IN WAR TIMES
by Kathleen Ann Goonan
All rights reserved
1941-1943: PHYSICS AND JAZZ
I remember one night before Monroe's I was jamming in a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 140th. It was December 1939. Now, I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there's bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn't play it.
Well, that night, I was working over Cherokee, and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive. —Charlie Parker
"When I first heard Charlie Parker, I said, 'That's how our music should be played . . .I'd never heard anything like him. It was scary! . . . I knew we were making something new. It was magic. Nobody on the planet was playing like that but us.'" —Dizzy Gillespie
DR. ELIANI HADNTZ was only five feet three inches tall, though she had seemed taller in the classroom, and Sam had not suspected that her tightly pulled back hair was a mass of wild black curls until the evening she sat on the edge of his narrow boardinghouse bed. As light from a streetlamp threw her pale breasts into a pre-Raphaelite glow, she reached behind her head and yanked out the combs, made crooked by the intensity of their lovemaking.
Her loosened hair cascaded down her back and hid her face. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and sat with her elbows on her knees staring out the window.
When Sam reached out and ran a finger up her spine, she flinched.
He had no idea why she was here.
Sam Dance was an uncoordinated soldier. To someone less good-natured, his last name, chosen by an immigration officer on Ellis Island a few generations back, might have seemed like a cruel joke.
Sam already stood out because of his height. His intelligence was less visible, but must have been noticed by someone in the Army. Plucked from daily twenty-mile marches through inclement weather in North Carolina, he was sent to D.C. for an intensive course on a potpourri of esoteric subjects. The class met in a hastily assembled temporary structure on the roof of a War Department building.
The subjects, up to now, had been curiously disparate. Codebreaking, mechanical engineering, advanced calculus, and now theoretical physics rushed past, taught by an odd assortment of flamboyant Europeans with heavy accents and accompanied at the end of each week by a test which Sam suspected had to do with aptitude.
Properly appreciative of the warmth into which he had been suddenly deposited, Sam
was always in his seat each morning at seven a.m. when Dr. Hadntz opened the door, set her briefcase decisively on the bare metal desk at the front of the room, and draped her coat and scarf over the back of the desk chair. She always began her lecture immediately, chalking formulas on the board which he was sure represented some of the most rudimentary knowledge that she possessed. She was an exiled physicist from Budapest. The Army, of course, had not provided them with an extensive background, but it was rumored that she had worked with Curie, Wigner, Teller, Fermi. Everyone who was anyone in theoretical physics.
Dr. Hadntz was the fourth instructor in a two-month course which rotated speakers weekly.
He and his classmates were being sorted out. The question was: by whom and for what?
Sam did not know if Eliani Hadntz, as she sat splendorously naked on the side of his bed, her chin in her hand, was reverie-struck, paralyzed by guilt (was she married?), adrift in speculative physics, or wondering what to have for dinner. The steam radiator clanked, and his Crosley, which he had switched on in a fit of awkward nervousness when they entered the room, played "Mood Indigo." Ellington's brilliant melancholia infused the moment.
He realized that he didn't know a thing about Dr. Hadntz except that she was intellectually renowned, part of a generation in which women, in Europe, felt free to follow their own genius to the shrines of physics: Berlin, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Princeton. And that she was part of the mass exodus of physicists escaping the advancing tide of the National Socialists. Dr. Compton, one of Sam's professors in Chicago, had brought Szilard and Fermi, both refugees, to lecture at the University while he was there. They brimmed with a strange mixture of dread and excitement--love of information for its own sake, information that seemed to be unlocking the secrets of the physical world, and fear of the technologies this information might lead to.
Dr. Hadntz rose from the rumpled bed, still deeply contemplative, her hair falling around her like a curtain. Crossing the room, she stood for a moment, still naked, directly in front of the window.
Deeply surprised at her immodesty, Sam jumped out of bed and pulled the blackout curtains shut, certain that she had been fully visible in the glow cast by the streetlight. A bit confused, he tentatively touched her hip, and she shook her head: no. She went into the bathroom, taking her bag. He heard her lock the door to the adjoining room, where a soldier by the name of Mickelmaster got roaring drunk every other night, then she closed Sam's door. Water ran for a few minutes.
