Science and the Wolf

Once upon a time there was Science. Pure of heart, untainted by the kingdom’s societal structures or geopolitical context, Science was simply Science: an apolitical quest for objective truth and beauty. ...
Solvay Conference 1927

This is the seventh installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.

Once upon a time there was Science. Pure of heart, untainted by the kingdom’s societal structures or geopolitical context, Science was simply Science: an apolitical quest for objective truth and beauty. Nearby there lurked a wolf, whose predatory ways and sinister motives led him to shadow Science’s path through the woods.

This is, of course, a fairy tale: a fanciful story we tell ourselves, a soothing lie that Science and its sibling Engineering are simply rigor, elegant reason, and mathematical precision. (Since they’re so free of any cultural, gender, or other influence, it must be only by coincidence that these fields are primarily composed of straight white men.) Those gentlemen practitioners shouldn’t be blamed if they built a glorious flying machine that some malefactors later used to strafe a city. And just who fashioned the bombs on board? More innocents, surely, whose ideas were corrupted by the wolves.

Jérôme Ferrari’s slim novel The Principle catches up with “innocent, optimistic” young Werner Heisenberg, unsuspecting and more than a little naive, as he wanders into the woods. Ferrari casts him and other physicists as heroic, wrestling with “fearsomely complicated” problems, braving a “terrible labyrinth”—Ferrari’s formulation of the woods—“full of monsters, on the borders of a savage land, a hostile land they would have to tame.”

The Principle takes the form of an epistolary meditation, addressed to Heisenberg from a narrator whose specific background, current location, and connection to the famous physicist remain a mystery until Ferrari’s final pages. This keeps the philosophical, regretful letter writer’s focus on Heisenberg and his Science: his eponymous Principle that a particle’s precise location and exact velocity cannot be simultaneously known. This is labeled in our physics textbooks as Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” The letter writer reminds us that Heisenberg didn’t only establish “uncertainty,” that most modern of principles, he and the other quantum theorists challenged a traditional “law of causality.” Ferrari beautifully portrays the destabilizing way new theories disrupt and disorient what’s come before. The most disruptive thing about this new realization—that “truth” might depend on one’s perspective, as Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us; that light might act as both a wave and a particle; and that precision and certainty have limits—is that of “injecting the venom of subjectivity into everything it touches.”1 Ferrari’s letter writer laments that this theory rendered “the gaze of physicists no longer anything but the gaze of men.”

That sense of purity, of objectivity, was a myth all along. The letters of The Principle are a hymn of hope that the fairy tale might have been true.

We are Science: both the miracles of science and its devastation are human constructions.

Though disruptive to science, modern physics has been good to art.2 Lawrence Durrell’s great novels in the Alexandria Quartet, and Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, play with perspective and uncertainty in a very quantum way. Durrell even acknowledged the influence of relativity on his process. (Then again, novelists and filmmakers didn’t need physicists to tell them that point of view affected a story’s sense of causality.) It’s surprising that Ferrari’s novel of quantum science constrains itself so tightly: most of The Principle is a monologue by the letter writer. Another perspective might have enriched this novel, as I wasn’t always sure whether the letter writer (or Ferrari) believed the fairy tale that exonerated Heisenberg, or only fiercely longed to believe that such exoneration was possible as he wrestled with his own conscience.

Many physics concepts lend themselves to imagery and metaphors: the double-crossing spies of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood standing in for Schrödinger’s cat, the impossibility of un-stirring jam from one’s porridge illustrating entropy in Stoppard’s Arcadia. In the staging of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Bohr and Heisenberg orbit each other like the particles whose disposition they’re debating. Metaphors are useful to communicate these abstract concepts; I have often felt that I truly understand a concept when I know where the metaphor breaks down.3 Ferrari celebrates this blurring of physics and poetry as the pinnacle of quantum achievement: “They’d reached the point where language has its limits, they’d explored a sphere so radically strange that it can only be evoked in metaphors or in the abstraction of mathematical speech, which, basically, is itself nothing but a metaphor.”

Ferrari spins golden metaphors himself, as when he describes Heisenberg’s Principle: here particles are “an army of bloodless ghosts crossing” an experimental cloud chamber, “taking vague shape and leaving the imprint of their blurred contours in the mist.” This “absence of sharpness” is the “lack of detail in a poor photograph.”

