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Paul Preuss

“Readers unfamiliar with the intellectual audacity of modern physicists will find this novel a better introduction than most popular science books on the subject. What is surprising is that Mr. Preuss, without scanting on the scientific details, keeps the focus firmly on the people involved…. Mr. Preuss embeds his hard-driving narrative in a reality that is more satisfying (if not necessarily more substantial) than the ‘fundamental’ particles and forces of modern physics.”

— Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

Broken Symmetries (Large)

 
 
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Broken Symmetries introduces Anne-Marie Brand, a photographer, and Peter Slater, a theoretical physicist, as it follows the discovery of a new kind of fundamental particle at TERAC, a joint U.S.-Japanese high-energy accelerator on Oahu. The volatile potential of the discovery must somehow be contained.

Read a chapter.

The characters in Broken Symmetries are introduced individually, and their paths and fates only gradually become entangled. Peter Slater and Anne-Marie Brand meet in Chapter 8, at a cocktail party hosted by Martin Edovich, one of the bigwigs at TERAC.

 

“What was that all about?” Anne-Marie asked Chauncey, as she watched Peter Slater disappear inside the house, shouldering other guests aside as he went.

Moments before, the tall scientist had blocked their path and demanded that Chauncey introduce him to Anne-Marie, something Chauncey had been delighted to do. Then Slater had turned on Anne-Marie: “Are you wearing blue contacts?”

Startled, she’d nodded yes, but could think of nothing to say. Chauncey tried to fill the awkward silence, but only the words “Well, Peter” had escaped his lips before Slater had cut him off: “I’m not interested in your gossip.”

Another uncomfortable pause. Anne-Marie had murmured, “Un ange passe,” and Slater, as if taking it for a cue, had wheeled and stalked off.

Tolliver smiled apologetically at Anne-Marie. “Peter’s been through a very great deal lately, and he’s a very sensitive boy, I’m afraid. He’s just been divorced, for one thing. And that on top of missing out on the Nobel Prize.”

“The Nobel Prize!”

“Well, nobody knows about these things for sure, of course. But everyone assumes Martin is going to get the prize for finding the I-particle, and most people think that Peter laid a lot of the groundwork, theoretically. He could have predicted it, but for some reason he didn’t.” Chauncey was chattering nervously.

“You seem to know him well.”

“Partly it’s my job. But in fact we were classmates at Yale. We were even in the same senior society for a while.”

“Chauncey, you amaze me – you seem to be on intimate terms with everybody.” She sought to flatter him into relaxation.

“I’ve never met the President,” he said with mock humility. “Although of course I know his daughter.”

She laughed. Then, casually, she pressed him for more information. “Were you in one of those secret societies together? Like Skull and Bones?”

“If I’d been in Bones I’d have to walk out on you, you know.” Chauncey passed a nervous hand over his blond crew-cut. “Actually Crucible hasn’t been around quite as long as Bones.”

“Crucible! What a deliciously suggestive name.” She smiled wickedly, teasing him to tell her more. “Come on, Chauncey, what really goes on in those places – secret ceremonies? Pornographic movies?”

Tolliver’s eyes blinked and looked past her. “Nothing that would interest you. And Pete left us for Cambridge pretty soon after he’d been tapped and accepted. He never let us get to know him very well, really. Some of the fellows never really forgave him, I think.” He smiled tightly.

“So you won’t tell me,” she pouted. “You’re still an undergraduate at heart, Chauncey.”

His lips twitched into a grin. “We all have our own ways of refusing to grow up.”

She looked at him with mild surprise. “Chauncey, I think that’s the wisest thing you’ve said all night.”

“I have to talk to some of my people, Anne-Marie,” he said distractedly. “Can I leave you a moment?”

“I’ll survive.”

“I’m sure.” He smiled past her, that little tight smile again, then walked down the terrace steps toward the lawn. Anne-Marie noticed that his pink scalp glowed beneath his crew-cut, and his trouser cuffs rose half an inch too high, like a proud badge of conservatism.

 

Peter Slater sat at the Edoviches’ piano, shoving the bench back until his long legs found room. It was a good, piano, a Wurlitzer baby grand, and to his surprise it was in tune. He played a few slow chords, then idly picked out sad arpeggios of his own composition, while quietly regretting his stupid behavior. The first-floor living room was dimly lit by a single floor lamp and light that came through the flamboyant windows from the torches on the terrace; the couples who whispered in the shadows paid him no attention.