She emerged wrapped in a towel and rummaged through the pocket of her overcoat, which hung over the wooden chair in front of the desk. "They have not given you many luxuries here," she said, as she pulled a cigarette from the coat pocket. Her lighter snapped and flared briefly in the dark room.
Sam smiled. "You have no idea." Hot water, warm air, privacy, and electric lights to read by were prized commodities, and he did not know how long he could hold on to them. His inherent sense of tremendous awkwardness returned, a downward sensation like falling from a plane before you pulled the rip cord.
Cigarette dangling from her mouth, Hadntz put her arms through the long sleeves of her white blouse, pulled on lacy underpants. She turned up the volume of the radio. Then she seated herself on the end of the bed, cross-legged, her back resting against the metal footboard. "You said something."
"I mean on Monday. During the first lecture. You asked some very interesting questions."
It was now Saturday evening. Their eyes had met and held on Tuesday, and on Friday they had dinner together.
"Your background is in physical chemistry. You were at the University of Chicago."
"For almost three years." On scholarship; his family was not wealthy, and he had also worked at night in a bakery the entire time he was in school. He had enlisted with great difficulty. Refused twice because of myopia, he finally discovered a car dealer trying to make an enlistment quota in the Indiana suburbs. Most of the other enlisted men in Company C, still no doubt humping heavy packs across North Carolina cotton fields in freezing rain, were mechanics of all sorts and under the direction of the former car salesmen, who had made themselves the company officers.
She pointed her cigarette toward a dark shape in the corner. “Is that a musical instrument case?”
“You play with an orchestra?”
“Jazz.” Sam loved jazz--as did most people his age. It was the popular music of the day. But his devotion was intense, encyclopedic; almost a calling.
“Good. Jazz requires a supple mind.” She leaned toward him. He wanted to ask to share her cigarette, but it seemed too intimate a request and he flushed slightly in the dark. She was, of course, older than the home town girls he knew, and European, but it had still happened so quickly, although certainly not against his will.
She said, "I have been working on quantum processes in the brain."
He did not like to look puzzled in front of her, but he was. "I don't understand."
"No one does. I was a medical doctor, like my mother, and then a Freudian psychologist. Quite briefly, and I decided that it was not the answer. Freud argued with me, but he could not convince me. That was when I became interested in physics."
He could not help computing. She must be at least twenty years older than him. She didn't look it.
She lowered her voice. He could barely hear her over the radio. "How does an atom decide when to emit an electron? I have been working on deciphering what we call consciousness. The quantum nature of our brains; the nature of will. Of course, I am positing that there exists more altruism than not." She frowned. "Or perhaps, just hoping.”
She sucked in her cheeks, drawing from her cigarette. "I am attempting to--not to change human nature, but to try and understand it. So that we can use it to our advantage, as we have used mechanical processes to our advantage. I envision a vast computational network that is capable of helping us make changes according to what is truly best for each one of us. What do we all want? Food, shelter. Love. Hope. Contentment. Challenge. Community. I have had all of these. Because of luck, I have been part of a tremendous intellectual community. But now, most of those people whom I so deeply respect--close colleagues of mine--are working on something that could destroy us all." She sighed. "As could this, perhaps. Nobel and Gatling thought that dynamite and machine guns would ensure perpetual peace, after all. But what is beauty? What is freedom? We all know what they are, even if they sometimes seem impossible to describe. We all want them. Perhaps we can choose, together, among the possibilities, if we combine the best of what we all want."
Abruptly, she got out of bed, crushed her spent cigarette in the heavy glass ashtray on his desk, and finished dressing, her movements impatient; angry. "I have left their project. I regret to say that I have contributed to it in many ways." She looked up at Sam. "We are in a race with the Nazis to create an atomic bomb." A grim, ironic smile quirked briefly. "Does this surprise you?"
