APS News


The Physics of Pynchon

I am responding to Robert A. Levy's challenge to consider the physics genealogy of Thomas Pynchon, the author best known for Gravity's Rainbow (APS News, February 2000). Personally, I have found reading Pynchon to be not unlike doing research. The Pivotal Moment in the narrative at which disparate plotlines and themes converge is just as likely to come in the midst of a long, parenthetical digression as in the main flow of things. It's important to pay close attention to everything, whether it seems to be part of the plot or just an interesting aside. It is not possible to skim Thomas Pynchon.

I would disagree with Levy's allegation that Pynchon is "long overlooked" by physicists whose "widespread ignorance" so alarms Levy. In my own reading, I have found Pynchon's work often brilliant, but frequently elliptical and pretentious. Yet there may be something about Pynchon that actually appeals to scientists. Perhaps it is the joy of loving something many others cannot quite grasp.

Thomas Pynchon knows physicists. He somehow, somewhere, learned about the pitfalls scientists face, and how we do our work. He picked up a lot of buzzwords and metaphors. (He must have had engaging, poetic teachers) But these metaphors must be pushed further, and their weaknesses exposed. It is my belief that the art in great physics (and great fiction) is in moving beyond the metaphor, in describing in a new way something so beautiful, or grotesque, or so perfectly ordinary, that no one has seen it exactly that way before-and those who already know its beauty, ferocity or truth will nod and say to themselves, "Yes, that's exactly right."

Jenn Stroud
University of California, Berkeley

Garwin's Objectivity Challenged

Richard Garwin's article in the February issue of APS News, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and US National Security," seems to have been packaged a bit deceptively. You identify him as an IBM Fellow Emeritus, etc. However, you neglect to mention that he is a well-known Democrat partisan, a consistent and vocal opponent of Republican policies or initiatives regardless of the scientific issues involved.

I was first exposed in person to his advocacy in the mid-80's, when he was an anti-SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) crusader. This is not to say that he is not extremely smart or knowledgeable, or that his points do not have merit. But equally or even more talented physicists at the time recognized the potential of strategic defense without devoting their careers to political lobbying.

The same political correctness can be read in his article in your February issue. The text is virtually taken word-for-word from the Clinton administration playbook, as spun to the media during the vote on the test ban treaty. Thus, while cloaked in genuine science, it is a political document, dangerously suppressing valid science and policy issues. As many prominent and impartial experts testified during treaty hearings, there are genuine defects in the treaty as the Clinton administration submitted it to the Senate. But Garwin is not speaking as a scientist, as you would have us believe, impartially seeking the truth. He is speaking as a political partisan, bringing his great and convincing expertise and prestige to the job.

Laurence N. Wesson
Ambler, PA

Trans-Atlantic Support for CTBT

In the February 2000 issue of APS News Richard Garwin gives a very technical and persuave account to show that it is in the interest of the United States to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) if it wants to maintain an overwhelming superiority in Nuclear Weapons for an indefinite period of time. The question remains: is it indeed desirable for the United States to maintain an overwhelming superiority in Nuclear Weapons, or would the United States (and the rest of the world) be a safer place if one could get rid of all Nuclear Weapons. That is a much more complex issue and would require more than a letter But in the light of all this it appears more than difficult to believe that the U.S. can become a safer place by refusing to sign the CTBT. To use this issue as a political football seems outrageous indeed.

Henry A. Blumenfeld
Gif sur Yvette, France

Markowitz Statements Sadly Pessimistic

In his article on page 5 of the March 2000 issue, David Markowitz writes, "Sure, lots of folks believe in God and family values and few wish to argue against them. But their main purpose is what they earn for their promoters: money to do research on the one hand, and votes to propel them into office on the other (my italics)."

I wonder if the author realizes how sadly pessimistic his statement is? Finding meaning, purpose, and value in life through the love and grace of God and the bonds of family is fundamental to human happiness. This is true for the scientist, and statesman as well as regular people, whether or not they will acknowledge it. And to the degree that the general Judeo-Christian ethic of the latter has controlled the decision-making of the former, our democratic society has had a measure of justice and peace. Thus, it is a great blessing that everyone does not subscribe to the author's point-of-view.

I suggest that Dr. Markowitz read the book How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer. It is a sobering, scholarly discussion of the effects of humanism on Western culture (on government, religion, science, philosophy, and the arts) beginning with the Renaissance/Reformation era. I think Dr. Schaeffer's work might do Dr. Markowitz (among others?) some good.

Barbara S. Helmkamp
Houston, TX

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette