Inge and Her Imaginary Sister

TaraShea Nesbit


Inge Lehmann and her imaginary sister agreed his climbing her hair would have broken her neck. They agreed, also, that Rapunzel would have lost her skull. And another thing: her wrapping her hair around something, like a bedpost, first, really would have helped.


They were both 15 or 16 when on a Sunday morning, the hanging lamp swayed. They were sitting at home with their mother and sister, and the floor moved under them. The movements felt slow but not shaky. The father came into the room. It was an earthquake, he said. The imaginary sister told him, under her breath, to keep quiet.


She knew Inge would be off following her curiosity if given a chance, instead of staying home with her, building structurally conceivable beanstalks, using toilet paper rolls to demonstrate its strength. The brown cardboard tube at the center of the roll was quite flimsy, Inge would point out to the audience, her imaginary sister, who would nod as if she knew that already. They would stand several rolls on end horizontally, place a plank of wood on top, and Inge's imaginary sister would lie flat, held up by what they'd built. The cardboard never collapsed. Inge's imaginary sister knew Inge was a genius, but instead she'd say, Don't be so stupid, when Inge missed a decimal point.


Horse, flower, bird, kisses, the imaginary sister hugged her real sister's pillow in the dark while Inge was off searching for the epicenter. Inge Lehmann's imaginary sister was a saboteur. She'd pretend to know the math. She'd hold a clipboard. Her imaginary sister would say she found the answer when she saw her real sister stop twirling her hair, which meant she almost had the answer. Her imaginary sister said loud things then, like, Son of a Bitch, and other new phrases she learned from somewhere, to shock the answer away from her sister's mind. After agreeing on the non-rationality of fairy tales the two drifted apart—Inge had little patience with less competent colleagues.


For the next years it was not possible for them to communicate. Inge was away installing seismographs and deducing new theories about the inner parts of the earth. She had lively correspondences with male scientists. She wrote a paper that theorized that Earth's center consisted of a solid inner core surrounded by a liquid outer core, separated by something that would later be called the Lehmann Discontinuity. She turned 78. On hearing news of the publication and with the kindest of intentions the imaginary sister sent some eggs, packed in sawdust, to Inge. They did not travel well.


It was not until her late marriage that Inge Lehmann's imaginary sister learned the importance of observational seismology. Inge came to visit and was shocked to find her sister using thick breakfast cups and saucers in patterns imitating Royal Copenhagen, the first pattern to appear in England after the war. After she left she sent a letter in Danish that consisted largely of equations. But on a visit to Cambridge in the 1960s or during a conference in Copenhagen, she came from Kastelsvej; she came to bring her the real thing. Her imaginary sister thought them almost too delicate to use. Both sisters treasured a tea-cozy embroidered by their mother.


Francis Birch, who the imaginary sister did not know, described her sister as "the master of a black art for which no amount of computerizing is likely to be a complete substitute." Her imaginary sister's hair wrapping her hair around something like a bedpost first.


The asteroid 5632 was named Ingelehmann and in Aventura, Florida, there is a stretch of U.S. 1 and a bridge named in Inge's honor. In spite of a great deal of effort, an accurate epicenter of their first earthquake was never found. Both died at the age of 105, nearly, but not totally, blind. Evidence that the inner core is truly solid was not definitive until after her death, if at all.