In 1906, Elie Rutherford dreams of joining the physics lab her father, the great Ernest Rutherford, heads at McGill University. Elie is thwarted from pursuing her passion in an era when women are confined to female-only college classes. Fueled by her burning desire for knowledge and purpose, she rebels against societal expectations, refusing to accept a marriage proposal that would threaten to shackle her dreams.
Fast forward to 2006, where William Hertz, a brilliant graduate physics student at McGill, lives an introverted life, immersing himself in the world of astrophysics. Wounded by past experiences, he shields his heart from love, finding solace among his fellow misfit physicist friends. Little does he know that his life is about to take an extraordinary turn when a mysterious stranger appears, lost in time.
Disoriented, Elie concludes a lab mishap brought her forward a century. Trying to blend in with modern students, she hides her identity until she meets William and risks everything by revealing who she really is. Elie and William's shared passion for physics sparks a bond as they attempt to recreate the experiment that can return Elie home. Torn between her past and a 21st-century future with William, Elie faces a heart-wrenching choice. Will she find her way back to 1906 or embrace a new destiny?
Release date: August 21, 2023
Publisher: Silversmith Press
Print pages: 347
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Sunday, August 19, 1906
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Walking lightly on my toes to avoid Mother’s ears, I sneak back into our house and hear excited voices inside the parlor. Fantastic, I’m not too late to eavesdrop on their discussion. Listening in on my father’s meeting with his student researchers is a weekly thrill for me which I won’t let be diminished by Ralph Fowler’s presence today.
As I move my right hand up to crack open the double doors, my mother steps into the hall from the kitchen, startling me into a little jump. In her arms is a walnut tea tray loaded with our large China teapot, milk and sugar, and a plate piled with shortcake biscuits and whole strawberries.
“Eileen! Do you know how long you were gone? And your skirt—twenty years old and you still come home with a hem rimmed with dirt!”
I shake off a few specks of brown from the ivory muslin. “I was busy discussing MacBeth with Emma at the Mont Royal promenade, Mother. Our British Literature class starts next week, and we want to be prepared.”
“You can’t be seen today of all days looking like a lady who doesn’t take care of herself. Oh, never mind that now. Please bring the tea in for them before it gets cold, then come back to the kitchen.”
When I push the door open with laden arms and step into the parlor, nobody pays me any attention besides a small smile from Father and Ralph—who is clearly distracted enough to momentarily ignore the conversation around him. I don’t dare let my eyes meet his, but rather keep my gaze to either my father or the floor, although I can feel Ralph’s eyes following me as I step silently to the coffee table to set down the tray. He can’t very well start a conversation without interrupting the ongoing discussion all around him. I’m glad for that small complication. I can listen in on the powwow in relative peace. Except for the fact Ralph’s eyes sear my skin like a sunburn, it feels like any other Sunday. Today they’re ironing out technical details of the “scattering experiments”—as Father named them—they’ve been working on for the past few months.
My father is Ernest Rutherford, the brilliant physicist and chair of the Physics Department at McGill University. He’s still young, but he has more acclaim than most of his colleagues, like the Curies in France, and maybe even more than his mentor, J.J. Thompson. I’m astonished at the way his brain works, especially his incredible intuition that’s led him to make so many discoveries in the last twenty or so years. From my visits to his labs and listening in on his Sunday afternoon teas, I think his work ethic helps too.
“The mica sheet can’t be too thin, Ernest, or we’ll never be able to mount it in the chamber. It’ll flake apart when we touch it. There’s no alternative than to keep it as thick as it is, but it’s microns thick, if that,” argues Frederick Soddy, his top research assistant. Last Thursday he and Father showed me the mica sheet through which radioactive particles travel. It’s mounted in front of a small lead chamber, completely enclosed except for a thin slit on one face that holds a radioactive lump of radium.
“Yes, but the scintillations on the screen are simply too fuzzy at this point to be sure of what we’re seeing. The screen looks as if you lobbed the dregs from your teacup straight at it. We must do better!” My father pounds his fist into the palm of his other hand for emphasis as he thunders
his signature encouragement.
