We convened, late summer, between the wars. My friends and I travelled by ferry and train, slept sitting chins on chests, to to join the others at Como in the lake district. We came from all over the continent, from Munich and Brussels, from Budapest, Göttingen, from Vienna, Karlsruhe, Berlin, Copenhagen. It was a disturbing moment in the life of our science. No one had yet seen the center of an atom, but our masters, whom we revered, were working on ways to turn one inside out, thus to gaze at the soul of God, whom I always have thought of as a holy chaos of numbers through which--if we could but bring them into balance, summation, coherence--we could know our maker. Physics has always been for me a kind of faith, in other words. And this journey was a pilgrimage as much as anything else, to hear Niels Bohr attempt to reconcile the opposition of matter as wave and as particle, to harmonize the apparently conflicting views of classic physics and quantum theory.
FOR NIELS BOHR
He arrived from his Institute for Theoretical Physics on the edge of the Faelledpark, where he's been at work with Werner Heisenberg, the youthful father of the Uncertainty Principle. I hadn't ever seen him before this afternoon, but caught sight of him as he emerged from a car, and was struck by his warm fierce eyes and horselike head. Blunt wide lips, scissored hair. His suit was of a graybrown wool, simply cut, and shoes were well worn in long ago but shined bright as oil.
"Thank you," in a lilting Danish accent, to the ragazzo who carried his bags into the hotel. "Thank you," and followed him up the stone staircase.
As I watched them--Heisenberg followed, toting his own tatty valise--I knew that if I learned nothing else during my years studying at the Institute, I have learned that a good part of theoretical physics is instinct. Any machine can be taught to play the scales. There was a Frenchman who, in the century past, built a mechanical duck, dressed it with feathers and a beak that would open and close after you fed it a berry. The duck could quack and waggle its tail. Having digested the berry, a gooseberry perhaps, it could even produce a pellet of excrement. No doubt, with adjustments and further hardware, this duck could be made to perform a Bach partita. Any closed system can be made to behave in pure, predictable ways. It is the true artist who by instinct draws inferences between notes. Neither the amateur nor the machine cherishes silences, dynamics, nuance, the joy of an educated guess.
So it is with science. Bohr has the look of an intuitive virtuoso in those relentless eyes. Set any instrument before him--oboe, violin, a calliope--and leave him alone for an hour, and when you return I have no doubt he'd play it like a master.
And so we have come to hear him speak tomorrow afternoon. Nature is changing before our microcosmic eyes (not nature! but rather our eyes themselves, I should say) and little is making any sense to us now. Bohr may give us something to hold on to even as laws of Newton and Maxwell, laws we had always lived by, were no longer bearing up under pressure our new numbers and the findings we were seeing from our crude but precious instruments, our tungstun cylinders and slitted glass. Lord help us, Einstein himself seems now lost in the radiant blurry maze of a cosmos defined by uncertainty.
Even now, two generations later, I think of this man whom I never met, my mother's father's first cousin, Edward Hoffmann, and feel a terrible affinity with him, though none of our experiences could be considered remotely common. He died before I was born, for one. He lived in places I have yet to visit, possessed what I have been told was less an analytical than a physical mind, worked well in laboratory settings. More chemist than mathematician and--I would like to think--a hard worker who had his moments of radiance.
In our family of farmers and country doctors, his memory is preserved simultaneously as black sheep and tribal hero. To me he has always been a distant angel of sorts, and the few writings he saw into print--at least what I have been able to track down; there may be monographs I'll never find--I cannot claim to understand.
The great exception, and what brings Edward Hoffmann to mind just now, is that I share, these decades later and for reasons all my own--reasons he would probably understand no better than I understand the technologies of his craft--a fondness for the idea known as complementarity.
Late summer, warm. A walk after dinner. I looked for Bohr at the banquet but didn't see him among the others. Word is he's putting final touches on his address for tomorrow. The air here along the shores is heavy as pewter and as dark. Lights of the lakeside villas and hotels twinkle and shimmer, reflected on the water. I see a couple in a small boat out on the lake. The wake that tails their craft ridges the watery face of Como like iron filings drawn behind a magnetic charge. I wonder, Are they in love, their molecular hearts thrumming hard? Someone surely should be in love in such an evocative setting as this. Yes, I must believe that they are, and that the reason they are still out there, on the flat back of this mountain lake north of Milan, is because they don't much want to row back to shore, where they will be forced to reenter the world, the other world.
We are between wars, as I say, because we are always between wars. Between great wars and many of us know it, although this occasion, which the awful Mussolini means for us to celebrate, has nothing to do with war per se.
A lake is not a lake, Bohr not Bohr. Love is not love but a noise that sounds nothing like love's odd noises. That much is known. And yet it is equally true that a lake is a lake, Bohr is Bohr, love is love. This is also known.
