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In theory

Live With Lightning by Mitchell Wilson

John T. Lowry 1 January 2013

Struck: earnest detail

Great fodder for Andrew Lloyd Webber; I can’t wait to see his stage version of a 500 kilovolt Cockcroft-Walton machine

Someone, years ago, likely a fellow graduate student in the Biophysics Department at Yale, asked me whether I had read Mitchell Wilson’s novel Live With Lightning. I had not, but then I did. Not much stuck with me over the years beyond the main character’s depreciating the importance of experimentalists compared to theorists.

Consider this piece of internal dialog (just after the main character, experimentalist Erik Gorin, meets the young theoretician, Hugo Fabermacher): “but then no experimentalist in history ever achieved the eminence of a theoretician.” Seems a bit rough, even to this (non-eminent) theorist. Without experiments to corroborate them, how would we ever know which of our ideas are (approximately) correct?

I was also interested to learn, again years ago, that Wilson’s novel was held in high esteem in the Soviet Union while it was pretty much ignored in the United States. Even knowing this I was surprised, when I discovered recently, to not find the book in the LabLit List (Editor’s note: this omission has now been rectified!). Whereupon, this review.

Live With Lightning was published by Little, Brown and Company in 1949, back when title page publication dates were often expressed as Roman numerals. To throw us off the track? To promote a sense of timelessness for their little brown product? (Actually, my second-hand copy is blue, recently purchased over the internet for $4.00 in almost perfect condition.)

The 404-page novel is written in the third person and is divided into three “Books”: The Laboratory (144 pages); Between the Laboratory and the World (180 pages); and The World (80 pages). The scene moves from New York City (Columbia) to Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) to fictitious Argyle (Cumberland University) then back to New York (industrial research, then later Columbia again), with side trips to Chicago (University of Chicago) and Washington D.C. The post-denouement projects the Gorin family out to Palo Alto. The time frame runs the fifteen years from 1931 to 1946.

The dust jacket flaps describe the book as the story of an ambitious young college graduate struggling to make his mark in Academia, then in industry, and finally (post-Manhattan project) having to come to terms with the temptations of the confluence of business and government. It’s both a coming-of-age novel and a novel of redemption (courtesy of wife Savina). Great fodder for Andrew Lloyd Webber; I can’t wait to see his stage version of a 500 kilovolt Cockcroft-Walton machine!

I can see why the Russians loved it. Long earnest conversations, although not on religious subjects, abound. Even minor characters are well fleshed-out. Manipulative personalities – in college departmental politics, in business dealings, in governmental obfuscation – hide in the ivy, beneath the polished board tables, in hall niches. Personal motivations, interior as well as exterior, are examined at length. Facial expressions (this was before Botox, back when there were some) are depicted in detail. A feature of the book I found endearing was the explicitness given salaries, subway fares, lunch specials, etc.; it was fun to compare those dollar amounts with current counterparts and to what I remember from back in the 1950s. The rigors of both wealth (one independently wealthy physicist, Tony, fails to focus because he has so many alternatives) and poverty (in the case of a brilliant inventor, I.M. Zaritsky, who happens to be proprietor of an impoverished Brooklyn candy store) are laid out, and the various failings of the capitalist system are not painted over. Nor is the foolishness and chicanery of Washington. On the positive side, it appears that neither Gorin nor the author (nor this reader!) is cynical about the inherent interest of physics or of the curative excitement of romantic love.

Our local (and wonderful) Parmly Billings Library has, from their catacombs, unentombed three further novels by Mitchell Wilson for me: None So Blind (1945), My Brother, My Enemy (1952), and Meeting At a Far Meridian (1961). After a break tackling some “useful” work, I’ll read those.