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The invisible physicist - Part III

From the LabLit short story series

Liesbeth Venema 2 December 2012

www.lablit.com/article/750

Neutrinos travelling at superluminal speeds couldn’t be right. They were convinced that mistakes had been made

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

October 2011

The afternoon session had overrun by a good hour, leaving hardly any time for dinner. Most conference participants were still engaged in lively discussions over half-finished dinner plates when calls were made to return to the lecture hall. They made a show of reluctance, but gave up resistance soon enough and were herded out of the dining room, swiftly filling up the conference hall. After all, the keynote lecture, given by Professor Koji Tamaka – who was going to discuss his latest work on time cloaks – was one of the main highlights of the meeting.

The sense of excitement in the air was infectious. Pauline had to admit that she was so far enjoying the conference even though this afternoon had brought back difficult memories. The report from a high-energy lab in the US which had found fresh evidence for superluminal neutrinos had caused a great stir. There had also been a few talks on advances in theories that showed how superluminal particles could fit into the conventional understanding of physics – no overhaul was needed and Einstein wasn’t wrong.

Pauline took her usual position, somewhere in the middle on the far left, and scanned the room. She was glad to see Kaspar, next to his new boss Jelko Maier, looking very relaxed and confident. She thought she should look him up in the poster session to see how he was getting on. Professor Tamaka began his talk in the obligatory light-hearted manner, presenting snapshots of his group’s recent skiing trip and joking that these were their only successful attempts at experimental low-temperature physics. After the entertaining introduction, a late audience member made her way unapologetically to one of the front rows. She sat down, oblivious to the angry stares aimed at her. Then her phone rang, causing more disturbance. She silenced it without haste. Pauline wondered who she was.

**********

After the talk, Cindy quickly made her way to Pauline. She came up to her briskly, losing only a little of her composure when she saw how beautiful Pauline was, with a warm, radiant smile and extraordinary sparkling brown eyes. Cindy pulled herself together.

“That was a great talk by professor Tamaka, don’t you think so?”

Pauline smiled warmly and replied, “He is a great speaker, yes. Very charming. Have we met?”

Without hesitation, Cindy said, “No. I’m Cindy Haythorn, science writer. I’m doing a news feature on superluminal neutrinos and was hoping you have a moment to talk to me.”

Pauline’s smile faltered. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to talk to. I’m no longer involved with that sort of work…”

Cindy went on regardless. “But in the light of these new results, don’t you feel it is regrettable that the work on superluminal neutrinos in your previous lab was abandoned? Shouldn’t someone revisit the findings?”

“Well, it’s not up to me and I’m not all that –”

“In hindsight, was it fair that Xavier Ferrer was fired from the project?”

Pauline froze.

“He may have made a few mistakes,” Cindy persisted, “but wasn’t it a harsh decision to sent him away?”

“You are talking to the wrong person.” Pauline’s smile had completely disappeared.

“Did you keep in touch with Xavier after he left?”

Pauline didn’t reply and started to walk away.

“Please send my regards to Kaspar Polatski when you speak to him. You do know him, don’t you?”

Pauline turned to face Cindy, and said, “What do you want from me?”

Cindy looked at her and said with convincing sincerity, “I need to find Xavier Ferrer and give him a chance to tell me his story.”

Pauline looked nervous, but Cindy could see she wanted to unburden herself.

“I don’t know where he is or what happened in Dousburg’s lab,” Pauline finally said quietly. “I can tell you what happened before that, off the record. You must promise to keep my name out of it. If you find Xavier, just let me know… just let me know if he’s ok.”

Cindy made her promise and whether or not Pauline believed her, she appeared to be content with that.

“Xavier let me down, but I was naïve,” Pauline began. “We had been together for two years and I thought that we had something special – that we were each other’s inspiration. Maybe he wanted to think that as well. But the truth is, I wasn’t the most important thing in his life. His work meant everything to him and it took me too long to figure that out. When I did, I felt an anger towards him that seems unreal now. But it was very real then.”