A reader may notice the choice of “army” for those particles; the cloud chamber’s contents being “blurred” and “vague” could suggest the fog of war. Ferrari cannot separate Heisenberg from the wars of the 20th century. As Heisenberg travels to Stockholm in 1933, his Nobel triumph is haunted by “the SA parading … brandishing the torches of victory” at home. He views his country as having been “deceived by a charlatan,” and hopes “they’ll get over their rapture” soon. (Ferrari knows we were overdue for a reminder of the danger of intellectuals thinking themselves above the need to take such moments seriously.) When a fellow Nobelist spreads anti-Semitic propaganda about Einstein, Heisenberg learns that “science was not an inviolable sanctuary, forever preserved from the stains of ideology and politics.” This reader is surprised that his faith lasted so long. Yet when other scientists flee Germany, Heisenberg is persuaded to remain to create “islands of stability.” The letter writer knows these efforts are doomed, and blames Heisenberg’s “stubbornness” and “blind, excessive pride.”

When Heisenberg is asked to “look into the practical applications of a discovery” related to uranium, we see the wolf baring its teeth. That phrase, “practical applications,” is a vulgar intrusion among lofty, lyrical metaphors. Even at this moment, Heisenberg dares only a fleeting thought of the “toxic enthusiasm” of nationalism gaining strength outside the academy. At his Copenhagen talks with Niels Bohr, Heisenberg insists he’s working on a nuclear reactor, “not a bomb.” The letter writer’s prose becomes breathless and urgent, a prayer that somehow the Nazi dream of death might have been stopped, the wolf outrun.


Losing Their Religion

By Marah Gubar

The dreadful poetry of Ferrari’s account of atomic testing at Los Alamos—as well as the devastation in Hiroshima—illustrates his point that “the exhilaration of horror sometimes resembles that of beauty”: “A dome of fire wreathed in a cloud of transparent purple lights up the sky of New Mexico, leaving a crater of glass and broken emeralds.”

In a third-person interlude among the letters to Heisenberg, Ferrari drily recounts the mundane sequestration of German scientists in England. Prisoners of war, but with a walled garden in which to bemoan their lost innocence. This is a false innocence, Ferrari’s readers know—because it was always a fairy tale. But it is an innocence the physicists cling to, an innocence Science relearns after each of its falls from grace.4

And how tenaciously they cling to their scientific community, which seemed “aristocratic.” One senses that Ferrari means this word in the sense of a remove, rarification, though it underscores the inherent privilege in occupying oneself with particle philosophy, particularly when the world is at war. But they’d loved this community, where there were—they’d thought—“no other weapons than arguments.” They remember the days before the wolves of war arrived: “You conversed fraternally with men of all nationalities, who had the same idea as you of what was essential, you went from one country to another,” as if Science were a kind of Esperanto that could transcend geopolitics.

Once upon a time, it had seemed to be just that: for example, the collaborative efforts of Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo helped us understand the universe, despite the challenges of international communication in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Lest we be tempted to picture them skipping innocently through the woods, however, we should remember the legends of sabotage, competition, data theft, and poisoning, as well.) The famous 1927 photograph of the physics community assembled in Solvay hangs in my office next to another photo of an all-time-great team, the 1927 Yankees. One wants to imagine a similar bonhomie and rapport in both. Ferrari’s letter writer spots his Heisenberg in the Solvay photograph: “You aren’t in the front row, where Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Max Planck are sitting, but, more modestly, standing in the back row, a little stiff and embarrassed, next to Pauli, who seems to be giving Schrödinger a sidelong look.” This description places Heisenberg in the hierarchy, a rookie called up to the show, and glimpses “sidelong” team rivalry.

Many of the Germans under postwar house arrest had been at Solvay. Ferrari describes their response to Hiroshima as a “storm of confused reactions, a mixture of incredulity, horror, relief, curiosity, disappointment and bitterness.” They are “relieved that they didn’t build the bomb, they congratulate themselves noisily on the fact, but they’re also terribly upset that the Americans succeeded in doing so by shamelessly exploiting a German discovery.” “They have all fallen,” Ferrari writes, which I take to mean both that they’ve fallen from those heights of glorious, border-transcending abstraction, and that these innocents have at last learned how very sharp their own teeth are. Though they’d been on the same team, they’d each yearned for individual triumph. The relief of not having been Oppenheimer doesn’t erase the German sin of having tried.

