Review of “A Hole in Texas” by Herman Wouk

I wish I’d read A Hole in Texas in 2004 when it was published!  I would have learned a great deal about how to write good fiction about science eight years earlier.  I’m not sure why I skipped it at the time.  I certainly knew about it from several reviews.  Maybe I felt that high-energy physics was no longer an important scientific frontier.

Maybe it was more personal.  I decided in the sixth grade that I was going to be a nuclear physicist. This isn’t the place for an explanation of why I changed my mind later on.  Blame it on the effect of a good liberal arts program had on my thinking.  Or blame it on an encounter with philosophy.  In any case, I turned by a circuitous route to a study of the mind — what eventually became cognitive science.

Herman Wouk’s (The Caine Mutiny) novel about big science and politics is not the sort of project I could tackle.  I don’t have any experience with such high-powered characters and settings.  I have no firsthand experience with members of Congress, nasty Washington reporters, movie producers, media lawyers, movie stars and the places these people hang out are simply not part of my experience, but such are the raw materials of blockbuster fiction.  Wouk has written many popular novels, seen them made into movies, and knows real people who live in the rarified air of the public spotlight.  He does however focus intensely on one harassed physicist, Guy Carpenter.

Guy is a high flier, too, but only in his narrow specialty of high-energy physics. He’s one of the special breed of scientists who agree to lead enormous scientific and engineering projects funded by Federal dollars.  That’s all in the past now, as far as Guy knows when the novel begins.  Guy, you see, was the top scientist and administrator for the Super Collider (SSC, a shortened form of its full name, the Superconducting Super Collider), that was to be the next step beyond the European Large Hadron Collider run by CERN, the step that was to hurl the US back to the top of world scientific eminence with the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Guy was the top administrator in charge of building a very, very expensive underground, circular racetrack for protons near Waxahachie, Texas.  That’s “hole” in the title.  He’d been the focus of more than his share of Congressional hearings; his last was part of the legislative process the resulted in the sudden cancellation of the project.

Now add the following ingredients to Guy’s now serene life at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena as part of the Terrestrial Planet Find project,  a happy marriage to an attractive wife, a grown son and an infant:  A paper appears in Nature announcing the Chinese discovery of the Higgs boson.  The lead author is Guy’s old girlfriend, Wen Mei Li, whose flame in his life never quite died, much to his wife’s annoyance.

An importunate Washington Post reporter, whose underhanded methods and unscrupulous sources unearth more than just Guy’s memories of Mei Li.  Stir in a former movie star turned Congresswoman from California who just happens to sit on the House Science Committee, a powerful Congressman from Texas who led the charge to kill the Super Collider and now has Chinese egg foo young on his face, Peter Jennings announcing to the country that some are speculating that the Chinese discovery may signal the development of the “Boson Bomb,” the next big thing after the H-bomb, and a gaggle of Hollywood types out to cash in on the wave of interest in bosons and willing throw a $50K consulting fee and two weeks’ use of a private jet at Guy, and you begin to see why the hole in Texas might make an interesting story.

Along the way, Wouk does a credible job of explaining why the Higgs boson might be worth a couple billion dollars and making clear it’s not likely to lead to a new bomb any time soon.  What gives the story a realistic footing in how real science is done is the fact that at the blackest moment of Guy’s life, when all the negative publicity is threatening to destroy his marriage along with his the rest of his personal and professional life, Guy finally sits down and studies the paper in Nature looking for a flaw, an artifact that would explain the Chinese observations in some other way than assuming they’d seen the footprints of the Higgs boson flying by.

You will have to read the book to find out how he fares.  However, I’ll add this clue, such as it is:  If you know a little bit about research in high-energy particle physics, you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of how the Chinese cracked the Higgsian mystery!  I confess, I did!

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