Day 27: Conversational physics


Denn Worte sind schlechte Bergsteiger und schlechte Bergmänner.

Converse with someone on a topic of mutual interest.

When my oldest son talks, his words are an avalanche. They don’t stop for anything. I might be in the middle of a conversation with his teacher, or I might be taking out a hot lasagna from the oven, or I might be deep in concentration, doing my best to make the paper airplane he just asked for — it doesn’t matter. When he starts talking, nothing can stop him.

Nothing, that is, except when he wants to hear me talk about myself. Which I of course don’t mind doing. Why should I?

It the same routine most dinners. As soon as he sits down, or as soon as the food is on the table, he asks me to talk about my childhood. Dad, can you tell me about when you were little, he says, repeating the question and adding Please if I take too long to answer.

I usually comply. After all, there are few subjects we find as fascinating as ourselves. Most people I know can talk about themselves for hours on end without even realising they haven’t heard anything about anyone else. And I do too, some of the time: I have my stockpile of stories from my childhood — I started bleeding from my nose after driving my kick-scooter into a tree in kindergarten, I played football and tag in school, I went to the library with my parents, I looked like a girl after an unfortunate visit to the hair dresser’s when I was 6 — and often, these are the stories he wants to hear.

Some dinners I talk about myself until there’s no more food left — and when I clean up the plates and the kids go upstairs to brush their teeth, I do feel like I have had a conversation with someone (my son(s)) on a topic of mutual interest (myself). But that’s not good enough, is it? Is that a conversation? Is that of mutual interest?

I am not that interested in myself. I would much rather hear about my son’s day at school than listen to the same old voice booming through my head, going on and on about how my childhood was, repeating the same stories over and over. Ironically, the topic of myself is not as interesting for me as it is for my sons. No, it’s not good enough. It is not of mutual interest. It’s not a conversation.

Other times, however, we do have proper conversations. While my youngest son still prefers playing with cars and super hero action figures, my oldest often wants to talk about things instead. His favourite subject, apart from his dad’s childhood? Physics.

Well, not always, he is much more into Skylanders these days, but none of his parents have managed to feign interest enough to fool him: he doesn’t mind us watching him play, but if we try to have a conversation with him about the different characters, he rolls his eyes like a teenager.

At other times, though, we have the longest conversations about physics. About atoms and quarks. About the different chemical elements. And for the first time in my life, I want to learn all the elements by heart.

You see, I never cared about natural sciences much when I was younger. I still remember bits and parts of how we were supposed to remember the elements at school (Hun HEter LIse BErg, BOr Ca…), but it never dawned on me how cool that would be, to know all the elements, each and every one of the small bricks that constitute our world, that everything in the world is made of.      

But then one day my son asked me to tell him about “the smallest there is”. And I started reading elementary physics (I had forgotten the difference between electron and neutron, it was quite basic at first), and then we started having these long conversations about atoms, about how they have been created deep inside stars, and how most of the universe is hydrogen, and how many quarks there are, and how we all are made up of atoms, of star-dust, and that when we die, our atoms will go new places, perhaps we have atoms in us right now that also were in the very first human — these long conversations would develop just from this one question: dad, what is the smallest there is?

Lately, I haven’t talked much about myself at dinner. I have been asked, but I have done that too much and I don’t want to hear the same stories over and over — even if they’re my stories. Instead, I try to steer the conversation gently over to something else, like how was school today, how is “Frank” feeling (The yet unborn baby’s name), how was kindergarten, did you make a nice drawing, did you play tag or hide-and-seek?

But the best dinner is when we can have a conversation, all four of us, on at least two different levels at the same time, about something new.

What is the smallest there is? A quark. Frank. Daddy’s brain. Half a quark.

And then we all laugh at the same time, but for different reasons.

And for a moment, I don’t have to tell the same story yet again to make my oldest son listen.

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