Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Manh(a)ttan Recap: The Sins of the Past [SPOILERS]


If you were wondering how Manh(a)ttan was planning to up the stakes yet again after the death of Sid Liao and the ensuing fallout, the latest episode ("A New Nuclear Cosmology") should address that curiosity, as sins both past and present take center stage -- and if a few immediate consequences may have been temporarily dodged on secrets past, those of the present are not so easily dismissed.

Frank Winter is driving at night, a mysterious package beside him on the seat, when he notices headlights behind him -- an odd sight in such a remote place. At the crossroads, instead of turning left to go into Santa Fe, he turns right, and sure enough, the other car follows. He pulls over and so does the other car -- but the man seems to be just a good samaritan, concerned that Frank might be having car trouble, and since he's handy with cars, he thought he might be able to help. Then he spots the package: "Something special for the old lady?" Frank deflects and the man tells him to drive safe. Is Frank just being paranoid or is the good samaritan more than he seems?

On the science front, Charlie Isaacs and the rest of Ackley's group are slated to present their prototype design for the ignition system for the Thin Man bomb to military Ordinance. The preparation seems to involve watching wartime footage of strategic airstrikes and placing bets on "how many Krauts we're gonna vaporize" with the Thin Man. The presentation doesn't go well. Despite checking and rechecking all his figures, Charlie failed to account for the weight of the fuel to fly the plane, which can add 26 tons to a B-29 bomber. The Thin Man design -- basically a nuke housed in a cannon -- is too heavy, so the plane won't even get off the ground. Charlie has to find a way to trim 800 pounds from the design, working against 2000 years of ballistic science. Cannon are heavy, after all, because if they're not, they'll bust apart the first time they fire.

Daniel Stern plays Glen Babbit on "Manh(a)ttan," a scientist with a secret in his past.

Charlie drowns his sorrows in the canteen afterward, fretting over his dilemma. Frank's mentor, Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) overhears, buys Charlie a round and tells him an off-color story about a big beefcake of a man who just can't seem to please his wife. "He figures if he screws her more often, she'll whistle like a teakettle," Babbit relates, but it doesn't work.

And then one day a salesman comes to the door, he and the wife go at it, and "right out of the gate she goes KABOOM!" He taps Charlie on the arm significantly: "It turns out all she needed was one... good... bang." Charlie completely misses the point at first -- "Is he talking about my wife?" -- but his lab mates explain that in the case of Thin Man, it only needs to fire once. So it can be thinner and lighter after all.

When his lab mates taunt that maybe the old guy could give Charlie some help with his wife, Charlie snarls, "Like I need sex tips from a Commie." A discernible chill falls over the group. This was not an era when one made such accusations lightly. Babbit shrugs and says he was just trying to help, to which Charlie replies, "Yeah, like you helped Richard Lavereau." Who is this Lavereau? Only Charlie and Babbit seem to know.

Gossip travels fast, so the news soon reaches "Occam" (Richard Schiff), the government interrogator who broke the late Sid Liao. He demands cooperation from Colonel Cox to investigate Babbit. Lavereau was a brilliant Harvard physicist who defected to Moscow in 1939, and now heads the Soviet version of the Manhattan Project. Despite the fact that much of Russia barely has running water, the bomb program is remarkably advanced, and Occam is convinced it's because Babbit has leaked classified information.

Once again, there is zero proof beyond rumors that Babbit once knew Lavereau. Cox reminds Occam how badly things ended the last time he had a theory, and defends the scientist, who has been with the project from day one and is Jewish -- and thus unlikely to be passing state secrets to the opposition. As for his supposed Communist leanings, "You can't swing a dead antelope by the tail without hitting some genius who once attended a communist rally" -- and that includes Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project.

Cox is correct that many public intellectuals attended communist meetings of some sort or another in the 1930s, before World War II broke out, including Oppenheimer. Anti-communist hysteria built through the 1940s, erupting into full-out paranoia in the 1950s -- the infamous McCarthy era. There is no evidence that Oppenheimer was ever officially a member of the Communist party, even though the FBI spent a good 30 years trying to prove otherwise. But sometimes rumors are enough. In the 1950s, his security clearance was summarily revoked and he was forced to endure public hearings in a bid to be reinstated -- a bid that failed. The Atomic Energy Commission upheld the verdict. It was pure politics. The PBS series American Experience has a good recap of those events, quoting physicist Marvin Goldberger: "The country asked him to do something and he did it brilliantly, and they repaid him for the tremendous job he did by breaking him."

