The Fourth State of Matter

by Jo Ann Beard
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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard is the author and first-person narrator of the essay. During the events of the story, Beard is employed as the managing editor of a monthly journal about space physics at the University of Iowa. This part-time job allows her flexibility to “pursue… [her] nonexistent writing career.” She has recently entered an ill-defined period of separation from her husband, who has moved out of their house. Beard is very worried about her elderly collie, whose death seems imminent. In addition to the collie, she has two other dogs.

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Beard enjoys her collegial relationship with the journal’s editor, Chris, who also loves dogs. In the office they share, she often doodles on the chalkboard. She sometimes wears a pendant with a piece of amber that Christ brought her from Poland.

On Friday, November 1, 1991, which Beard calls “the last day of the first part of my life,” there is little work at the office, and she goes home to be with her collie. After she leaves, a shooting occurs, in which several of her coworkers are killed. Later that night, looking at herself in the mirror and listening to a newscaster announce the names of the victims, she wonders that she still looks the same, with her “white face and dark hair.”

Jo Ann Beard’s Husband

Beard often refers to her husband, who is not named, as “my vanished husband.” Having moved out of the house they lived in for thirteen years, he now lives in a “dank little apartment” across town. Conflicted about his decision, he calls her several times a day and leaves messages in a troubled or pleading voice. She is unsure if their situation will turn around, and she tries to predict their possible future from the content of boxes he left behind.

Friday night after the shootings, Jo Ann’s husband arrives at the house. He hugs her and states that he wants to help her get through this terrible time. Every bit of his face is familiar to her, yet she knows that he no longer loves her.

Christoph Goertz

Christoph Goertz is originally from Germany and retains a faint accent. He is tall, has long legs and mild eyes, and, at age forty-seven, is already white-haired. Chris is married to Ulrike, and they have two children, Karein and Göran. A physics professor and editor of the physics journal, Chris is a specialist in plasma, which is the fourth state of matter. In this capacity, he heads a team of research scientists and graduate students who focus on theoretical plasma physics. His current project concerns plasma in Saturn’s rings.

Beard considers Chris “hip in a professorial, cardigan/jeans” way. He and Beard, who share the editorial office, “have a genial relationship.” Their camaraderie includes their shared love of dogs, and he is concerned about her collie’s fragile health. He sometimes brings her souvenirs from countries where he lectures. Chris is the first victim that Gang Lu shoots, and he dies in the seminar room.


Chris’s mother, Ursula, lives in Germany but is visiting her son in Iowa when he is killed. At age eighty, she recently lost her own mother, age 100, and her husband, to whom she had been married for sixty years. Ursula enjoys visiting art galleries with her son. After his death, when she returns to Germany, she will take her own life.

Robert A. Smith

Bob Smith is a stocky man who smokes a pipe. A physics professor at the University of Iowa, he is also involved with the journal. Like Chris, who is his best friend, Bob is an eminent plasma specialist. Beard does not get along with Bob, because he is “short-tempered” and speaks “condescendingly,” although she acknowledges their mutual opinions of the other’s arrogance. Smith is killed in the seminar room when Gang Lu shoots him several times.

Dwight Nicholson

The chairman of the physics department and a plasma specialist, Dwight is “a tall likable oddball” who greets everyone in a booming voice when he arrives at the office. He formerly wore a ponytail, but he cut it when he became department chair. Dwight is working in his department office on Friday afternoon when Gang Lu shoots him, and he dies.

Anne Cleary

Anne Cleary, the physics department administrator, is working in the office on Friday afternoon. Gang Lu speaks with her when he enters the office, then fires at her. She is critically wounded, and she dies the next day at the hospital.

Miya Rodolfo-Sioson

Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, a university student, is Anne Cleary’s assistant in the physics department. Gang Lu shoots her once, in the top of the spine. She is the lone survivor, paralyzed from the neck down.

Linhua Shan

Linhua Shan, who is from China, is a graduate student in physics. On Friday, he visits the editorial office to speak with Chris, then works and plays a golf game on his computer. While attending the seminar, he is the second person that Gang Lu shoots and kills.


Caroline is Jo Ann’s friend who removes the squirrels from her house. She has previously wrestled goats and intimidated snakes. With long red hair and a dazzling smile, she is a former “beauty queen.” She is very fond of animals, including Jo Ann’s collie.

Gang Lu

Gang Lu, the shooter, is a physics graduate student from China. On Friday, he converses with Chris in the office while Beard is present. Later that day, he writes a suicide letter on the computer, addressing it to his older sister in China. The text includes his statement that he will take “traveling companions” with him “to the grave.” It also expresses his disappointment in studying physics and his contempt for “detested cunning, fawning sycophants and dishonest bureaucrats.” In a university seminar room and the physics department office, he shoots six people, killing five of them, before shooting and killing himself. The news reports describe him as a “lone gunman.”

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