Only when the Frenchman extended his left instead did Harold notice how
his right hung limply at his side.
It was a machine both awesome and monstrous, steam driven, with a wheel of
unearthly mass and proportions that spun eternally and without sound.
Of Imaginary Airships and Minuscule Matter|
by Gary W. Shockley
"The world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities."
1. An Aéronaute Preens Before the Masses
Top-hatted and mustachioed gentlemen in frock coats and corseted ladies in flowing gowns crowded an expansive meadow near Saint Cloud. Colorful parasols sprouted like exotic fungi among flowery hats, ready for whatever the overcast might bring. Near the spot wherea hundred years pasta Sénat delegation had offered Napoleon the imperial crown, the celebrated Marquis Victor d'Arlandes pontificated to the crowd. Sporting a grand cape and triangular hat, he used a long black horn to catapult his voice to the most distant vagrant taking a piss on the trunk of a box elder. In sharp contrast to his flamboyant gestures, his majestic airship Ville de Paris nodded off to sleep behind him then reawakened, a vague bucking in the morning mist as air currents began to stir. A dozen mooring lines slackened and drew taut by turns about the launching platform, upon which stood a mechanic in striped shirt and sport cap topping off the two eight-horsepower Daimler engines.
The time was August, the year 1899. It was the eve of the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion, of electric lights and escalators. Emile Loubet ruled France on the promise of resolving the Dreyfus Affair. Victory in the Spanish-American War would soon win McKinley a second and tragic term. Germany's military might was growing under Kaiser Wilhelm II, while England's eighty-year-old Queen Victoria had myopic eyes only for South African gold. Impressionism flourished. Anarchists stalked the world's leaders. And despite Pope Leo XIII's open condemnation of all exploits aerial, one Henri Deutsch de la Muerthe had put up a large prize for the first flight of ten kilometers in thirty minutes ranging from the Aéro Club de France at Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back.
Marquis Victor d'Arlandes fully intended, within the hour, to win that prize.
2. The Fulcrum of the Air
"Doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door."
"His bag could do with a little more buoyancy, don't you think?"
Harold Roth glanced aside at the lady who had spoken. She was tall, dressed in a double-breasted mink polo coat with large patch pockets. Beneath the daring elliptical brim of a plumed felt hat, she sported an intense, studied look.
"He'd do well to gain steerageway quickly, with those oaks downwind," continued the lady, her diction precise and very British. "Perhaps if he took off upwind and under power, to derive lift from the fulcrum of the air"
"Upwind?" scoffed the tall, middle-aged gentleman at her side, speaking French. Wearing top hat and monocle, his goatee tinged with gray, he had a suave and sophisticated air about him. "All seasoned aéronautes know to launch downwind, powering up only at altitude." He turned rather brusquely away from her, startling Harold with a stare both studious and aloof. In barely accented English, he pronounced, "You are an American."
Taken aback, Harold said, "I hope some rudeness didn't give me away." He then sought to change the subject. "I chatted with the marquis early this morning. He'd intended more hydrogen but had trouble with the valves."
"Then he should have aborted," said the Frenchman. "But being the grand showman and a fool besides, he fears only the disappointment of the crowd." The Frenchman studied him a moment longer. "Surely you did not come all this way for this bit of nonsense."
"There's other food on my plate," Harold assured him, growing uncomfortable under the Frenchman's steady gaze. He hesitated. "Are you an aéronaute?"
The Frenchman laughed, and that was when the lady turned to place a capeskin glove on the Frenchman's sleeve.
"Permit me to introduce my rather stodgy and ill-mannered companion, Professor Gabriel Lippmann. He's of the mathematical physics department at the Sorbonne, and Chief Scientist at the Sorbonne's Laboratories of Physical Research."
Impressed, Harold Roth reached out to shake the man's hand. Only when the Frenchman extended his left instead did Harold notice how his right hung limply at his side. "This is an honor," he said, switching hands. "The name's Harold. Harold Roth."
"As for his excuse for being here," continued the lady, "he is on an endless quest for the science and technology of tomorrow, being chairman of the steering committee for next year's Universal Expositionwhich promises to be a grand event. Isn't that right, Professor."
"The marquis had promised me his airship a month ago," lamented the professor. "I had already set aside exhibit space. But suddenly he wants to vie for Le Prix l'Allemagne, fearing someone will beat him to itwhen I daresay we are years from seeing that. Now I must wait, knowing only too well the fondness these mad aéronautes have for crashing their machines on maiden voyages."
"There must be other airships about," said Harold. "Isn't there a Santos-Dumens having some measure of success?"
"Ah," said the lady. "Alberto Santos-Dumont."
"The 'aérostatic sportsman,'" hissed the professor. "How can we take him seriously when he doesn't himself?"
"But of course, he is Brazilian," said the lady, "and our professor so wants a French airship."
"Well, we are putting on this Exposition."
"He forgets sometimes that I am English," she said in a mock aside to Harold. "Not to mention his own German ancestry."
"One's surname means little these days," retorted the professor. "I was born in France and am Frencha fact more people should accept about Dreyfus. As for the Germans, I will not deny their technological wizardry, but they remain hopelessly misguided. Two years ago at Tempelhof I watched an airship make its maiden voyage. A beautiful enough machine, but constructed entirely of aluminium? Not just the frameworkthe envelope as well! A metal airship, can you believe it?"
"It flew," the lady said softly.
"Indeed, with enough hydrogen one can lift a continent. But to what end? It rose just high enough to ensure its total destruction upon falling back to earth."
"Try mentioning Ferdinand to him," she whispered with a roll of her eyes.
"Count von Zeppelin?" seethed the professor, fully addressing the American. "Wealth and government backing cannot compensate for implausible ideas. He's hoarding aluminium even now, no doubt, to construct an even greater metal monstrosity. Whatever comes out of Frieddrichschafen will make for a thunderous calamity."
"My dear professor so disdains inherited wealth," the lady translated. Then, with a mischievous smile meant only for Harold, she said, "Of course, there are always the Americans."
"Americans?" exclaimed Professor Lippmann, eyeing Harold closely. "Would you tell me the Americans have something airworthy?"
She winked at Harold and whispered, "Do lead him on a bit."
Harold looked from the lady to Professor Lippmann, who watched him keenly. "Nothing worth mention."
As the lady expressed disappointment with a pout, he sought to redirect the conversation. "Count von Zeppelin won't make his entire ship aluminumjust the framework. While largesome four hundred feet longit should still have sufficient lift with all the gas bagsseventeen in number, I believe."
Professor Lippmann and the lady exchanged surprised looks.
"You have seen it?" asked the professor.
"Well, only briefly."
The professor and lady gave him a closer scrutiny.
"Mr. Roth," said the lady. "Might you be an aéronaute?"
"My grandfather lived to be eighty-three," Harold said with a chuckle, "and I've a good mind to follow in his footsteps." His broad smile dissipated under their solemn looks.
"Then I daresay you are a fellow scientist," concluded the professor.
"Only a bit of a dabbler in things scientific."
Professor Lippmann and the lady glanced at each other and then back to him, clearly puzzled by his vagueness. Then, in the growing silence, they turned back to the matter at hand, as did the discomfited American.
3. An Airship Dents the Ground
"The individual and the race are always moving; and as we drift into new latitudes, new lights open in the heavens more immediately over us.
Edwin Hubbell Chapin
As the Daimlers sputtered to life, the Marquis d'Arlandes at last deemed it wise to cut short his pronouncements on the airy realms and attend to the business at hand. Climbing into the skeletal spruce undercarriage, he applied a firm but gentle hand to the controls. The winglike stabilizers rose and fell to his alternating tugs. Then, with a final operatic wave, he commanded the hordes clutching the mooring lines to let go.
The Ville de Paris canted slowly into the air. The outer envelopea vast and profound stitchwork of ox intestineswobbled but maintained form. With engines asputter and mooring lines snaking behind, the airship drifted through the mist like some somnambulant, snoring Medusa. A blinding flash startled an already astonished crowd, followed twice more, as daguerrotypists recorded the event for all time. The two flimsy spruce-and-fabric airscrews churned faster as the throaty growls of the Daimlers rose in pitch. But the airship, seeking height with lame flaps of its stabilizer-wings, achieved only an odd tilt. The Marquis d'Arlandes flailed about for a better hold as the airship then stood on end. In this rather comical orientation, with the marquis's personal effects raining down on the crowd and a dropped anchor clattering ineffectually across the meadow to snare only weeds, the Ville de Paris commenced a rapid drift downwind. In desperation the marquis slipped to the rear of the undercarriage and dangled over the edge, where he gripped a mooring line. But whether from a change of heart or a loss of nerve, he still clung there as the airship engulfed a stately oak. The inner ballonetts ruptured with successive whoofs, the vast cigar-shaped bag buckled and sagged, and the sputtering engines ceased, unveiling the deathly whisper of flames.
4. An Aéronaute Is Not Saved
"All that is vital is irrational."
Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Francophile
Harold Roth was first to arrive on the scene. While the airbag burned furiously in the treetop, the undercarriage with its two outboard engines had settled into a ghastly tangle against the trunk. Just visible beneath the wreckage were the marquis's legs. Without thinking, Harold lunged forward even as the smoldering spruce caught.
"He's gone, man! Save yourself!" someone shouted from behind.
Pulling his jacket up about his head to protect against the intense heat, Harold latched onto a military boot and pulled hard. The marquis did not budge, and the boot merely slipped off. Tackled and dragged backwards, he at last recognized his assailant as Professor Lippmann.
