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Chasing hadrons

A Hole In Texas by Herman Wouk

Steve Caplan 5 April 2015

Their space program is spectacular and their military effort is gigantic, but that is simply their advanced technology. In basic science, America has lost face worldwide

One cannot feel anything but a humbling sense of wonder and awe to write a book review for one of Herman Wouk’s novels – and it is a special, but sad pleasure to critique his last one and only lab lit novel, written at the tender age of 89!

It is impossible to discuss this last Wouk novel independently of his remarkable career. Wouk, who is fast approaching his 100th birthday, is the quintessential Jewish American author. In 1915 he was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Russia, and during World War II served in the Pacific as a naval officer. His experiences apparently provided fodder for his best-known novel, The Caine Mutiny, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The novel deals with the complex situation leading up to and following an incident where a minesweeper’s chief executive officer forcibly takes command from the nerve-shattered and paranoid ship captain during a severe storm. However, as with many of Wouk’s novels, there is an unforgettable monologue and last-minute climax brought on by a minor character which completely alters the reader’s perspective of the story. This twist both turns the story on its head and ties in the Holocaust as a central theme – despite its absence in the rest of the novel.

Indeed, World War II and the Holocaust remained a major theme for almost all of Wouk’s later novels. Perhaps his most ambitious achievement was the two-novel series Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which are incredibly accurate and compelling works of historical fiction that together sequentially cover the entire war. Both novels were made into television mini-series – which Wouk carefully monitored, even ensuring that commercials would not interfere with the serious nature of the programming. These two mini-series provide perhaps the most comprehensive, horrific and graphic non-documentary portrayal of the Holocaust ever filmed. I read both novels when I was 13 years old and saw the television series shortly thereafter – an experience that has remained deeply ingrained in my consciousness ever since. Over the past six months, I rewatched the entire series with my teenage son. With each episode, I felt myself both dreading what was coming, but compelled to witness the monstrosities that humans can inflict on one another.

Having read most of Wouk’s novels years ago, and not realizing that he was still actively writing, I was surprised and delighted to find that he had made the Lab Lit List with a relatively recent novel – A Hole in Texas.

A Hole in Texas is not a long novel – although I can’t give the actual number of pages (my Kindle has percent-read rather than pages), it is dwarfed in length by the 1000 page Winds of War and even The Caine Mutiny. As a result, the character development isn’t comparable to some of Wouk’s earlier novels. But give Wouk a break! At 89, he has nonetheless entered the realm of lab lit with a fascinating hypothetical situation: that in 2004, the year the novel was written, the Chinese lead the world to the discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson particle.

For a reader looking for a compelling character-based drama, this may not be the best choice of novels. The strength of A Hole in Texas lies in the unique scenario, and the impact of declining western leadership in prestigious scientific advances. This topic is all too relevant now in 2015, in an era where scientific funding for basic science in most western countries is proportionally (to the cost of living) at an all time low.

The protagonist, Dr. Guy Carpenter, is a bright and likeable particle physicist whose career had been transformed by the closing of the Superconductor Super Collider, in Waxahachie, Texas, which was slated to have been the world’s largest such facility (about 87 km in length). This was a project in real life that was closed by the US Congress in 1993, after investing nearly 8 billion dollars – leaving not only “A Hole in Texas,” but also a hole in the US taxpayers’ pockets.

Much of the drama unfolds in Washington, DC, in Congressional hearings where politicians blame each other for the failure that allowed US science to be surpassed by the Chinese. Wouk displays his of cynical attitude to politicians, and the blame-game sets up a tension-filled and very realistic scenario in the halls of Congress.

But A Hole in Texas goes beyond a simple drama. Wouk gives a great deal of credit to the Chinese for their foresight and understanding of the importance of pursuing basic science, and their diligence in doing so. Much of this is embodied in the god-like personality of the brilliant and enigmatic Dr. Wen Mei Li – a former student, colleague and lover of Dr. Carpenter during the time they spent at Columbia university years ago.

As a lover of lab lit, and a strong campaigner for basic science, perhaps the most fascinating part of the novel is Dr. Wen Mei Li’s ‘testimony’ before Congress (reflecting, of course, Wouk’s own viewpoint), as the hearings struggle to figure out how China had surpassed the US.

Question: “What have the Americans done meantime?”

Dr. Wen Mei Li: “

Nothing. Their physicists remain in shock from the super collider debacle. Their space program is spectacular and their military effort is gigantic, but that is simply their advanced technology. In basic science, America has lost face worldwide…

Finally, at the end of her testimony, Dr. Wen Mei Li gives her (Wouk’s) perspective on why and how US science has slipped:

Dr. Wen Mei Li:

…When I was an undergraduate at Cornell so long, long ago, the student body was all agog over a singer named Elvis Presley, who personified what Chairman Deng said of America: young, powerful, overconfident, frivolous. Elvis Presley was a rebel, indeed he was rebellion incarnate, but not the sort of rebellion going on in China, to create a new society on the ruins of the old; rather, rebellion for the empty adrenaline charge of it, rebellion against nothing, for the world was at this wriggling singer’s feet, naïve rebellion of the young against whatever is… It turned out to be no craze at all, of course, but an early surge of the American lifestyle that has since been sweeping the world, not excluding our Chinese youth.

And in these passages lies the genius of Wouk’s A Hole in Texas; the veteran author, who has at age 89 turned his talents to the issue of support for basic science in the US (and across the globe), has identified the rich, spoiled and arrogant attitude that has seemingly led American youth astray from core values to prizing ‘nothingness.’ And really, Wouk is asking, coming from such a culture, is it any wonder that Congress behaves as it does?