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The invisible physicist - Part II

From the LabLit short story series

Liesbeth Venema 11 November 2012

The question was, how had Ferrer managed to disappear from the lab - had he really made himself invisible?

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the second part of a three-part physics thriller by Liesbeth Venema. Use the links at the top right to catch up on the exciting story so far!

May 2011

It was a bright spring morning and the incoming sunlight was a bit too intense for Chip, who was nursing a headache. He twisted the blinds to deflect most of the light. He tried again to remember where he had been last night and glanced at the back of his hand which had an email address written on it. Worryingly, it started with the name ‘Paul’. He had no recollection of how the scribble had ended up on his hand and he stared at the name, trying to get meaning from it.

His thoughts were interrupted by a persistent knock on the open door of the office. In a reflex he clicked away a window on his computer screen where a game of retro Tetris was running. Trying to look relaxed, he swivelled his chair towards the door and saw the attractive, well-dressed young woman. She was asking him something, but he was distracted by the bright grey eyes. Then he noticed the badge. The agency.

He knew he was in trouble, behind in completing his doctorate degree in time and with a shiver, he remembered the last meeting he’d had with the prof and some official from the agency. It had been torture. His task was to design algorithms for fast quantum computing search tasks, but after a promising start, he had got stuck in making the concepts workable for real applications. That was very bad news as far as the agency was concerned. They did not want to extend his contract, so that he could finish his PhD, without results that were more to their liking. The prof had done what she could, but he had to make promises he knew were impossible to keep. He had three weeks left to deliver the goods.

“I said, I am looking for Xavier Ferrer,” the agency lady said.

Another one, Chip thought automatically, surprising himself. The thought jolted back memories of the events of the evening before. He felt dizzy, partly from confusion and partly from the lack of sleep, and tried to organize his thoughts.

“Xavier…I don’t know… don’t think he is here. He’s never here in the morning. Or afternoon. His office is on the next floor, so…” Chip wondered what would happen next but the lady smiled at him and asked whether he knew Xavier well.

“Not really. We’re working on different projects, and in any case, he’s avoiding everybody. Doesn’t like people that much I suppose.”

The smart-looking lady took a few steps inside the office and looked around. Chip stood his ground. On a whim he put out his hand and introduced himself. “My name is Kaspar Palotski, just call me Chip.”

The lady from the agency took his outstretched hand without hesitation and introduced herself as Emma Mecozzi.

“Nice to meet you Chip, And a nice office you have, lovely and cool and cosy.”

Despite himself, Chip thought he rather liked Emma and cautiously offered to show her his work. Surprisingly, Emma wasn’t interested at all and he didn’t know if he should be relieved or disappointed. Instead she asked casually if he knew where the invisibility lab was.

Did she really not know? Perhaps she was testing him.

August 2011

A day after the police interview, Emma and Cindy had another lunch meeting and they both knew it was their last. There wasn’t going to be any attempt at an amiable conversion.

“I think you know why I wanted to see you,” Emma opened in her usual business-like manner. Cindy nodded despite not being all that certain. “The police informed me that you have appropriated yourself of my ID card. I would like it back, please.”

Cindy fished it from her bag and coolly handed it over.

“Now,” Emma continued. “Interestingly, they wanted to know all about our involvement in Xavier’s transfer to Dousburg’s lab. They mentioned you are researching a story on his … career.” Emma turned herself completely towards Cindy. Her face looked so stern that Cindy, who wasn’t easily intimidated, had to look away. “Cindy, you are out of your depth. And deluded. Ferrer got carried away, made serious errors that sidetracked a whole community of scientists, wasting time and resources. He was lucky that we intervened and that we found him a place in Dousburg’s lab. Now he’s messed up again.”

“You shouldn’t have bothered then.”

Emma sighed. “I suppose it’s pointless if I ask you to stay out of this?”

Cindy turned towards Emma, smiling innocently. “What, a scientist turns himself into the invisible man, it’s the story of the year, and I just have to leave it alone?”

