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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Monochrome by Wayne MacPhail

Memory is a liar's notebook. Black and white television images overlap for me. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Neil Armstrong's ungainly foot on the lunar surface, the Zapruder film in slow motion on our living room Philco. They all tumble together now, five decades later, even though they span six years of my childhood. But, the television, I remember clearly. 

My father was a radio operator in WWII and later a meteorologist and scientific instrument designer. He would unplug the television with its woven cloth cable, remove the perforated Masonite back and show me the tubes, sheet metal and wires that filled the body of the set. It smelled of heat and dust. 

Deep inside, the picture tube ballooned and narrowed to an umbilical end, surrounded by coiled copper electromagnets and black resin. My father told me the tube was shaped like a weather balloon, a device he had released countless times above a weather station on Baffin Island where he was stationed. He showed me, one summer, how to make the hydrogen they had brewed up in a pot-bellied stove with Gillett lye and aluminium filings. 

One summer, between the Beatles setting foot on American soil and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, I made my own hydrogen in my backyard, lit a match above the roiling beaker and blew the cork straight into my forehead.

My father removed a tube from the television and held it up for me, showed me the anode, cathode and ground, each as fragile as moth antennae, shivering in their vacuum. He explained amplification, radio waves and the disciplined photon dance the electromagnets performed on the phosphor of the screen. I imagined it as an Etch-a-Sketch, painting light, instead of erasing graphite, row by narrow row. 

I tried to make my own TV that summer, with photocells, cardboard and little motors my father brought home. It didn't work, of course. And I didn't care. I was lost in my own doomed project and buried myself in Popular Science magazines and Art Linkletter Encyclopedias I thought would teach me everything I needed to know about science, life and the naming of things.

The day the Eagle landed on our TV, I went outside in my backyard and looked up at the moon. It felt different and close and alive. And when I think about it now, even though it was a warm July evening - the moon the colour of a nail paring, the sky a fountain pen spill -  the memory I hold is always in black and white.

Wayne MacPhail is from Hamilton, ON

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