The contradictions between classical, mechanistic physics and what was posited in Bohr's paper "On the constitution of Atoms and Molecules," in which all atomic events are quantized, were similarly irreconcilable. Both theories were true, and each disallowed the viability of the other. This is why Edward Hoffmann went to Como that September, the end of summer. To hear how Bohr was going to show how two rights don't in fact make a wrong, but lead to yet another right.
1927 and we have come here to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the death of Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery, pioneer in whose honor the basic unit of electrical potential was named. Einstein, as I say, has refused to attend, does not trust Mussolini any more than he does the fledgling precepts of quantum mechanics--perhaps even less, as he surely approves of the dream of creating a coherent mathematical framework that might encompass every branch of atomic physics far above any efforts of a craven dictator whose greatest success seems to be in draining swamps.
Others of us also distrust the bright bullies who are rising into power, disregard their speeches and their tawdry credos, as we are not naive but have come because we are interested above all in pushing forward with our own, more natural, revolutions. They may try to turn us into proxy murderers in the years ahead, these bosses, but now, here in this quiet retreat by the lake, we want to listen to one another, share notes on the most private secrets nature has left to hide, and if we must put on some little show of respect for one of our mild forebears so be it. We have nothing against Volta. He was no fascist and made his contribution to science.
What are the dualisms that make our classic and our quantum?
Great realism, the music of our ancestors Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Doestoyevsky, James, was in the time of Bohr brought into question and seen as troublingly illogical. Realism was an honest sham. Time in mimetic creation was made to look linear, which is a lie. Cause and effect were made to look non-random, a condition which does not exist in life. Plot, ordered and measurable as a system of manipulation, was a comely falsehood. And dialogue, in which character responds to character like tennis ball to racket over net to court to racket over net to court to racket, was a fraud. Literature should not follow but make its own wake and dust. And so it has, with triumphs and quirks and calamities.
For me, I will use anything that I find useful to see my fictive system work, will build with any apt thing around, from history to corymbs of toothpicks and painted cotton, from maps to sore feet, from quarts of crystals, tinnery and orchids to the whiskers of cats. Realism strikes my fancy as much as any pomo systemic, and with every novel I write I find myself wondering more and more what value is there in any reductionism whatever.
Rancid butter may not be so good to spread on toast, but that doesn't mean it can't unstick the rusty axle. The answer, once more, is not reductionism but complementarity.
Nür die Fülle führt zur Klarheit is not a retrenchment but a wider embrace. And Bohr knew this, too, seeing complementary qualities, as another physicist has noted, "in ethics (truth as opposed to justice), in psychology (thoughts as opposed to sentiments), in biology (mechanism as opposed to vitalism)." This is why complementarity allows both art for art's sake (style over content) and a vision of politics and ethics (content over form) to exist in a given work at the same time.
The rocks are various and jagged here along the shore, even after all these centuries of lapping water. I must be careful not to twist an ankle. Music, a waltz, floats orchestral across the lake. The stars are emerging. No moon tonight. It has been a long time since I last saw a shooting star. Is this because I don't look upwards as often as I did when I was a boy?
The rhythm of lake waves lapping the scree is consistent in its irregularity. I am sure the random patterns of waves against beaches could be captured by an equation. Seven small waves, one unexpected crashing wave and its aftermath of scuttling pebbles, then two small waves spaced well apart. Makes no sense, but the computation that would explain the phenomenon of waves on shores and their irregularity could be derived, no doubt. One would have to take into account total volume of water in the lake and geography of the lake's bottom. The pressure of air on the surface weighs in. It also has to do with the moon, and maybe the stars.
I make my way back to the hotel. It will be good to dream in a bed instead of the crowded compartment of a raucous train.
When my mother laid me down to sleep, back when I was a boy, she would tell me a bedtime story, and if the story was good, her purpose in telling me the story was to put me to sleep, but as often as not it had the opposite result. Wide-awake, wide-eyed,I would watch her as she made up turns and twists in her plot. I listened to the music of her words. The music made me dreamy. But the story, if it moved forward, then jumped backward to pick up this strand and that, hesitated then lunged, say, if I was caught up in it, would keep me awake.
I loved a story but knew even then in my way that the manner and method of the telling is also a story unto itself. I could never and cannot now value the one without the other, the other without the one. It would be like valuing warp over woof, or vice versa.
Waste not want not, my mother would often say. To the writer, what more sensible advice--all is useful. If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all, was written by one who knows that nothing is without value. The fiction writer's freedom to embrace linearity and at the same time the omni-directional line of narrative, of classic and quantum, is a freedom worth seizing. Freedom to comprehend within a fictive construct a personal ethic, even as we know art answers only for itself, is a freedom to seize. Freedom to ignore the pressure any clique or ambition would impose: seize it.
Is light finally constituted of waves or of particles? The old quantum mechanist would answer that light is finally constituted of neither. Is fiction really mimetic or auto- reflective? It is really neither, because it is both and yet more than both, as well. Because the fiction, when it is perceived by a reader, is passed through an entirely separate, reconstituting imagination, undergoing wholly unpredictable transformations. This is why there can never be absolute, quantitative scales with which to establish relative values of fictional work.