“Don’t be daft. Perhaps you have become all idealistic and think you can do something charitable for a change, like saving a young scientist’s career,” Emma said scornfully. She reached over an gripped Cindy’s arm. “You are wrong about Ferrer – he’s not a victim.” Emma composed herself, carefully adjusted her sleek dark ponytail and stood up. Without saying anything else, she made a swift exit, leaving Cindy feeling slightly shaken.


But Emma underestimated Cindy’s determination. Her strategy was going to backfire. Cindy remembered that Emma had told her not to talk to Alex Greenwood, so that was exactly what she was going to do.

Cindy felt only slightly awkward hanging around the building like a paparazzi. She had carefully dressed for the occasion, not too smart, not too casual, with minimal make-up on and with her hair pinned up. Then he emerged, Alex Greenwood, with a courier-style bag bulging with papers dangling on one shoulder, a laptop case clasped in his other hand and looking around him with a bewildered look, emphasized by a bruise near his temple. For a disconcerting moment Alex was staring in her direction and Cindy wondered if he was planning an escape, but then she realized he was looking for his bike. Time to close in.

“Good evening, Dr Greenwood, my name is Cindy Haythorn. I’m a science writer I and was wondering if you might have a few minutes to spare to talk to me about your work.”

Alex looked startled, and it took him a few moments to come up with a reply.

“I don’t know anything. I mean, I’m not allowed to talk to journalists. You have to excuse me, I am, I need to find… I need to go.”

Cindy smiled reassuringly. She didn’t want to be unkind but knew she had to nail this. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. I am doing a background feature on dark resonances in optical metamatarials and am particularly interested in your recent article in Photoelectronics Letters.”

Greenwood still looked worried, but she could see he was nearly ready to give up resistance; the temptation to get attention for his work was too great.

“It will only take half an hour at most?” she pressed. “I just have a couple of technical questions I was hoping you could help me with. Let me buy you coffee while we talk.”


Cindy had thoroughly researched Greenwood’s work. This hadn’t taken her very long. Most of his research amounted to incremental advances published in specialized journals. She put on her act, listened attentively, made notes, mentioned work he had published and gave Greenwood the opportunity to expand on details. After twenty minutes she felt the time was right, put away her notebook and made a pretence of gathering her belongings. Then she offered, “I don’t think Lydia Dousburg appreciates your work enough.”

Greenwood blushed slightly and hid his discomfort by going through his bag, shuffling the papers. “Well. I can’t say, ehm, maybe.”

“Do you know, I think you should go straight to the agency with your latest findings,” Cindy suggested. Greenwood looked straight at her, noticing – now that it was too late – the calculating grey eyes.

“What do you mean… my latest findings?” Some papers had now fallen out.

“Well, the recent findings from your work with Xavier Ferrer?” Cindy ventured. She’d hit a mark. Greenwood, clearly shaken, mumbled he had to go and clumsily began to pack up his things.

“Please call me if you’d like to talk, Alex.” Cindy held out her card and placed her other hand on his arm. Greenwood stared at the card as if it was small rodent he didn’t dare touch.


A week later Alex Greenwood was standing outside Lydia Dousburg’s office.

“Come in, please!” she called, even though he hadn’t knocked yet. When his boss had called to say she wanted to see him in her office, which happened only rarely, he knew instinctively it was all over for him. Alex opened the door hesitantly. Lydia was tidying up her desk and motioned him to sit down on a chair opposite her, but this was prevented by the presence of a bag with sports clothes and trainers of a surprisingly small size. Not sure what to do, Alex put it carefully on the floor and wondered whether Dousburg’s feet could really be so small. But she stood up again, to get some papers from behind her.

“I’m sorry for the mess. Am a bit behind with work, you see. My assistant left. I would have asked him to get some coffee, but...” Lydia Dousburg looked at Alex with concern, perhaps noting his tired appearance. Then, apparently hardening herself, she said, “I want to talk to you about a new project. Look, I want to make a fresh start. Put all that business with the invisibility cloak behind me. You know.” She wasn’t expecting a response. “I don’t know what happened to Xavier. Nor do the police. But something tells me I don’t need to worry about him.” At this, she looked Alex directly in the eye but before he could say something, she continued. “To be frank, it’s been a wake-up call. It’s time for me to start doing something new.”