Her hair was soft ebony, and there was an abundance of it framing her tan oval face. Her lips were full, wide, mobile, and she had the bluest eyes…. At first he’d thought they looked so blue because of her blue dress, and because her hair was so dark. Then when he’d looked closer he’d realized that she wore blue contact lenses. The prosaic fact took nothing from the magic, but some positivist quirk had compelled him to confirm his guess, and he’d demanded her secret of her before he’d even memorized her name. After that his embarrassment would not let him stay near her.

Sudden anger was expressed in music: the Shostakovich piece began frantically, but if tolerated would later reward the listener with lyrical melodies. He absorbed himself in the intense, intricate, intelligent score, ignoring the curious faces which peered at him out of the darkness.

 

“Quite a bash,” Gardner Hey said with satisfaction, waving a whiskey glass. “Met a couple of folks who are gonna be quite a bit of help.”

“That’s nice, Gardner.” Anne-Marie smiled politely, her attention on the music coming from the house. The pianist was an amateur, but remarkably adept.

“Yeah, the big picture’s emerging very nicely. This guy Edovich has really got the wool pulled over everybody’s eyes. You know he’s never stopped working for the Defense Department?”

“Oh?” She looked at him warily. “Is that bad?”

“Well, it isn’t illegal, if that’s what you mean. But TERAC is an international laboratory, it’s supposed to be pure science,” Hey said indignantly. “Edovich was actually head of Los Alamos for a while, you do know that – before he went to NAS, which was supposed to clean up his image, I guess. But I think he never really stopped…. “

“Really, Gardner,” said Anne-Marie restlessly. “You know what puzzles me about you?”

“No.” He looked at her suspiciously. “But perhaps I should be flattered that you think of me at all.”

“How is it that somebody as cynical as you are about science spends all his time writing about it? Why not write about something you have faith in?”

“That would be nice, Anne-Marie, but I don’t know what that would be. That occult stuff of yours, maybe? Like you were reading on the plane?”

“Don’t patronize me,” she said irritably. “And take off that stupid tie. You and Chauncey are the only people here who are wearing nooses around your necks.”

“Gladly.” He yanked at the frayed knit tie until it came loose in his hand, then shoved it into his back pocket. “Anyway, I’m not cynical about science, if you care. I am cynical about scientists – most of them, anyway. I started out to be one myself. I changed my mind.”

“Maybe that’s what’s really eating you,” she said, challenging him.

He glared back at her. “I could have done it. Unlike your husband, I didn’t want to play the ass-kissing game.”

She looked pointedly at the people on the terrace and the lawn, men and women of many races, young and old, neat and sloppy, sober, drunk, brooding, arguing, laughing, nuzzling in the torchlight. “They all look human to me, Gardner. Maybe you’d rather they spent their time arguing about money and politics instead of playing with their molecules or whatever they do; but that’s your hang-up, not theirs.”

“Wrong,” said Hey, as if grading a quiz. “They get politics and money and science and morality all mixed up. They think you and me owe them a living, even if we’re too dumb to know a gluon from a screw-on.” He was silent for a moment, peering into his whiskey glass. “You know, when Congress was cool at first about the Japanese offer to finance TERAC, Edovich and Lasky and the big guns from MIT and Cal Tech and Berkeley and Stanford all started screaming – they actually had the gall to bring up Giordano Bruno and Galileo and Darwin and the rest of the persecuted pantheon – just because they couldn’t get their money. “Hey’s face was a mask of disgust. “It’s true, Anne-Marie. The big science boys don’t give a damn about anything as long as they get the money to build their machines and fly off to their conferences and look down their noses at the rest of us.”

“You take it awfully personally,” she drawled.

“And you’ve got a low tolerance for strong feelings, babe.” He took a swig of his drink. “I think if you’re serious about news photography you’d better grow a thicker skin.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“It’s free, like the ride.”

“Keep your ride, Gardner,” she said angrily. “I’ll find my way home.”

“Sure, it looks like Chauncey’d do anything for you.” He leered at her tipsily, then belatedly attempted a smile.

She turned, her skirts swirling about her knees, and walked away.

 

By the time Peter had concluded the Shostakovich piece he’d succeeded in forgetting where he was. He was startled to hear scattered applause from the small crowd which had gathered around the piano. And in front of him there was a lovely face with impossibly blue eyes.

“Do you know Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue?” she asked.

“I’m terribly sorry for my clumsiness…,” he said in a rush, but she had no patience with his apology.

“I just want to hear it, if you do.”