Pauline looked away and sighed.

“Please, go on,” Cindy said gently.

“It was far too easy for the agency to persuade me to help them ruin Xavier’s career,” Pauline said. “Of course, that is not how they framed it. They said they were very worried about our results, the neutrinos travelling at superluminal speeds, it couldn’t be right. They were convinced that mistakes had been made, but getting to the bottom of it would cost too much time and resources. I was told to keep in mind that many students could be damaging their career prospects working on these false results. They suspected that Xavier was causing problems. He had already been reported a number of times as getting too easily excited. They gave me the task to take a careful look at Xavier’s work. All I had to do was identify any errors, then the matter could be closed in a clean and simple way.”

Pauline looked at Cindy, challenging her to judge her. When Cindy said nothing, Pauline continued: “Xavier had let me down and I wanted to hurt him as he had hurt me. So I did what the agency told me. You know what happened after that. Xavier was sent away.”

“Did you really believe that Xavier was causing the anomalous results?”

“At the time, I did, and the agency convinced me it had to stop. Later, of course, I realized I had been foolish and had let them use me. Perhaps someone else messed up and needed the agency to cover up for him. Or simply did not like the results. When I came to my senses, it was too late.

“A year after Xavier left, I packed up too. I managed to get a good lecturer position in Lancaster. With some help from the agency, of course.” Pauline looked defiant. “The anger I’d felt towards Xavier had by then evaporated. It took me another year to find the courage to try and talk to Xavier. Apologize and explain things. But he was unreachable by phone. My emails weren’t answered.

“I was very worried and overcome with guilt. It seemed he was wasting away in Dousburg’s lab, he never published any work, nobody every heard of him. He seemed to have become invisible. And it was my fault. One day I decided I simply had to see him and made the trip.”

“Did you find him?” Cindy asked eagerly.

Her interruption made Pauline lose the thread for a moment and she frowned.

“I think I did. Except, it didn’t seem to be Xavier. I was almost going up to him but something held me back. He looked very…different. Very happy.”

Pauline paused, but Cindy did not want to distract her again.

“It may sound cowardly, but something told me the best thing I could do was not to interfere and let him get on with whatever he was doing. I took the train home the next day.”

Pauline looked more relaxed now that she had told her story. “In a way, I’ve made my amends. Before I went home that day I tried to find Xavier, I had a meal in one of the cafés near the university and ran into a group of students and postdocs from Lydia’s Dousburg’s lab. One of them had been in Lancaster and she recognized me. She invited me to join them for a drink. That’s when I met Kaspar, if you want to know. He was very talkative, telling me all about the pressure he was under. He wasn’t able to finish his thesis without results that were of more practical relevance. We discussed his work and I thought of a way out for him. His work fitted very well with work in another research group I knew of and I gathered that with my recommendation he could finish his project there, free from the agency. By the end of our conversation he was rather drunk so I wasn’t sure he would remember much. But he soon got in touch, I arranged for him to visit Jelko Maier, and he stayed on.”

“Did you talk to the students about Xavier?” Cindy wanted to know, not all that interested in Kaspar.

“Of course. They hardly knew him. They said he kept apart from everybody and that they weren’t even sure what he was working on. It confirmed my impression that Xavier was fooling everybody and had something up his sleeve.”

Before Cindy had a chance to ask what Pauline’s theories were, a handsome man in his early forties came up to them. Pauline’s radiant smile reappeared in full glory as she got up and put her arm warmly around him. “You’ll have to excuse me now, my husband and I are taking the rest of the evening off to escape from the conference center. It was… interesting to meet you, Miss Haythorn.”

“I’ll be in touch,” Cindy called after her, unnecessarily cheerful. She felt oddly left behind.