Sam had heard rumors of this, had intimations that such a project was underway. Before he'd left the University of Chicago, one of his close friends in the physics department had become involved in some project with Fermi that he couldn't discuss.
Still, he was shocked. “Yes.”
"I could probably be shot just for telling you this directly. I do this because there is so much at stake. We don't know what might happen if a nuclear explosion takes place. It might be never-ending. It could destroy everything; the world."
He stood and grabbed his trousers from the floor, glancing at her as she attached silk stockings to garters and slipped her feet into stylish two-toned high heels. Her black wool suit was cut differently than the ones American women were wearing now, but it was clearly well-made; expensive. Sam found her sexy, scary, enchanting.
"I am always followed, although I think that tonight I have probably given them a good pretext for being here with you alone." As if she could feel his sudden final plummet, she turned and gave him a quick, unexpected hug, rested her head against his chest for an instant, and let go.
Opening her scarred leather valise, she took a manila folder from a huge accordion file that fell open from the lid. As she did so, he saw that in the bottom of the valise was a steel box, about the size of a hardcover book, locked with a heavy padlock. She touched it with her fingertips. "There is only one of these. I created it in Paris. I am not sure how it should be used."
"What is it?"
"I don't know what to call it. For me, it cannot be named." She set the folder on the desk, then closed and locked the valise. "These are the plans. I am leaving them for you to use. The product they will produce requires a catalyst; a chain reaction. This is the reason atomic fusion must take place, but I no longer have time to try and integrate this with the project they all have in mind, the atomic bomb.”
She shrugged into her jacket and buttoned it over her simple white shirt. “My ideas do not matter to them. These scientists and your government are focused on only one goal. I think it is possible that some of my colleagues are simply curious, or drunk with the power of creating something that could destroy the world.”
Handing him the two-inch-thick manila file, she said, “This is not the only copy. I have given this information to several of my friends. But they are all too busy with bombs to even consider it. While I do not blame them, given the gravity of their task, and the speed with which they think it must be accomplished, I am deeply sad that this avenue to peace might be disregarded."
"You would only be intimidated by their names. I believe that you have the ability to understand much of what I am positing, despite the fact that you have had only a few years of college. You asked good questions; you grasped my answers.” She smiled—not to him, but to herself, as she bent to pick up her valise. Then she looked at him. “I should tell you. I gave you a test different from the other tests. It was much more difficult. Your answers were very good. The solutions worked, and you found them using unusual avenues of thought.”
Her hand was on the doorknob.
“Wait.” He put the file on his desk and grabbed his shirt.
She shook her head. “No. I have done all that I can here. My daughter is in Budapest with my parents, and they are in danger. I counted on others to help. They could not.”
"You have a daughter?"
"My only child. She is twelve. My husband was a mathematics professor. He died several years ago. I'm not sure what is going to happen. They don't want to let me go. They tell me that they are doing the best they can to get my family out, but I don't believe them."
"Who is 'they'?"
She dropped her hand from the doorknob, gave him a look he could not read, and kissed him on the lips briefly, then opened the door. Hastily buttoning his shirt, he bent and slipped into his shoes, then grabbed his coat.
"Do not follow, please. I must leave alone. It is important that you do not arouse the interest of those following me. They must think that this was just a sexual tryst.”
He went to the door and watched her go.
In her foreign suit, she looked like a woman from another time and place. As she left the room, she did not look back. The authoritative sound of her heels on the wooden stairs at the end of the hall diminished and vanished.
He closed the door and leaned his back against it, disturbed, exhilarated, and puzzled. Her words had carried powerful admonitions. She knew things that few other people knew. And this amazing woman had entrusted him with this knowledge.
There was nothing much to do but turn on the light and the radio, sit down at the desk, pull out the papers, and try to understand what she had left him.
Dr. Eliani Hadntz was a Magyar Gypsy by blood.
