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The invisible physicist - Part I

From the LabLit short story series

Liesbeth Venema 27 October 2012

www.lablit.com/article/744

It had been a mistake to take on Xavier in the first place. How could she ever have trusted him, knowing his history?

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the first part of a three-part physics thriller by Liesbeth Venema.

May 2011

The weak afternoon sun warmed Pauline Ciracio a little as she sat awkwardly on a bench outside the university building, trying to decide what to do. She had just gone inside and asked reception if she could speak to Xavier Ferrer, but after making some calls they had simply informed her he wasn’t there and that they had no idea when he would be back. Unwilling to accept that her trip was pointless, Pauline wondered whether she should come back later – it wasn’t unlike Xavier to work in the evening, as she painfully remembered – but then she saw a familiar figure emerging from the other side of the building.

She got up and took a few tentative steps. Her heart raced. It was Xavier, but he looked very different from what she expected. Better dressed than usual and surprisingly happy. Xavier didn’t see her and was walking away quickly. Pauline knew she had to call out before he disappeared. Instead, she decided on an impulse to follow him. But in her haste she collided into someone, knocking both of them over.

After a moment of confusion, she got to her feet and saw that the impact had caused her victim’s shoulder bag to explode, scattering a dozen papers to the ground. Her chance to catch up with Xavier was quickly evaporating, but she kneeled down and began helping the guy to collect his belongings.

“I’m so sorry, that was clumsy of me,” Pauline offered.

“Don’t worry about it. I should have looked out better myself. I was trying to find my bike.” He looked at her shyly. “Were you, I mean, are you in a hurry?”

“I thought I recognized a friend of mine and was trying to catch up with him.” But Pauline handed over the last of the scattered papers without haste.

“Does your friend work here?”

“Yes, I believe so. Xavier Ferrer, do you know him?”

“Xavier?” He sounded astonished. “Well, yes, he’s a postdoc in the same lab as me.” Then he added, hesitantly, “You are really a friend of his?”

Pauline didn’t answer.

“It’s just that he seems to…dislike company. He keeps to himself. Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” Then he added, “It was probably someone else you saw. Xavier is never in the lab during day time, he only works in the evenings.”

Pauline stood in silence and watched a familiar figure disappear in the distance. She was sure it had been him.

August 2011

One of the main reasons why Cindy enjoyed running so much was that the endorphin rush freed her thoughts, giving her much-needed ideas for stories. She knew full well that most of these would look embarrassingly unrealistic in the harsh post-run light. But as she climbed the low hill, inexplicably running faster the higher she got, she felt confident this was shaping up to be a promising story scoop. Cindy thought how the major science news agencies would all want a piece of the story.

The endorphin rush also fuelled her optimism.

If only she could confront Xavier Ferrer with what she had worked out. Now on top of the hill, Cindy looked up and around her, slowing her pace a little. But a fog had come up – she hadn’t noticed it so far – and the distant villages were cloaked from view. What troubled her was that Xavier was so reluctant to talk to her. She could normally make the most unwilling scientist talk. Wasn’t he craving a chance to set the record straight? She had tried to explain that she had found something that could turn around, perhaps save his career. But so far he always hung up on her before she could finish what she had to say. Her messages and emails were left unanswered.

On her descent Cindy came past a group of other runners going in the opposite direction, happily chatting to each other as if to prove that the exercise hardly cost them any effort. They greeted Cindy brightly, who in turn ignored them.

She had to work out a strategy for tomorrow’s big press event at Professor Dousburg’s lab to which she was invited. It was her best chance to talk to Xavier, who would surely be there. Or else, she could corner one of his colleagues to get through to him. Slowing to a jog, Cindy checked the latest news feeds and messages on her phone and found a brief announcement, sent out by a Michel Schmidt, assistant to Professor Dousburg. Tomorrow’s demonstration had been cancelled, and regrettably no new date would be set.

Cindy stood still for a minute, staring blankly at her phone and then around her. The fog had thickened, now obscuring even the road ahead, and she had to jump away from a car looming up suddenly before her. With all energy now drained from her, Cindy realized it was going to be a long trip home.

**********

Two weeks later Cindy finally managed to speak to Emma Mecozzi, her contact at the funding agency. Emma assured her she would have replied sooner, but it was a hectic time: “The demonstration was cancelled because the prototype invisibility cloak went missing.”

“You’re joking,” Cindy said, knowing this was unlikely to be the case.

“Nobody here is laughing,” Emma replied evenly.

“The agency doesn’t approve of their researchers losing valuable research equipment?”

Cindy could hear that Emma had to make an effort to suppress her annoyance. “The cloak vanished in suspicious circumstances. As you may know, it was kept in a lab guarded by an infrared security system installed by us, but nothing has been picked up by the detectors.”

