One of my nieces the Princesses hollered down from upstairs.
“Felix,” I said,”can you carry a message upstairs? Ask your cousin if she will come downstairs and talk to us in measured tones.”
The Princess was already coming downstairs. She had already heard her mother; but this was an emergency, because Princess number two had fallen off Big Al’s rugby ball.
A short silence followed this as two sisters stared into their cups of tea and questioned internally, How is that even possible?
Felix, winged messenger, brought more detail to fill out the incident.
Apparently she had been trying out a daring feat of balance in which she stood on Al’s full-size rugby ball. She was not unaided, however. She also used two tennis racquets, one each side , which kept her precariously balanced, teetering, delighted, like a rare princessy orchid on the elipse. She was in wobbly stasis.
Right up until the moment it all went pear-shaped.
“Well, I can’t hear any crying”, my commonsensical sister observed, just a fraction too loudly. A wail went up to signal that her presence would be required in the immediate future.
There was once a little boy who was rather good at balance. He might have been of help to the Princess.
He was born in Saint Omer in 1824, the golden age of circuses and acrobatic wonders. Jean-François Gravelet’s father was not a performer: he was a soldier.
Father was blonde, and earned himself the nickname among his friends: Blondin.
His little son led a normal young life right up to the moment the circus came to town. The tightrope walkers enraptured him: and immediately he set up a makeshift walk using his father’s fishing rod.
His parents knew talent when they saw it and at the tender age of five, Jean-François was packed off to a top gym school in Lyons. At the École de Gymnase he rose to the top and became nicknamed The Little Wonder. Later, he assumed his father’s nickname.
He seemed utterly unafraid. Travelling to America in his thirties, he achieved the feat that made him immortal.
He walked 160 feet above Niagra Falls on a 335- metre long high wire.
He went on to do the same walk blindfolded, in a sack; trundling a wheelbarrow; cooking and eating an omelette on the wire ; piggy-backing his manager, Harry Colcord. and even balancing on a chair which had one leg on the wire.
What utter reliance on a straight line. Beneath the devil-may-care theatre lay a rock-solid focus: a breathtaking assurance in the limited, precarious world of a horizontal rope. It is almost as if the rapids just went away for those magical moments on one day in June 1859.
He died of diabetes in the end. The straight line was his world. It was where he lived, and it never claimed him. His focus must have been phenomenal.
I remember once I suffered a two day hangover. Long story. Wrong move, too, to go and see the latest Star Wars film on a very big screen. The rebel spacecraft veered queazily from side to side to dodge that confounded Vader’s death rays. Why can’t he just take off his hard hat and go home, I thought as I gazed without intent at a hot dog which came with the ticket.
In the Empire, it seems, nothing goes in straight lines.
Nor does it in life: we’d like it to, but it doesn’t. And I for one am relieved because I couldn’t take a straight route from A to B to save my life. My brain is not built that way.
So we’ll close, Reader, with a picture of something which I always thought travelled a predictable path. Not straight, exactly, but elliptical, round a nucleus. This is how that nice Mr Bohr drew the atom. A nucleus, and around it travelled electrons which took a path a bit like the one the planets take around the sun.
Now enter my new superheroes: atomic orbitals.
Because you see, nothing’s certain, but it can be probable.While you can predict where a planet is going to go to next, you can’t do that with an electron, whizzing at breakneck speed at the heart of our universe’s building system.
So you draw a dot where you spot it and plot the location. Then you plot another location, and then another until you end up with something which looks like mosquitos round a hurricane lamp.
An atomic orbital is a sort of hazy, broadly spherical set of points where an electron might just be.
Perfect. And now: I will attempt to balance on a metaphor without the aid of a safety net.
Balancing on a rugby ball, supported by tennis bats, is never simple when you are a princess. You can’t guarantee perfect, focused balance, but you can plot all the things which might happen when you are poised thereon.
By just standing on that ball you create a haze of possibilities.
But Princess number two fell off.
I have plotted it on my diagram..