She selected a few scientific papers and laid them out carefully one by one as if they were playing cards. Two of the papers were studies from a Swiss research group he vaguely recognized. “These are theoretical proposals from Jelko Maier’s group. Maybe you’ve seen them? A new scheme for optical quantum information processing. I’ve thought about it and have some ideas for experiments to test the proposals. It’s risky and it will be difficult to get funding. From elsewhere.” The last word was spoken with deliberate care. Alex was leaving through the papers but could get little meaning from them. Then Lydia said what he feared: “I’m afraid that. Look, in this new project. You see. Kaspar will finish his PhD at Maier’s group in a few months and then, well, he’s coming to work for me again.” Alex shuffled the papers back into a neat pile and gave them back to his boss.

“I don’t fit in.”

The phone rang and Lydia picked it up swiftly, turning away from Alex with an apologetic hand wave. During a brief, muttered conversation, Alex had the time to reflect upon the fact that he was a very bad judge of character, including his own. He had been mistaken in thinking he had what it takes to be a scientist. Xavier wasn’t the withdrawn and lost postdoc everyone thought he was, and Emma had fooled him into thinking she cared about his career. Lydia Dousburg put the phone down and, embarrassed, explained she had forgotten to drop off gym clothes at her daughter’s school and that she had to go now. She waited for a response of some sort.

“I… didn’t know you had a family,” he risked. “Your children must be very proud of you.” Lydia narrowed her eyes, as if daring Alex to mock her. Then she realised the simple truth, he had meant it. And there was nothing more to say.


On the whole, Cindy had not been able to extract as much information from Alex Greenwood as she would have liked. At least it was clear he had something to hide. Hopefully he would pull himself together and call her. In the mean time, there was a possible lead for her to follow up. Cindy had been careful to take a good look at the papers spilling out of Alex’s bag and a few had piqued her interest. They were on a topic that she had only recently heard about and she wondered what Greenwood had to do with it. She switched on her computer and began to do a search.

What she learned was mind-boggling. She knew about invisibility cloaks; materials that can bend light around them as if creating a hole in space, a natural place to hide something. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine, it was almost like a conjurers trick of mirrors. But a mathematically equivalent possibility was to make a hole in time, bending light around an event to hide it from observers. This ‘time cloaking’ concept seemed at the same time completely intuitive and preposterous.

Unsurprisingly, making time cloaks was not so simple. Cindy could find only one example of a time cloak that had been made which could hide an event in an optical fiber lasting just 20 picoseconds – shorter than the blink of the eye. But nothing stood in the way, in principle, of making a time cloak that could hide longer events. Cindy’s heart began beating faster as thoughts stumbled over each other. Had Ferrer made an actual time cloak to steal the prototype invisibility cloak? He needed to hide an event of perhaps a few seconds, and only for the specific infrared band used by the security system. Was that possible? Perhaps. It would explain why the system hadn’t picked up anything at all. But how had he been able to work on such a project without anyone’s knowledge? Or had he been working with Greenwood? The million-dollar question was, how had Ferrer managed to disappear from the lab - had he really made himself invisible?

Searching for more clues, Cindy browsed through the website of the high energy lab where Ferrer had worked. She studied the dozens of profiles of current and past scientific members. One of them was Pauline Ciracio. Appointed lecturer in Lancaster two years ago, after successfully finishing her project in Spain, tidying up various loose ends in analysing the neutrino results. Cindy clicked on the link to Ciracio’s new website. She was doing very well, that much could be gleaned from the size of research group and an impressive list of recent publications in high-profile journals. And from the list of ‘invited presentations’ from recent years Cindy concluded Pauline Ciracio was a sought-after speaker at scientific conferences. She made a note of the email address,

With a shock Cindy realized she’d seen the address before. A strange image flashed through her mind of a dark and cool room. She had to concentrate to hang onto the memory, but then it came back in full; She remembered the outstretched hand of the friendly student she’d met in Dousburg’s lab. There had been an email address written on it, which had immediately caught her eye. Pauline had been somehow in contact with Dousburg’s lab.

Cindy mulled over this piece of information. Then, she booked a flight.

To be continued...