"His face. Look at his face!" barked the professor, helping him up.
Now with a better view, Harold saw death mitigating the marquis' steely gaze, his neck clearly broken. For a moment he and the Frenchman stood side by side, breathing hard, mesmerized by the sight of a service ribbon from the campaign of 1870 igniting in the marquis's top buttonhole. Then the stench of roasted flesh drove them back into the crowd of onlookers.
"What has happened?" cried the lady, running towards them. "Is the Marquis hurt?"
The professor stepped into her path and used his good arm to clutch her to his chest. "No, no, this is not a sight for you."
"Why should men have privileges of sight denied to women?" she protested. "Now let me see."
At first the professor held firm, but under her continued objections he finally stepped aside. She took a step past him and fainted.
"Stronger willed than suits her constitution," said the professor as Harold knelt at her side. "She'd do well to remember she's a woman. Now, I must allow that, with this devilish arm of mine, I cannot perform the chivalrous act of carrying her to that protective copse yonder; so if you would be so kind
Harold leaned tentatively over the lady, intimidated not only by her handsome countenance but her wealth of puffed finery. Protecting her from trampling by the encroaching crowd, he made several clumsy attempts to gingerly lift her up.
"Poor Marquis d'Arlandes," said the Frenchman, looking past him at the burning wreckage, rapidly becoming a souvenir stand for swarming spectators. "It was his unfortunate fate to find a patron in President Loubet's grandnephew, being his gunsmith, who amply funded his mad dash to self-destruction." Seeing Harold's difficulties, he scolded, "She's out cold, man. Treat her as you would a sack of potatoes."
Embarrassed to boldness, Harold scooped her up. As he did so, a handbill slipped from his pocket.
"I have it," said Professor Lippmann, stooping to retrieve it.
Though Harold extended his hand to take it back, Professor Lippmann either did not notice or pretended not to.
"I've seen them come and go, these aéronautes with their grand ships," said the professor as they retreated across the meadow. "When I was five, I watched Pierre Jullien fly a clockwork-powered model right over there at the Hippodrome. At seven I could not read enough about Henri Gifford's 'aerial steamer,' which, with its big boiler and mere three-horsepower engine, functioned only in a dead calm. Then came Etienne Lenoir's invention of the gas engineI was fifteen thenwhich some expected to bring airships into the mainstay. Only there were problems." He waved the handbill absently about. "Always problems. How the years slipped by, too many, with disturbing recidivist tendencies. When I was twenty-seven, the French navy tested an airship powered not by any engine but cranks and gears turned by eight sailors liberally fuelled with rumhardly an inspiring sight. At thirty-three I read of an aerial bicycle invented by one of your fellow Americans, Charles Ritchel. Then came the Tissandier brothers with the promise of electric power, flying one such in '83, hopelessly doomed by its massive batteries. Renard and Krebs took the same approach a year later with La France, faring little better."
"Not enough power, that's always been the problem," murmured the lady. "Daimler could have made all the difference."
Harold stopped, startled. The lady's eyes remained closed. "How long have you been conscious?"
"That question presumes I was ever unconscious."
"She sports with you to cover her weakness," said the professor. "You'd do well to just drop her on her derriere."
"Should I put you down?" he asked.
Her eyes opened, the color of blue mist. "Perhaps you should. And then I will introduce myself, since our dear professor seems to lack the proper manners to do so."
Putting her down, he helped steady her, for she was still shaky.
"Adeline Murphy." She extended her hand. "A student of Professor Lippmann's, and most fortunate that he puts up with my constant inferior notions."
"She is too humble," said the professor, appearing to have missed her wry tone. "Not only is she my best student but my chief assistant these past three years."
"Your hand!" Adeline exclaimed, noticing it as they shook. "You've burned yourself!"
"It's nothing, really."
She opened her bag and pulled out salve and bandages. "I came prepared, as you can seethough poor Marquis d'Arlandes, he was beyond help."
As she tended to his injury, Harold asked what she meant about Daimler.
"Back in '87, Gottlieb Daimler designed a two-horsepower engine for Karl Wolfert's airship," she said. "It showed a lot of promise, but Wolfert ran out of funds and Daimler
Well, he turned his back on airships, because he didn't see much money in them, and chose instead to focus on the motorcar."
"Savvy businessman as well as brilliant inventor," said the professor. "Let us not be too critical of his Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft enterprise. Besides, power isn't the only obstacle. The air is a flimsy and fickle medium against which to apply leverage, and inadequate control surfaces have been the downfall of many an airship. It will be years before maneuverability is mastered.
"I daresay," the professor interrupted himself, at last looking at the handbill. "This is a marvelous bit of nonsense. Is this to be another stop on your unspecified journey through our land?"
Harold tensed. "I thought it might be of some interest, yes."
"What is it?" asked Adeline.
To Harold's consternation, Professor Lippmann handed it to her even as they resumed their walk across the field.
"Psychical research?" she exclaimed. "That clairvoyance stuff, spirit communications, card-guessing?"
"A lively affair, so I've been told," said Harold.
"Lively?" She handed the handbill back to him as if it were infected with the plague. "Well, certainly full of, uh, unusual people."
They walked onward in silence until they reached a motorcar. Harold had not seen its like before.
"Daimler's latest," remarked Professor Lippmann, fitting a meter-long engine crank into the front grooves. "Listen."
The engine started on the third try, surprising Harold with its chugging tuff-tuff. "That's more than two cylinders."
"Four," said the professor with obvious delight. "And look here." He kicked a wheel. "Latest from the Michelin brothers. Low-pressure balloon tires. Perhaps now I'll make it through a week without a flat." He stepped up onto the mudguard and swung in behind the steering stick. "Won't be out until next year. A Mercedes, I believe he intends to call it."
"See how deeply in Daimler's pocket our professor is?" said Adeline, climbing in as well. "Do take care of that hand."
"I daresay," said the professor, gazing out across the field at smoke darkening the mist. "Some good has come of all this. For a full hour I've heard no mention of l'Affaire."
Harold eyed him for some further clue. "L'Affaire?"
As Adeline broke into exuberant laughter, the professor frowned deeply at her and then him, then put the Mercedes in gear and chugged off.
5. The 17th Congress of Psychical Studies
"It is curious to note the old sea-margins of human thought. Each subsiding century reveals some new mystery; we build where monsters used to hide themselves."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Of all the great salons in Paris, none could equal that of Princess Mathilda, niece of the first Napoleon, cousin of the third. Attending her weekly soirées at 18 rue de Berri were such luminaries of literature, music, and philosophy as Gustave Flaubert, Prosper Merimee, and Guy de Maupassant. Theophile Gautier served as her official librarian, and Louis Pasteur was known to attend, as well as a pale and fragile young man with a peculiar affectation for effusive and voluminous praise named Marcel Proust.
But by 1899 her salon was greatly diminished. Her chateau now had the look and feel of a museum, from the looming bronze statue of Napoleon in the foyer to the wall panels carved with garlanded N's, to the table settings with their eaglet motifs overseen by an immense gilded-eagle centerpiece. Not a room lacked in some bust, portrait, etching, or miniature of the great emperor. Her obsession distressed close friends, who thought she was trying to resurrect him to belatedly make his acquaintance, for she had been but three at the time of his passing.
Perhaps for that very reason she invited the 17th Congress of Psychical Studies to take place in her grand ballroom, rumor having it that, of lateand despite her cold practicalityshe had indulged in a séance or two.
In a fit of optimism, the sponsors of the event had packed the ballroom with three-hundred chairs, arrayed in a semicircle about a platform once reserved for orchestras but now displaying a lonely lectern. Esteemed Dr. Robert Tundley, founder of the London-based Society for Psychical Research, gave the opening address, encouraging all present to maintain an open mind throughout. That he should feel obliged to stress this point was understandable, for the event had been touted as one of keen scientific interest, drawing among its hundred-odd attendees a number of scientists (who alas seemed more interested in the estate's interior than the event itself) as well as several well-known skeptics.
Among those in attendance that bright morning was William Thomas Stead, an English journalist and reformer with an abiding interest in psychic research; Georges Claude, a French chemist and physicist already at work on the neon light; and Professor Pierre Curie, who with his wife, Marie, had discovered the elements polonium and radium the year before.
While neighboring mansions would shine brightly well after dusk, thanks to electric lights, Princess Mathilda refused to indulge in such a modern contrivance. The sun itself was invoked that morning to illuminate her ballroom, its rays spilling erratically through panes of seventeenth-century glass in the high lancet windows. Chandeliers sparkled, the lectern was put in good light, and dust motes danced through thick curls of pipe smokewhich diminished as gentlemen began noticing the growing presence of ladies.
Though he had arrived early, Harold Roth sat far to the side and several rows back. Country raised and accustomed to elbow room, he discouraged others from sitting too near by scribbling with near-maniacal intensity in a small notebook. It seemed to work, for as Dr. Tundley finished and the proceedings got underway, several seats remained empty to either side.
There would likely have been a good deal of tittering from the very start had it not been for Princess Mathilda's presence. Though her "throne" had been placed near the back of the audience on a small daisat her behest, for she felt it only proper to remain inconspicuous at such a functionshe remained intimidating. Her countenance, once lovely and much adored, had succumbed to age and now resembled nothing so much as a bulldog. Still, her shoulders remained lovely as ever, displayed to full effect in a décolletage à la baignoire.
