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The Dayside : The Absence of a Cello: A novel about a physicist

Fri Apr 11 16:00:00 UTC 2014

Last May, while browsing in a used bookshop in the historic English town of Tewkesbury, I spotted a paperback novel whose worn spine bore the mysterious title: The Absence of a Cello. Thinking that the novel might be about my favorite musical genre, the string quartet, I pulled it from the shelf. To my surprise, the book turned out to be about a particle physicist. The blurb's first paragraph runs as follows:

Andrew Pilgrim, gifted physicist, needs work. A slight attack of bankruptcy mars his curriculum vitae: otherwise, on paper, he's just the man the Baldwin-Nelson Corporation are looking for.

I bought the book, which was written by Ira Wallach and first published in the US in 1960. Now that I've read it, I can tell you that it's funny, accurate in its portrayal of physicists, psychologically insightful, and relevant to today's job market.

The novel's action takes place in Manhattan—mostly in the Central Park West apartment that the main character, Andrew Pilgrim, shares with his wife, Celia, and their college-age daughter, Joanna. Pilgrim could once afford such expensive lodgings, and a 1931 Rolls-Royce, because he and a fellow physicist, Peter Knowles, had set up a company that undertook research for corporate and government clients.

Ira Wallach's novel The Absence of a Cello was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1964. The original cast starred Fred Clark, Ruth White, Murray Hamilton, Mala Powers, and Ruth McDevitt.

Ira Wallach's novel The Absence of a Cello was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1964. The original cast starred Fred Clark, Ruth White, Murray Hamilton, Mala Powers, and Ruth McDevitt.

The bankruptcy mentioned in the blurb arose because Pilgrim and his cofounder neglected their clients and preferred instead to work on their own research projects (parity violation in weak interactions in Pilgrim's case; orbital mechanics of Jupiter's moons in Knowles's case).

As if to compound Pilgrim's misery, just as he's about to submit his magnum opus on P symmetry violation, he's scooped by "two young Chinese physicists." Wallach doesn't name them, but he surely meant T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang, who demonstrated in 1956 that P symmetry violation was not only possible in weak-force interactions but also detectable. Lee and Yang shared the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.

When the plot begins, Pilgrim faces financial ruin. His one lifeline is the possibility of an R&D job at Baldwin-Nelson, a large company headquartered in Chicago that produces refrigerators and other consumer items. Despite his undoubted talent, Pilgrim is not a shoo-in for the position. To get it, he must win over the company's sanctimonious and inquisitorial personnel chief, Otis Clifton, who insists on evaluating Pilgrim at his home.

The source of the novel's dramatic tension lies in whether Pilgrim gets the job. Coaching him in the ways of corporate America is Joanna's fiancé, Perry Blewitt, who attends the Wharton School of Business. Blewitt warns Pilgrim not to underestimate Clifton:

"You don't know what you're up against, Mr. Pilgrim. Baldwin-Nelson is interested in one major factor: your attitudes, your temperament. They pick at you like a turkey carcass. They try to determine things like your extroversion rating."

The novel's humor comes from Wallach's wry observations of his characters' motivations and the witty words he has them say. One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs when Pilgrim's sister, a young widowed chemist named Marian Jellicoe, buys perfume at a department store in preparation for seducing Clifton. In answer to the salesman's question about what kind of perfume she has in mind, she replies,

"Approach it like this," said Marian. "Imagine that I was locked in a cage in the Rocky Mountains, a hundred miles from the nearest habitation. I spray a little perfume on myself. Within two hours, hundreds of men converge on the cage. They are torn and bleeding because they have fought their way through brambles and briers, waded swamps, and forded rivers. That's the perfume I want."

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Pilgrim is unsuited to a career at Baldwin-Nelson. But thanks to scheming by Pilgrim's sister and his neighbors, the Littlewoods, Clifton reluctantly offers Pilgrim the job. Pilgrim declines it and takes a position at MIT instead. His financial ruin is averted because Clifton, who has formed a romantic attachment to Jellicoe, offers Pilgrim a lucrative consultancy.

Reading the book, I drew on AMC's TV series Mad Men to help me imagine what the characters and the New York City locations looked like. Midcentury Manhattan might seem distant, but Clifton's psychological tests are not unlike the ones that Google subjects its interviewees to. And just last week, Science magazine's Careers department published an article that Clifton would endorse, "The psychology of interviews, part 1: Scrutinizing your personality."

What also hasn't changed is the difference between being an academic physicist and industrial physicist. I have never worked in industry, but I got a taste of its characteristic rewards—and frustrations—when I edited John Waymouth's engaging article, "Physics for profit and fun," which appeared in Physics Today's February 2001 issue. Waymouth's opening paragraph is particularly arresting:

I spent my entire working life using physics to grub for paydirt in an industrial setting. By this I do not mean the central research laboratory of a multibillion-dollar technological conglomerate able to support “pure” curiosity-driven study. I mean the product development laboratory of a nose-to-the-grindstone division engaged in a battle for market share in a rather prosaic industry that nevertheless depended on mastery of some complex and challenging technology. In such a setting, any project that yielded only meeting presentations or publications in refereed journals had to be considered essentially a failure.

I'm not sure if I'm cut out for work in industry. But in retrospect, I wish I could have read Waymouth's article or something like it when I was an undergraduate. Then, I gladly chose to pursue a career in academic research. But because of my ignorance, I cannot say that I rejected a career in industry.

Having enjoyed The Absence of a Cello, I looked for information about its author. Wallach's Wikipedia entry is scanty, but I did find his New York Times obituary, which appeared in December 1995. The headline summarized his career as "screenwriter and author of Muscle Beach."

How Wallach came to know the ways of physicists remains a mystery to me. I can say, however, that my initial hunch about the title of his novel was correct. In the book, Pilgrim plays cello in an amateur string quartet. If he took the Baldwin-Nelson job, the quartet would have a vacancy to fill.

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