**********

It was past midnight, but Cindy still sat at the small desk in her hotel room, browsing the web. More pieces now fell into place. She knew she was right about Ferrer: he must have been developing a time cloak in secret. She had just found fresh evidence for this scenario as she saw on Koji Tamaka’s personal homepage that he had visited Dousburg’s institute three years ago, for a couple of months. That’s when Ferrer must have had his idea for the experiment. Cindy now also understood the real reason why Xavier never wanted to talk to her about his past work; it was not that he was depressed or angry. It was the opposite: he was working on a new project that absorbed all his attention; he simply had no interest in anything, or anyone, else.

Absentmindedly, Cindy clicked on a number of links on Tamaka’s website while she thought over what Pauline had said. When she had seen him he had seemed a completely different person from the shy and unhappy postdoc everyone assumed he was.

Suddenly, it was staring her in the face. On her screen was a list of new members in Tamaka’s lab. One of them was called Michel Ferrer. Cindy looked at the clock and made a quick conversion to the right time zone. She made a phone call to Dousburg’s lab and asked to speak to her administrative assistant, Michel Schmidt. The receptionist explained he had left about two months ago. He had been there for only a year, working on a part-time basis to fund his business degree.

Understanding dawned. Emma had been right, Xavier Ferrer was no victim. He had fooled everyone and had now escaped into a new life in Japan. Ferrer must have realised early on that he wasn’t going to get anywhere in his new surroundings. Then Koji Tamaka had visited the institute, and his work had given Ferrer an idea for developing a time cloak. Of course, there was no way Dousburg was going to allow him to do it. He must have smelled an opportunity when Dousburg was hiring an administrative assistant for the mornings. That way, he could forge access to all the facilities he needed. Dousburg was famously distracted and unobservant, so he could easily make himself unrecognizable to her as Michel Schmidt. In the mean time, he turned his real self into the invisible postdoc, withdrawn and shutting out nearly all contact with his colleagues.

Xavier must have felt that a spectacular way to demonstrate his time cloak was to hide a spectacular event – a theft. On the night of the disappearance, he stole away with Dousburg’s prototype invisibility cloak undetected. Of course he never left but stowed himself away somewhere inside the lab, simply emerging the next morning as Michel Schmidt. One weak point in the story was Alex Greenwood’s involvement. How exactly he fitted in, Cindy did not understand. She could hardly imagine Ferrer and Greenwood working together. Somehow, it was Greenwood who had ended up under control of the agency. It didn’t matter. The fuss Ferrer had created, making the incident look as if had literally made himself invisible, had been a perfect way to get back at them. Cindy admired that.

**********

Alex Greenwood could accept defeat like nobody else. He sat on a stone bench outside the university building, feeling a little comforted by the afternoon’s weak sunrays. He indulged himself for a last time in remembering his encounter here with the beautiful brown-eyed girl. He knew he had to let go of this dream, of ever meeting her again, as well. A cold shiver ran through him as he thought of his final meeting with Emma. He had told her all he had been able to find out about Xavier’s secret project, but it hadn’t been enough. He simply was out of his depth.

How had Xavier managed to do it? Alex only knew him as shy and withdrawn, working in isolation on a minor project. Unlike the others, Alex did not mind talking to Xavier, on the rare occasions that he ran into him. Still, he had felt uncomfortable about asking him for a favour. But after two months of wavering, Alex decided that he had no other choice. He was desperate to know who the woman was who had knocked him over in the bicycle park. He could not get any proper sleep until he discovered her name. He knew nothing about her, except just one thing; she had said Xavier was a friend of hers.

So, that fateful evening he sought out Xavier in the hope he could tell him who she was. He was in for a shock; Xavier was all excited and seemed a different person. Before Alex could say anything, Xavier gripped him by the shoulders, telling Alex how glad he was to see him there. He said he was about to test his cloak. This surprised Alex as he was sure Dousburg hadn’t allowed Xavier to be involved with the invisibility cloak work. Xavier was talking rapidly and Alex, too shocked to say anything, came along meekly to the invisibility lab where Xavier said he was going to do a final test. Alex vaguely wondered how Xavier had got hold of the access codes but Xavier simply continued, all the while talking, and set some instruments up around the prototype invisibility cloak. He said he was going to reveal everything at the demonstration tomorrow, if the test went well tonight.