As the presentations began, Harold experienced a growing disappointment. From the mesmerist who awakened past lives in his subjects to the twin sisters who could feel each other's pain when poked with pins, he found each demonstration painfully lacking in scientific rigor, failing in any way to address the possibility of fraud.
Midway through a séance performance, as spirits were being summoned from the grave, he became aware that two people had sat down next to him, one to either side and in the same instant. It struck him as almost too coincidental. But he kept his eyes fixed directly ahead, having no desire for company, until suddenly, from his right, he heard a startled exclamation.
"Good God, man! You should not write so small!"
Glancing aside, Harold went cold. It was Professor Lippmann.
"Someday, when your eyes weaken, you will regret it."
Harold looked down at what he had written. Admittedly, he had put on one page what others might put on four. A faint waft of perfume prompted a glance to his left. Adeline sat there, looking impassively ahead, her chin lifted more than what seemed comfortable or even decent.
"What a surprise," Harold whispered, not quite conveying a tone of welcome.
"For the sake of the Exposition," murmured Adeline, eyes straight ahead, "Professor Lippmann will sample even the most dubious of sciences and from all corners of the worldincluding, it would seem, death and beyond."
The next presenter was an old lady professing the ability to read the time on her pocket watch through its closed face. Though she let members of the audience set it, she kept it ever in her hand.
This proved too much even for Princess Mathilda. She rose quietly from her throne at the back of the room, and, though she exited without the barest swish of her exquisite gown, she could not have drawn more attention had she shouted and stood on her head.
After her departure, decorum faltered, murmurs and titters increased noticeably, and the crystal chandelier seemed to vibrate to the occasional outright laugh.
As the watch lady at last finished and stepped slowly from the stage, Adeline whispered, "What have you thought so far of all this, Mr. Roth?"
Harold gave his ear a measured rub. "Perhaps a selection committee could enhance next year's congress with some judicious culling."
"Politely spoken," said Professor Lippmann.
Meanwhile, the moderator, Dr. Tundley, had again taken the lectern. "We have with us today a gentleman new to our ranks, someone who comes all the way from America to share with us some extraordinary ideas. Please let us welcome Mr. Harold Roth."
"Uh." Harold began to gather up his papers. "That would be me." He stood up only to have his quill and inkbottle fall to the floor, followed by a cascade of papers. As Adeline helped retrieve them, she gave him a half-quizzical, half-amused look.
6. The Great Airship of 1897
"The whole affair is due to hypnotism and bad whiskey."
Dr. E. Stuart of Ennis, Texas, April 18, 1897
"I am here to confer with you on a matter of some peculiarity," began Harold, hoping his French would prove passable. "At issue is an airship of advanced design, performing seemingly impossible maneuvers, and with a penchant for mischief and subterfuge, reported by a great many people. The descriptions vary. Some say it had turbine wheels and a glass section. Others insist they heard orchestra music spilling from a luminous passenger undercarriage. Some saw an anchor dragged along on a long rope, snagging various objectsand not always inanimate. Still others saw it land and the crew emergehuman by some accounts, fantastically strange by others.
"By all accounts, this great airship, sweeping the countryside with its powerful beacons, made a grand tour of the United States in the spring of 1897."
A murmur spread through the crowd.
"Monsieur Roth," said a gentleman, rising. "Forgive this interruption, but did you specify the United States of America?"
"That is correct." Over the audience's unruly chatter and someone's shout of "Preposterous!" he pressed on.
"The most ready explanation, of course, is that the airship was a hoax. No doubt that possibility has occurred to many of you. And such was my initial stance when I embarked on an investigation of the matter back in '98. Indeed, hoaxes prevailed as I looked into the most sensational sightings, spawned by bored railroad men, mischievous telegraph operators, and sensationalistic newspapers. Likewise, my attempts to locate the owner, backers, and skilled crewnot to mention the remarkable craft itselfled nowhere.
"But if one bothers to look past this veneer of nonsense, discounting the few-score mischief-makers and perpetrators of a hoax, one sees a glimmer of substance, a mystery deserving of serious study. Tens of thousands claim to have seen the airship. In interviewing three hundred forty-five of these witnesses, I have found myself greatly perplexednot so much by what they saw, though that is certainly incredible, but by the sincerity of their convictions."
"Professor Antoine-Henri Becquerel," a man introduced himself, rising in the front row, "of the Académie des Sciences. Tell me, Mr. Roth. Did you yourself see this airship?"
The crowd seconded the man's question then grew quiet, all eyes on Harold.
"No, I did not."
The outburst was deafening, above which Professor Becquerel shouted, "Then how can you possibly believe in it?"
For some time now, Harold had been aware of the growing hostility of the audience. At first he had attributed it to his poor French, then to a failure to order the material in the best possible way. But as he looked at the many faces before him, most of them French, and at Professor Becquerel, who still stood, he realized a more fundamental problem. Though certainly not his intent, he was disparaging the French peoplewho prided themselves on their aerial supremacywith the bold notion that the Americans might somehow have taken the lead.
He was succeeding only in insulting an entire nation.
Harold waited for the crowd's reaction to subside. Then he countered, "Yet, Professor Becquerel, you champion the notion that uranium rocks can generate energy from nothing?"
The Frenchman hesitated but an instant. "That is true. But it is based on sound experiments using the principles of science."
"Can we not deduce the existence of this airship from the observations of several thousand expert witnesses?" Harold posed. 'Existence' was too strong a word, he realized belatedly, but this was hardly the time to go back and split hairs. He held up a sheaf of papers. "Signed affidavits by judges, police officers, clergymen, community leaders of every kindcountless people with sterling reputations, all with one thing in common. They saw a great airship."
As he attempted to read select passages from the affidavits, he found his voice drowned out by jeers. He felt immensely frustrated, barely into his paper and yet to voice his hypothesis on the phenomenon. Left with little choice, he called out, "Thank you for your time and attention!" then gathered up his papers and returned to his seat.
He had faced hostile audiences before, though never one composed of so many distinguished scientists. The cold reception should not have surprised him. It came with the territory. His topic was controversial, not only threatening scientific dogmas but notions of common sense. But what bothered him most, and inexplicably so, was the discovery, upon returning to his seat, that Professor Lippmann and Adeline had chosen not to stay.
7. A Game of Tennis Is Enjoined
"I am busy with sights on Jupiter, and it would be too troublesome to change to look at this new thing."
Professor Hough of Northwestern University, April 10, 1897 (asked to train his telescope on the airship)
The following morning, sound asleep beneath half a dozen blankets in an abysmally cold room at the Hôtel Concorde Saint-Lazare, Harold Roth woke to a knock at the door. It was the maître d'hôtel bearing a telegram. He could think of any number of associates who might know his whereabouts and be trying to contact him, but this was another matter entirely.
Dear Mr. Roth:
Please meet me on the Champs-Èlysées, near Place de l'Etoile in the park opposite Métro construction if you know the game of tennis and would care to chase a few badly hit balls. Shall we say ten?
Arriving at Place de l'Etoile, Harold spotted Adeline standing in the park among the chestnuts, wearing a white hat and ankle-length dress, bouncing a ball on a racket.
"So you did come," said Adeline. "I had begun to wonder."
He had lost his way twice, baffled by Paris' system of boulevards, and finally hailed an omnibus pulled by four immense horses, which he rode in only briefly, beginning to suspect the high fare, after which he walked the rest of the way. "I half suspected it was a prank," he said, pulling the telegram out. "It's marked as if it came from London."
"Merely from the Sorbonne," Adeline assured him, "after which it traveled through two hundred fifty kilometers of wire to Marconi's new wireless station at Wimeroux, fifty kilometers across the Channel to the wireless at South Foreland, then through another seventy-five kilometers of wire to an associate of mine in London, where it got relayed back along much the same route but to the Hôtel Concorde Saint-Lazare. Isn't technology wonderful?"
Harold gave her an uncertain look, then took the racket she handed him and went to the far side of the net.
He had played some tennis in the States and thought himself decent, but Adeline quickly shattered that notion. Not only did she demonstrate superior skills but an alarming tenacity bordering on the unladylike.
At the end of the first game, which Adeline won handily, they took what was for him a much-needed breather. As he toweled off, Adeline leaned against a tree, appearing preoccupied, twirling her racket between her palms. "Le Petit Parisien mentioned you," she said at last.
He found the idea of that fatuous daily squeezing a mention of him among its stories on crime and fashion disturbing; and he half suspected Adeline had brought it up as an insult. Then, perhaps realizing the import of her words, she added, "We stayed nearly to the end, you should know. A very interesting paper."
"A difficult one to present," he said. "Not helped by my bad French."
"You did well, all things considered. But tell me. How did you come to be an occultist?"
Harold had to swallow hard. "I am not an occultist."
"I see. Perhaps you could explain the difference between what you are and what an occultist is."
Harold bounced the racket against his knee, calming down. "For one, I subscribe to the scientific method."
"But you seem to be open to a great many things. Psychic phenomena. Spirit communication. Supernormal powers"
"Most of what I saw yesterday did not impress me," Harold said. "Still, a scientist cannot afford to be a bigot."
Returning to the court, she cast back, "Is that what I sound like?"
He returned to his side. "Data ought not be judged on the basis of how well it fits one's preconceived notions."
They played several points, Adeline taking five to his one.
"So you truly believe this grand American airship was real," she said, bouncing the ball in preparation for a serve, "even though no airship its equal exists even today."
