Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Adventures in research

Four years ago I went to Copenhagen to do a couple days' worth of research for the sequel to The Explosionist--the novel I'm only just now writing this summer, due to the intervention of life and other obligations...

My main purpose was to visit Niels Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics, where the very wonderful archivist took me around the place and told me a number of stories that lodged securely in my imagination. Many of the opening scenes of The Snow Queen (the sequel's title) are set in my alternate universe's version of the Institute, and there are all sorts of things it is difficult to glean from books...

(Me: "Would the scientists have eaten lunch in, say, a cafeteria?" Wonderful Archivist [humorously shocked]: "Oh, no! Denmark is a nation of box lunches!")

The story she told me that utterly captivated me, though, involved the escape of a number of cats from the basement. They were the subjects in an experiment concerning radio-isotopes, and the Institute backs onto a rather lovely park: the afternoon was spent frantically rushing around with a Geiger counter to try and distinguish the cats in the experiment from the ordinary feral cats that lived in the park and retrieve them so that all was not lost!

The alchemy of fiction: I wanted the story of the cats, but I did not want them to come to the sorry end that one knows, really, cats setting off Geiger counters undoubtedly must have come to...

I did not at the time register the names of the particular scientists involved, but after doing a bit of reading this summer it became clear that the main instigator would have been the intriguing Hevesy. I was very pleased to find a firsthand account of the incident of the cat (singular), in his assistant and collaborator Hilde Levi's very interesting biography of Hevesy:
I recall our excitement when the P-32 injected cat suddenly escaped; she jumped out through the window and disappeared into the nearby park. Everybody rushed out to retrieve the precious animal. Several wild beasts were caught and wipe tests of their saliva were placed under a Geiger counter - alas in vain! After hours of chasing, the right cat was found and the experiment could proceed in an orderly manner.
Hevesy published a collection of his major scientific papers in two volumes, under the title Adventures in Radioisotope Research: these are the volumes whose arrival at the library I was eagerly awaiting earlier this month...

The papers proved - what? Dry and mesmerizing at the same time, and of course very grim in terms of the hard facts they presented about the animals involved in all of these very important and valuable physiological experiments! I strongly believe in the value and legitimacy of animal experimentation, but I also (weak-mindedly) am very glad that I am not involved in it myself, because I am fond of animals and I think it would prove painful to me.

In a strange way, Hevesy's personality comes through very strongly in these papers, despite the fact that much of the writing is quite impersonal:
UREY'S discovery of heavy water was bound to impress the tracer-minded scientists, although their number was very restricted in those days. The present writer at once approached Professor UREY who most generously mailed a few litres of water containing 0.5 mol. per cent heavy water. In view of the great sensitivity with which the density of water can be determined, this strongly diluted heavy water sufficed to study the interchange between the water molecules of the goldfish and the surrounding water, and also to carry out studies described in paper 48, and presented in more detail by HEVESY and HOFER (1934). . . .

In paper 48 it is stated that the goldfish behaves in the same way in the heavy water employed in the experiments described as in tap water, though it may behave differently in more concentrated heavy water. In experiments with HAGGKVIST carried out in recent years (1958), we found that the life-span of the fish investigated was reduced from years to 10 days when kept in 40 per cent heavy water. When the fish were placed in 50 per cent heavy water, they tried to escape by jumping out from the vessel in which they were kept.
But the most painful page for me to read was this one! (The first sentence of the footnote induced in me a sort of horrified laughter...)

When I was really dug in writing The Explosionist, I had a strong image of myself hacking through something like a field of cane with a blunt machete: it was hard work, but it was straightforward, I was clearing the way. And even before I started writing it, I had a strange illusion that if I concentrated really hard, I could actually visualize - not the incidents of the story, as though they were a film, but the printed pages of the published novel, in chapters and laid out on the page in a particular format and font that I could still describe to you!

This one, on the other hand, is giving me a feeling of needing to nerve myself up to put aside the research (I cling to research, I love facts!) and start making things up. The sensory image in this case is not of fieldwork (the machete image was so vivid to me that I could feel the effects of the work in my triceps!) but of being a blindfolded person in utter darkness. I am still with my hands pressed right up against the wall, because it feels like the safest place, but I have to take the plunge and start feeling my way, blind, around the room and getting a sense of the space by bumping into things...

Postscript: Wittgenstein had a more obviously appealing orientation towards animals. Here is another funny bit of his friend Maurice Drury's reminiscences:
He told me that he had got to know some wonderful characters in Norway. A woman who had said to him how fond she was of rats! "they had such wonderful eyes." This same woman once sat up every night for a month waiting for a sow to farrow, so as to be on hand to help if necessary. This attention to animals seemed to have pleased Wittgenstein especially.

On his journey back from Norway, the boat bringing him down the fiord stopped at a jetty. There was a woman standing on the jetty dressed in a trouser suit.

WITTGENSTEIN: "Usually I dislike seeing women wearing trousers, but this woman looked magnificent."


  1. You could argue that "Denmark is a nation of box lunches" doesn't make your chest swell in quite the same way as "the land of the free and the home of the brave", but I kinda like it. It's pithy, you gotta give it that.

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