Antea and the Green Flash
The European Southern Observatory at Paranal, Chile is location of the villain's lair in the next James Bond movie. They send us this photo taken May 2 of the "green flash." This phenomenon is occasionally seen at sunset, more often at places with stable atmosphere and free of light pollution like Paranal. The flash is said to result from interplanetary grains of dust, reflecting sunlight like tiny moons.
The green flash also inspires the epilogue to Roger Penrose's excellent book THE ROAD TO REALITY. Antea is a postdoc from a small town in Italy, possessed of remarkable artistic and mathematical talents. Her own ideas, not fully formed, are at variance with those of her colleagues. Like many others, she is deeply puzzled by the problem of quantizing gravity. One evening while watching the sunset Antea witnesses the green flash. "Then a remarkable thought overtook her..."
Penrose does not say what happens later, but from experience we can guess:
After publishing her idea, Antea found increasing difficulty getting postdocs. She wandered the world for years without landing a permanent job. Her colleagues became deeply suspicious of her research. As the mathematics were complex and unconventional, few took the time to understand it. In public forums she was peppered with more questions than a PhD defense. Critics probed to find some tiny mathematical flaw and claim her work was invalid.
After getting a position at a small college and teaching for more years, Antea found that getting tenure was very unlikely. Later she would find that jealous colleagues had spread outrageous rumours about her work. It would have been far easier to follow fashionable ideas like String Theory or Inflation. She found that the image of an attractive woman was not what the university sought for a physicist.
Despite all the challenges, Antea did not let her spirits sag. She happily answered questions about her work even from those she thought hostile. Antea had been inspired as a child by stories about Galileo and Isaac Newton. She continued because math and nature told her she was on the right track. She was surprised and saddened when others resorted to attacks, but more for their sake than hers. After many years she woke to find that her supporters were the top people in science and detractors had disappeared into the woodwork.
Antea's odd thought led to physics books being rewritten everywhere. Rumour has it that Antea is still happy and optimistic as a teenager. In the worst of times even detractors noted her positive personality. In a time when pessimism was the fashion, she believed in the future. Her belief enabled Antea to go where no one had dared go before.