘Except Rob. If I leave him and move in with you, he’ll know what I’m up to and he might …’

I hadn’t thought of that. Leila was not so dumb after all. ‘You’ll have to keep both of us happy till your thesis is approved. After that..’ After that she would ditch us both and forget us as well, and I wouldn’t give a damn. My heart was soaring in the air.

‘David, we have a deal.’ Leila shyly extended her hand forward.

I took her hand, pulled her towards me and kissed her. First on the cheeks and them on her lips. ‘God, you are so beautiful!’

Leila laughed. It was the laugh of a woman who would never lose, who knew that she had unlimited power over all men.

‘Why don’t we meet in my flat today evening? If you could drop in by six?’

I scribbled ‘Flat 289, Block M’ on a small piece of paper and gave it to Leila, who put it in her handbag, blew me a kiss and disappeared.

I sat still for a few minutes and then gave a whoop of joy. Perfect. Things were just perfect. I decided to go back to my flat and clean it up a bit. And then I would shower. And may be shave as well. On the way, I would drop in at the Chemists and buy some safety equipment!

As I was leaving, I ran into Prof. Quail.

‘David, did you take a look at Leila’s thesis?’

‘I did Prof. Quail. A quick look. It looks like it is in decent shape. She’ll have to do some additional work, but …’

‘You managed to go through it all? So quickly?’

‘Well, I couldn’t get to sleep yesterday night and so…’

‘Ha! And I thought you knew Prof. Davis’s work inside out. You used to like him a lot, didn’t you?’

I was speechless. I knew what was coming. My stomach felt as though the bottom had fallen away.

‘I can’t say that I liked Prof. Davis a lot when he was alive, but that man was a genius and I am not ashamed to say that I am rather familiar with his work. Why don’t we go to the library? I want to show you something.’ Prof. Quail looked pleased as punch as he said that.

I meekly followed Prof. Quail to the library. There was no hurry. I wouldn’t need to shower or shave for the evening. Or buy safety equipment from the Chemists for that matter.