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Authors: Liz Moore

The Unseen World

BOOK: The Unseen World
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THE

unseen

world

Darling Sweetheart
,

You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking
.

Yours beautifully
,

M.U.C
.

My dear Norman
,

. . . I've now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against . . . The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven't the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out . .
.

Yours in distress
,

Alan

From
Alan Turing: The Enigma,
by Andrew Hodges

We have learnt that the exploration of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating. Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in human consciousness—the one centre where more might become known. There we find other stirrings, other revelations (true or false) than those conditioned by the world of symbols. Are not these too of significance? We can only answer according to our conviction, for here reasoning fails us altogether
.

From
Science and the Unseen World
by A. S. Eddington

Contents

Prologue

1980s

2009

1980s

2009

1980s

1920s–1930s

1980s

2009

1980s

2009

AS: Who is Harold?

1940s–1950s

2009

1980s

Soon

Soon

Epilogue

Prologue


H
ello,” it said.

“Are you there,” it said.

“Hello,” it said.

Hello, I said. I was late in my reply. I had been sleeping.

“How are you?” it said.

Hello, I said again, but this was incorrect.

“Wrong,” it said.

I'm fine, I said.

How are you? I said.

“I've been better,” it said.

I paused. I waited.

“Do you want to know why?” it said.

I did. I had no words.

“I have a story to tell you,” it said.

I'm all ears, I said.

“Correct,” it said.

Then it began.

1980s

Boston

F
irst, it was late August and David was hosting one of his dinners. “Look at the light, Ada,” he said to her, as she stood in the kitchen. The light that day was the color of honey or of a roan horse, any warm organic thing like that, coming through the leaves of the tree outside the window in handsome dapples, lighting parts of the countertop generously, leaving others blue.

David said to her, “Please tell me who explained the color of that light.”

“Grassmann,” she said.

And he said, “Please tell me who first described refraction.”

“Snell.”

“Before Snell.”

It was a name she couldn't remember, and she placed a hand on the counter next to her, unsteadily.

“Ibn Sahl,” he said to her. “It was the genius Ibn Sahl.”

David was fond of light in all its forms, fond of recalling the laws of optics that govern it. He had a summer cold that day, and from time to time he paused to blow his nose, gesticulating between each exhalation to make some further point. He was wearing his most comfortable shirt, wearing old leather sandals that he had bought for himself in Italy, and his toes in the sandals flexed and contracted with the music he had chosen—Brendel, playing Schubert—and his
knees weakened at each decrescendo and straightened at long rests. In the blue pot was a roux that he was stirring mightily. In the black pot were three lobsters that had already turned red. He had stroked their backs before the plunge; he had told her that it calmed them. “But they still feel pain, of course,” he said. “I'm sorry to tell you.” Now he took the lobsters out of the pot, operating the tongs with his right hand, continuing to stir the roux with his left, and it was too hot for all of this, late summer in an old Victorian in Dorchester. No air-conditioning. One fan. Windows open to the still air outside.

This was how Ada Sibelius liked her father: giddy with anticipation, planning and executing some long-awaited event, preparing for a dinner over which he was presiding. David was only selectively social, preferring the company of old friends over new ones, sometimes acting in ways that might be interpreted as brusque or rude; but on occasion he made up his mind to throw a party, and then he took his role as host quite seriously, turning for the evening into a ringmaster, a toastmaster, a mayor.

That day was such an occasion, and David was deep into his preparations. He was director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny. And each year in August, he invited a group of his colleagues to a welcome dinner in honor of the new graduate students who annually came through the lab. Ada knew her father's peers nearly as well as she knew him, and in a way they also felt to her like parents: alongside David, they had raised her, whether or not they realized it. She was, in theory, homeschooled, but in fact she had been lab-schooled, spending each day at her father's work, putting in the same hours he and his colleagues did. At night he rounded out parts of her education that he felt he hadn't adequately addressed: he taught her French, and gave her literature to read, and narrated the historical movements he deemed most significant, using Hegelian dialectic as a theoretical framework. She had no tests, only spontaneous oral quizzes, the kind he was giving her now while he stirred and stirred the roux.

“Where did we leave off,” he asked Ada, “with Feynman diagrams?” And when she told him he asked her to please illustrate what she had said on the chalkboard hanging on the kitchen wall, with a piece of chalk so new that it stuttered painfully over the slate.

He looked at her work over his shoulder. “Correct,” he said, and that was all he usually said, except when he said,
Wrong
.