He returned her serve, only to have her volley past him into a corner. "I won't claim it was real in the same sense as, say, this tennis racket. But neither will I accept that those thousands of witnesses were lying, or deluded by some sort of mass hysteria, which seems a popular diagnosis for most ills these days."
"You talk in riddles. Was it a figment of their imaginations or did it have a material existence?"
Seeing her hard serve, he returned it equally hard, surprising himself with the point. "You ignore the in-between."
She laughed, going after the ball. "You are an occultist. You just don't want to admit it."
"And you should read some books on the human mind," he called to her. "It's a vast, untapped, and largely misunderstood realm that all too many scientists seem terrified to venture into."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Roth," she said, returning to toss him the ball. "But I see only a great vacuum in that region when I attend events such as yesterday's. These unscientific minds are ever imagining themselves in possession of special powerscommunicating with a spirit world, or the devil, or a godanything to compensate for their lack of scientific knowledgenot to mention to bolster their hopes for immortality by fabricating an afterlife." She continued talking even as they volleyed. "A liberal application of Occam's razor would do the world good. For people have multiplied entities far past necessity, creating make-believe spirits and ghosts and even gods, all of which have an uncanny knack for vanishing when subjected to scientific scrutiny."
Harold dove for a looper she put just over the net, ending up on the ground and not for the first time. "You can get badly nicked using Occam's razor," he said, rubbing an elbow.
He climbed to his feet, tossed her the ball, and readied himself. "An invaluable tool, granted, but too often misapplied. It doesn't work well in data-poor circumstances."
"Data-poor circumstances. Perhaps you could give a for instance." She served one hard down the middle, a clear ace.
Harold started after the ball but then turned back to her. "Suppose," he said, "you were blindfolded and placed before an elephant, and the only part you were allowed to touch was its trunk. What would you guess it was? A snake, perhaps. That would be sensible, based on your limited perception. If you were to guess an elephant, that would violate Occam's razor. After all, a snake is a far simpler explanation for what you have felt. And yet"he lifted his racket quizzically"what is it that stands before you?"
"You have tailored an extreme example," said Adeline.
"I think not." He retrieved the ball and tossed it back to her. "In place of the elephant, let's substitute reality. How much do we know about that? How much have we felt of it?"
"More than its trunk, I assure you, Mr. Roth." She served hard, and he barely returned it, after which she slammed it smartingly into his stomach. "Sorry. But I dare say more than 95 percent of the universal mechanism stands revealed; and in another ten years we shall know better than 99 percent. To suggest otherwise demonstrates only a vast scientific naivete, an affliction all too common in these technological times."
They engaged in a long volley, which Harold lost on another of Adeline's sneaky taps just over the net. Huffing, he asked, "What is time?"
"Time itself? Merely an ordering principle, nothing more, nothing real."
"A mechanism of consciousness for parceling up existence?" he asked.
She nodded, catching the ball he tossed her. "That seems a reasonable enough way of putting it."
"But what is time exactly? You haven't described the mechanism in the brain that manufactures time."
About to serve, she paused.
"And what about consciousness?" continued Harold. "How is it seated in the mind? For that matter, what is mind? How do we think? What constitutes a train of thought? What about memory? Do we know how that works? And identity. Here we stand, you and me, and while I see everything from my perspective, you see things from yours." Squinting with the effort to envision, Harold asked, "What is it that makes you you and me me?"
She served, but he made no try for it, instead concluding, "Until scientists can answer a good many of these questions, I can't pass judgment on the existence or lack thereof of spirits, ghosts, demons, gods" He stopped, seeing Adeline's bemused smile.
"You are a philosophical sort, aren't you, with far more complexity than I at first gave you credit for. But please, let's be serious about our play."
Though Harold kept hoping to prevail, he felt fortunate getting three points in game two of the second set.
As they took another break, more for his benefit than hers, Adeline said, "Philosophy is all well and good, Mr. Roth. But you'd profit more with a diligent study of the hard sciences, to broaden your understanding of the physical world."
He rubbed his lower back, which had begun to ache. "I've had my share of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and the like, Miss Murphy, at the University of Glasgow in your neighboring Scotland"
Adeline lifted an eyebrow.
"where I had the good fortune to meet William Thomson. Perhaps you've heard of him."
"You're referring to Lord Kelvin?"
Harold nodded. "He gave me some vocational advice: the field of physicsmy chosen fieldwas all but mined out, and if I had any serious ambitions, I should go into a more promising field."
"Lord Kelvin said that?"
"A visiting lecturer told us much the samea von Helmholtz from the Physico-Technical Institute in Berlin."
"Hermann von Helmholtz?"
"This was shortly before his death. Still, he was a forceful man to the very end, believing all science could be reduced to the laws of Newtonian mechanicswhich made him a bit melancholy, because he too gave us the sad news that the field was drying up and advised us to excel elsewhere."
"But that's preposterous! I mean, it's certainly an oversimplification. There's still a lot of cleanup work to do. They shouldn't have discouraged you like that, unless it was a test to weed out those less ambitious. Whatever, you shouldn't have left the field so willingly."
"I hardly willed it," said Harold. "Back in the States, I took a research position at Princeton, where I became interested in black-body radiation. It just doesn't scale up like it should. When my project supervisor caught wind of my work, he reproached me and directed me instead to pursueas is the grand pursuit these daysthe last few elements to fill the Periodic Table."
"There are politics involved in all scientific research, Mr. Roth. I've had projects of my own shut down, not to mention further restrictions, though of a different valencestemming from my gender. Being a woman, I must ever be vigilant not to sign papers using my given name. Nor can I take credit for much of the work I do. For instance, Professor Lippmann's reputation stands largely on his work in piezoelectricity and color photography. The Lippmann Process. Have you heard of it? How surprised people might be to learn that I did the bulk of that research. Not that I'm complaining. He's given me opportunities no one else would have, put me on important projects, gotten me the equipment I needed when I couldn't possibly have acquired it through proper channels. See? It's a matter of give and take, learning to bend to the will of one's superiors while, on the slyand often on one's own timepursuing one's true interests. No one ever said scientific research would be easy, Mr. Roth. You have no excuses. Now, let's continue our game."
"I make no excuses, Miss Murphy," he said, resuming his side of the net. "I did my superior's bidding and pursued my own interests on my own time. But he was a suspicious and tyrannical sort, and he found me out, saw to my dismissal with a great deal of fuss, and after that I found myself largely unemployable."
They played several points in silence. Then Adeline asked, "So you just turned your back on science? Is that your revenge?"
"There's no vengeance in what I do. And as I've tried to make clear, I remain a scientist and pursue matters of scientific interest. It's just that now I must work outside the system, which makes funding and supplies problematic." About to serve, Harold hesitated. "There's a group of scientists with whom I am loosely associated. It is a small group, its members widely scattered. Having learned from the mistakes of fools like me, they work in utmost secrecy in their spare moments, tackling subjects that go against scientific dogma. Only in this way can they hope to protect their reputations. Whatever data they gather, they share, and in this way they further the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms."
Adeline reflected on this, her head at an odd tilt. "You know, I'm sorry you lost your job, Mr. Roth, and I'm happy you've found these friends who share your interests; but this all sounds a bit unnecessarily paranoid to me."
An automobile tuff-tuffed up the Champs-Èlysées. It was Professor Lippmann.
"Ah, there you are," he said, pulling over in the grass beside them. "Enjoying the good weather, I see, which we won't have much more of this year. So, how fares the match?"
"Miss Murphy will claim it in another two games," said Harold. "She is really quite good. A remarkable athlete."
"She has this silly notion of competing in next year's Olympic Games," said the professor. "A ridiculous bit of scheduling, don't you think? To put the Universal Exposition and Olympic Games at the same place and time. I doubt seriously that many will show for the latter."
"They're allowing women to compete this time," Adeline said, undaunted by the professor's words, "though in two sports only: golf and lawn tennis. I wish they'd included swimming, for I should do well in that."
"Not if they hold the meets in the Seine, as they're talking. We'll be lucky to avoid an international incident when someone is lost to the current. Of course, cycling is the only event the French will care about." He put the automobile back in gear. "My apologies for disturbing your game."
They watched his departure until he had gone out of sight.
"He does not approve of me," Harold remarked.
"No, he does not."
8. Converging Asymptotes of Forbidden Attraction
"Fontanelle, Iowa, April 12. The airship was seen here at 8:30 tonight, and was viewed by the whole population
The machine could be plainly seen
It carried the usual colored lights, and the working of the machinery could be heard, as also could the strains of music, as from an orchestra
There is no doubt in Fontanelle that it was the real thing, and is testified to by the most prominent citizens."
Chicago Chronicle, April 13, 1897
Harold Roth spent the next three weeks meeting discretely with people who shared his interest in the great airship. Some were obvious cranks, like the five young men who had evidence it had come from Mars, their photographs unrecognizable blurs; or the young woman claiming to have been taken aboard, with endless descriptions of angels among the clouds; or the tall, haunted gentleman who, refusing to give his name, submitted that it was he who had built the great airship, as well as the Eiffel Tower. But among the swill there were individuals deserving serious attention. The British physicist Oliver Joseph Lodge, on vacation in Paris before assuming a new position at the University of Birmingham, presented an intriguing spin on the great airship, believing it a ghost ship crewed by aéronautes who had died in terrible crashes. Why it should have appeared in the United States, however, he could not adequately explain, and his seeming obsession with spirit communication began to put Harold off. Robert Esnault-Petterie of the Société Astra des Constructions Aéronautiques seemed to recall similar airship sightings in Europe in 1897 and suggested that Harold investigate it as a worldwide phenomenon. As if to support this idea, a telegram arrived from James Hervey Hyslop, editor of the Journal of American Society for Psychical Research, informing him of individuals in Canada, Nova Scotia, and even Brazil trying to contact him regarding airship sightings in their countries.
