Close Encounters with Science: Picks
The 1977 Discovery of Gravity in the Tim Hortons Parking Lot by Mark Paterson
I was five when Quebec’s first Tim Hortons opened and it was right in my hometown of Rosemere. My parents were quick to convert, but it took me some time to shake the feeling that I was betraying Dunkin’ Donuts.
Getting doughnuts was a nighttime activity for us, something we did on the way home from somewhere else. My mother was the chooser; she went in while my father and I waited in the car. Sometimes we chatted. Sometimes we listened to the radio. I remember the smooth, beige vinyl of the backseat bench and the spiral of blue ink where I’d drawn on it once. I remember the shiny ashtrays installed in the doors and the pebbles and the lint and the pink and green restaurant mints they were filled with. I remember the view out my window, the glow at the top of the lamppost in the parking lot and the moon in the sky.
“How come we can see it?”
My father rested an elbow on the top edge of the front bench and turned to me. “Because it’s there.”
“Is there a big window or something?”
“What are you talking about?”
I was getting frustrated. “How can we see through the sky?”
My father leaned his head back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again he was smiling. “You think we live inside the Earth, don’t you?” I said nothing. I didn’t know how to respond to a question with such an obvious answer. After a moment my father announced, “We don’t live in the Earth. We live on it.”
I was as dumfounded as I was terrified. Though I’d guessed travel to the surface of the Earth was possible, I had always imagined it performed by specialists in spacesuits, attached to very long and very strong chords. My very existence seemed, suddenly, tenuous. It had to be a joke. “Okay,” I said, “why don’t we float away?”
My father provided me with a concise lesson on the laws of gravity. He touched upon the geology of the Earth’s interior. The amazing thing was, after a lifetime - brief as it had been to that point - of assuming and therefore believing we lived inside the planet, the scientific truth made perfect sense. I was excited about my newly acquired knowledge, but embarrassed by my old presumptions.
Meanwhile, my mother had returned to the car with our dozen doughnuts. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Mark thought we lived inside the Earth.”
“We don’t?” My mother worked the box of doughnuts open on her lap. “Hm. I guess we don’t.” She turned around in her seat, a doughnut in her outstretched hand. Coconut, my favourite. When I took it from her our eyes met. She winked.
I lay down on the back seat all the way home. I plucked coconut slivers from the surface of my doughnut and, holding my arm aloft and my mouth wide open, fed myself with gravity.
Mark Paterson is from Montreal, Quebec.
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