Impossible Dreams

Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist By Russell McCormmach Harvard University Press: $15

SIPPING COLD, WEAK TEA in his unheated room, professor Jakob, the unlikely hero of Russell McCormmach's new novel, feels tragic and paralyzed wlstfulness for himself, his science, and his country. An old man, whose career was undistinguished, he recognizes his mediocrity. He can't event pass for a legend in his own mind. Even his redeeming, pure beyond ethereal dedication to physics, makes his achievements seem all the more Lackluster.

The professor is sapped of youthful energy, and the absurd, exaggerated pettiness of life buzzes around his ears like a mosquito he can neither see nor swat. McCormmach skillfully tinges Jakob's world with Kafkaesque visions. As he talks to the director of the physics institute, Jakob realizes that the man "hadn't heard a word. But perhaps he hadn't said anything." The resident assistant professor erases Jakob's equations and Scrawls in a corner of the blackboard, "Prof. Jakob's space." The janitor steals Jakob's equipment. Jakob can only retaliate by writing a note to the director; "The custodian must be fired or he will gain certain tyranny over us."

Physics, too, seems capricious. Like mathematicians, Jakob notes, the physicists assume at whim and derive the consequences. Classical physics, at least, seemed more commonsensical; it had an other-worldly quality that lent its explanations an almost spiritual legitimacy. Equations alone lacked this aura. Classical physics' beauty, to Jakob, sprang from this peculiar marriage of the physical and the mystical.

In the theory of the world ether--an invisible, all-permeating medium for the propagation of radiation--Jakob sees his calling and the chance for a crowning accomplishment of classical physics. But he fails to realize this dream, too.

In his sad and modest way, Jakob finds the centralized, autocratic German state harsh and arbitrary as well. It scorns the old, leaving them to languish and wither in unheated anonymity, and sends the young to the trenches. As Hegel claims, not without graceful ride, states disembowel individuals on "the slaughter bench of history."


But Hegel justified the carnage in the name of freedom. Witnessing the bloodshed of World War I. Jakob is less sanguine. Arbitrariness in physics, the standard of order, reflects the emergent nationalism of bureaucrats and the social chaos such faceless patriotism creates. As classical physics becomes classical, the state wages war with it. The pure motives of truth for truth's sake are corrupted in the rush to find new and destructive uses for physics. Machine guns, poison gas, and airplanes now down a generation of young men, some of them physicists. Their elders, frustrated generals like the institute's director, doodle pictures of ladders and balloons on scraps of paper, proposals to link the institutes to the front. As Jakob speaks of harmony and international brotherhood, he is hooted out of a lecture hall, seemingly by "the stone Bismarck." He commits suicide.

MCCORMMACH'S CLEVER and poignant tale of dreams silently betrayed and slain by the whims of time touches the present. Quantum physics and relativity have spawned the laser and computers that improve our lives and the bombs that menace them. And perhaps no aspect of nuclear weapons is as terrifying as their arbitrariness, their capacity to obliterate the hopes, plans, and dreams of mankind. They threaten to make the past irrelevant and the future impossible. They wobble like crockery in the clumsy hands of blind and drunken children, the bureaucracies and coteries that have so far maintained the balance of terror.

In these circles, there is perhaps less evil than ignorance, less design than accident. Doodling with the faceless technological passion of institute directors, people talk knowledgeably about "windows of vulnerability." "throw-weight," and of putting missiles on trains, an idea as absurd as mounting them in baby carriages. But as we, like Europe before 1914, lunch we know not where, absurdity becomes dangerous, and no longer only sad, as was Jakob's bitter luxury. Next time, no one will read of an old man's cold pleasures, of musing over weak tea about shattered, harmonies and faded memories, in ruins wrought by creatures who, in their foolish scribblings, advised their children to crouch under school desks so as to hide from the blast.