I would’ve loved to have seen last Thursday what he’s describing, but I can’t be in the lab when they run the scattering experiment, which they run in pitch darkness anyway. They need darkness to see what the physicists call “scintillations”—a phosphorescent dot on a screen, coated in zinc sulfide, which curves nearly three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around the mica sheet. Those scintillations mark the path of the radioactive alpha particles, a recent discovery by Father and Mr. Soddy describing positively charged emanations from a decaying radioactive source.
“Ernest, if you consider the emanation rate of the alpha particles, we should be seeing a clearly defined, constant glow on the screen. This fuzziness along the edges that flickers a bit . . . it’s all very curious and doesn’t at all fit with the theory,” Mr. Soddy says.
Essentially, my father and Mr. Soddy explained to me they’re trying to describe the makeup of an atom—the smallest indestructible amount of matter. They hypothesized they would see a thin line of scintillations exactly mirroring the shape of the slit. Father taught me that’s because negative charges moving around the atom are balanced by the positively charged substrate. But for months they haven’t gotten the clean line they expected.
Once I make my rounds with the teapot as slowly as I can, I know it’s time to return to the kitchen. I catch Father’s eye to wink my thanks; he beams at me, his lips pressed together and corners of his mouth turned up with happiness that I care about his work. It’s at those moments I feel my heart tethered more tightly to his.
How I want to be a permanent member of that group instead of an “illegal” hanger-on! I’ve always wished my classes generated this vigorous of a discussion.
But Mother is waiting for me in the kitchen. She immediately puts me to work helping her prepare dinner. Her hands are full dressing an enormous leg of lamb to barbeque, a specialty of her and Father’s home country of New Zealand. The barbeque pit is already set up in the backyard—our makeshift enclosed coal fire grill is a shortcut to the traditional slow-cooking, in-ground barbeque pit. She puts me in charge of helping get the vegetables prepared. After I finish, I wander into the back garden to cut enough daisies for a generous table centerpiece.
“That’s lovely, Elie. Thank you for thinking of flowers for the table,” Mother praises me as she walks over to wrap an arm around me. “I’m sure Ralph will enjoy these too.”
I can’t stop my face hardening, and a scowl replaces my joy-filled expression in a flash.
“Mother, did you and Father invite Ralph Fowler to dinner? When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me?” My voice squeaks higher than I thought possible.
She looks genuinely surprised and turns straight at me to reply. “Why, Eileen Rutherford,
I thought you’d be happy. He’s been courting you for some months now. And ever since he began teaching in the Mathematics Department, your father’s taken quite a liking to him. He’s such pleasant company, and three is really too small for a barbeque, after all.”
“That’s why you bought such a large leg of lamb.”
My mother looks only slightly guilty. “I thought you’d assume Ralph would stay for dinner at this point. Why wouldn’t he?”
“Why would he?” I retort in amazement. “Does he have a standing invitation now?”
This time my mother’s expression is one of slight alarm. “Elie, I don’t understand why this is a problem. Ralph Fowler is a kind man, a wonderful guest, and a friend of your father. I don’t think I have to add that he’s particularly smitten with you; I know you don’t express your emotions clearly, but you don’t complain when in his company either,” she answers. Her reaction to my quick and defensive questions is genuine, but I can tell she wants to believe what she said.
I have absolutely no counter to that; Ralph is indeed a fine man, just not one I believe I’m capable of falling in love with. If I have, however unintentionally, led Ralph and everyone else to think my polite attentions to him have been in fact signs of my deep interest in him, then I can’t outright deny what she has said. Moreover, this isn’t the time or place to have an argument with my mother, what with there being a handful of esteemed men down the hall and dinner with a guest forthcoming.
“I guess I’ll put on fresh dinner clothes in a while,” I say with a simple nod at half-speed and half-vigor.
