A figure-eight race in Islip, the track a giant dirt lemniscate. Spectators hanging over the rails or hopping drunk in the bleachers, all fixed on the intersection, where the action was. Braking or accelerating each driver made his decision, some sailing through heedless. The best strategy was opaque to me. In the end, the last junker colliding with not-much won.

In Islip I hungered for meaning the world might offer up unasked. I ran the race by my list of might-means, of portents, of lessons-that-could-be-learned. But I found no non-trivial matches. I never went back.


Forty-seven years ago Ruth and I biked down from the Valley on a little dirt road she knew, climbed the linear accelerator’s fence. I boosted her up. She gave me her hand. We teetered on the top, laughing, leapt together in grace, nailing our landing.

The accelerator’s backbone lined a pale mile each way, the straightest tube that ever was, laid out by a new light called laser. In the tunnel beneath us night-shift students rode their bikes, tended magnets, miles of cable, the particle-charged tube.

And we on the dirt roof dancing. Speed of light, I said, Atoms, she said, Moonshine too.

I kissed her, put my cheek on hers, released, spun her, pulled her to me. Below us giant magnets pumped a figured bass, infrasonic drone for our mingling cries.

Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.

I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?

Then, as photons streaming into a beam splitter, we launched ourselves down different paths.


Forty years later, not far from Islip, Brookhaven smashers boosted gold nuclei to nearly light-speed. Opposing gold accelerated round, equally fast, then, finally magnet-bent, they collided, for a femtosecond creating a plasma of naked quarks and gluons, a state of matter nowhere seen since the Big Bang.

I read about the collision, thought about the beam splitter we’d entered. Was there a near intersection? I’d been years on my life’s beamline, accelerated by events and people, Ruth the same, both hurtling on, dissatisfied, lonely, confined. I saw how to bend my beam, aiming it at hers. They met, like the quark-gluon plasma, a created state both new and old.

She offered her hand. I took it. Again we leapt. Again, in grace, we landed.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

44 responses to “Quark-Gluon Plasma”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Science and love. You make them feel like a natural pairing.

    So much truth to this:

    >>Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.

    I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?<<


    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Joe. It’s sweet when the two things I like are paired.

      I replied to your comment over on Gloria’s thread. After Ruth and I went our separate ways I had a strong recurring urge to play the Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me,” and this lasted for years until I realized what the urge was all about.

  2. Gloria says:

    A beautiful homage to love that only a scientist could write.

    The end of this made me swell.

  3. Love this piece of poetry, Don. Love that you made me look up lemniscate. How has that fantastic little word not been in my arsenal before? Well, it is now. Best line: “Moonshine, too.” We should take a group TNB fieldtrip to CERN and see the Large Hadron. We can sip from mason jars, and you can explain it all to us, one gluon at a time.

    • Gloria says:

      TNB fieldtrip? Wha…? Really?

      I’ve been waiting for someone to throw this idea out for years.

      Sean, meet me on Sunday at 2:00 at Stumptown and we’ll start hashing out the details. We’ll need a bus. Being that we’re in the Northwest, it should be fairly simple to find a hippy family to borrow one from.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I confess that in the first couple of drafts I referred to the figure-8 track as “omega,” but of course it wasn’t that at all. Then I went searching for infinity symbol images and that’s where I ran into “lemniscate.” I also confess it was new to me — it’s a nice word.

      CERN would be fun, but it’s easier to get to SLAC.

      I’m up for Portland. Last September we drove through and on up to Seattle. Next time we’ll stop and hang out.

  4. Reno Romero says:


    man, i simply love the way your stories tumble on. they have speed. and the words? what kind of dictionary you using, sir? you remind me of annie proulx and william kittredge. i hope you see this as a compliment. i enjoy both of those writers, their pace, the rolling nature of their stories. you’re tales do this. you’re a fantastic writer and i could read these little stories all day long. thanks, sir.

    damn scott norwood,

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    Hah, Reno! Thanks. I’m fond of both Proulx and Kittredge. A few weeks ago I finished The Willow Field (Kittredge) and I was pretty happy up until the last part, where it seemed like he said to himself, “Got to get this wrapped up now….” instead of bringing it to its natural end. But for 85% of it I was very happy.

    Poor Scott. Did you ever see the film “Buffalo 66?” It’s pretty uneven and maybe self-indulgent but the plot has to do with Norwood, and there are some very funny scenes.

    I was forced to take Pgh in the Super Bowl, because my betting friend is an NFC stalwart. But I was rooting for Green Bay.

