I steal a peek at my watch and confirm that if Rex would let up immediately (no sign of that!) and if Sunny is nice, there might be about a minute left for me to present. Prof. Lowitz is very strict about lab meetings starting on time and lasting no more than an hour. We’re 45 minutes in, and my only chance is if Sunny gets going NOW on her part of the eclipse field trip report. I want to explode. I consider options for an intelligent question to bridge Rex’s work on sunspots with her work on the corona to give her a foot in the door, but Junior-Guy-in-the-Lab has to be careful not to piss anyone off. Especially don’t piss off Rex, which will piss off Lowitz. Like that girl Katie who got kicked out a couple of weeks after I joined. I need a publication to keep the parental units backing my choice of grad school over medical school, but how can I get one if I can’t even show what I did?
When Rex stops for a swig from his second water bottle, I turn to Sunny and say as casually as I can, “Is there anything in the sunspot activity prior to the eclipse that should be reflected in the images from the coronagraph you built?”
She nods and opens her mouth, but Rex says, “I’m glad you asked that, Andrew. I’ve run some numbers and made preliminary predictions.” I glance at Sunny, whose expression does not change. “I’m still experimenting with the parameters for my model, but,” (flipping through some slides and pulling up a graph that’s missing a label on the vertical axis) “I can talk about it.”
Seven minutes later Lowitz checks his watch, and with Rex mid-sentence says, “We’re going to need to wind this up.” Right on cue. It’s all I can do to keep from smashing my fist into my thigh. Lowitz says, “Rex, good work. Next week I want to see more analysis of the coronagraph data. I think there could be a paper in it. Sunny, good work helping to get those coronagraph images.” Turning to me, he adds, “Andrew, I’m sorry we couldn’t hear about your impressions from the trip, but I hope the opportunity to go out into the field was valuable. I wish I’d been able to go, myself, but Jim Markman is one of the finest astrophysicists I know, and we’re very fortunate he decided to come out of retirement to participate in this project.”
I consider following Lowitz to his office, but decide against it when I see Rex already leeching on. Anyway, I know what time he comes in in the morning, so maybe I’ll just run into him by accident tomorrow.
I follow Sunny back to the lab. “So how does reporting on field trips work? This meeting Rex presents his stuff, next week it’s your turn?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Rex needs to graduate. Lowitz doesn’t think I’m as close to done. And you heard him. Rex is supposed to present on the coronagraph dataset.” She looks wistful.
“Isn’t that your data? Aren’t you going to analyze it?”
“Yes, I already am.”
“So why aren’t you presenting?”
She shrugs again. “We’re a team. We share data.”
“But there wouldn’t be that data without you. Markman said so.”
She says, “I think there’s plenty of analysis to go around” Which doesn’t answer my question about when I’ll get to present, but I detect a little Mona Lisa smile trying to break through her poker face.
* * * * *
One week earlier
Though it’s only 9 AM, it’s already hot in the desolate Nebraska field with nothing but corn on the landscape in any direction for miles. According to our calculations, this unplanted corner is an ideal location to observe the eclipse that will reach totality at 11:49 AM. We’ve been out since 6 AM to set up most of the equipment, but we couldn’t leave the good stuff in the sun and dust all morning, so after sitting in the truck for an hour, we’re heading back for final preparations. I’m hating how the stumps of last year’s corn stalks keep scratching my legs.
“Hey, Sunny! It’s too sunny out here!” Rex bellows. “Can you dial it down?” He slaps her on the butt, and trots ahead, heehawing like the ass he is. At his touch she whips around and gives him a death glare, but he’s already long gone. When she notices me watching she quickly turns away.