“Wear that light-blue dress with the little ruffles down the front and the ribbon at the waist. That’ll bring out your eyes nicely.” She’s content with, if wary of, my sudden calm and alacrity in relenting to her argument.
Again I nod, though I’m determined to choose an ill-flattering dress instead.
Dinner passes slowly, if somewhat better than I had dreaded. Despite a cooling breeze blowing across the dining table set up in the garden, I’m not able to breathe when his eyes meet mine. The pressure of being pushed into the welcome arms of a man I haven’t even a faint swelling of emotion for suffocates me. At least the scientific conversation and food distracts me. The barbeque is delicious, and I would inhale my succulent lamb and crispy potatoes if I possessed less manners. The meal takes me back to my childhood when my mother used to often cook her traditional dishes rather than fare from Britain and Canada, where I’ve spent my entire lifetime.
While eating and conversing politely, I practice what I had devised while dressing: to act civil tonight toward Ralph but display no emotion that can possibly
be conceived as encouragement of his affection. This is my only hope to sway Ralph—and my parents—I’ve either changed my mind or never felt strongly for Ralph in the first place. My father surely wishes me to be with Ralph, but I also hold out hope he loves and respects me enough to want me to choose what I think is best. Of all people, Father understands the need to sow your own seeds in life and listen to your inner guide. That belief, as now, settles my nerves.
Throughout the meal Father plays The Great Ernest Rutherford and peppers Ralph with questions about his research plans at McGill; apparently he hadn’t gotten to ask Ralph anything specific earlier at tea. Ralph politely and patiently explains several hypotheses of statistical methods he plans on expanding upon with his new colleagues in the mathematics department. My father is completely absorbed and is posing experiments with radioactive materials with which he can test Ralph’s theories.
Trying to keep my face expressionless and emotionless, so as not to give an inch to Ralph, I’m inwardly dying to join in and interrogate Father on how exactly he’s planning to test statistical methods in his work. I’ve always been naturally curious to hear what my father finds interesting in the realm of nuclear physics, and I genuinely find Ralph’s theories fascinating even though I can’t follow everything he explains.
“Now Mr. Fowler,” my mother interjects for the third time, clearly bored by all the science talk. “Have you been to the theater at all since you’ve arrived in Montreal? Ernest and I enjoyed a show last month at—”
“Mary, Ralph doesn’t have time for the theater! He’s got important work to do! Great men can’t waste all their time at teas and social dinners, can they, eh?” Father claps Ralph on the back, not taking Mother’s bait. His brain, when exposed to matters dealing with physics and most sciences, closes down to all non-scientific comments, unlike Ralph’s. He’s been trying almost as hard as Mother to steer the conversation to include myself, which to him necessarily means the high level intellectual discussion has to end.
Mostly, Ralph keeps trying to ask me about my upcoming school week. He knows I take literature classes at the Donalda Department, in the all-female Royal Victoria College at McGill. I answer blandly to each inquiry to thwart any attempt he might make to meet me after my classes. Humorously to me, Father actually saves me from having to divulge many details by interrupting with questions of his own, much to my mother’s evident annoyance.
At one point, Ralph asks, “Miss Rutherford, you’ll be able to get a nice reprieve from all of this physics talk during your poetry classes, won’t you?”
Behind my placid face his insinuation that somehow I don’t enjoy scientific discussion or worse, can’t comprehend any of it, causes my jaw to clench.
“Well,” I begin, trying to come up with a diplomatic answer, “the study of the written word can often be a strenuous and very technical process. I suppose it may actually be analogous to physics or mathematics in that regard. However, there is nothing ‘new’ to discover, per se, so the advancement in the subject may merely be to reinterpret a work—hardly as earth-shattering as discovering elemental decay.”
Ralph’s thick eyebrows arch, but he recovers well. “That’s true. I wouldn’t have thought literary analysis and scientific experimentation have much in common, but I may be wrong.”
He may have been about to expand upon this vein of thought with me a little further, but just then Father jumps in, to my relief.
