Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, December 15, 2000  |  Number 21
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Moxie, calculus and `The Wall'

He made a shining debut with Marjorie Morningstar, etched the indelible image of Captain Queeg and the ball bearings in The Caine Mutiny, and brought a historian's rigorous standards to The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Yet Herman Wouk wondered aloud if he still had the "moxie" to take on a new novel.

"After all, it's been a few years since I've really told a story," said Wouk, 85, on a November 15 visit to Fermilab. His exploratory mission enhanced the possibility that he would write a story centered on a scientist, a project on his mind since the days of his friendship with the late Glenn T. Seaborg, original director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

"Glenn would write books about science, and he always wanted my advice about selling them," Wouk recalled. "I would have him explain science to me, and he'd ask me when I was going to write a book about a scientist."

During a visit shortly before Seaborg's death in February 1999, Seaborg said: "Herman, you still haven't written that book about a scientist."

"I thought I'd better do it," Wouk said.

Through mutual acquaintances at Columbia University, Wouk contacted former Fermilab Director John Peoples to view high-energy physics research first-hand, and to delve into the life and loss of the Superconducting Super Collider. Peoples, now head of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, had been assigned to dismantle the SSC after Congress pulled the plug on funding in 1993. Peoples toured Fermilab with Wouk, and hosted a luncheon with some old SSC hands to turn back the pages.

Wouk offered a candid insight into the central problem of writing about science.

"I've always felt that the wall separating science from most people is mathematics," he said. "It's so difficult to explain much of science without using mathematics."

Wouk recalled a visit to physicist Richard Feynman at Cal Tech, while researching the work on the atomic bomb for The Winds of War.

"Feynman said to me, `Do you know any calculus? You should learn it. It's the language that God speaks.' So I did some studying. I found so much beauty in the equations. I knew that if I had another lifetime, this is what I would do."

Physics of The West Wing

Speakerphone voice: "It's called the `Theory of Everything.'"

Wry response: "Is that comprehensive?"

Speakerphone: "Let me hear you say it: `Physicists at Cal Tech and the Fermi National Accelerator Lab have announced...'"

The speakerphone voice belongs to Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff to President Josiah Bartlett, pleading with presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg to remember to say "physicists" and not "pschics" in her daily press briefing. But comes the big moment, and yes, C.J. does indeed refer to "psychics at Cal Tech and the Fermi National Accelerator Lab...."

(Prompting this quip from one member of Fermilab's hierarchy: "Maybe we should hire some psychics. They might help us around budget time.")

The setting is the fictional White House of NBC-TV's The West Wing, at the opening of the October 18 episode. Any announcement of the Theory of Everything remains fictional (or at least, conjectural), notwithstanding the next morning's calls to Fermilab and queries from unofficial websites dedicated to tracking events on the show and their relation to reality.

Later in the October 18th episode, Lyman discourses on superstring theory. Maria Stasi, publicist for The West Wing at Warner Bros. Productions in Burbank, California confirms that researchers for the multiple Emmy Award-winner keep up with "Science Times" in The New York Times, and at least one researcher has read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, reflecting series creator Aaron Sorkin's own interest in science. The Nov. 29 episode's subplot involved a failed NASA mission to Mars (art imitating life), giving Pres. Bartlett (Martin Sheen) a chance to show off his command of Martian esoterica, including the red planet's daily highs and lows in degrees Celsius. His adviser cautions him about appearing to be a know-it-all.

"God forbid we should have a President who appears to be smart," Bartlett says.

by Mike Perricone

last modified 12/15/2000   email Fermilab