A few years after my visit to Fermilab, after I felt I’d done all the groundwork of physics study I could manage on my own, David was precisely the person and educator I needed for my questions and ‘wiring-checks.’ He was expert in his field and open to fresh thought about it. He was rigorous in his explanations, but unusually encouraging of dialogue. He loved to talk, and was also sometimes lost—as everyone should be at times—in his own thoughts. He was a physicist and a writer, married to a writer and literary editor who shared my fondness for certain Modernist writers especially. I was, in other words, in the right place.
I warmed immediately to David and Maureen for their warmth and for the mischief in their thinking, expressed differently by each, but a part of the remarkable bond between them, it seemed to me. Their laughter and ironical eye on the world fuelled their capacity, as a couple, for daring and risk-taking; for not toeing the orthodox line; for determining the shapes of their lives as few others are brave enough to do.
I also admired the fact that their feet were planted solidly on terra firma, and that they had given their vision an entirely practical form: the solid, stone-walled, high-ceilinged ‘Pari Center’ in the Palazzo of their adopted village. I am inspired by their example as much today as I was that first evening when I joined them at their table.
A year or two after my first visit, David, very generously, agreed to read my final manuscript, to ‘check my physics’ as I put it, and I was more delighted than I can say when he told me he’d needed to correct only one word. I seem to recall that he changed ‘neutrons’ to ‘neutrinos.’ I was possibly prouder of that than of any gratifying review which followed.
As a novel, The Wave Theory of Angels was my attempt to explore those points in the fabric of reality where the physical, embodied, day-to-day visible world meets the mysteries and ‘unknowability’ of the invisible world. In my 13th-century story, in that age when theology was also physics, my Imaginator character takes a great risk for a radical, outlawed theology in which, it was posited, the human imagination co-creates, with the deity, the physical, unfolding world.
In my 21st-century (2001) storyline, my physicist character at Fermilab also takes a great risk for an unorthodox theory. He dares to follow an interest in the, at-the-time (and perhaps still) radical, mathematically-postulated branch of physics known as String Theory. As the novel unfolds, the conundrum of the ‘Observer Effect’ becomes key to both storylines. Both storylines also seem to ‘entangle,’ affecting each other across time and space.
In my attempts to i) evoke the quantum truth of ‘entanglement’ in the unseeable world, and ii) to enact the principle of the Observer Effect in the live motion of the novel, I am asking the reader, above all, whether ours is a dynamic participatory reality, and something more than the sum of its parts. Might the universe be composed in some way ‘of consciousness,’ even as it contains consciousness?
These questions still preoccupy me, philosophically and artistically, and the influence of my discussions with David ripple onward. In my 2013 short story, ‘The Heart of Denis Noble,’ for example, one character, Ella, a literature student in 1960, is in bed one night with her scientist-lover—a young version of the real-life cardiovascular physiologist Prof Denis Noble. As she draws him out on his PhD work, she suggests to him that his thought processes might need somehow to admit ‘Eros’ if his work is to evolve in the truest sense.
She adjusts her generous breasts. ‘The principle of Eros. Eros is an attractive force. It binds the world; it makes connections. At best, it gives way to a sense of wholeness, a sense of the sacred; at worst, it leads to fuzzy vision. Logos, your contender, particularises. It makes the elements of the world distinct. At best, it is illuminating; at worst, it is reductive. It cheapens. Both are vital. The balance is the thing. You need Eros, Denis. You’re missing Eros.’
In this passage, I am—for Ella’s insight above—drawing directly on a remark made by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli to psychologist Carl Jung, and recounted by David. David introduced the point in a seminar in the Palazzo on my first visit to Pari, and it stayed with me, for both its strangeness and for my instinctive sense of its truth. In his article, ‘Wolfgang Pauli: Resurrection of Spirit in the World,’ David singles out Pauli’s remarkable statement: ‘In a letter to Jung he wrote that the missing element was Eros; only love could bridge the gap between physics, spirit and psychology.’
It is difficult to remember precisely, but I imagine this strange statement also influenced the opening of my novel The Wave Theory of Angels:
The world yearns. This is its sure gravity: the attraction of bodies. Earth for molten star. Moon for earth. A hand for the orb of a breast. This is its movement too: the motion of desire, of a longing toward.
Back in the bedsit in 1960, my character Ella, doesn’t know it of course, but she goes on—in her ‘metaphysics,’ as the character of Denis terms it—to draw on the thoughts of David Bohm, via David Peat, via me and my own longstanding sense of ‘literature’s implicate order’—as she corrects her scientist-lover Denis, telling him that a book is not merely a thing or an ‘it.’ He scoffs gently:
‘Of course it’s an “it.” It’s an object, a thing. Ask any girl in her deportment class, as she walks about with one on her head.’
‘All right. A story is not an “it.” It’s a living thing.’
He smiles beseechingly. ‘Perhaps we should save the metaphysics for after?’
‘Every part of a great story “contains” every other part. Every small part anticipates the whole. Nothing can be passive or static. Not if it’s great and… true to life. Nothing is just a part. Not really. Because the whole cannot be divided. That’s what a real creation is. It has its own unity.’
‘The Heart of Denis Noble,’ though a single story only, represented a six-month process of research and discovery for me, as I explored, for a fiction commission, the real-life Denis Noble’s 1960 ground-breaking work relating to the electrical signalling in the human heart. I visited and spent time with Denis Noble, walking about Oxford with him, ruminating, and visiting the places in the city which meant the most to him. We remain fond friends today.
The process was a joy, but also a risk, for both him and me. As a writer with a commission to deliver, I had a problem: I did not for a moment want to intrude on Denis’ life with personal questions about his past, and yet I knew that a story cannot come to life as a mere summary of research papers—it needs ‘life.’ I was determined not to ‘thieve’ from Denis’s own personal life, by asking awkward questions, which meant, I could only invent it.
So I created the literature student Ella. I gave my version of Denis’ 20-year-old self a lover. She never existed.
And yet it seems she did…
On being sent the final draft of my story by the editor who had commissioned it, Denis—with characteristic kindness—replied to both of us by email almost immediately. It was uncanny, he said. I couldn’t have known… There had been a lover, a young woman student—philosophy rather than literature—and her presence and her ways of thinking had catalysed something previously unknown within him, insights which led him to look differently at the data he already knew well.
‘Muse’ is a sometimes too reductive a label for the influence of women, especially in the history of thought and art, and Denis didn’t use it, but he did explain to me that that difference in looking, in perception—catalysed by his formative relationship with the philosophy student—led him directly to a breakthrough insight, and is a part of the reason why we can today treat arrhythmias and other heart complications. He was generous enough to tell me all of the above, and also that tears came into his eyes as he read, such was the force of memory and recognition. That meant a great deal to me.
How had I done it? he asked.
‘God knows!’ I laughed. But I knew a little more than I could explain.