“Yes, yes, my dear boy! And that’s how Frederick and I first came across the decay phenomenon with thorium back in 1899, I believe it was. It takes a dedicated application of the theory, sometimes recursive, to find patterns such as what we found. But she’s right, it is a very technical process, and never easy or straightforward. You must always dig deep, and always question what you are doing to make sure you have considered everything!” His passionate voice reverberates against the back of the house and the white spruces lining our yard.
And so begins a discussion on the scientific method. On this note I’m happy to let my mind wander out of the conversation. Father, content to discuss work matters with Ralph, monopolizes the conversation. He normally wouldn’t do so if the guest wasn’t such a fascinating subject to him. My mother first scowls at my father, then starts nagging him about his usual messy eating habits—dribbling lamb jus onto the yellow tablecloth, dropping potato bits into his lap. I try not to roll my eyes at her constant harping.
At the end of the night I bid him an uninterested good night and make my excuses for needing to prepare for my classes early the next morning. As I turn away a faint wash of alarm and something else—hurt, perhaps—fills his expression, and guilt weighs me down heavier than the dessert dishes in my arms. The distance between us is ballooning, though his dejected face dampens my satisfaction.
I do not want to injure a kind man, and yet. . . .
Ralph’s comments to me tonight and his general inability to see me as having intellectual value replay in my head like a needle stuck at the end of a record. In spite of his polite inquiries about my classes, I know Ralph doesn’t see any point to my pursuits with the other women students at McGill. The previous week he had said to me, after starting to tell me about his research, “But you don’t care about that, Elie. Women needn’t be bothered with subjects like mathematics and statistics.” Despite what I’m sure was an insulted frown on my face, a few breaths later he tagged my studies as “for recreation.”
He’s the sort to be perfectly content with a wife who sits at home and takes calls in the morning
and cleans the house in the afternoon—and later, cares for his children. Not that I don’t plan to bear and raise children, but I do take exception to not being free to pursue studies as I please.
What I want to get out of life from those studies is anyone’s guess at the moment. All I know is I want to make a mark somehow in the world, like Father is doing. Unfortunately, my status as a female prevents me from chasing the highest of heights, but I figure if Marie Curie can be a famous nuclear physicist and do something as fantastic as discover entire new elements, then I have the prospect to do something significant with my life as well. While I have no idea yet what that significant thing might be, I know I can’t achieve anything if I marry a man who’d rather close doors to it.
Friday, August 24, 1906
At the end of our Friday classes at four o’clock, Emma indulges me in stopping by Father’s office to see if he’s ready to leave early for home.
We walk from our building to the physics building in silence, paying no attention to anything around us except the clatter of carriage wheels on the street and our footfalls on the bricked walkway. I’m completely unprepared for what happens next; I don’t even hear him approaching.
“Miss Rutherford? Is that you?” asks a voice behind us.
I freeze immediately and a cold bath of dread drenches my insides. Why does he have to mar such a nice afternoon?
Emma puts her hand on my forearm and turns to me with concern, knowing the man behind me is the last person I want to spend time with. Her gaze passes a silent reassurance to me, as if to say “I’m here for you; don’t worry.”
“Don’t leave me,” I whisper to her out of the corner of my mouth as I spin slowly to face Ralph Fowler. A jubilant smile is wide across his face; he looks so happy for this chance meeting. His expression of hopeful elation would be too much to bear if Emma hadn’t been at my side for support and distraction.
“What a surprise seeing you here! How are you, ladies?” He greets both of us with a polite, small bend at the waist.
“Quite well, thank you. We’re on our way home. You remember my friend, Emma Chase?” I reply, then look down. Hopefully this will end the conversation quickly so we can be on our way home. It’s probably smart not to stop in and see Father, lest Ralph want to pop in and say hello also.
“Miss Chase.” Ralph nods and smiles at Emma. I’m surprised he recalls her name, since I’m sure they hadn’t talked extensively when they met—a consequence of him trying to monopolize my attention that night. He then clears his throat quickly, and either summons the courage to say something or tries to decide exactly what to say. Finally he says, “Actually Miss Rutherford, I’d like to walk you home. And you as well, Miss Chase, of course.”