And, she thought, adding to her leather bag a toothbrush, tooth powder, and extra stockings for eventual bribes, a gypsy now by trade. She carefully lowered two hats into a shared hatbox, one flamboyantly red with a large feather, the other small, tailored and black, with a veil, the hat of a completely different woman than the one who would wear the red hat,
In the cosmopolitan climate of Europe in the twenties and early thirties, having exotic blood had been an asset. But being an intelligent woman was even more of an asset. After the war ended in 1918, learning, and steady progress toward that sleek, fabulous future in which machines would one day do away with physical labor, were prized. One stunning scientific discovery after the next was released to the world, where most had not yet even absorbed the basic fact of evolution.
Throughout, though, there was terrible news from the Soviet Union. Her grandmother lived in St. Petersburg and refused to leave. The old lady’s letters to Budapest boiled with anger towards Stalin and fear of the Germans. The Russians could see the German military buildup and were responding in kind. She hoped her grandmother’s fiery letters were still arriving in Budapest, but the chances of that were slim.
The telephone in Hadntz's room rang. She did not answer it, and, finally, it stopped.
The call made her nervous. No one who knew where she was staying, at the Hay-Adams on Lafayette Square in Washington, would call her. The War Department had a messenger who memorized any communiqués she was to receive and delivered them in person. The only person on the street when she left Sam’s rooming house had been a blond woman, probably a prostitute, smoking a cigarette as she leaned against a lamp post.
Dr. Eliani Hadntz had been issued tickets for the night train to Chicago. She was supposed to return to the Manhattan project. Instead, she would go to New York. By tomorrow she would be on a boat carrying munitions to England.
A German, Otto Hahn, had done much of the chemistry work that led to the knowledge that uranium atoms could be split in 1939. His exiled Jewish colleague in this work, Lise Meitner, confirmed the physics. Their conclusion, confirmed by Neils Bohr, was that it was theoretically possible to release previously unimaginable amounts of energy.
That it was possible to create an atomic bomb.
Surely the Germans, knowing this, were far ahead of the United States in this regard. It was a hopeless race.
But she had the stuff of human mind in her briefcase. Not actual, physical brain matter, but data. The roots of all bodily processes, including, therefore, the mechanics of consciousness. This information had to be placed in the hands of those who wished to defeat National Socialism. Those who wanted to retrieve an enlightened, cultured Europe. Those who wished Vienna, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Budapest to continue to contribute to the arts, and to learning. To freedom of mind. There was so little depth here in America. So little time. Everything was so new, less than a few hundred years old.
The labor of millennia was being destroyed overseas, and she was wasting her time here. She could convince no one of the importance of her work. Perhaps they would listen in London. Perhaps not. She had an appointment with British Intelligence, but she couldn’t stay there long, either.
Mr. Dance was the most intelligent of the students she had lectured in the past three months and a lovely, awkward young man. She hoped the material she had given him was convincing, for it was as important as the future of the world.
Her device did not fully work, not yet. The new design was better. It was still imperfect, requiring more research, more thought, more experiments and experience. She had had glimmerings of how the device would perform, and with it had seen vast suffering as well as joyous possibilities. If only she could stay—the United States was truly the center of all that she needed to do and to know to make the device work. But she couldn’t leave her family to fate.
Science had turned its attention, lately, to how life had begun. She felt, sometimes, as if she was using life to create something better than what had ensued--using it to create another level of life, one that would be better for everyone, each according to their own lights, not hers. The optimism felt after the Armistice, when it seemed that war might be over forever, was long vanished. Complete disorder and its attendant suffering was abundant now. Poland was ruined; Russia was being overrun, London staunchly survived beneath a steady rain of bombs. The human world—its social order, its trade, its ability to function—was in chaos, and much worse threatened. It was a mad descent into the worst of what humans could be and do.
She hoped that Dance might understand her paper, the possibilities contained therein, and pursue them. Use them. To create his own device.
She felt a bit worried about seducing Sam Dance. He seemed to take it all much too seriously. She hoped that some day he would understand why she had done it. Besides the fact that he was utterly attractive.
She finished packing; made sure that she had the papers she needed to get her to where she was going.