Harold's European trip was drawing to a satisfactory close; he had made new contacts, gleaned new insights, and met several people he had known only by mail. But to his utter embarrassment, he postponed other important meetings, from day to day and then week to week, with such notables as Rajesh Soukamneuth, a spokesman for Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's Theosophical Society in Calcutta, letting these rare opportunities slip away, and this simply to make time for Adeline.
They were seeing each other almost every day.
It was an odd association, difficult to label, for they were complete opposites, always at odds. Still, Harold found in her every aspect, from her spontaneity and wit to her strong will and scientific sensibilities to her masterful command of the tennis racket, an irresistible charm. Though it struck him as highly implausible, she seemed somewhat taken by him as well.
They went for long strolls along the Seine beneath giant beech trees, watching boats jockey for position. They took an errant balloon ride that landed them in Courbevoie, from which they had to return by oxcart. In a park, they chanced upon an absurd duel between two dandies without an ounce of swordsmanship between them, which ended when one nicked the other's thumb and the surgeon proclaimed it "a wound." They shared a fascination for the workings of everyday life, which they sometimes observed from street cafés. Landaus, victorias, buggies, and fiacres crowded the wide avenues; and from the tops of the better carriages, gentlemen leisurely saluted each other while the women bowed beneath parasols, their huge hats tilting. The cabs, trams, and buses were all horse drawn, and with two hundred thousand horses in Paris, the smell of manure was inescapable. But a new tang was in the air, that of gasoline, as Panhards and Dionsand on rare occasions a singular Mercedesadded their sputter to the clop and neigh of horses.
Their meetings were never certain and usually brief. As Professor Lippmann's assistant, Adeline had many responsibilities at the Sorbonne. Whether they met in the morning, afternoon, or evening depended in large part on what experiments Professor Lippmann was conducting at the time and how much they required Adeline's involvement or monitoring.
One evening Adeline took him to the Sorbonne to show him where she and Professor Lippmann worked. As they negotiated the clutter of solenoids, induction coils, Crookes tubes, and photographic equipment, all inexplicably intertwined with pipets and tubing, Harold felt himself sorely missing the opportunities provided by a good lab. But with his "paranormal interests" out in the open, there could be no return to such an environment.
Professor Lippmann was present, and though he tried to be cordial, it was clear he did not appreciate this intrusion by Adeline's guest.
"It's unfortunate your visit to Paris was not timed to coincide with the Universal Exposition," the professor remarked, studying a set of radiographs. "I'm certain you would enjoy it far more than this."
"Perhaps you could get Mr. Roth onto the grounds," suggested Adeline.
"I'm afraid that's not permitted, for his safety as well as to avoid getting in the way of the construction."
"You got me in," said Adeline.
The professor eyed her with annoyance then turned away. "Very well. I shall look into the matter."
At the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, between showings of Georges Méliès's L'Hallucination de l'Alchimiste and Illusions fantasmagoriques, Harold asked Adeline how she had first become interested in science.
"Ah, that. The rocking horse."
He waited for her to explain.
"When I was three, my parents bought me a rocking horse. When I rocked, its head rattled. I wondered why. So one day I smashed its head open using my father's hammer." She held her thumb and forefinger a few centimeters apart. "A metal ball this big." She laughed. "My parents were greatly underwhelmed by my inquisitive mind, and after too many similar episodes they shipped me off to my Aunt Pickle in Paris. Having a good deal more patience with me, and being a firm believer in the education of women, she saw that I attended the best schools and provided me with private tutors. Somewhere in this academic maze I became infatuated with the workings of matter and energy."
Harold had hoped she would go a bit further. "How does Professor Lippmann fit into all this?"
"Oh, that was Aunt Pickle's final act on my behalf, putting me under his wing. He's my great uncle."
Harold felt something relax inside him.
One day, as they emerged from one of the bookshops they never seemed able to pass by, Adeline saw that Harold had purchased Suicide, by Emile Durkheim.
"What a morbid choice," she said. "Why your interest in such a thing?"
"Because if it interests Durkheim, it will likely interest me. You ought to read his The Division of Labor, or better, The Rules of Sociological Method. But what is that you bought?"
"You've been pestering me to read more on the science of mind, and so I shall," she said with a smile, holding up a large book by Richard von Krafft-Ebing called Psychopathia Sexualis.
He hurried along, discomfited by her uncensored boldness. "Read Durkheim," he said.
She did read some Durkheim, as well as William James, Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and others he recommended. And though she gave no outward sign of changing her views, he sensed that deep down she was beginning to open up.
"Let me see if I have this Durkheim fellow straight," she said one day. "He believes that rapid change can destabilize society, and that individuals disoriented by this rapid changea condition he calls 'anomie'may, in concert, find a solution by means of creating a new reality."
"That's about it," said Harold. "Our 'collective consciousness,' as he calls it, under disorienting circumstances, can give birth to new realities."
"And you contend that this great American airship was such a creation."
"Not that I can speak for Durkheim, but to me it seems a distinct possibility."
"But if, as you suggest, reality is so subject to the whims of our collective consciousness, wouldn't we have birthed many more delusions by now, and better ones than this whimsical airship of yours? I mean, why this great airship at all?"
"Perhaps because it stabilizes the present by anticipating the future," said Harold. "In this way it prepares us for what is to come. All such creations bubbling up from our collective consciousness could have this singular purposeto lessen the trauma of change by making tomorrow more familiar and less strange."
"But why now?" asked Adeline. "Why only now does our collective consciousness feel the need to take such drastic measures, birthing these new realities?"
"Because only in the last few years has our collective consciousness grown to colossal size and become tightly focused, thanks to newspapers and the telephone and telegraph disseminating information far and wide, cramming millions of minds with the same thoughts, the same concerns, the same desperate impulse to react."
Adeline began to shake her head. "This is too much. This is too fantastic to believe. Creating an airship out of our minds
It violates too many scientific laws. Conservation of matter"
"Easier to conclude that thousands of people lied, I suppose," said Harold.
9. Into the Exposition
"Josserand [Texas]: Considerable excitement prevails at this writing in this usually quiet village of Josserand, caused by a visit of the noted airship, which has been at so many points of late."
Houston Post, April 26, 1897
Professor Lippmann did gain Harold entry into the restricted areas of the Exposition grounds, though with a stern warning not to wear his Sunday best.
The Champs de Mars looked like a war zone, rubbish scattered everywhere, gawkers wading through sticky white mud, cranes towering like giant insects over unfinished domes, minarets, and iron frames.
"This will become the Hall of Dynamos," the professor said, pointing to a meager foundation. "Rumor has it the Germans intend something monumental for it."
Harold had seen the dynamo on his trip through Germany, thanks to a scientist friend working at the site. It was a machine both awesome and monstrous, steam driven, with a wheel of unearthly mass and proportions that spun eternally and without sound.
"There will be X-ray machines, new telephotographic lenses, and the first of a new breed of autocar, the steam-turbine," continued the professor. "Now, over on the Left Bank, that's where most of the American exhibits will be, second in number only to ours, and more than the Germans, I am relieved to report."
"Professor Lippmann remains bitter over Alsace-Lorraine," said Adeline.
"It goes beyond that. The Germans are bullies. You should know that, Mr. Roth, with all the talk in Berlin of forming a European union to barricade American commerce. They view you as too successful and want to throttle 'the American peril.'"
"A good many Frenchmen think the same," commented Adeline.
They passed by what would become the Negro exhibit, which Adeline looked forward to seeing, for word had it that the American photographer Frances Johnston, noted for her ability to capture everyday life, had been commissioned to take photographs for it.
"I'm told you'll be showing the newest in linotype machines, steam engines, telephone switchboards, and the like," said the professor. "That big dome over there will rest atop your pavilion, to be perched upon in turn by a great eagle, presently in the mid-Atlantic."
Harold found it difficult to make out much of anything in the vast quagmire.
"Over there, see those gilded tubes and panels of flint glass being unloaded? Assembled, it will sit atop the Palace of Electricity, a monstrous star with thousands of incandescent lamps and powerful arc lights visible from all quarters of the city, making it the overriding symbol of the Exposition."
"Though I doubt it will equal the Eiffel of '88," said Adeline.
"That ugly upside-down smokestack? I was one of many who petitioned to have it torn down."
Professor Lippmann fell silent as they passed an empty lot with no sign of construction. It was Adeline who spoke up.
"That's where our professor had reserved exhibit space for an airship. Say, perhaps if enough people imagined the great American airship, it would materialize on the spot. But in that case, would we only need to reserve imaginary space for it?"
Harold did not dignify her playful tease with an answer. Looking about, he tried to imagine the Exposition completed, a labyrinthine expanse of pompous nationalist primping, every country battling to attract the largest crowds with glittering museums, temples, and towers filled with fantastic wonders. Yet the amount of work to be done seemed overwhelming.
"Will it be ready in time?" he asked.