“So, the cloak just vanished from one moment to the next?”

“Exactly. And there’s more. After a couple of days, someone noticed that one of the lab members hasn’t turned up since the day the cloak disappeared. From surveillance footage it looks like he never left the building. Nobody can remember when they last saw him. The building has been turned inside out, but there’s no trace of him.”

“Oh, boy,” was all that Cindy could manage.

“The press is getting wind of the story – it will soon be over the news. Imagine the headlines: ‘Scientist steals invisibility cloak and disappears’.”

“I am from the press. And that’s an awful headline.”

“I know you are, but I trust you are not going to butcher the science. Talk to Dousburg, she can give you her side of the story. I’ve already passed on your name. Get the science right.”

Cindy hesitated. “Are you sure Dousburg wants to talk? Of all the scientists I’ve met, she’s one of the most unimpressed by media attention. How about that postdoc of hers, whatshisname, Greenwood, he must be desperate to talk.”

“No, there’s no point in asking him, he knows nothing. Talk to Dousburg.”

The line went dead before Cindy could ask who the missing scientist was, but she had a pretty good idea.

She was right. The first news story had already appeared on the internet, sooner than she expected, and she briefly wondered whether Emma had kept her hanging on the line longer than had been necessary. It wouldn’t be the first time. ‘Scientist in Harry Potter cloak disappearance act’ was the headline, above a photo of Xavier, clearly taken from the lab’s website, unsmiling and uncaring about his appearance, with uncombed hair and cheap glasses slightly askew.

‘Have you seen this person?’ the story went on. ‘You won’t, he’s invisible!’ The piece had nothing to say about the incident she didn’t already know. Instead it went through a hilarious list of ‘ten fun things to do with an invisibility cloak’. Cindy glanced again at the photo and thought she saw a hint of irony in his eyes, but realized that would be impossible to see in the low-resolution image.

She picked up her phone, still feeling sceptical that she could get much from Dousburg.

**********

Lydia Dousburg was not having a good day. Her assistant called. “Dr Dousburg, it’s another journalist on the line, a Cindy Haythorn. Shall I decline?”

“Thanks…and, ah, Marcel? The agency warned me she would phone. Can you ask her to call me back between 4 and 5?”

“Right-o.”

Lydia suddenly remembered her assistant’s name was actually Michel. She briefly felt bad that she couldn’t even remember her own employees’ names, but well, she really had a lot on her mind, now more than ever. The police would be here in half an hour to talk through the events around the incident – the last thing she wanted. If it were up to her, there wouldn’t be an investigation and the whole sorry business should be forgotten.

She just wanted to get on with her research. It had been a mistake to let the agency persuade her to take on Xavier in the first place. How could she ever have trusted him, knowing his history? That he had disappeared was fine by her, she really didn’t have any desire to know how or why. The fact that the general public was now under the panicky impression that an out-of-control scientist was walking around invisible was laughable, but not her problem. But the agency had requested her cooperation with the police investigation. She’d become too dependent on their funding and support to ignore their wishes.

Twenty-five minutes left to handle some correspondence. There was the letter of recommendation Lydia Dousburg had to write for Alex’s job application, another one in a series of failed attempts to secure a lecturer position. He was a hopeless case and sooner or later she had to tell him he wasn’t cut out for an academic career. He worked hard and wasn’t stupid, but the problem was, he simply didn’t have any original ideas of his own. For now, she wrote things like ‘capable researcher’ and ‘good team-player’, knowing full well that only applicants who were recommended as ‘excellent’ stood a chance.

Lydia tried to remember when she had last spoken to Xavier. That must have been quite a while ago. In fact, she had a hard time remembering what he looked like. He had taken a low profile in the lab, understandably. Xavier had been eager at the beginning and had some interesting ideas, better then Alex or any of the other postdocs ever came up with. But given what she knew about him, she wasn’t going to let him get carried away and made it clear he had little freedom to deviate from his project. She suddenly felt a wave of regret, but then composed herself. The situation she had been forced into by the agency had been impossible.

Her assistant rang again. “The school called. They would like you to ring them back about your daughter’s swimming lessons?” Damn, she had forgotten to speak to the teacher this morning.

“Thanks, I’ll ring them. As soon as I can.”

“Right-o.”

**********

Just when she was meant to call Lydia Dousburg again, Cindy received a visit. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to her that the police wanted to talk to her about the missing invisibility cloak. But it was only well into the police interview that she remembered. Three months ago she had covertly entered Dousburg’s lab, in a failed attempt to find Xavier Ferrer. She had realised at the time she was crossing a line, but she simply had to get to the bottom of the story she was researching. The only way, she told herself, was to sneak into the lab to see what Xavier was up to and persuade him to talk to her.