Anyway, once again, Frank must contend with losing a member of his team. Babbit confesses he lied about the association with Lavereau during his intake interview, figuring no one would ever delve any deeper, and besides, they just met a few times at physics conferences and talked about their research. No biggie. They have their plutonium and there is real work to be done. He's convinced the tension will blow over. "There's no breeze here, things don't blow over," Frank retorts, advising him to stick to his story. Then he goes off to find out what Charlie knows.

Charlie knows quite a bit, having been a staff assistant in the Harvard physics department right before Lavereau's defection. An envelope (unsealed) arrived one day with a ticket to London (from whence Lavereau defected), but it wasn't in Lavereau's name -- that ticket arrived the day before. This one was in the name of Glen Babbit. Frank confronts him with the truth, and asks him to explain why his name was on that ticket. Babbit admits they were secretly lovers and Lavereau wanted to run away together to Moscow to start a new life. He thought the ticket would convince Babbit. It didn't. "But I have never betrayed my country," he insists.

Babbit lied to protect a deeper, darker secret, something far more shocking in that era than associating with a Communist. Maybe Frank had no idea, but Liza knew: she never told Frank because "everyone deserves a little privacy." Alas, privacy is in short supply; that night, as Babbit is painting in his quarters, he is taken away for questioning by Occam.

Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) is interrogated by the mysterious "Occam" (Richard Schiff).

Charlie, too, is feeling the pressure from that ill-advised drunken insult; he's slated to be questioned next, and Ackley impresses on him the importance of telling Occam everything he knows, for his own protection. He, too, tells a story, of how his dad used to take him hunting for white tail deer every year at the first snow, and would refuse to go home without a kill.

Charlie again demonstrates his incapacity for allegorical subtlety: "You want me to shoot [Babbit]?" Ackley says he is not the hunter, he is the prey. "These men will not go back to Washington without a trophy," he cautions. "If they can't bag a deer, they will settle for a grouse." Why should Charlie endanger his own career to protect Babbit?

Now it's time for some comic relief, in the form of Louis "Fritz" Fedowitz (Michael Chernus), a chubby junior scientist in Frank's group who has yet to lose his virginity at 29. He confesses his frustration to Helen, the lone female physicist, who decides to help him out by pointing out all the women on base who offer their sexual services in exchange for cold hard cash, including one who charges by the minute: "It's cheap if you're a quick draw," says the surprisingly pragmatic Helen.

Fritz is shocked to learn there are "whores" at base camp, but Helen calls them capitalists, supplementing their meager income from working the lunch counter with the "gold mines" underneath their skirts: "It's basic economics, supply and demand." Apparently prostitution wasn't in the syllabus when Fritz took economics at Cornell, and he's a bit of a sentimental softie, always imagining his first time would be with someone special. Helen's response: "Jeannie's special -- she plays the bassoon."

The next day, a triumphant Fritz recounts his "conquest" to an astonished Paul Crosley, before Helen takes him aside and confronts him with what actually happened. Fritz panicked and bolted before Jeannie (Lauren Myers) could get his trousers off, knocking over a lamp and breaking the bulb (a precious resource in wartime) in his haste. Helen was up half the night comforting her. A sheepish Fritz goes back to Jeannie's room to pay her what he owes for their disastrous encounter, along with a new light bulb. And then he asks shyly how much it would cost to take her to the movies. Fritz might just have a bit of game in him after all.

Back in Frank's office a subdued Babbit offers his resignation for the good of the group, because he is an uber-mensch who DOES NOT DESERVE this nonsense. Even though he stuck to his story, it was just a matter of time before Occam grilled Charlie and the truth came out. "At some point we all have to pay for the sins of the past," he says mournfully. "I am out of ration stamps." Frank refuses to accept the resignation, telling Babbit he has another plan.

It concerns Charlie's rejected paper, "A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology" -- the paper Frank rejected the year before, and the source of the original animosity between the two men. It's a fictional paper by a fictional scientist describing "how classical four-dimensional general relativity combined with the nuclear forces can explain the relative abundances of all known elements in the universe," but it has a real-world counterpart: Big Bang nucleosynthesis.