The professor snorted. "Some substantial construction is being postponed until the end of winterwhich to many of us seems a dangerous gamble, especially if we have a wet spring." He hesitated. "Of course, there is a greater dangerthat of a massive boycott should the retrial of Dreyfus turn out badly."
Harold had heard that Dreyfus was being fetched from Devil's Island for retrial, further dividing the country over his guilt or innocence.
"Mark my words," said the professor. "If Dreyfus is found guilty again, more than a dozen nations will boycott the event, turning it into the Universal No-Show. Everyone knows he's innocent. But the military will not own up to the fact. They cannot admit to a mistake. How appropriate," he mused, "to conduct such lunacy in Rennes, the early playground of Alfred Jarry."
"Merdre!" exclaimed Adeline.
Professor Lippmann frowned and blanched while Adeline laughed. Holding up his good hand with thumb and forefinger just separated, he said to Harold, "Our dear Adeline came this close to choosing vaudeville over science."
"I should like to have been in vaudeville," she quipped.
10. A Matter of Consensus
"Thus in a great country like France the same thought, at the same hour, excites the whole population. It is the newspaper that establishes this sublime communication of minds across space."
Le Petit Parisien, October 13, 1893
Invited to the salon of one Mme. Juliette Adam, noted more for its seventeenth-century furniture, oriental bibelots, and impressionist paintings than its coterie of luminaries, Harold and Adeline found themselves in a drawing room where the Dreyfus Affair was being hotly debated. The latest chapter in that debacle was the new trial's verdict: a reaffirmation of Dreyfus's guilt. With bombs going off throughout Paris and a massive boycott of the coming Exposition looking ever more real, President Loubet was seeking to soften the court's decision with a general pardon for Dreyfus. Retreating from these heated exchanges, Harold and Adeline wandered through the mansion until they found a cozy parlor. Among its many furnishings was a stereoscope, which they took turns using.
Awaiting her turn, Adeline sat on a monstrous throne with ornate carvings of Boschian demons, reading some of Harold's newspaper clippings.
brilliant lights streaming from a ponderous vessel of strange proportions," she said with a titter. "How well this describes a demimonde I once saw at the Moulin Rouge."
He took the clippings from her and let her have the stereoscope. "You don't take any of my research very seriously, do you?" Flopping down on a polar-bear rug, he gazed up at a ceiling hung with ancient musical instruments. "Have you really been to the Moulin Rouge?"
She smiled noncommittally then peered into the stereoscope at a bleak image from Peary's last polar expedition. "You say this great airship was born of our collective consciousness as a means of stabilizing realityan attempt to anticipate the future and thereby stabilize the present. But as a physicist I need to know how it works. What are the nuts and bolts of all this?"
"I don't pretend to know that," he said.
"Come now. Every scientist stumped long enough by some mystery will develop a pet theory. Tell me yours."
Harold rolled over on the fur, hesitant to delve into it. "I have wondered at times if it might involve some sort of consensus reality."
"You mean that silly notion that a chair is a chair only because we all agree it is a chair, and if we were to suddenly agree it was a boat, it would become a boat?"
"You make it sound ridiculous."
A telephone buzzed like sleepy bees in an adjoining hall, and they heard footsteps as someone went to answer it.
"I saw a fakir perform once," she said. "He claimed the ability to levitate. When his trick failed with scientists and daguerrotypists all about, he blamed it on a hostile audience, one which muted his realitythe reality he was accustomed to in Indiaand insisted that once he was back in his country and far from so many doubters, he would again be able to levitate."
"What if he's right?" said Harold. "What if controlled experiments in a lab cannot be used to test psychic phenomena because the prevailing skepticism destroys the ambient consensus necessary for the phenomena to occur?"
"Oh, Harold," Adeline said, disgusted. "That opens a whole can of worms! How could we possibly conduct science if we tossed out controlled experiments?"
They took turns looking at more stereo views. Some were of the Panama Canal construction site. Others were from last year's Spanish-American War. Still others appeared to be from South Africa, showing hunters with their trophies.
"Who does the consensus?" Adeline asked suddenly. "Just humans, or all animals? What of insects? For that matter, plants? Harold, where do you draw the line?"
"What we must ask first is where the consensus originates, the answer being, 'in the sense organs.' After all, it is our sensesnot our intellectthat inform us of what is 'out there.' So anything with sensory organs will contribute to the consensus. Of course, there needn't be just one consensus. There could be several, each established locally."
"Are you suggesting more than one reality? But how can that be when, say, Newton's Laws work everywhere the same?"
"Newton's Laws work wherever the scientists who believe in them go to test them."
"You know, you'd get along just fine with Ernst Mach."
"He believes that because all knowledge is derived from sensation, absolute time and space must be rejected as unverifiable by experience." She picked up another stereo view and put it in the stereoscope. "So. You still haven't gotten down to the nuts and bolts. How exactly do sensory organs accomplish this consensus?"
"I'm still working on the details."
"Well. Do keep me posted."
Despite their many differences, Harold and Adeline seemed unable to stay apart. When the weather permitted, they played more tennis, and though Harold's game improved, so, too, did Adeline's. Still, neither seemed willing to yield ground on their widely disparate viewpoints.
"See here," said Adeline, snagging a copy of Le Gazette de France as it tumbled by in the breeze. The headline read, "Women Denied Jobs." "See how women are repressed? Men keep us out of the workforce to prevent us from having ready money, with which we might acquire an ounce of power. They say it's unladylike for women to toil. Have you heard the saying? 'It is wrong for women to do sweated labor of any kind.' Sweated indeed! Are we not human like men? And how, pray tell, are we to compete in sports if not allowed to sweat?"
One day Harold accompanied Adeline when she went shopping. Graphophones were everywhere along the Rue de la Prix, spilling music from their pasteboard trumpets. Outside Paquin, Harold was surprised to hear Scott Joplin's "Swipsy Cakewalk." Later, while walking past Worth, they spotted a young couple seated on a bench, the lady appearing faint and the gentleman dutifully fanning her. "What he needs to do is loosen her corset," said Adeline a bit too loudly. "Though heaven forbid that should allow her to do some useful work."
"I'm surprised you didn't make an effort to attend the International Women's Congress last month in London," Harold told her later.
"I hate politics."
"You have no interest in suffrage?"
She bit her lip, thinking. "I should like to ride a high-wheeler is all."
They did just that the next day, causing a minor sensation as they crossed and recrossed the Seine on every bridge, both towering two meters off the ground and Adeline pedaling forcefully enough to occasionally expose her ankles.
"Why did we not see this great airship in Europe?" Adeline asked as they had coffee at a street café.
"How do you know you did not?" he asked. "It could easily have been mistaken for one of your existing airships, short-lived though they be. Or if not, scientists would need only label it a hoax for it to be discounted and forgotten aboutas has happened in America."
"You really do have a low regard for scientists," she said, scowling.
He shrugged. "They just need periodic reminders that they are not above their own laws."
They talked of Freud and his ideas on hysteria, of Henri Bergson's consciousness beyond the physical, of William James's concept of ideas, which do not reproduce objects but prepare for and lead the way to them. It was Harold's overriding beliefwhich he hoped to make Adeline at least considerthat consciousness must play a significant role in any model of physical reality.
"I have a copy of The Will to Believe that I could loan you," Harold told her.
"You are like an evangelist!"
Abandoning the popular avenues one evening, they ventured onto the excavation site for the Paris Métro underground railway system, whose first line, from Porte Maillot to Vincennes, was scheduled for completion next April, just in time for the Universal Exposition. As they stood there among the great piles of dirt and the rubble of buildings demolished to make way for the line, Harold found himself thinking that these Parisiens were only too willing to tear their city apart time and again and at the slightest pretense, a metaphor perhaps for all of humanity in this mad age, determined to remake itself better no matter what the cost to stability.
Half-deafened by the steam diggers, his feet slipping in the mud, surrounded by garbage-strewn alleys and children playing hopscotch and hide-and-seek among the filth, with the heady scent of cabbages from a nearby greenhouse mixing with that of manure, and miners with their hard hats and sooty faces surfacing from several holes, looking lost to the world, and a gloomy old man hung heavy with rat traps limping about, setting them in and about the excavations, Harold found himself quite suddenly kissing Adeline.
11. An Unanticipated Challenge
"I don't know whether they are devils or angels, or what; but we all saw them, and my whole family saw the ship, and I don't want any more to do with them."
A. Hamilton, Leroy, Kansas, April 19, 1897
It was evening of the next day when Professor Lippmann came upon them down by the Seine, in that darkest of lairs favored by lovers, the park of the Vert-Galant with its dim, spike-crowned lamps. Pulling up beside them in his Mercedes, its gas lamps gloaming like jaguar eyes, he shut off the engine and stepped out onto the mudguard. Towering there in the dusk, looking past them over the Seine, he said in an even voice, "You were not at the lab today."
Harold felt Adeline's hand go limp in his.
"I cannot recall a time when you missed a scheduled lab," continued the professor. Using his walking stick, he stepped down and walked past them to a railing. Myriad boats swarmed the Seine, chugging and sputtering toward unknown docks, the waves aflicker with their lamps.
"Mr. Roth has asked me to come to America with him."
Professor Lippmann leaned on the railing, contemplating this. A flock of swallows zigzagged overhead, then dipped as one beneath the bridge, taking refuge for the night. "And you have given this some thought."
"Yes, I have."
"And have your thoughts been guided by emotion or reason?"
"There has been much of both."
"Too little of the latter, if you have thought for very long."
