APS News


Who Taught Physics to Thomas Pynchon?

By Robert A. Levy

Last spring, APS News published an article on the genealogy of physicists (The Back Page, March 1999), in terms of the lineage of their principal thesis advisors, which in numerous cases were interesting and sometimes surprising. But what about the physics genealogy of Thomas Pynchon?

Who, you might well ask, is Thomas Pynchon, and why would anyone want to know his physics genealogy? You wouldn't be alone. During a weekly colloquium talk at the University of California, Davis, in 1980, attended by 50 graduate students and faculty, only one knew the name of Pynchon: the department chair. And at the APS Centennial meeting last March, I asked a well-known emeritus member of the physics teaching faculty at Cornell University if Pynchon had been a student during his tenure. [Pynchon graduated from Cornell with a degree in English, although he was originally an engineering major.] He looked at me blankly. And last summer, I asked a well-traveled condensed matter physicist whether he knew of Thomas Pynchon. He had never heard of him.

I found this widespread ignorance difficult to believe. Thomas Pynchon is one of the world's most famous living writers. He is to American literature what Oppenheimer and Fermi were to physics. His first novel is said to have "radically changed the shape of literature in our century." But more importantly, he is a writer who obviously knows something about physics - not the kind you hear from TV anchors or physics historians, but enough to make the kind of jokes and metaphors that we would find amusing. "Entropy" is the title of one of his short stories.

We physicists pride ourselves on our knowledge of, and familiarity with, fields outside our own. We know all about politics, music, sports, cuisine, cars, biology, etc. So why don't we know about Pynchon? I will go out on a limb and conclude that physicists as a group are fairly ignorant of his existence, much less familiar with his work.

Just as the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity has led to the growth of an industry, with academic laboratories, industrial and governmental organizations all working feverishly to expand and develop the phenomenon, so an entire industry has grown up around Pynchon's work, with criticisms, essays, books, and discussions taking place at literature departments everywhere. There are many more books about Pynchon than by Pynchon, such as Pynchon's Poetics, by Hanjo Berressem (University of Illinois Press, 1993) The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Pynchon's greatest novel, Gravity's Rainbow, as "a tour de force in 20th century literature... filled with descriptions of obsessive and paranoid fantasies, ridiculous and grotesque imagery, and esoteric mathematical and scientific language."

I would like to recommend that physicists finally acquaint themselves with this long-overlooked author. If we want to be able to communicate with the general public, we would be well advised to be familiar with the works of Thomas Pynchon and maybe even take a few writing lessons from them at the same time. We might discover new insights into topics currently of interest to physicists, such as creationism, computers, and the environment.

Start with Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories which includes "Entropy." Then tackle Gravity's Rainbow, where you'll find plenty more physics, and if you make it to the end, you'll understand why an industry has built up around the author. If you're by chance a philatelist (the American Philatelic Society has the same acronym as the APS), take a shot at The Crying of Lot 49. For insight into Pynchon personally, read what little nonfiction he's written, such as "Is It OK To Be a Luddite?" in The New York Times Book Review, and the introduction to Slow Learner, both written in 1984. Compare how Pynchon talks about the future with how physicists do so, for example, Freeman Dyson in The Sun, the Genome and the Internet. You might also check out one of the many books about Pynchon somewhere along the line.

And what about Pynchon's physics genealogy? Who were his physics professors at Cornell? Will we ever know? Were they azimuthal or radial physicists? Can we tell from how Pynchon writes about physics? I offer these questions as a challenge to you all.

Robert A. Levy lives in El Paso, Texas and is a long-time enthusiast of the works of Thomas Pynchon.