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Physics as Metaphor in a Novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, Revisited

By Martin Goldstein

Physical scientists who were intrigued by Michael Frayn's use of the uncertainty principle as a metaphor in his award-winning play Copenhagen may also be intrigued by the metaphoric use of an episode from the history of physics in a novel published by the late British author Penelope Fitzgerald.

The Gate of Angels, first published in 1990, takes place in and around Cambridge University in 1912. Its main protagonist is a young physicist, Fred Fairly, a Junior Fellow of Angels College (formally called St. Angelicus), an imaginary Cambridge college whose founding in the 15th century, according to the narrator, had been authorized by a real antipope, Benedictus XIII. As the novel opens, Fairly has been doing research and teaching at the Cavendish Laboratory for five years, at a time when J. J. Thomson was in charge of the lab.

Ms. Fitzgerald's prose and close attention to historical detail deftly establishes the atmosphere of the place:

[T]he labs were overcrowded with research students, all of them left to patch up their own apparatus by trial and error, each of them lucky if they could find a little space, even on a single table. The room at the very top of the building... was cold because of the very narrow bore of the copper heating pipes, which were supposed to avoid magnetic disturbance. Out of this squalor had come indisputable greatness. Not one of the students would have wished to be anywhere else. They were at the Cavendish.

Equally evocative is her description of the medical practices in an early 20th century London hospital. Nonetheless, there are a few minor mistakes with regard to her physics. For example, one of Fairly's colleagues, planning to recreate the Michelson-Morley experiment, refers to "the Fitzgerald-Lorenz contradictions." Fairly, lecturing on Gauss's Theorem, states, "The total normal gravitational flux over any surface enclosing a mass is 4[pi]m." [The word "minus" should precede 4[pi]m.] Another faculty member anachronistically refers to "anti-matter," a term that was not coined until the 1930's.

As its title suggests, the novel is concerned, among other things, with forms of faith, religious and otherwise, as "the evidence of things not seen." Indeed, early in the novel Fairly has faced the difficult task of telling his father, a minister in the Anglican Church, that he has lost his Christian faith: "The only evidence we can get [for belief] is from our own senses and from the senses of other people who have gone before us."

The novel is also concerned with issues of faith in science, set during a period when there was a great deal of controversy over Rutherford's "unobservable" atom. Fairly longs to go to Manchester and work with Rutherford, but is actively discouraged by his colleague, Professor Flowerdew - a strong partisan of Ernst Mach, who believed an atom "is not a reality, it is just a provisional idea, so how we can say that it is situated in space?" says Flowerdew.

The novel does not present a naive view of faith, which is also shown to have its aberrations. If one believes in the existence of things not detectable by the senses, one could believe in ghosts as easily as angels, as one character does. Nor is religious belief shown in a flattering light by the amusing history given of the uncompromising antipope Benedictus XIII, who by standing on principle prevented the reconciliation of a schism in his church for a generation. By the novel's end, Flowerdew senses that his cause is lost, but, like Benedictus, cannot admit it. He urges Fairly to attend a lecture by Hans Geiger, Rutherford's assistant, on the difference between the Rutherford and Thomson models of the atom, asking him to take good notes, but is too skeptical about Rutherford's "unobservable" atom to go himself.

One does not need to be a physicist to enjoy this novel, but it helps to have some acquaintance with the history of physics: to know, from the vantage point of the end of the 20th century that Mach's program proved a sterile and unproductive one. The triumphs of 20th century physics came about because at least some physicists had faith in the existence of things not directly observable. Fairly's rejection of religious belief thus stands in ironic contrast to his belief in the reality of atoms.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette