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Defying Gravity

by Muneeza Shamsie
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Minhaj Ahmed Rafi for Newsweek

A physicist puts her passion into prose.

Tasneem Zehra Husains childhood fascination with puzzles led to her interest in theoretical physics. This passionate quest for answers to the unknown, to nature, and to the very essence of our universe is central to her debut novel, Only the Longest Threads.

This unusual work of fiction consists of a series of stories within stories, which weave in the great, illuminating discoveries of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Abdus Salam, Peter Higgs and more. The book’s title derives from an epigraph by another physicist Richard Feynman: “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

In Longest Threads, Husain explores, in lucid and accessible prose, the findings which have contributed to our understanding of this fabric and tapestry across the centuries.

With a doctorate from Stockholm University and a postdoctoral fellowship from Harvard, Husain, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the first Pakistani woman theoretical physicist specializing in string theory. At home, she also helped establish the School of Science and Engineering at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

Her novel is framed and juxtaposed by the growing friendship between Sara Byrne, a theoretical physicist, and Leonardo Santorini, a science journalist. They are both in Geneva on July 4, 2012, among an expectant and excited crowd, to witness a historic event: proof of the Higgs boson’s existence. This elusive subatomic particle so crucial to the understanding of the universe and its building blocks is revealed onscreen in an auditorium and becomes reality when the underground Large Hadron Collider creates such a high-speed collision of protons that it releases energy and shortlived particles, akin to the Big Bang—the birth of the universe.

Sara, heady from the jubilation of the moment, encourages Leo to move beyond the immediacy of journalism to the imaginative realms of fiction. He wants to recreate those moments of intensity and joy which impelled scientists in their search for answers. Sara says, “Theoretical physics is largely a private matter, a life lived out in the mind.” Leo captures this in the six stories he creates. In each, he employs a different narrator. In each, he welds scientific ideas of the era in which the narrator lives with the language, intonations, references, and lifestyle of that time. Hussain enhances her narrative by creating an email exchange between them that gives further context to Leo’s stories. He sends all six to her for comment in three installments. He then asks her to write the seventh one, on string theory.

The first of Leo’s tales begins in England, 1728. The narrator, John, a member of the Royal Society, tells of his interest in natural philosophy since childhood and his fascination for Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which “lays bare the frame of the Universe in all its golden glory.” While tracing the ideas which led to Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Law of Gravity, he draws parallels between complex scientific ideas and his observations of everyday life. Similarly, in Leo’s next story, consisting of a letter written in 1999 by Charles, a Cambridge undergraduate, to his sister Lizzie, references to the excitement of childhood games and electric lights having replaced candles in the opera house they visited are interwoven with discussions on Michael Faraday’s work on the nature of magnetism and electricity. Charles reveals that he frequents Cavendish Laboratory founded by James Clerk Maxwell—the man who carried Faraday’s ideas forward to define the electromagnetic field and its relation to light.

The story of Einstein is narrated by a school teacher in New York City. He is witness to the tumultuous reception Einstein receives as he arrives in the United States by steamship in 1921. The teacher traces his fascination with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which had challenged the certainties of Newton’s Law of Gravity. He draws on the clever imagery from Einstein’s book Relativity: The Special and General Theory to discuss the German genius’s work on the speed of light, time and space, mass and energy.

In Leo’s hands, science is the main protagonist and the various narrators unraveling its secrets are catalysts for the plot. At the same time, their passion for their subject, the burning need to understand, brings their world to life. The text is also quietly permeated with literary references ranging from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Throughout Longest Threads, Husain employs lively incidents and anecdotes to illustrate scientific thought and findings. Even so, the concepts she puts across are intricate and complex, as Leo moves on to the rich, rewarding, and ever challenging disciplines of quantum mechanics. He employs a letter written in 1930 by a researcher working at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, to his absent love, Anna, to discuss the successive works of Planck, Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg. He describes how the early findings that atoms consisted of electrons, protons, and neutrons were challenged by more queries on the forces which held these together and led to the discovery of more subatomic particles.

Leo’s story on particle physics is set in Trieste, 1981. A South Asian scientist at the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (Husain herself is an alumnus) writes a letter to his children, Fatima and Hassan, likening the subatomic particles he studies to building blocks in a Lego set and describes his work in theoretical physics as a jigsaw puzzle. This story examines Murray Gell-Mann’s discovery of six elementary particles called quarks, which could coalesce into neutrons and protons. His discussion on strong and weak forces that bind and change quarks led to the Nobel-winning electroweak-force discovery (showing the underlying symmetries uniting electromagnetism and weak nuclear force) by Salam, Sheldon Lee Glashow, and Stephen Weinberg.

In his final story, Leo uses a nameless young woman theoretical physicist (likely based on Sara) as narrator. She has returned to Stockholm in 1999, where she was once a student and where the Nobel Prize is to be awarded to Gerard ’t Hooft and Martinus J. G. Veltman for “elucidating the nature of the electroweak interaction.” She goes on to explore the ideas which forged their discovery, including Feynman’s work on quantum electrodynamics, and leads up to the Hooft talk she attends: he suggests that a new theory has developed which says there is “no such thing as a true point particle; instead everything we see is made out of tiny vibrating strings of energy that are small enough to appear point like.” This is string theory—the subject that intrigues Leo’s narrator, and Sara. These strings are so miniscule that “if a single atom became as large as the sun, a string would be approximately the size of a grain of sand.” Leo’s narrative culminates with Sara’s letter, written to him in 2013, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, describing the string theory that she is working on and its challenges.

This is a novel which is likely to appeal to a specific audience, but nevertheless has much to offer and needs to be much better known in Pakistan than it is. It’s a work that, despite its seemingly dense subject, is accessible and defies gravity.

Shamsie is a writer, critic, literary journalist, and editor who lives in Karachi. Her latest book, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, has been published by Oxford University Press Pakistan.

From our March 18 – April 1, 2017, issue.

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