“Oh!” A split-second cry bursts from Emma; apparently I’m the only one who expected Ralph to say that. I step in and smoothly give my hastily crafted excuse, hoping for the best.
“Thank you, Mr. Fowler, that’s kind of you. But we’re going in the opposite direction as you, and we’re only fifteen minutes from home, really.”
I’m not finished, but Ralph quickly interjects, “It’s no matter. Like you said, you’re only fifteen minutes out, so it’s not too much out of my way. Besides, it’s not often a gentleman gets to walk with two charming ladies at his side.” He winks at Emma, who good-naturedly offers him a smile.
“Yes, that’s true, and I would hate to deprive you of our company at your arm, but to be honest we’re in the middle of discussing a reading for our British literature class, which we’ll be tested on in class next Monday.” God is going to strike me down for lying like this. . . . “I really would like to go over the last points with her before helping my mother with dinner; if you’re on your way home, Father can’t be too far behind.” I give him a rueful smile to help sell my story.
Ralph’s face falls a little, but I can tell he believes me. I doubt he cares about my studies, but he certainly won’t want to upset my father by making me late if I have to talk with Emma beyond the time it takes to walk home. That’s a nice touch, blaming my need to get home on Father.
“Aha, yes of course. I can see I did interrupt you ladies. I apologize and do wish you a pleasant evening.” His gentlemanly manners are so good it’s hard to begrudge him anything, had the previous circumstances been nonexistent. Then he adds, looking at me only, “Perhaps I can escort you safely home another day.”
I blanch inside but try to act calm. Looking at Emma, whose cheeks and ears are genuinely blushed, I smile kindly and murmur a vague “thank you.”
Ralph raises his hat slightly in a farewell greeting, then his footsteps grow fainter and fainter in the opposite direction we were walking. I’ve dodged what would surely have been another uncomfortable conversation in which I would have had to avoid his suggestive overtures and make up some sort of silly story to get me out if need be.
Once we’re out of range for Ralph to overhear us, Emma exclaims quietly, “Quick thinking, Elie. That was close!”
“I wasn’t sure we were going to get out of that one.”
She laughs. “There’s nothing a little white lie can’t fix, right?” Her eyes twinkle with a devilish light.
“Surely, but I do feel a bit guilty for sneaking away from him, especially since he has such manners, as always . . . but you! I saw you blush a bit when he tried to charm us. You’re not falling into his grasp, are you Emma?” I tease her playfully and nudge her with an elbow.
Emma blushes again, to my surprise, but laughs it off. “Hardly! He’s no more my type of man than he is yours, Elie. But I can’t help but be flattered if a man calls me pretty and is kind enough to first offer such an escort and then politely take a falsely concocted rebuff. He took it so well, I can’t help but feel his kind heart showing through.”
“That’s what makes this situation difficult. How can a girl turn down a man who acts so graciously?”
We muse in silence for a few minutes, until Emma concludes, “I guess if it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“It might be that simple. But I don’t know; I haven’t been in love to know what ‘feeling right’ actually does feel like!”
We giggle together at the absurdity of it all, then chat more about Ralph until our discussion circles back to our school semester. The classes we take as sophomore students aren’t as detailed or strenuous as those which the men attend. Even so, all fourteen of us dedicated ladies take our
classes very seriously. We only learn literature, art, history, health, music, and home economics, but we’re able to use the full library at McGill—which thankfully includes books on calculus, biology, physics, chemistry, anatomy, astronomy, and every other subject I can lay my hands on.
Yet none of those books compare to time spent in my father’s laboratories during my ample free time. I even know which labs house each experiment he and his colleagues have set up, where the precious radioactive materials are stored, which man in the Workman Labs blows the best glass tubes for holding a vacuum, and best of all, I understand how some of the experiments work. My mind wanders to thoughts of their scattering experiment as we reach the physics building.
