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A passion for physics

Mitchell Wilson: Forgotten lab lit novelist

Kirk Smith 22 March 2015

Cosmic: physics research brought to life

Solving a scientific mystery justifies lyrical descriptions like Wilson’s in a way that solving a murder case does not

I know of no other novelist who has delineated the mind and soul of the experimental physicist more exquisitely than Mitchell Wilson. However, his two novels, Live With Lightning (1949) and Meeting at a Far Meridian (1961), are difficult to find. Very few libraries have copies on their shelves, although used copies in good condition can be found and ebook editions can now be downloaded from the web.

Wilson (1914-1973) began his graduate training in physics during the late 1920s, participated in the development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War, and at one point served as Enrico Fermi’s research assistant. Like many physicists after the War, he experienced the regret and ambivalence of seeing a great scientific accomplishment applied to producing a horrific weapon of mass destruction. Instead of moving into another field of physics unrelated to weaponry, he left science altogether and began writing. Over the course of his remaining life he published both fiction and nonfiction. But his two novels about ardent physicists and their research are what I think make his contribution noteworthy. They clearly reflect both the author’s expertise in physics and his firsthand experience as a working physicist. The two stories are quite different in their approach to the fictional physicists they portray.

Live With Lightning, the earlier novel, is essentially a biography of a fictional physicist. It follows Erik Gorin’s career from the day in the late summer of 1931, when he arrives on the campus of Columbia University to begin his graduate training, until he accepts the chairmanship of the physics department at Stanford University in 1946, following a wartime job as an administrator in the atomic energy project. Although it is easy to imagine that Live With Lightning is autobiographical, it is not a fictionalized biography of a real physicist. Instead Wilson offers his readers a portrait of a physicist’s inner life that is more convincing than a biography or memoir because one does not have to wonder whether a historical figure really had the thoughts and feelings described, whether the conversations really took place, or whether the sights, sounds and smells of the surroundings were really the way the author has reported them.

In his review of Live With Lightning for, John Lowry alludes to the memorable characters Wilson creates, specifically noting the “Manipulative personalities… [that] hide in the ivy, beneath polished board tables, in hall niches.” Wilson also vividly describes each phase of Erik’s scientific development: his years of poverty as a graduate student, his frustrations as a junior faculty member with a heavy teaching load and limited budget trying to pursue a research program, his stymied ambitions during an internecine battle of academic prerogatives, his delight in the freedom of a job in industry that not only pays well but gives him complete license to pursue a problem as he chooses, his disillusion with the reception his work receives at the hands of ruthless managers and patent lawyers, and his return to a wartime academia up to its ears in the effort to realize a nuclear weapon. The settings on university campuses, factories, and offices will be familiar to American readers, as will the social conventions and cultural perspectives in which the story unfolds.

A personal note: In sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be a physicist when I grew up. I wish that sometime during high school I had come across Live With Lightning. I might have started college with a more realistic picture of what I was in for, although I feel certain I would have been inspired as well. I can’t help but wonder whether after reading it I would have stayed in the field or been lured away as I was, first by philosophy and literature and eventually by psychology.

Meeting at a Far Meridian, published twelve years later, is more focused and intense than Live With Lightning (see my blog for a two-part review. The time span is shorter – less than three years – and the major events that drive the narrative forward are unified by a single scientific question. It is the latter aspect of the story that makes it paradigmatic lab lit. The settings in the second half of the book are by contrast more exotic, and the action takes place in a society and culture that will be unfamiliar to many contemporary readers in the West. Moscow at the height of the Cold War was full of social and political landmines for an American physicist, especially one who falls in love with a Russian colleague! And Wilson is a master of describing both the urban landscape and, near the end of the book, the mountaintop observatory in the Caucasus Mountains during the winter where the story reaches its denouement.