Markman left the truck before us and is attaching a telescope to a tripod when we reach him. Without looking up he says, “Sunny, get the main sensor calibrated.” She hands me a bag, picks up two others and begins her ritual. We’ve done this about 50 or a thousand times before the trip — she said we had to practice our moves so we wouldn’t waste time today. It’s like a fight scene in one of those cheesy action flicks where the hero somehow knows exactly when a villain is coming at him from behind and does a jump twist to punch the guy in the nose, followed by a 90 degree swivel-and-duck to avoid another thug with a baseball bat. She removes a nut on the sensor with one hand, and uses the other to reach behind her into a bag to pull out a lever, which she wriggles onto the bolt, aims at a 72 degree angle, and lightly secures with the nut. This is my cue to move closer in and position the sensor more or less where she wants it above the lever. We are so close that her breath nuzzles my face. She switches on the instrument, scrutinizes its readout, looks at the sky, loosens the attachment, adjusts my hands by a millimeter or two, tightens the assembly, and checks again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Finally she is satisfied and I am no longer needed. Her real adjustments will begin now.
Rex drops his tripod and a little cloud of dust billows up. He walks over and peers at her assembly. “Wait a second. It’s not secure.” He reaches for the lever and quickly tightens it further. She gives him another death glare and checks the readout. With a loud puff she shakes her head, and tries to loosen the lever. Which is completely stuck.
“Could you please undo this? It’s out of alignment. I need to finish the calibration.”
“It’s just tightened,” he says. “It should be fine.”
“It’s out of alignment,” she repeats. “See for yourself.”
Rex trots back, glances at the readout and shrugs. He tries to loosen the attachment, but is equally helpless.
Markman has been watching the exchange, but his eyes keep flicking to Sunny’s butt. Which feels really weird in this heat, and from a middle-aged dude.
When Rex is ready to admit defeat he says, like he was asking for help opening a ketchup bottle, instead of a $25,000 piece of equipment, “Could you take a look at this, Jim?”
Markman’s lips are tight, but he nods and gingerly tweaks the lever. When nothing happens, he examines the hunk of junk from several angles, and finally delivers a little karate chop. It is released. “Get it calibrated fast, Sunny,” he grunts. He checks his watch. “We’ve lost time. Rex, is the primary camera ready?” Rex starts rambling through all the reasons why he isn’t done, but Markman interrupts with, “OK. Get moving.” He points at me and then at Sunny. Oh, right. We’re going to have to do it all over again. Then he says, “Sunny, I’ll help you with that calibration. Andrew will start working on the baseline monitor. That OK?”
She’s already focused on her readout, but she waves in my direction and I begin my own sequence. She’s made me practice this, too, about a hundred times before we left, so it’s pretty much automatic, though at one point I shiver when I can’t remember where I’ve stored my wrench, and I wonder if this whole trip is going to be worthless because we can’t get my baseline. I start trying to think of explanations and look up to find Markman adjusting the sensor with one hand, the other pinning one of her wrists. My finger suddenly brushes over a familiar strip of metal and I am grateful for those endless practice sessions.
Everything is finally ready with six minutes to spare before the eclipse is set to begin. For this short interval we can breathe deeply and just listen to the bugs. I must seem a little tense because Markman says with a wry smile, “You ready for this, Andy?” He looks hard at me, like he’s taking my measure. As it happens, I am ready, and I say so. He gives a thumbs up, and says “Right. Just do whatever Sunny says. We’ve gone over the features of her new coronagraph and she knows what to do. If it performs as well as we expect, OpticElite has agreed to manufacture it. People around the world could end up using this instrument. So help her. OK?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“You could be part of a landmark,” he says.
Two minutes before the beginning of the eclipse, we silently take our positions. My pulse in my ears is the only thing I hear. It will be a while before you can notice a difference with your eyes, but the computers are monitoring light changes at several wavelengths. I swear my heart skips a beat when the first drop in brightness appears in the numbers scrolling by, and I know it has begun. I turn toward the others, and find we are all looking at each other, anxious for confirmation. We turn back to our data and await the inevitable.
There’s not much to do, now, except to watch the show and every couple of minutes make sure that the instruments are still functioning correctly. It is maddening, but we won’t be certain everything worked until after a couple of weeks or months of analyzing the data.