  6. Quenby Moone says:

    This is such a beautiful little meditation on wonder of life and love and the intersection of things which superficially seem unrelated until it all comes full circle.

    It is just like life and love and everything else. Beautiful.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Quenby. You’re right – it is more of a meditation than anything else. I wasn’t thinking of it like that when I wrote it, but that’s how I’ll think about it now. Originally it was meant as a gift for Ruth.

  8. Irene Zion says:

    You & Ruth were always meant to be together, Don.
    Sorry to be late.
    Traveling & no Internet.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      True! It just took a long time to work itself out. I’m not sure we were ready for each other when we were 21.

      Are you saying, Irene, that you don’t have an 3G iPad (or equiv) to access the Web whenever and wherever? Shocking!

      • Irene Zion says:

        I have this tiny little phone. I brought my laptop, but our hosts have wifi but cannot remember their Password! They just paid a fortune to. Fix a computer crash & are afraid to fool with it.
        I feel as though I have lost an appendage!
        As you can see, typing on the phone is, at most, inexact.
        Reading it is even harder.
        I just started reading your comments & find that I was the 456th person to call this “lovely.”
        I guess that cements it, huh?

  9. Richard Cox says:

    This is a wonderful blend of romance and particle physics, Don. That’s not something you often see paired together, but it’s nice to see you doing so.

    Don’t get me started on cold fusion.

  10. Greg Olear says:

    This is really good, Don. Almost a poem in prose form.

    I like this part best:

    Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.

    I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?

  11. Oh, Don. You wasted not a word weaving a tale of science and love…

    I’m with Greg, these are my favorite lines:

    Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.

    I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?

  12. Becky Palapala says:

    Don, this is really lovely.

    A bit of a departure for you, more of prose poem than genuine memoir, and, best of all, the craft is tight as a drum while maintaining a sort of emotionally spontaneous and organic, first-thought-best-thought bearing.

    Nothing is sentimental, but everything is emotionally charged (so to speak).

    It’s as gripping for the reader to read as it was (it appears) for you to write. So hard to do with love letters.

    Thumbs way up. I’m going to go read again.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Becky. Maybe I’ll produce a few more shorter things because you’re right that it’s a departure for me, and therefore (to use a phrase I first heard from Tyler McMahon) definitely “flexes a different muscle.”

  13. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/dmitchell/2011/02/quark-gluon-plasma/ – view page – cached Don Mitchell finds fusing, splitting, diverging and colliding at tracks, in labs, in his life., Don Mitchell finds fusing, splitting, diverging and colliding at tracks, in labs, in his life. Show influential only (1) $(‘#filter-infonly’).change(function() { var el = $(this); var url = document.location.href; var checked = el.attr(‘checked’); if (checked) { document.location.href = url + ((/?/.test(url)) ? ‘&’ : ‘?’) + ‘infonly=1’; } else { document.location.href = url.replace(/[?&]?infonly=1/,”); } }); […]

  14. Matt says:

    Nice, elegant little prose-poem, Don. For myself, I think the last four lines of the ending are the most evocative.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      OK, it’s a prose poem. I don’t know why I didn’t just call it that. But thanks for the “elegant,” and for the “evocative.” Any time I hit those two targets, I’m happy.

      What’s with the serious gravatar? A tie? A jacket? I liked the tougher Matt. Of course I suppose you could be a different Matt than the badass martial arts guy who also posts here.

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.

    I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?

    Well… exactly.

    I’m not about to buck the consensus, Don – this was a great combination of disparate parts and the meeting point between. All the best to you and Ruth, and, of course, to love and science.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks Simon, and also thanks for being the point man for Christchurch/Zara news.

      Nobody has wanted to talk about figure-8 races, a truly bizarre form of auto racing. Do they exist in Oz?

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Pas de problem, m’sieu.

        You know, I’m not even sure if it does. Our big race is the Melbourne grand prix, which is a track race… everything else tends to fall by the wayside.

  16. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    What a beautiful piece, Don. I’m writing this a bit late, as usual, but my, so simple and joyful.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      When thinking about the Figure-8 race I couldn’t help thinking about your Gran Marquis — with the Employees Must Wash Hands sign on the dash.

      Or was that in an alternate universe?

  17. […] and use the backtrack facility and figure out where I came from, so they’ll know where to send Ruth my body, except if I make it to Akolea Road and the woman with the cockatoo is walking her goat I […]

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