Then she opened the briefcase and unlocked the steel box inside. Opening it, she took a deep breath, then lifted out her present product.
This time it was resinous, compact, filled with computing power which most of her colleagues would simply not believe possible. Far beyond the top-secret Norden Bombsight, beyond even the new computers nourished by the tycoon Loomis at Tuxedo Park and his friends at MIT, it was informed by a biological computer that communicated with what was called, in certain physics circles, the non-local universe.
In short, if human consciousness was the time-sensitive entity she believed it was, this device could be called a time machine—although that would be a clumsy, inexact way of describing it. It would meld the latest discoveries in physics with the latest discoveries about biology--a connection that very few scientists, with the exclusion of James Watson, ventured to consider.
It was a machine, but it was a machine that affected the physics of consciousness and of human behavior. It could, if distributed throughout the world, possibly affect the course of history. She had invented a device that enhanced a human sense—the sense of time, consciousness itself. It would enable humans to use the constant expansion of the universe, just as the previously invisible power of electricity had been harnessed and was now put to all kinds of positive uses, just as the microscope revealed worlds which before could only be surmised inaccurately, just as x-rays were used by Curie to see what the world was really made of.
She knew, though, that her present device was incomplete, dangerous, a bit like direct current. She still was searching for refinement, for control.
Searching time, searching thought, searching possibilities in which others might call the future. To her they were all just possible avenues of time, which were always occurring without being sensed.
She activated it with a simple switch and felt it whirr gently in her hands. Her fingers rested in hollows she had fashioned for them of a new, permeable, conducting material, which completed the circuit. Now, it would not require the starting boost the switch had given it.
Using her thumbs to turn the dials on the device’s face, she watched her adjustments register as two dots of light that merged into one on the tiny screen. Then she moved her right thumb and took one dot of light into a quadrant that was geometrically described on the bottom of the screen.
She called what then happened to her splintering. Perhaps it was simply imagination. But time stretched around her, dividing and dividing again in motion so fast that it seemed smooth.
This had always been happening—not just to her, but to everyone, though it had been impossible to witness. There were a truly infinite amount of times, spilling like stars into the vacuum, neverending, always expanding. But like microbes and far galaxies, before humans had invented the tools to see them, the inner workings of time were not available to humans.
But splintering was the wrong word, she suddenly realized. It was more like a bloom of matter on some surface, expanding until it linked with other blooms. What was it like? Being a part of it rather than an observer, she could not know. Perhaps it was as if she infused some medium, the medium in which time existed, like a drop of food coloring expanding in treelike tendrils through water, finally losing definition with agitation. Or maybe it was a sudden, softer expansion, but always there was this sense of infusion, and linking, and blending. This awakening of vision and the infinite possibilities to which her present time, in all its boundless descriptives, was a doorway. It just depended on which way she turned once she had gone through it.
What would happen if all these blooms, all these possibilities united, suddenly? If she crossed some edge? If the blooms infused one another? Who or what might she become? How many times could she do this without risking her connection with the present, with her daughter?
Was she simply imagining these other presents, the one in which Hitler died at birth, or another in which the Germans were not sent into poverty to pay for the Great War, another in which her mother set a vase of five roses instead of seven on the lace tablecloth one afternoon in July, 1919? All blooms, all splinters, all soft and sharp at the same time, all of them a decision which could not be made without knowing the possibilities, the outcome, of a single action. The only constant seemed to be her own consciousness, her own point of view.
The phone rang again, penetrating the brilliance, the intensity, of the splintering, where it seemed as if she were living many lives at once. Spent, shuddering, she managed to put down the device and to flick the switch that turned it off. Sweat ran down her forehead.
This world was her present world—the world where Poland had been brutally subjugated, and then, Holland, Norway, Denmark.
To find the possibility of change, she had to go through the steps. Find a catalyst, a place where the very bonds of atoms were broken, loosing particles which until now had been held in place by—by what? Gravity? Time? Were they one and the same? After getting her daughter out of Budapest, she planned to go to Berlin, where surely the Nazis were at work on the atomic bomb. Given their head start, which thus far had given them a great military advantage, they had to have been working on it for several years, and they had to be farther along than the Americans. But if she needed to, she would return to the United States, by any means possible.