Because Meeting at a Far Meridian isn’t yet on the Lab Lit List (Editor's note: this omission has now been rectified!), I will review it in more detail. The scientific problem at the core of the plot is a familiar one in scientific research, and one that is not well understood by nonscientists. Nick Rennet, the physicist protagonist, has turned to research on cosmic rays in reaction to his revulsion to his wartime participation in weapons research. In a recently published study, he reported on his measurements of the energy levels of these most energetic particles that bombard the Earth’s atmosphere. As the novel opens, a paper by Dmitri Goncharoff, a Russian physicist, has just appeared. Using the same theoretical model but a different methodology, he has reported very different values. The nonscientist reader rarely understands this situation and does not realize how often it occurs in science. Wilson is at his best describing the powerful emotions this kind of discrepancy creates among scientists and the interpersonal dynamics of resolving it.

Early in the book Goncharoff visits Nick in the US briefly. Wilson elegantly describes Nick’s feelings about Goncharoff:

He felt closer in a way to this stranger than he did any other man in the world because when Nick had devised what he considered to be one of his most crucial experiments, he discovered that at almost the very same moment—almost half a world away—this other man was having exactly the same insight.

Yet when they meet the first time,

“They were in the ludicrous position of meeting as strangers, when in the area that meant the most to them both, they were no strangers at all, even though, Nick realized, he knew nothing about the man behind the inquiring grey eyes and smooth-shaven heavily muscled face…

As their first meeting progresses, Nick muses aloud that he might feel differently if scientific progress was the rediscovery of “lost truths which the human race had once known and then forgotten.” Goncharoff is quick to reject this idea. “…what happens then to the feeling of adventure? The satisfaction in science would be nothing more than that of a clever detective putting together little clues to reconstruct another man’s actions. Instead, it is so much bigger, so much more—’ [my emphasis]” He finds himself at a loss for words, and not because he lacks the English vocabulary to express it.

Goncharoff finally continues,

We have spent the last years worrying about the shape of things thousands of light years away. Light years!.... Now, which is a more exciting prospect—that we are simply trying to re-establish what was known… or are we walking out there with our minds, the very first in the history of this planet, to determine the shape of the cosmos on the basis of what we know?

Solving a scientific mystery has profound consequences for understanding the universe and our place in it. It justifies lyrical descriptions like Wilson’s in a way that solving an isolated murder case does not. It also helps explain why scientists spend much of their youth in rigorous study and often work throughout their lives at lower salaries than almost anyone else with a similar number of years of training.

The real bonus for everyone who reads Meeting at a Far Meridian is that Wilson manages to weave Nick’s deep personal crisis of confidence, two passionate love affairs, and several spectacularly exotic settings into an account of a complicated scientific disagreement. We also meet two complex and fascinating Russian physicists, one of whom is a woman (common in Russia at a time when they were a rarity in the US). All this is realized in evocative prose that has the power to turn even the dullest details of research into memorable images.

For example, Wilson’s description of Nick’s data collection system, an otherwise mundane topic, is nothing short of poetic: “Out in the desert the hot dry wind swept over the land in silence except for the barely perceptible hiss of blown sand against the dry armor of the cactus.” There follow three exquisite sentences that evoke the desert. The paragraph ends with this introduction to the scientifically relevant facts: “Over everything the brilliant sky was a yawning hole into space where the vast seas of electrified particles drifted past each other with the speed of light.”

The next paragraph explains how these particles crash into the molecules of the atmosphere, creating

…an invisible shower cascading downwards numbering tens of millions of invisible pieces of debris. They pelted the earth the way desert dust rattled against the cactus. Spread over five square miles were a hundred observation huts of aluminum, housing flat sheets of luminescent plastic through which the particles sped as subliminal light streaks. Supersensitive photocells detected the light streaks and relayed the signals by cable to a central station…

Like so much of what Wilson writes, the breathtaking beauty of his prose is enough to make the reader yearn to become a physicist! It would be intriguing to analyze these passages in the detailed way Jennifer Cryer took apart a similar kind of description of work in the laboratory and compared it with the corresponding scientific text in her impressive four-part series of essays, “Transforming Science into Story”.

I have quoted extensively from the second novel in the hope that lab lit followers who would not ordinarily make the effort to locate a copy of an obscure book set in the mid-twentieth century will be drawn to find and read it. In every respect I think these two novels should be recognized as among the high points in fiction about authentic science and realistic scientists.