Excerpt from The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Atomic Weight of Love

by Elizabeth Church

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church X
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 320 pages
    Mar 2017, 368 pages

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Rebecca Foster

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The Atomic Weight of Love

Flight requires defiance of gravity and is really, when you think about it, a bold act."

The professor at the front of the lecture hall paused for dramatic effect, but as far as I could see, I was the only fully engrossed member of the audience. I wasn't enrolled in the class but had instead taken a seat at another professor's suggestion. I was enraptured not only because I felt I was looking at a wild man — someone whose long, tussled hair intimated that he had rushed in from a hike along some windblown cliff to lecture to a bunch of physics students — but more so because I knew he could explain mysteries to me, decipher Newton and the others and render them comprehensible on a practical level. My expectations were high, and Alden Whetstone met them.

"We think about vertebrate flight as falling into four categories: parachuting, gliding, actual flight, and soaring. If a bird can soar, generally speaking, it can also perform the three lower forms of flight." Alden paced the stage. "Don't confuse gliding and soaring. To soar, an animal must have evolved to possess specific physiological and morphological adaptations, and soaring birds must know how to use the energy of thermals to maintain altitude."

Oh, Lord, he was speaking my language — a physicist employing Darwin. Professor Matthews had been right to send me here. The smell of wet wool brought about by January snow permeated the room.

"We'll see, over the course of this and the next several lectures, that the soaring form of flight has been achieved by only a few animals over the entire course of evolution. We'll examine concepts of drag, thrust, vortices created by the flapping of wings, and the evolution of the flight stroke, without which there is no flight."

Baggy corduroy pants. A broad red, blue, and white tie of abstract design, loosely tied as if in grudging compliance with a dress code. Frayed cuffs beneath his suit coat sleeves. And an audacious mustache that was bushier than most men's entire heads of hair. He was the quintessential absentminded professor, which thoroughly intrigued me. This was not Jer!on the make; the professor's attire was not calculated to attract, to stand out. This was a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation. I bet he's never worn a polka-dot tie, I thought with smug satisfaction.

There was a loud knocking noise. It persisted. The class grew restless, and the noise was sufficiently distracting that none of us was any longer listening to the lecture. Alden continued longer than anyone might believe possible given the noisy competition, but finally he returned to earth.

"What's going on?" He faced his students. "No one knows?"

Feet shuffled, but no one responded.

"It's coming from upstairs. What are they doing? Moving furniture or something?" Alden left the stage and went out into the hallway, apparently to confront the person or persons who were interrupting his flow of thoughts. Now, there was outright laughter among the other students, all of whom were male. I looked about, trying to understand the joke.

One of the boys caught my eye. "You don't get it, do you?" he asked me.

"What is there to get?"

"This is the top floor. Whetstone is headed God knows where."

I was immediately embarrassed for the man who'd been speaking so eloquently. I, too, had believed that someone was dragging furniture across an attic floor overhead.

The classroom door opened, and Alden was back. Although the volume subsided, the laughter remained.

"So, no one wanted to tell me that there is no upper floor?" He stood facing us, his hands on his hips. "Top secret?"

Excerpted from The Atomic Weight of Love by James Church. Copyright © 2016 by James Church. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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