Nur die Fülle führt zue Klarheit: it is a phrase whose truth can never stale. "Clarity comes only from completeness." This is what I think when I wake in my horsehair bed.
Eggs poached in olive oil. Only in northern Italy can such voluptuous culinary abandon occur. Warm bread to sop the oil from this white shallow bowl. Espresso, thick juice.
The essential problem with answering such questions as where is your work leading you, where is it going, is that, of course,armed even with the best intentions and well-marked maps, one cannot know. It could be that one should not know. Rydberg's constant, I think.
We gather to listen to papers in the great ballroom that has been arranged with podium and chairs. Two blackboards, one at either side of the dais. Fermi speaks, Planck. Sunlight pours hard through the lofty windows along the southern wall of the hotel. My friends and I are in the last row of seats. We sit up straight and listen to the morning lectures.
After lunch, Bohr stands before the congress and uses words such as "renunciation" and phrases such as "certain general point of view" that would reconcile mutually exclusive results as equally valid. An unscientific smile lifts at the corners of my mouth even as I struggle to follow him through a lightening labyrinth of proofs.
The newly discovered cave paintings of horses and bison and owls and hyenas at Chauvet are reassuring--thirty-thousand years old and with lines that would make Gaudier blush and Sesshu bow--in that they (mutely) speak once more the fallacy of progressive development in the arts. Science may well be less fundamental than art, since it does progress.
Eschatologists concern themselves with the study of last things, historians with what has come before. Novelists are mythmakers interested in both. They conceive a middle, the fantastic now, a continuance fabricated with language and proposing narratives that may or may not have taken place, historically speaking, but which become part of social history in the same way memoir does, or biography, or history itself, or really any expression that is preserved--like a painting in a cave, say.
Shamans have always been middlemen. Magicians dignified by the social purpose of their mischief, a function that extends beyond diversion and messes with souls and spirits. Novelists and mythmakers, even those who try their best to erase narrative and who reject the word as univocal, are shamanistic insofar as they, too, are infatuated by the middle.
Writings on a cave wall, hidden from history down in the darkness of the middle world.
Complementarity introduced an axiom of ambiguity into the system of physical science, and this did not sit well with many of the older physicists who were in the room that day. Renunciation--a quite unscientific term for the necessary gesture--was not what scientists practiced, as a rule, and the mood at dinner that night was such that I could not stay in the room. Bohr sat at a table with Heisenberg nearby, arguing with Schrödinger, Planck and Rutherford, as friends might, long after the dishes had been cleared and the cigars and brandy served, but I had to get back out to the shore, to walk and clear my head.
The stones under my feet clacked and rattled hollowly just as they had the night before. I looked out over the water and could hear, again this evening, more music, a song by Debussy. A woman sang, accompanied by piano, and I could hear the words,
No lovers rowed on the lake, though I could discern wave patterns on the water that resembled very much the wake that little boat had made before. I took them for a complementum.
Le sceptre des rivages roses
Stagnants sur les soirs d'or, ce l'est,
Ce blanc vol fermé que tu poses
Contre le feu....
The physicist and fabulist are both magicians, but rather than dealing in sleight of hand, they are bent upon pulling real doves out of real hats, doves that weren't in those hats before.
Doves truly plucked out of empty air.
Those things which seem most utterly in apposition are where, as Bohr has said, the work begins. And so I have come to understand that what interests me more than to debunk or ignore traditional forms, is to transubstantiate them. This is nothing new, but nothing is. History is always a form of invention.
Work took me from England to Geneva. When the war began, I moved to New York and eventually resided in Baltimore, where I was born--a stubborn, resolving circle of a life. I heard Bohr lecture in Brussels in the early Thirties. He hadn't aged a day. Still the same, slow, methodical, thoughtful, pained sentences he used to mediate impossible abstract paths. Bohr's call for synthesis had born many fruits, and quantum theory was by then an important branch of physics. A viable model for the atom was complete and already ways of deriving energy from its manipulation were being studied by Leo Szilard and others. Los Alamos, high in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, was no longer a boy's ranch. Bohr would go there under the code-name Baker.
I married, became a chemical engineer, and registered several patents. I lived my life. After I became ill and was diagnosed with cancer, a mutual friend of mine and Michele Besso wrote me, and quoted from a letter Einstein had forwarded to his widow after hearing of his old friend's death. Einstein, who himself had but a few weeks to live, had by then finally admitted that there might be something to quantum theory and complementarity, though he'd never pursued any serious work about either. Still, he spoke of the meaninglessness of death with such apprehending strength. It doesn't mean a thing, death, he wrote. For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however tenacious. This was just the sort of composite picture of meaning in life and work, art and death, I had always tried in my way to embrace.