Rex keeps walking away from his post and squinting up at the sun, as if glaring at it will make it do a better job. Markman seems to be watching us almost as carefully as he is his screen. Mostly Sunny. Once, he catches me catching him staring in the direction of her butt and he grimaces. Sunny never seems to take her eyes off her monitor, though occasionally she asks me about data on my readout. As the darkness intensifies she shifts from foot to foot, her fingers travel more and more rapidly over the computer screen, tracing numbers whizzing by as though it were she, and not the computer, who must perform all the calculations. Her chest heaves.
We all recognize that the moment of totality has arrived when Sunny jerks her eyes from her screen and, panting, raises her face to the pulsating ring of fire. Markman turns from her to watch the spectacle, slack-jawed. Even Rex stops pacing and merely waves his hands like a conductor to the rhythm of the dancing prominences. It is not for nothing that they call this a corona, a crown. As many images of eclipses as I’ve analyzed, nothing has prepared me for this moment. The insects, themselves, are silenced by the oppressive darkness that demands tribute to the softly glittering radiance. The corona’s tendrils drift into space and seem to brush me like strands of spider web.
The moment passes, and as bright rays begin to bleed out from one side of the ring, the spell is broken. With a sigh Sunny returns to her monitor, fingers racing over the numbers once more. Guiltily I turn back to the monitor I should have been watching all along. Without my readings, Sunny’s will be useless. Thankfully, there are no signs of malfunction. Markman looks over Sunny’s shoulder, nodding as she silently shows him things every few seconds. She recoils once as his arm touches hers when he points to something.
The eclipse over, the sun beats down on us, again, and the cornfield is even hotter and drier than it was in the morning. My feet itch and ache from standing for more than four hours. The water in the cooler is starting to taste stale. We silently pack the gear. Markman finds me watching him examining Sunny’s butt again and comes over, clapping me on the shoulder. “How’d you like that show, Andy? It’s pretty grand, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” I nod.
“Readings came out all right?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, my back aching.
“Let me take a look,” he says, moving towards my screen. I scroll through the readings I captured, showing him samples of data. He stops me a couple of times to look more closely, but is eventually satisfied. “Good work, Andy! You’ve got just what Sunny’s needs to support the work. Her coronagraph seems to have performed even better than I hoped, and I’m confident your data will help prove it!”
He shuffles off to where Rex is stirring up clouds of dust. I head over to Sunny and turn on my best grin. She’s still poring over the computer, startling at my approach. “We did it!” I say, sticking out a hand. She looks at it for a few seconds, disoriented, and then breaking into a loud giggle, she takes it, pumping it harder and harder. I pull her into a hug, and still giggling she hugs me back. She starts to break away, but I hold her tighter. I like the softness of her chest leaning onto me, rippling with her laugh.
* * * * *
I know something is wrong as soon as Lowitz brushes past me with just a muttered “Good morning, Andrew,” on his way into the office. Not the time to talk about my work. Maybe follow him to lunch?
I head into the lab and find Sunny standing by her computer, staring uncharacteristically, dreamily out the window.
“What’s going on?” I ask. “Prof. Lowitz seems worried.”
“Going on?” she says. “Oh. I’m leaving. I told him yesterday.”
“Prof. Markman is going back to teaching. He’s starting a center at Caltech, and he offered me a research assistantship.”
I take a minute to absorb this. The good thing is I know how to handle Rex, and if he thinks he can talk past me like he does to Sunny, he’s got another thing coming. Lowitz is going to know about my work.
She gives this big, contented sigh and says “He thinks I can graduate next semester. And he’ll give me a post-doc.”
My eyes flick to her butt. Luckily she’s still staring out at the street. “Oh, wow!” I say. “That’s great for you!”
Dawn Cohen is an IT Business Analyst who enjoys writing fiction about science and technology in society. She benefits greatly from the insightful feedback and moral support of the Room at the Table writing group, as well as from Lauren B. Davis’ thought-provoking Sharpening the Quill workshop. She runs the Women’s Science community on FB at http://facebook.com/WomensScience.