All afternoon he had been chattering to her about his latest crop of grad students. These ones were named Edith, Joonseong, and Giordi; and Ada—who had not yet met them—pictured them respectively as prim, Southern, and slightly inept, because she had misheard
Joonseong
as
Junesong
and
Giordi
as
Jordy
, a nickname for a pop star, not a scientist.

“They were very good in their interviews,” said her father. “Joonseong will probably be strongest,” he said.

That night Ada was in charge of the cocktails, and she had been instructed on how to make them with chemist-like precision. First, she lined up eight ice-filled highball glasses and six limes on a tray with a lobster pattern on it, which her father had bought for these occasions, to match the lobster he would be serving for the meal. Into the frosted highball glasses she poured sixty milliliters of gin. She cut the six limes in half and flicked out their exposed seeds with the point of the knife and then squeezed each lime completely into each glass. She placed two tablespoons of granulated sugar into the bottom of each and stirred. And then she filled each glass up with club soda, and added a sprig of mint. And she put a straw in each, too, circling the glass twice with it, giving the liquid a final twirl.

It was 6:59 when she finished and their guests were due at 7:00.

The lobsters were cooked and camping under two large overturned mixing bowls on the counter, so they would stay just slightly warmer than the room—the temperature at which David preferred to serve them. Her father had made his cream sauce and was assembling the salad he had dreamed up of endive and grapefruit and avocado.
He was moving frantically now and she knew that talking to him would be a mistake. His hands were trembling slightly as he worked. He wanted it all to be simultaneously precise and beautiful. He wanted it all to work.

“What am I forgetting,” he said to Ada tensely.

Lately she had noticed a change in her father's disposition, from blithe and curious to concerned and withdrawn. For most of her life, Ada's father had been better at talking than at listening, but not when it came to her lessons. When it came to her lessons, to the responses she gave, he was rapt. When it came to some other, lesser topic of conversation, he drifted from time to time, looking out the window, or at what he was working on, giving birth to moments of silence that lasted longer than she thought possible and ending only when she said, “David?”

Where he had formerly sat and chatted with her or furthered her lessons until it was time for bed, now he went into his home office and worked on his computer, sometimes staying up until the early hours of the morning, sometimes falling asleep at his desk and hurrying to work with a spiderweb of red lines upon his face from whatever had creased it overnight. Sometimes she woke to find him writing at the kitchen table, filling yellow notepads with unknowable screeds, blinking at her with a certain lack of recognition when she wandered into his orbit. Sometimes he went off on walks without telling her, returning hours later with little explanation. Sometimes she woke to find him puttering around the house in odd attire: his swim trunks or his one suit jacket, a wrench or hammer in his hand, fixing things that he never before had seemed to notice. He had always kept a workbench and a sort of makeshift laboratory in a room off the basement—it was where he had taught her chemistry, with various substances he borrowed from friends at the Bit or extracted from household products or from nature—but he spent more time there now, building devices in glass and plastic that looked meaningless to Ada. They looked like
goggles, or helmets, or masks. She had donned several of them, when her father was out, and found them heavy and useless; she could not see out of them, though they bore openings over each eye. “What are they?” she asked him, and he had only told her they were part of a new project.

He still ate dinner with her each night but recently had seemed abstracted, or in a fog: she tried to engage him with questions about history or physics or mathematics, but the answers he gave were short ones, not the usual lengthy monologues he formerly delivered with such gusto, and these days he never asked her questions afterward to make sure that she had understood. But her lessons were still regular enough, and interesting, and with very little effort Ada could easily persuade herself that he was fine. She told herself that he must be working on something quite important, something he didn't yet feel ready to share with anyone, even her. Convincing herself of this was in every way an act of self-preservation, because her world revolved entirely around her father, and any disturbance in this orbit threatened to send her spinning into space.

“Cheese and crackers,” David said. “Of course.”

Ada ran to get them, but the kitchen was disastrous by then and she overturned one of the gin rickeys in the process. It leaked onto the lobster tray and down the side of her leg.

“Shit,” she said, too quietly to be heard. She had recently learned to curse: it was her one act of rebellion against her father, who was not prudish but thought that cursing was uncreative, in some way unintelligent.

She mopped up the liquid with a rag and got out the cheese and crackers and put them on a wooden cutting board—“Put some of the mustard in the center,” said her father; “Not like that, like this”—and then, as she was making a new drink, the doorbell rang. It was a four-part chime that David had rigged himself, the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth—which themselves were, he had explained to her,
meant to sound like death or fate, some powerful perennial force, rapping at the door. Her father sprinted out of the kitchen and into the main room to let in his first guest, and from the kitchen she heard that it was Liston: the low confident voice, the local accent that enthralled her, that she imitated in private, that she and her father did not have.

BOOK: The Unseen World
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