Science’s sense of purity, of objectivity, was a myth all along. The letters of The Principle are a hymn of hope that the fairy tale might have been true.

The phrase “unintended consequences” pardons those scientists and engineers who never dreamed that building a dam to generate hydroelectric power might damage species when it rerouted rivers, or that the GPS technology used for navigation might enable violations of privacy. But “unintended consequences” are often a failure of imagination, or an act of willful naiveté or denial. Anticipating all the what-ifs should be part of the job. No one wants to be the case study taught in tech ethics classes, the one who ignored the warnings about cold weather’s effect on rubber O-rings or failed to anticipate a theory’s weaponization.5 We won’t think of every possible if-then, but it’s our duty to try. Technology morphs and gets used in ways we truly didn’t envision. But we are the builders and maintainers: we don’t wash our hands of the project once it’s “out there.” Accountability depends not only on our intentions, but also on our impact.

One moral of Ferrari’s story—as of Heisenberg’s—is that we cannot, after the fires of the 20th century, continue to delude ourselves. We are Science, and we are the wolf: both the miracles of science and its devastation are human constructions. While it’s critical that we employ storytelling in science, as narrative can guide the interpretation of facts, we must remain vigilant against the risks of falsification and self-justification. We must not imagine that Science can be “apolitical,” any more than people are. If we recognize the lies we tell ourselves about human biases and tendencies, and if we are honest about our ambitions, we may better ensure that Science is practiced by all kinds of people, informed by a wide range of backgrounds, using a variety of methods. Only by including all of these perspectives, each a facet of a prism, will we see the truth clearly.

Speaking of the importance of diverse perspectives: for me, the least successful poetry in Ferrari’s novel is the metaphor in which women themselves are inscrutable, un-pin-down-able particles. The letter writer reminds Heisenberg that “the girl you love escapes you, not by fleeing but by evaporating.” This vague woman is “inaccessible and naked,” with “fragile footsteps as she glides like a ghost through the streets of Berlin.” For a book largely absent of women, it’s disappointing for the one or two who materialize to be so swiftly dismissed as vaporous phantoms. Ferrari—or his letter writer—may be too enchanted by his noble gentleman scientists to recognize this as problematic.

Early materials issued by the publisher describe The Principle as contrasting “dark history” with the “luminous elegance” of Heisenberg’s physics. Reading Jérôme Ferrari’s lyrical book, though, reminded me that they are inextricably intertwined. “Our words are simply human. They can only reveal the world imperfectly or bury it in lies—and thus attain perfection.” As the novel concludes, the letter writer’s hopes have decayed into cynicism, though he returns to the beauty of the natural world: “an unknown lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains beneath a blue sky lit by an icy sun.” It’s where his letters began, where “our only choice … is between metaphor and silence.” Indeed, however flawed the metaphors, however imperfectly they reveal the world, Science must continue its quest, and must try to fight off the corrupting influence of wolves without and especially within. icon

  1. Einstein himself was most concerned with finding quantities that would not depend on speed or perspective. Though the theory of relativity revealed that length and time were not the invariant “gold standards” that could be universally agreed on, it also expresses a deeper “truth” that makes room for variation in these quantities.
  2. In quantum theory, attention is paid to interactions on the atomic scale, “zooming in” on details elided by classical physics. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are the two pillars of “modern physics,” developed by Einstein and his Solvay teammates in the early twentieth century in response to the inadequacies of classical mechanics. Many have struggled since to wrestle both into the joint headlock of a unifying “theory of everything.”
  3. Take that jam one “can’t stir out” of one’s porridge: if you stirred slowly enough, or had a cleverly chosen spoon (so that the Reynolds number was sufficiently low), you could indeed reverse the flow and un-mix the jam.
  4. It was science that built rockets and cannons, science that drove the medical profession to develop expertise and instruments through experiments on the disenfranchised. Science was never “apolitical,” and engineering does as well at destroying civilizations as constructing them. See also Christopher F. Petrella, “Race, History, and the #ScienceMarch,” Black Perspectives, January 30, 2017.
  5. For the story of the O-rings, see Elizabeth Pennisi, “Challenger’s Whistle-Blower: Hero and Outcast,” The Scientist, January 20, 1990.
Featured image: 1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Photograph by Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels, Belgium / Wikimedia Commons