Saturday, February 17, 2007

Crossed by the Stars They Reach For

from the new york times:

I’ve been haunted all week by the distraught face of Lisa Nowak as it appeared in her mug shot, reproduced endlessly on television and newspaper front pages. She is the astronaut who has been accused of trying to kidnap and perhaps kill a rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut.

We all know someone who has been there or in the neighborhood. Maybe not so far as Captain Nowak is accused of going, but making one phone call too many or taking a late-night cruise past the house to see whose car is in the driveway.

Captain Nowak’s situation might seem inexplicable to people who have bought into the media image of science and spaceflight as a robotic realm of light and reason inhabited by drones more interested in crossword puzzles and chess than in the latest exploits of Jack Bauer or the White Stripes.

In fact, the opposite is more often true. It takes guts and gumption, as well as no small amount of ego, to endure years of training and competition to ascend the ranks of military and government bureaucracies to the levels of test pilot or astronaut, or to survive the ego bashing at the blackboard during physics seminars and presume to crack the mysteries of the universe.

Not to mention vast reserves of talent and stubbornness. You’ve got to think you’re pretty special to fly in space or to engage, as an astronomer once described it to me, in a bar fight with God.

These are qualities that don’t get switched off going in or out of the lab door, and the results are often as messy as the lives of the rest of us who aren’t regularly weighted with cosmic destiny. It would not be surprising if their lives, like those of rock stars, were even messier.

Only three days before Captain Nowak was arrested, William French Anderson, a geneticist at the University of Southern California and a hero of the once-promising technique of gene therapy whose work has been described (among other places) on the front page of this newspaper, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for molesting a girl when she was 10 to 14 years old.

The girl’s mother worked for Dr. Anderson and had recruited him to teach her daughter martial arts.

Confronted by the girl years later, Dr. Anderson was recorded saying, “I will love you forever,” but also admitting, “Something inside me was evil.”

Last month Andrew Pakhomov, a physics professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, pleaded not guilty to the murder of his wife, Yelena Zakin. She was found dumped in the Tennessee River last summer, a week after she had caught him with another woman, a staff assistant, in his office and attacked them.

A successful merger of sex and science was engineered by Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian quantum physicist, who gave us the parable of the cat that is both alive and dead. In 1925 Schrödinger invited a still-mysterious woman friend to join him over the year-end holidays in a lodge in Arosa, Switzerland. While he was there he invented a wave equation that won him the Nobel Prize. It now bears his name and has been the basis of quantum mechanics ever since.

At Oxford, where he fled the Nazis, Schrödinger lived openly in a threesome with his wife and a mistress (the wife of his assistant), who bore him a daughter in 1934. In Dublin, where Schrödinger and his two “wives” eventually landed in 1940 as he became the director of the School for Theoretical Physics, the quantum genius had more love affairs and fathered more children.

Captain Nowak’s humiliation brings to mind the plight of Marie Curie, who won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre, for discovering radium and who has been a role model for female scientists ever since. As detailed in Susan Quinn’s biography, “Marie Curie: A Life,” she was nearly hounded out of Paris in 1911 when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Paul Langevin, one of Pierre’s students, who was married with four children.

Pierre was run over by a carriage in the street in 1906. Drawn together by mutual grief, Paul and Marie set up an apartment near the Sorbonne as a love nest. Langevin’s wife sent a man to break into the apartment, obtaining love letters, which his mother-in-law then shared with the newspapers.

“The fires of radium which beam so mysteriously have just lit a fire in the heart of one of the scientists who studies their action so devotedly; and the wife and children of this scientist are in tears,” read one article.

France was apparently more strait-laced then than now, and the press vilified the lovebirds. Langevin challenged the editor of one newspaper to a duel, but neither man could bring himself to fire his pistol. The only violence occurred when Langevin showed up for work bruised and beaten and said his wife had hit him with a chair.

In the midst of the brouhaha, Curie won another Nobel, for chemistry, but the Swedish academy suggested she stay away from the awards ceremony. She went anyway.

Albert Einstein, who met Curie for the first time at a meeting in Brussels that year, wrote home that he didn’t really see what the fuss was all about. “She has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone,” he wrote.

Einstein was soon to have his own problems with adultery. For most of the years that he was inventing his supreme achievement, the general theory of relativity, which predicted the bending of light, the expanding universe and black holes, he was having an affair with his cousin Elsa and fending off suspicions, accusations and emotional breakdowns from his wife, Mileva. His oldest son stopped speaking to him at various times.

In his divorce deposition, Einstein admitted that there had been physical violence in the marriage, but said his wife was the one who had started it.

Einstein continued to have affairs after he married Elsa in 1919. One of them, according to a letter in the Einstein archive at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, commenced with the by-then-famous physicist sneaking into the house of his friend Hans Muhsam, to be with his niece Betty Neumann, whom he then hired as a secretary. With his wife’s explicit permission, Einstein carried on with Neumann for about a year.

Einstein broke off the affair in 1924, saying that he had to seek in the stars what had been denied him on the Earth.

But he was pursued by and involved with other women for the rest of his life. If you are an Einstein, the stars are never enough.

there's just one big gaping problem with your writing: you mention Schrödinger, Curie, and Einstein. These are true giants of modern science, furthering mankind's knowledge in huge leaps and bounds. Einstein gave us a new way of looking at time and space. Nowak is just a failed an astronaut who'll never fly again, and will never appear in any physics text book.

i had a dog once i named 'bongo', he was a bit mad, too...but i don't think he deserved sharing the same page as einstein, et al.

oh, and one other thing, no human being has ever 'reached' for the stars...the best we can do is to look at them through telescopes. change your title or your contributor, because they both suck!

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