Her dissatisfaction washed over Peter like a hot tide, as if he were a minor obstacle, a stone on the beach of stones against which she spent her futile energies. He swallowed his reply, and instead began to play again, the astringent, merciless logic made music.

He soon realized he was playing as well as he possibly could, playing for the face that studied him from beyond the sounding board. The notes rippled and reverberated, and the muscles of his shoulders felt the chords as firmly as his fingertips. Yet after a while her face receded, the music filled his imagination, and the scenery shifted and dissolved; she had forged a link to his past stronger than she could have imagined, and for the moment he did not wonder what the motive of her request might have been.

He recalled the draped and shadowed Edwardian parlor of his first piano teacher in Durham, stem and gifted old Miss Frankfort, who watched him as intently as this blue-eyed woman, ignoring the pain she knew he felt as he stretched his childish hands for the chords, big as those hands were for a boy of eight.

Now an intricate figure transported him to Saybrook commons, to the piano which stood before a window’s Gothic stonework, to the spring sunlight which filtered through a filigree of new dogwood leaves.

That window, a pastiche in stone, dissolved to its original pattern at Caius in Cambridge, dark chords now reflecting the deep polish of black oak centuries old.

Unbidden came the memory of the night in Berkeley when he knew he would leave Kathleen; he had played this same piece endlessly, using it to bar words, bar feelings. He pushed through that memory now, erased the pictures in his head, heard only the music. Yet one picture persisted, the face of the blue-eyed woman in front of him who had called up these woven sinews of sound.

He finished. There was silence for a moment, then – except for a single enthusiast who appreciated Peter’s accomplishment and clapped loudly and insistently – a sparse patter of applause rapidly overwhelmed by relieved small talk.

“Not exactly a crowd-pleaser,” said Peter.

“You did it well. I remember my father playing that; you play it almost as well.”

“Who was your father?” Was she repaying his earlier gaucheries with left-handed compliments of her own?

“Eric Brand. Have you heard of him?”

“Of course, I remember the name.” Brand had been a pianist of some reputation; the woman’s compliment was real. “I have to admit I haven’t followed his career.”

“He died, almost ten years ago. Listen,” she said quickly, before he could offer insincere commiseration, “I’m starved. Every time I go near the food out there somebody tries to mug me.”

He was delighted with her bluntness. “Our host and hostess among them – I’ve had the same problem. So” – he looked at her steadily, bracing himself for defeat – “would you like to get away from here?”

“Oh yes, I would.” Her voice seemed on the edge of trembling.

“Forgive me, but your name . . .”

“Anne-Marie, Peter. Come on, out the front way – before they catch us and make us talk.”

 

Through the terrace windows Greta Edovich saw them slip away, saw Peter’s bony fingers reach out and take Anne-Marie’s hand to steer her around a knot of loud talkers, saw their hands still lightly clasped as they disappeared up the steps into the front hall. Greta’s emotions were curiously unclear; something in the sight thrilled her, angered her, left her giddy. She turned to Chauncey. “Married, is she?” Chauncey, don’t tell me your beautiful friend is being a naughty girl.” She giggled, a muffled squeak.

Tolliver wasn’t amused. He peered grimly down at the tips of his oxfords.

 

The engine of the little Triumph grumbled as Peter let the car coast in neutral down steep, narrow Manoa Road. Huge black old trees arched over the twisting street; away back at the ends of winding driveways the windows of suburban houses gleamed out of the jungle that threatened to swallow them up.

Inside the car the round dials on the dashboard glowed softly yellow. The car’s deep bucket seats and high gearbox formed a barrier between the conspirators.

Anne-Marie was the first to break the silence. “I’m not usually this impetuous.” She said it as ritual defense.

“Please don’t take it back. After the mess I made of trying to meet you . . .”

“Yes, you did. And you were awfully hard on poor Chauncey.”

“It wouldn’t do me much good to apologize to you for that. Chauncey and I have known each other a long time…. And you?”

“Chauncey? A pretty long time. I like him.”

“I don’t want to fight over Chauncey.”

She eyed him. “Let’s talk about food, then.” She paused. “You’re a prickly case.”

“Out of practice. How do you feel about sashimi?”

“Love it. Where did you acquire your taste for raw fish?”

He laughed. “Teenage enthusiasm gone wild. I was in love with everything Japanese when I was a kid. I still am, from afar – that’s part of what attracted me to TERAC, I suppose.”

“From afar?”

“I’ve never actually been there. And I don’t have any close Japanese friends.”

“Pardon me for asking, but how many close friends do you have?”