“Why don’t you go on home? I might be a while with my father.” I give my friend a quick hug of thanks.
She gives me a quick kiss on the cheek and squeezes my arms, saying, “Don’t worry, Elie. It will all work out. I have a good feeling despite all this business with Ralph. You’ll find the right man when you least expect it.”
“Thanks, I needed to hear that. And you will too.”
Yet even her reassurance can’t quell my worries. I suppose now I need to speak with Father frankly about what’s going on and let him know how I’m really feeling before it’s too late, before Ralph gets to him and has a serious heart-to-heart request . . . well, to request me. What a dreadful thought! Though I know Father loves me and wants what’s best for me, I fear he believes Ralph might actually be that thing.
Pausing outside the heavy oak doors of the physics building, I smooth out my black muslin skirt. I readjust the high collar of my white blouse around my neck and straighten my billowy sleeves. I heft my satchel, heavily weighed down by three books, two composition pads, a spare cardigan, and my lunch from today, onto my shoulder. My lunch of an apple, chunk of pumpernickel bread, and a few small well-preserved sausage links sits untouched because I was too distracted with reading four hours earlier to remember to eat. At the moment growls of hunger make themselves heard over the flap of butterfly wings filling my stomach, but I ignore them to focus on what I’m going to say to Father.
Once inside his building, I decide to check his office upstairs first in case he’s there; that would be a more private place to talk than one of the labs. Taking two steps at a time, I reach the fourth level breathing a tad heavier than usual. I turn left and peek disappointedly into the empty office in front of me. I’ll have to talk to him in the lab anyway and hope no one else will be able to hear.
I move to walk back downstairs when I hear a brisk rustle to my right. Frederick Soddy
emerges from the researchers’ office next to my father’s, and he smiles instantly upon seeing me.
“Miss Rutherford! I’d been wondering when you’d appear this week. Are you looking for that busy father of yours?”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Soddy. Yes, I thought by chance he might be in his office, but I guess he’s downstairs working, eh?” I work hard to clear all the tension from my face so as not to reveal my nerves.
“Yes, he should be in B5 still. He sent me to look for some set of papers he put up here years ago. I’ll be surprised if I find it before the end of the year.” He chuckles.
“Well, no one ever accused my father of being neat,” I concede. For the moment my curiosity distracts me from my mission. “What papers? Do you want help?”
“No need to trouble yourself with this wild goose chase, Miss Rutherford. I’ll find them sooner or later. Your father is busy cleaning up that pile of old experiments down in his lab, and he wants to refer to something he wrote about the magnetic properties of iron after exposure to high-frequency oscillations. He’s trying to see if those old buzzards still work at all and are fit to keep. He needs to spool up the big power supply to make sure the wires and connections are still good.”
“Oh? Will I be bothering him if I walk down there?” I don’t want my chance to talk with him to evaporate.
“You know he’d nearly stop a running experiment for you!” Soddy laughs again and throws me a wink. “I’m sure he’d welcome the distraction today. We were working on the alpha particle scattering experiment earlier today, but the equipment was acting up and losing the vacuum. We started taking that apart but decided we were doing more harm than good once we broke the main glass cylinder, so we switched gears to take a break.”
“Oh no! I’m sure my father’s none too happy about breaking that glass!”
“No, but your father thinks the glass blower over in the Workman building made a spare last time. We’ll be up and running again on Monday.”
“Good.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “I’ll head downstairs. Thanks for the information, and good luck with the search.”
The tense anticipation had briefly left me while we talked, but it’s returned with full force now as I trod down the stairs. I force myself to put one foot on the next lower step and rehearse my speech in my head. Father, I have something very serious to talk to you about. . . . Before Ralph comes to talk to you about him and myself, I want to tell you how I feel about the subject. . . . I am convinced that what I want out of life is not what he wants, and I will never be happy with myself if I go down his path, nor will he be happy with life if I’m in his. . . . Yes, he’s a wonderful man and I’m sure there’s one lucky woman who’ll make him a happy wife, ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...