"Perhaps not your exact valence of reason, but reason nonetheless."
"There is a name for that sort of reasoning; must I spell it out?"
"Let's be civil," she said.
"I have been civil for far too long. Your enjoyment of this man's company has been apparent from the start, and only to spare your feelings have I avoided confronting him on his 'scientific principles,' as he professes them to be."
"You are being unfair," she said, a bare whisper.
"And you are so madly in love as to be flitting entirely outside the bounds of reason."
Adeline, for so long looking lost in this awkward predicament, suddenly straightened. "Do not insult me! You know that reason has always been my guiding principle."
"Then why not be clear on that point?" said the professor.
"How am I to do that, Gabriel," she snapped, "when you are so pigheaded as to believe always what you will believe, and disbelieve all else?"
The professor was momentarily nonplussed, unaccustomed to being called by his first name. Then he laughed softly and, using his good left hand, pulled something from his vest.
"I was bullied on too many playgrounds in my youth to have an appetite for physical violence, so let it simply be noted that here be my glove and there be Mr. Roth's cheek, and that the volition for a slap has been communicated."
Aghast, Harold and Adeline stared at the white glove.
"While it should fall in your court," continued the professor, "I will ask the small favor of being allowed to choose the weapon. On the assumption that you will agree, let me sadly report that our weapons will not be the same. For while I shall rely on rickety old scientific dogma with all its inherent flaws and shortsightedness, you shall wield the bright and shiny new concept of consensus reality that gives charlatans a license to practice science, which I'm sure will serve you well as we debate some topic of science. Yes, that is the form our duel shall takea debate."
A bicyclist whizzed by in the twilight, sword clattering against the rear wheel.
"As for the topic," continued the professor, "I will leave that to you, with the suggestion that it pertain to the futurenot only to exploit your theory's superior predictive powers but to fully expose the shortsightedness of my own."
Intimidated at the start of the professor's speech, Harold found himself increasingly annoyed by the man's aloofness and sarcasm. Now in response, struggling to keep his voice calm, he said, "Yes, I'll debate you. But you choose the topic. That way you can't accuse me later of going with my strong suit."
"I had hoped to avoid a similar accusation," said the professor.
"Fools," snapped Adeline. "You are both fools." She walked off to a bench and circled it slowly, running her fingers along its backrest. "I'll choose the topic. Then perhaps we can put this nonsense to rest."
Professor Lippmann stabbed the ground with his walking stick. "Splendid. But when shall we have our debate? The sooner the better for me, though tonight is out, for I have an important appointment. Perhaps tomorrow?"
"I leave the day after," said Harold.
"Then it must be tomorrow. If you will specify an exact time and place"
"Ten in the morning," said Harold. "And let it be the very spot we first met."
"Splendid." The professor turned to Adeline. "So, Miss Murphy. What shall our topic be?"
She eyed him with disdain. "You will be informed tomorrow at ten and not before."
"Ah, so we are to think on our feet, is that it?" said the professor. "How well that suits me."
12. A Duel Is Fought at Minuscule Range
"We could plainly distinguish the outlines of the vessel, which was cigar-shaped and about sixty feet long, and looking just like the cuts that have appeared in the papers recently. It was dark and raining, and the young man was filling a big sack with water about thirty yards away, and the woman was particular to keep back in the dark. She was holding an umbrella over her head. The man with the whiskers invited us to take a ride, saying that he could take us where it was not raining. We told him we believed we preferred to get wet."
Affidavit of Sumpter and McLenore (policemen), Hot Springs, Arkansas, May 6, 1897
On the morning of October 12, 1899, throngs of people again populated the meadow near Saint Cloud as Baron Gerard de Laudonniere prepared an as-yet-unnamed airship to vie for Le Prix. Unlike the Marquis d'Arlandes of several weeks ago, he would not solo aloft. Two men would accompany him. One was his mechanic of many years, the other his main financial backer, shipping magnate Guillaume du Guesclin. Correspondingly, the airship was of a larger design and its airbag inflated to capacity. The engines, again Daimlers, were twelve horsepower each.
Harold stood apart from the throngs, where conversation was of little else but the Boer War, which had erupted the previous day. He had come early to get a closer look at the airship. The baron, with whom he had briefly spoken, seemed a competent-enough aéronaute. As for his airship, it appeared sturdy and well-designed, though the engineswith their open flames for firing the pistonscould have been mounted lower from the airbag.
Professor Lippmann arrived at a quarter to ten but wandered about, keeping his distance. As for Adeline, she did not arrive until precisely ten and by carriage. As the coachman helped her down, Harold watched apprehensively, wondering what kind of look she would give him. She had dressed for the occasion, wearing an oxblood velvet tunic with jet closures and wide-belled sleeves. To his dismay, she avoided eye contact entirely.
Professor Lippmann wandered over, and after curt acknowledgments they moved apart from the crowds.
"So, Miss Murphy," said the professor. "I believe you have a topic for us."
She gazed fixedly at the airship some fifty meters distant and spoke without preamble. "I should like to know more about the nature of minuscule matter." Though she stood close by, her voice sounded far away. "Tell me whether atoms will be found to be real or just a useful fiction. And what of Thompson's corpuscles? Are there more surprises in store for us? What exactly will we find in the next century as we prod the very fabric of reality?"
While speaking, she had worried the cameo pinned to her lace jabot. Now she turned to them with a rustling swirl of her black silk skirt. For an instant she met Harold's gaze, and he glimpsed all her hopes and aspirations for a future that included him. Then she looked away. "That is my topic."
"A very decent one," said Professor Lippmann. "Shall I begin or shall you?"
Harold extended his hand to him.
With practiced ease, Professor Lippmann summed up the history of the atom. He touched on the contributions of Dalton, Lavoisier, Proust, and Döbereiner, highlighted Cannizzaro's refinements to atomic weight, de Chancourtois' "telluric screw" map, and Newland's "Law of Octaves," and ended with the work of Mendeleev.
"By 1700 we knew of twelve elements; by 1800, roughly thirty-three. Now we are at eighty-two, leading many a young and impulsive scientist to predict that the coming century will bring many more. But they neglect the predictive elegance of Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which dictates room for but a score more.
"Therein lies my reason for giving so much background. Those new to science have always been anxious to upend all at the slightest provocation. I commend the Curies for their cautious and ongoing inquiry into radio-activity. Likewise Roentgen with his X-rays. But others, such as Thomson, would discredit the elegance of nature with preposterous assertions. Cathode rays are negatively electrified corpuscles? And these are in some way constituents of the atom? Simple elegance, that is where the atom leads, and these corpuscles, each weighing a thousandth as much as a hydrogen atom, would unduly complicate the calculation of atomic weightswhile also posing the problem of balancing their negative charges! I predict Thomson's corpuscles will soon dissipate along with his reputation."
A small cheer went up as one of the airship's engines sputtered to life.
"Of course, one must ask that all-important question: Are atoms real or just useful fictions? My colleagues seem evenly divided on the matter. Some take the positivist stance of Ostwald and Mach. While they're willing to concede the usefulness of the atom as a concept, making certain calculations easier, such as in the flow of gases, they are resolute in their conviction that the universe remains a continuum all the way down and that any particle arrived at can always be further split, ad infinitum."
Another cheer went up as the second engine started. But it did not run smoothly, and the mechanic began to tinker with it.
"I myself am an atomist," continued the professor. "I believe atoms are real and that they represent the most basic constituents of the universe. Mendeleev's Table gives an excellent accounting of these, both in number and properties. Once we have this full set of building blocks, revolutions in chemistry and physics will follow as we become masters in their assembly."
"As for making any predictions" Professor Lippmann barely hesitated. "Thomson's corpuscles will be discredited, Mendeleev's Table will fill within a decade, radio-activity will reveal itself to be ether waves caused by vibrations in certain atoms." He gave the barest shrug. "Beyond this, I see no need for further intrigue in our picture of minuscule matter."
Another loud cheer made them turn to look. The mooring lines drew taut, rocking the airship, as Baron Gerard de Laudonniere and his two passengers squeezed into the undercarriage in preparation for launch.
"I do apologize for not positing something truly radical or revolutionary," he finished. "But I'm afraid the future holds few surprises in this realm. The great discoveries about the atom have been made, and the coming century will bring a different valence to research, consisting of clever assembly rather than profound discovery."
Just before the mooring lines were to be released, one of the engines sputtered to a halt. Baron Gerard de Laudonniere frantically held up a restraining hand even as his mechanic climbed out to try to restart it. The financial backer, Guillaume du Guesclin, seeing the mechanic disembark, did so as well. It was at this inopportune moment that the holders of the mooring lines, divided in their interpretation of the Baron's gesture, were swayed to release.
The Baron shouted to no avail. The mechanic managed to grab the underside of the gondola but wisely released before he had risen ten meters. As for Guillaume du Guesclin, he stood with his hands on his hips looking both bewildered and chagrined.
Just when it seemed nothing more could go wrong, the other engine died, and the airship, trimmed for the weight of three, rose rapidly straight up.
"Mr. Roth?" said Adeline, slowly withdrawing her eyes from the ascending airship. "I believe it is your turn."
Harold had struggled to pay attention to all that the professor was saying while at the same time exploring where his own ideas might lead. It had become clear early on that there were complications and that he should have given this topic considerable thought long ago.