He tapped the accelerator and slid the car into gear, moving more swiftly through the winding shadows. “It varies,” he said after awhile. “Perhaps you and I could be friends.”

Her tone was warm, though she did not answer him directly. “Where did you live before you came here, Peter?”

“Berkeley. I taught math at Cal and thought about physics.”

“Chauncey told me you were divorced.”

“That’s right. And you?” He looked at her left hand resting on her thigh. He glanced up at her face and saw her looking back at him with those blue, blue eyes – blue from his memory of them, since he could not really see them in the dark.

She wore them blue in honor of the Mediterranean, the middle of the earth, where her adulthood had been forged. Here, a world away in a baritone darkness which smelled of leather and wood polish and fine-grade motor oil, she reached out her lying hand and touched the prominent knuckles of his long fingers where they rested on the gearshift. He had the answer he wanted.

They were coming down out of the Manoa Valley now; the cheap condominiums and office towers of the city were springing up all around them, and the Friday-night traffic was congealing noisily on every side. He shifted into low, accelerated through a yellow light, then turned left toward the beach. He turned his hand palm up on the gearshift, snared her cool fingers, squeezed them lightly.

When he shifted gears again she moved her hand to her lap.

 

Peter flattered and bullied the owner of the Yoshino into staying open half an hour longer than usual; the shrewd old woman acquiesced only because she found the image of a six-and-a-half-foot white demon who spoke fluent, if simple, Japanese a source of fascination and amusement. She accepted his check and generous tip politely, but could not resist asking him a question which set him laughing as he left the restaurant.

“What did she say to you?” Anne-Marie asked, piqued.

“She wanted to know why I don’t speak Japanese like a woman. She thought all Americans speak Japanese like women.”

“Is that really true?”

“It’s true that there’s a style of speech appropriate to the way women talk in the presence of men – I mean geishas, and others who are acting as hostesses. Including the women who marry servicemen.”

“I see.” Anne-Marie smiled at the vision of American soldiers speaking in the mincing, giggling tones of geishas. Then she frowned, mock-seriously. “A very primitive culture in some ways, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, yes. My enthusiasm is by no means unqualified.”

 

They talked about other things on the way back to her hotel. He was conscious of babbling, but it seemed impossible to stop once started: “Someday maybe you can show me around. I was on Delos once, some fancy conference, God knows where the grant money came from. But I never got to Crete.”

“You live on an island now,” she said idly. “From what you’ve told me I’d have thought you’d be desperate for city life.”

“Not me, I’m a country squire. Honolulu suits me fine – it’s a cosmopolitan small town, despite its size. If you can picture Dr. Quock’s Acupuncture Clinic next door to the Woolworth Five and Dime.”

She smiled happily. “That’s what I meant by an island culture. My kind of place.”

He smiled with her. “It’s a very small island. I live all the way at the other end, on the beach at Haleiwa, up on the north shore, away from everybody but the surfers. Still, it’s less than an hour’s drive.” He stopped talking a minute, peering through the windshield at the strolling lovers under the ironwoods and the rolling moonlit surf of Waikiki. “The surf is huge up there; it’s like God or the devil beating a drum as big as the world. But it organizes my head for me; it’s a place where I can think.” He glanced sidelong at her, catching her gaze.

She broke the spell, turning her head away and yawning. “Oohh – I didn’t realize.” She smiled sleepily, apologetically. “I’d like to see it sometime.”

He didn’t let his disappointment show. “It must be past four in the morning, your time.”

“Peter, let me take you to lunch tomorrow, okay?”

“Well, but –”

“This is the hotel. Don’t bother to get out.” She had the door open before he’d fully stopped. She swung her legs out.

“Don’t run away. I was just going to say I’d like to show you around TERAC tomorrow, if you’re interested in a busman’s holiday.”

“I’d love to, thank you, Peter.” She sat half turned toward him, her espadrilled feet set firmly on asphalt. “What time?”

“How much sleep do you need?”

She smiled slowly. Then she said, “I really ought to be available if Gardner has lined anything up in the morning. Can I reach you?”

“No, I don’t trust myself to hang around unringing phones. I’ll be at the Halekulani Hotel at one, okay? If you can’t be there, leave a message at the desk.”

“The Halekulani at one.” She leaned toward him, twisting her body to reach him. She let her lips linger next to his for half a second. When he moved toward her she retreated. “Thank you, Peter Slater. And goodnight.”

He stared after her as she moved her tall body gracefully up and out of the tiny car. She stood and walked quickly away, toward the electric pink glare of the Crater Hotel’s neon-lit entrance.