In brief: Einstein's equations gave rise to various models of the Big Bang, which describe a very hot and dense early universe. That universe cooled as it expanded, and quarks started forming protons and neutrons, which in turn formed atomic nuclei. According to Einstein Online (a useful site for those keen on more technical details), "What nuclei are produced, and in what amounts, is the result of a race between the various nuclear reactions on the one hand, and the inevitable cooling that accompanies the expansion of the universe on the other." Those predictions were later confirmed by observational data, so similar work really would have made Charlie's career.

How can Frank get Charlie's attention? Earlier, he had called his 83-year-old senile father in Indiana to wish him a happy birthday, a dutiful son even though his father thinks he's still an undergraduate. Abby was the operator monitoring the call, and accidentally sneezed mid-conversation. Later, when Frank passed her in the hall, he smirked and said "Gesundheit," having guessed it was Abby. Now he makes use of that knowledge, placing another call to his father. From Abby's face, it's clear the substance of the conversation is upsetting her -- just as Frank intended, knowing she would pass it on to Charlie, who barges angrily into Frank's office shortly after.


Frank has accused Charlie of plagiarizing part of his brilliant, career-making paper from an obscure 1932 dissertation by a Harvard graduate student -- an entire paragraph, almost word for word. Charlie first tries to argue that all scientists stand on the shoulders of giants, to which Frank retorts, "But the rest of us don't pretend to be 1000 feet tall." Then he argues that it was an honest mistake. He'd copied it into his notebook and forgot where it came from, assuming it had been his own observations. And besides, it was just one of several building blocks, not the exciting, original part of the paper, which was genuinely his own work. But even when he realized the mistake, he was too embarrassed and fearful for his career to come forward and make the correction.

It's worth noting that this sort of thing -- while not desirable, heavily frowned upon, and deeply embarrassing -- probably would not be sufficient to destroy a brilliant young physicist's career in reality. But this is the world of Manh(a)ttan, where a bar-room insult is sufficient to launch a full-fledged investigation. So when Frank tells Charlie to fall on his sword and lie to Occam -- OR ELSE -- it's an effective threat. Charlie conveniently "forgets" about the ticket and Babbit is saved.

Olivia Williams as Liza Winter.

Liza has been dealing with her own mini-crisis. After taking Niels Bohr's advice to find a way for her research to "flower" in the desert, she submitted a paper based on her research with her artificial beehive -- which is not a big hit with her neighbors -- only to find that the journal returned it because the military had censored so much of the text. She pleads with Major Pellegrin (Tad Jones) to intervene since nothing in the paper was even remotely classified -- it was all about the pollination preferences of the European honeybee.

All scientists are prohibited form publishing during their tenure on the Manhattan Project, and apparently this also applies to Liza, even though she is not an employee, scientific or otherwise. The major is unmoved by her frustration at having given up her own academic career so Frank could work on the Manhattan Project, telling her to suck it up and make the best of it, because "that's what you do in a war." Instead, Liza convinces her maid, Paloma (Tailinh Agoyo) to mail her paper from the pueblo post office, free of the censors' unrelenting black pens. But the next morning, she finds all her honeybees are dead; the hive has been sabotaged. She presumes it was Major Pellegrin and his men who are to blame, but he denies it.

John Benjamin Hickeyas Frank Winter.

Poor Liza's predicament is worse than she knows. Remember Frank's late-night drive with the mysterious package? His destination is the humble Santa Fe home of the maid, Paloma. The package contains a radio, so she can listen to music. Paloma speaks no English, which is why Frank first confided in her in the pilot -- a means of relieving the stress of not being able to discuss his work with his wife. Things have now escalated into a full-fledged affair, which means Liza has sacrificed her academic career for a philandering scumbag. And that "good samaritan" really was a government tail; he reports to Occam.

So I'm guessing there will be hell to pay in upcoming episodes, both personally and professionally. Frank is emerging as the series' most complicated character -- it's hard to know how to react to him from week to week, given his ruthlessness (he'll do pretty much anything to ensure his group's research progresses), PTSD, tortured moral compass, and marital infidelity. I wouldn't go so far as to call him likeable, but he's certainly fascinating.

We'll just have to wait and see whether Abby can bring herself to see past Charlie's questionable scholarship, or if Liza discovers who killed her bees -- or if Fritz wins over the fair Jeannie by treating her like a bona fide romantic interest rather than a girl for hire. And don't forget there's still a bomb to build, and the Thin Man's days are inevitably numbered.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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