She locked up the device and wiped her forehead with a towel she grabbed from the bathroom rack. She looked in the mirror over the sink.
Now, there was a wild woman. She smiled, imagining the dear voice of her mother telling her that she was too thin, that she should not have those hollows beneath her cheekbones, that she should take time from her studies to eat! Her hair, mostly black, but beginning to be streaked with white, fell in spiraling curls down both sides of her face, the lines of which deepened every day. She flattened her hair back and held it with combs, twisted it into a bun, powdered her face, applied bright red lipstick, and looked into brown eyes that seemed to be envisioning vast distances. She did not look like . . . herself. She closed her eyes, pressed her fingers against her eyelids, and looked again.
Donning her scarf and coat, she picked up her bag, her hatbox, and her valise, took the elevator downstairs, and walked through the plush lobby straight into a cab that was waiting for someone else. "Union Station, please," she said.
Sam Dance was a thoughtful person. His mother was deeply religious, from Quaker roots, but he was not remotely so. Still, she had imbued him with a richer sense of the dimensions of humans than most men his age had.
In his robe, he seated himself at his desk and tuned his radio to WLW, which carried clear-channel dance music from Cincinnati. He slowly turned the pages Hadntz had left, trying to absorb it all. Trying to make sense of what had just happened.
Trying to understand this gift.
For gift it was; apparently the life's work of the strangest woman he had ever met. The strangest person of either sex. His mind was pulled along the straight rails of her reasoning as a wrench to a giant cyclotron. He did not know how she had learned what she knew about the genetic basis of life, the quantum nature of the mind. He went over where she had probably been, whom she must have studied with. Freud, she had said. A medical education. Work with x-rays; that much was clear in her computations of the probable structure of something she was calling a parallel spiral. A history of the advances in biochemistry during the first three decades of the twentieth century was included. These ideas amazed him; they had not been taught in school. He learned that some people believed that a molecule called DNA contained the mechanism for passing on hereditary information. Many of the papers in the file had been published. The more recent ones remained unpublished.
He paged through the mechanical drawings and saw a strange object that excited him.
The drawing was not titled—in fact, the edges were ragged, as if all identifying matter had been torn off.
The central part of the object was round, with eight circles projecting from its core. Two vacuum tubes were inserted into the holes on opposite sides – no, three, he saw, studying the side view, where the circle was a rectangle and its innards contained a cathode tube, described by neat lettering. There was no scale in the picture, but judging from the other tubes, this cathode was unimaginably small.
Some kind of generator—one not yet made, that he knew of. An incredibly small electronic miracle. He turned the pages slowly as the night wore on, reading neurology, biology, physics. He read about how in 1928 Frederick Griffith did an experiment with pneumonia bacteria and mice which proved that the molecule of inheritance was DNA, not the protein surrounding it, as others had thought. But what, exactly, was DNA? What did it look like, how did it actually work? An unpublished paper by Dr. Eliana Hadntz asserted that, based on X-ray chrystalography photographs she had made of the DNA molecule, it had to have a structure like a curving ladder, which separated and integrated itself into other such structures in order to pass its information on. She had apparently just completed this paper when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
Gradually, he realized that she was trying to figure out what life was, and how it differed from matter. She was a medical doctor and also a physicist; she was trying to unite the two disciplines and devise a technology that would harness the power of human memory, human thought, of whatever consciousness was, on a very fine physical level, in the realm of quantum mechanics.
His room grew cold, and he neglected to bang on the radiator.
He forgot to eat until it was far too late to do so.
He fell asleep at the desk, and woke at five-thirty in the morning.
He went to the window where she had stood, raised the window to a shock of cold, and leaned into darkness.
Everything--his understanding of the nature of life and of time—had changed for him. Overnight.
Several hundred miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, six Japanese aircraft carriers rolled on mountainous swells, awaiting orders.
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