However, the security measures were sufficient to prevent her from just walking in. Then, she had a lunch meeting with Emma who had accidently dropped her agency ID badge. Immediately realizing this would give her access to the lab, Cindy took it as an invitation and quickly pocketed it. She didn’t feel any guilt about this. She and Emma were on friendly enough terms, but both knew they needed each other – Emma provided Cindy with exclusive bits of information, Cindy in return wrote the occasional news story which showed the agency’s work in a flattering light. As far as Cindy was concerned it was give and take.

“Do you perhaps have any information to share with us? You’ve been writing about Professor Dousburg’s work after all, and perhaps you know something about the missing invisibility cloak story?” The detective asked this in a conversational tone. He had told Cindy he just wanted a ‘chat’ with her. This did not reassure her.

“I am really not sure I can be of assistance. I have never met Xavier Ferrer, so… ” She was not sure what line she should take and tried a disarming smile. The detective just smiled back, so she continued, “I can tell you what I know about invisibility cloaks if you like?”

The detective nodded.

“Invisibility cloaks are materials with specially designed optical properties so that they can divert light rays around them, hiding objects from view,” she said. “They could have important commercial and military uses, but it’s anyone’s guess whether that’s really going to happen. So far, the prototypes that have been made in the lab don’t work that well – they absorb much of the light and typically work only for a particular wavelength band, not the whole visible spectrum.”

The police detective looked interested, so Cindy went on. “However, the prototype that Dousburg was working on was promising to be much better. Unfortunately, she was not allowed to publish any details about the material. Sadly, it has never been shown in public – the media demonstration was going to be the big premiere, so nobody knows how well it really works. Worked.” The detective was busy scribbling down notes and Cindy wondered if she should wait till he was finished.

“Yes, I see,” the detective said slowly after a while, looking at his notebook and emphasizing a few dots, unnecessarily. “And what were you doing on 16 August, 2011?”

Cindy thought quickly. This was the day the cloak disappeared from the lab. “I was at home actually, researching a story.”

“At home all day? Can anybody confirm that?”

“I did go out running in the afternoon from 2 to 4. There was a group of runners I met on the way…” but she had no idea who they were. The sentence was left hanging in the air.

“How long have you known Emma Mecozzi?” the detective finally asked, casually.

That’s went Cindy realized. She sighed and knew her best chances lay in honesty.

“Emma has nothing to do with this,” she said. “Ok, I used her agency ID card to get into the lab. I had no intention of stealing anything, or to cause trouble, I only wanted to talk to Ferrer. Didn’t find him. The only person I spoke to was a student who hardly knew him.”

The detective wasn’t making any notes now.

“You want to know why I wanted to speak with Ferrer?” Cindy suggested. The detective didn’t say anything, so there was nothing else for Cindy to do but continue.

“I found something out about his previous job,” she said. “You probably know by now he was hired by Dousburg about three years ago, under difficult circumstances. He had previously been a research associate at a high energy lab in Spain. I’m sure you’d have heard about it. Reports were leaked that they had tantalizing evidence for neutrinos moving a fraction faster than the speed of light.” The detective looked blank. “Anyway, it sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Any observation of particles moving faster than light means an upheaval of the physics we know. Anything might be possible.” Cindy smiled, and her thoughts trailed off for a moment. Focussing again, she said, “The researchers had a hard time themselves believing the results, but after a while, when their results seemed reproducible, they felt they had to come out with it publicly.”

“That must have been a big story.” But the detective seemed unsure.

“Just before it came out in full, something was found amiss after all and one of the junior researchers, an optical signal processing expert, was given most of the blame.”

“Xavier Ferrer,” the detective guessed.

“Exactly. It was decided to send Ferrer away. Somehow Dousburg was persuaded to take him on and keep him quiet. The story quickly died out.”

“So what made you so eager to talk to Xavier?”

“I got hold of some of the files. And think I found out something. I just need to get to the bottom of it.”

“Care to tell me what it is you found?”

Cindy’s eyes lit up. “The errors that Ferrer made seem to me to be insubstantial. They could not have caused the anomalous results. If you ask me, Ferrer was made the fall guy because someone didn’t like the results. Then again, I might be wrong. I need Ferrer to look at what I’ve found.”

The detective looked at Cindy Haythorn and thought she was not the kind of person who often thought of herself as wrong. “Any ideas why he might have been less than keen to talk to you? Surely he must have been thrilled to hear he had been right all along.”

“He just never heard me out, put down the phone straight away and presumably deleted my emails. Perhaps he didn’t trust me. He must have a bad experience with journalists,” Cindy said.

“Miss Haythorn, I will need the name of the student who witnessed your break-in into the lab.”

To be continued...