The Fourth State of Matter

by Jo Ann Beard

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

Jo Ann Beard's essay "The Fourth State of Matter" begins with the author's dog waking her up in the middle of the night. The author takes the dog outside, and as she looks up at the night sky, the sight of the stars makes her think of the physicists with whom she works, who have taught her about outer space and whom she describes as "guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe."

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The author describes her spare bedroom, which is filled with an assortment of dogs, squirrels, and the boxed-up possessions of her "vanished husband," who has "reduced himself to a troubled voice on the telephone three or four times a day." The squirrels disturb her at night more than the dogs do, and she has taken to sleeping downstairs because of the noise they make.

At work, after "calling in tired," Beard checks her messages. Two of them are from her husband: in the first, he says that he has to talk to her, and in the second, he cancels the first and says that he is fine. Beard works as the managing editor of a physics journal. She describes the editor, Christoph, and his giant black dog. She spends more time with Christoph than she did with her husband, and Christoph was "genuinely perplexed" when he heard that her husband was leaving her. He is currently studying the dust in the plasma of the rings of Saturn. He tells her about plasmaspheres, explaining that plasma is the fourth state of matter, following solid, liquid, and gas.

Caroline, an “ex-beauty queen” who now works with animals, comes to Beard's house to get rid of the squirrels in her spare room. While she is there, Beard's husband calls and leaves a desperate message. Caroline is astonished at the pressure under which the author is living. She says she will "be forced to kill" Beard if she calls her husband back after he has left such a disturbing message. Caroline gets rid of the squirrels in a humane manner and patches up the hole where they entered the room. Then the two eat nachos together.

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Back at work, Beard feels left out of the conversation, as her coworkers are "speaking in physics." She explains that the discussion resembles a conference and that she wishes they would all leave so that she could make some personal calls. A graduate student, Gang Lu, "looks around the room with expressionless eyes." The author imagines that he is thinking how sick he is of physics and of the physicists with whom he works. Gang Lu, says the author, no longer spends any time on his work. Instead, he practices his shooting at the firing range.

During a seminar on a Friday afternoon at which the author is not present, Gang Lu shoots Christoph in the back of the head. He then shoots another physicist, Linhua Shan, in the forehead and another, Bob Smith, in the hand and the chest. He shoots Dwight, the department chairman, then returns for another shot at Bob, who is not yet dead. After reloading, he shoots both Christoph and Linhua again. He shoots an administrator and then a student receptionist. Twelve minutes after the beginning of this shooting spree, Gang Lu walks into an empty conference room, folds up his coat neatly, drapes it over the back of a chair, and shoots himself.

The author receives a call from work telling her that there has been a disturbance there. This includes a rumor that Dwight has been shot. Later, there is another rumor that Christoph was also involved. Gradually, she pieces together the full extent of the tragic event from various different news reports. Eventually, she learns that Gang Lu was the shooter and that Christoph, the coworker to whom she was closest, is among the dead.

Now it is the author, not wanting to be alone with her thoughts, who wakes up her dog. In the silence of night, she imagines herself suspended in a plasmapause, the outer limit of plasmaspheres, which was Christoph's field of study:

We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.

The idea of being motionless in the plasmasphere makes the author think of a gift Christoph brought her from Poland: a piece of amber with shards of fly wings in it. In the essay's final image, she is wearing it around her neck.

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