"There's nothing simple about the atom," he said above the confused jabbering of the crowd. "The more we dig into minuscule matter, the more difficulties we encounter. Thomson's corpuscles will not go away; they're but an early symptom of our gaping ignorance. The radio-activity seen in uranium, radium, and polonium isn't entirely wavelike. And how are electromagnetic waves themselves related to minuscule matter? We don't even know how they propagate, what with Michelson and Morley's failure to detect the luminiferous ether. Then there's the 'ultraviolet catastrophe,' black-body radiation's failure to increase at short wavelengths in accordance with our calculations. And does anyone really understand what causes the photoelectric effect?"
"There will always be mysteries, Mr. Roth," said Professor Lippmann, "as long as there are scientists, and the solutions will hardly require overturning the foundations of science."
"Please, Professor," said Adeline. "Let him have his turn."
Harold glanced upward as a steady hiss came down from above. Baron Gerard de Laudonniere, alarmed by his rapid ascent, was venting hydrogen.
"Our picture of minuscule matter is growing too complex, cluttered, and discontiguous," Harold continued, "to be remedied by some simple adjustment to the current model. A better model must be sought, and yes, I believe it will involve consensus reality."
"Do tell," said Professor Lippmann with a grin.
Adeline gave him a sharp look then nodded to Harold to continue.
"By consensus reality, I'm not referring to the popular notion that something can be willed into existence simply by getting enough people to believe in it. The consensus I speak of isn't under conscious control. Rather, it takes place at a much lower level"
"in our sensory organs," interrupted Professor Lippmann tiredly, "which, as our windows onto the world, engagepurportedlyin some sort of polling process to arrive at a consensus of what is real."
Harold gave Adeline a sharp look, uncertain of whether to feel flattered or betrayed by her attempt to communicate his ideas to the professor. She ignored him, gazing steadily after the errant airship. Not that it mattered now. Ahead lay something entirely new and unanticipated. He took a deep breath before continuing.
"Speaking in terms of consensus, if our senses perceive a boulder, a boulder becomes. If our senses perceive a rock, a rock becomes. If our senses perceive a pebble, a pebble becomes. But this cannot continue indefinitely. As we scale down further, eventually we reach a point beyond the resolving power of our senses. Sight. Hearing. Smell. Taste. Touch. Each is restricted to a range of inputs. For each, there is a signal, image, or vibration too faint to register.
"The atom falls into this category. Lying as it does beyond the reach of our senses, it exists outside the bounds of consensus."
He hesitated before making his next statement.
"Lacking consensus, the atomand all else in the minuscule realmcannot be defined in any meaningful way."
"My good man!" exclaimed Professor Lippmann with a laugh. "Are you proposing to straddle the fence? Come now, are atoms real or aren't they?"
"They can't be real, because that requires consensus, which they lack," said Harold, struggling with the idea. "So any attempt to see them up close will ultimately fail. If we see anything, it will be an undefined image, a sort of chaos, a noise of nonconsensus, of possibilities that cannot be collapsed to something concrete."
"And we are to believe that Newtonian mechanics with all its remarkable and exacting preciseness is built upon this impossibly flimsy scaffolding?"
Feeling ever more uncomfortable, Harold said, "That is what I must believe."
"The bold posturings of a man intent on impressing a lady, nothing more," said the professor, strolling about. "If ever there was a time to abandon a theory through a liberal application of Occam's razor, this would be it." He drew up short and looked at Adeline. "Adeline?"
She refused to look at him, instead gazing upward at the shrinking airship.
"Such youthful exuberance. Must I perform le coup de grâce?" He strode up to Harold and for the first time addressed him to his face. "When the day arrives when we have built microscopes capable of seeing the atomand that day will come soon enoughwhat, precisely, do you suppose we will see?"
"As I've said, our sensory organswhich do the consensuscan't see into that minuscule realm. We won't be able to see the countenance of the atom. If anything, we'll see chaos."
"While that airship is macroscopic," said the professor, pointing upward, "and well within our sensory realm, and therefore subject to consensus, which is why we see it and agree upon its appearance."
Harold gave a vague nod.
"What of the microscope itself?" said the professor.
"This microscope of the future. The one we're peering through, with a resolution capable of seeing the atom, though you say we cannot see it."
"I don't follow what you are getting at."
"We can see the microscope, can we not? We can see the optical elements. In fact, isn't the lensa macroscopic objectwhat we're really looking at? Isn't the lens, acting as an intermediary by bending rays of light toward our eyes, what gives us our image of minuscule matter?"
Harold was thinking hard about all this.
"If minuscule matter lies outside the range of our senses," continued the professor, "we can never see it directly. There must always be an intermediaryin this case, the microscope. The microscope, however, being macroscopic and subject to consensus, will always present to our senses an image that shows consensus. There is no way to avoid this interpretative intermediary, unless I have overlooked something."
Harold was rattled. He stared up at the airship still ascending, not really seeing it. A faint, steady hiss drifted down to them as Baron Gerard de Laudonniere, grown panicky, released inordinate amounts of hydrogen. "It's true. The microscope will show us the atom."
"But how do you reconcile this with your earlier pronouncement that minuscule matter lacks consensus and is therefore undefined and chaotic?"
"Thatthat remains true." Harold barely avoided a stammer, clutching at the idea. "You see, there is no contradiction. What lies in the minuscule realm is chaotic and without real form, a cloud of possible consensuses. But our every attempt to see what is there, whether by microscope or bombardment or other means, must of necessity use a macroscopic intermediary, which will, as you've said, collapse the chaos into something real. In effect, the atom will be made real by the very instruments we use to perceive it."
Professor Lippmann prodded the grass with his walking stick. "So these instruments, such as the microscope, have a degree of consciousness, since they are doing the consensus?"
"It isn't that simple," said Harold.
"None of this is simple! Ptolemy's epicycles become child's play by comparison!"
Harold turned beseechingly to Adeline, but her expression had gone cold, and she looked quickly away.
"Determinism, Mr. Roth," said Professor Lippmann. "The material universe from its largest to its smallest motions can and will be predicted with absolute accuracy by the laws of Newton. Nothing is left uncertain. That is our future."
The airship was high up now, only a quarter the width of the moon. Too much hydrogen had been vented, compromising the structural integrity of the outer envelope. It rippled and bobbled, and apparently it sagged enough in the middle to come in contact with the open flame of an engine. For suddenly the airship was a ghastly fireball rolling in place, out of which plummeted a flaming projectile that was Baron Gerard de Laudonniere, who struck the ground not ten meters from his starting point and very close to Guillaume du Guesclin, who at last removed his hands from his hips to cover his eyes. With cries and shrieks, onlookers scattered in all directions as the fiery remains of the airship settled to earth.
from Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, 1896
On the morning of October 13, 1899, Harold Roth lugged his suitcases past the brooding mass of the Louvre and crossed the Seine at Pont-Royal. Passing beneath the lights of the Gare d'Orsay, he entered the large crowds at the railroad station. At the agreed-upon spot he waited.
Bateaux-mouches with their red and yellow lights dotted the Seine. A lamplighter methodically extinguished the gas lamps he had lit the night before. Off in the distance, a hot-air balloon rose majestically into the air.
His train arrived all too soon. As he watched the people disembark and others climb aboard, a visceral knot of uneasiness grew within him. At last he abandoned his luggage to run up and down the boarding platform, looking in all directions.
Then he saw her. She ran toward him, or tried to, half-dragging a large bag. She wore a blue dress and flowery hat which she had to stop and straighten time and again lest it fall off. He hurried toward her, fighting to remain calm, not daring to draw a hopeful conclusion.
"Harold!" she gasped as he reached her. "I thought I had missed you!" Her breath steamed in the brisk air.
All around them people churned. Harold wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her, but he was too preoccupied trying to read her eyes, which were alert and darting as if to consume every aspect of his face.
"Ohhh, I wish I could," she said at last. "But I cannot leave Professor Lippmann. He depends too much on me. But perhaps someday I will come to visit. I should like to see America."
Harold felt cold and empty, with a dour need to perform some irrational and outrageous act. But nothing seemed to avail itself. In the end, all he could do was say, "I'd like you to come."
"I will," she said, smiling widely, eyes drinking in his every feature. "I will." Then, as the locomotive's whistle sounded, she swung the large bag around in front of her. "I have something for you." She chuckled. "How cruel, I know, for you must be overloaded already. But" She opened the bag so he could see within. "I should like you to have these books. If you have them already, do give a copy to a good library."
I will give them to someone with more sense, he thought, recognizing many of the ones he had swayed her to read. Then he admonished himself for feeling bitter. She had given him every opportunity to prevail the day before, and he had foundered. Why? Was his theory wrong?
"I stand by all I said yesterday," he said suddenly.
"I see." Her smile wavered. "Then you have much work ahead of you."
He nodded. The whistle blew again.
"Oh!" She looked over her shoulder with concern. "You mustn't miss your train!" Then she opened her arms and embraced him. "I will miss you. And I would be lying if I didn't admit to a strong impulse to even now come with you."
"I could do with some help carrying the books," he said, doubting her sincerity.
She stepped away, eyes teary, oblivious to her crooked hat. "Well." She shrugged.
He shrugged in turn. "Well."
Harold had little memory of climbing aboard, or of bringing his luggage with him. But the suitcases were now heavy in his grip, the bag lolling against his leg as he stood in the doorway of the last car, craning his neck to keep Adeline in sight as the train angled northward, headed for the Channel, where, at Le Havre, the S.S. La Bretagne lay at anchor, waiting to take him back to America.