At last, Alex snapped out of his trance and decided he had to act. Whatever Xavier was doing, it wasn’t right. Alex tried to say something, but Xavier was too excited to listen. To get his attention, Alex grabbed him by his arm, but this caused Xavier to spin around in reflex, pushing Alex back with more force than he must have intended. Alex stumbled backwards and inevitably fell on the prototype cloak, which tumbled down to the floor, immediately shattering into pieces.

For about two seconds, nothing happened, and Xavier was finally quiet. Then he quickly helped Alex up and calmly adjusted the instruments he had set up and began to check some readings. Strangely enough, Xavier began to smile. He turned around to Alex, as if seeing him for the first time that evening. Alex looked sadly at what was left of Dousburg’s precious invisibility cloak. But Xavier said, oddly reassuringly “Don’t worry, I’ll take the blame for this. I’ll clean up the fragments and…disappear.”

And that was exactly what he had done. The next day, the prototype invisibility cloak was declared missing. Amazingly, the detectors had not picked up anything, as if the events in the invisibility lab hadn’t happened and the had cloak simply vanished from one moment to another. Xavier seemed to have never left the lab, yet he was nowhere to be found. To the others, once they noticed Xavier didn’t turn up at all any more, it seemed amusing that he had finally managed to become completely invisible, but it didn’t seem at all funny to Alex, who felt deeply confused and disappointed.

Of course Alex was questioned by the police as well as by Emma Mecozzi from the agency. Just like that awful journalist, Emma had seen right through him and realized he knew more. She had been very persuasive and Alex caved in, telling her all he knew. Emma was surprisingly interested to hear that Xavier had been working in secret on his own cloaking project. She promised she could help Alex with obtaining his own funding for research – perhaps he could start up his own group, if he told her exactly how Xavier had managed it. But what he knew wasn’t enough and she kept urging him to find out more, to go through Xavier’s files if necessary. He found out a few things, such as that Xavier had been interested in something called a time cloak, but he had no idea how it worked. The more of his ignorance was revealed, the less sympathetic Emma was. Once the agency had come to the end of his knowledge, Emma had made it crystal clear that she had no more use for him.

Alex got up from the bench, knowing he was now facing one of the hardest tasks of all, finding out what he really wanted in life, what he was good at. He picked up his bag and dumped its contents in the nearest recycling bin. He fished out the science journalist’s business card from his jacket and threw it in as well, for good measure.

December 2011

Xavier, or Michel as he was now known, felt happier than he ever had before, and had come to enjoy his new lab’s ski outings a great deal. The mountain air cleared his mind and he usually came back to the lab fresh with new ideas to work on. He felt very fortunate to have been accepted by Koji, who had simply been impressed with his ideas and didn’t ask too many questions about his previous life.

On the top of the slope, he looked down and saw his colleagues waving and waiting for him. It was his turn to make the descent. It had been a refreshing change to be really part of a research group again, to be socializing and joining in with group outings. Though he still liked to work on his own, most of the time. The others sometimes joked about that but knew when to leave him alone.

There was an unfamiliar, ominous rumbling noise in the distance but Xavier dismissed it. He jumped into position, ready to take the plunge, but then felt the buzz of his phone. He took a quick look at the message: Cindy Haythorn, simply asking if he would like to tell her the full story. Xavier smiled, impressed with the fact that she had managed to track him down. Perhaps he should meet her after all.

He pulled down his sunglasses and looked down at his colleagues again, who were still waving, frantically now, which vaguely bothered Xavier. The rumbling noise became louder. His phone buzzed again, but he silenced it. A familiar feeling crept over him, a feeling that fate was waiting for him, as he had been expecting for a while. He pushed himself off and as he flew down, he thought about the outcome of his last experiment which extended his timecloak technique, making events shift in time.

It was then that the avalanche slid down the mountain, enveloping him and his story.