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Charmed Particles

November 9, 2015

I asked for and got a copy of Charmed Particles, by Chrissy Kolaya, from her publisher, Dzanc Books, because I thought it sounded interesting.

Charmed Particles is set at a fictional super collider in the fictional Chicago suburb of Nicolet, Illinois. The major conflict of the novel, however, is based on real events. Beginning in 1985, the Department of Energy conducted studies of a number of potential sites for a superconducting super collider, among them Batavia, Illinois and Waxahachie, Texas. None of the U.S. sites were approved, and eventually the Large Hadron Collider was built in Cern. Charmed Particles is the story of what might have happened.

Part of the story, interestingly, is told through epigraphs to chapters. The first chapter is preceded with a description of charmed particles: “particles containing a charm quark…have only a fleeting existence before decaying into more conventional particles,” attributed to Frederick A. Harris. There follows the story of an Indian physicist, Abhijat, as he meets his wife, Sarala, and her subsequent arrival in Illinois, where she leaves off wearing saris and cooking from the recipes her mother sent with her, like the one titled “for After an Argument” and “below that, her mother’s recipe for pav bhaji.” The physicists, engrossed in his important work at the super collider, leaves off paying much attention to Sarala, especially after she gives birth to a child, Meena.

The chapter that introduces the conflict between those in the town who are afraid of and don’t understand the super collider and those who think that anyone who doesn’t understand it is being willfully ignorant is entitled “Atom Smasher” and it has two epigraphs: one about “physics as an empirical science” and one about how “physicists don’t like the expression ‘atom smashers.’” When one of Abhijat’s neighbors puts up a sign that reads “NO SSC, NOT UNDER MY HOUSE,” he thinks that the sign “seemed tantamount to putting up a large placard in one’s yard announcing ‘I am poorly educated and illogically fearful.’”

I found the way the conflict divides the fictional town and the families we have come to know in the novel to be fairly realistic. Not everyone, even in the same family, can listen to the same arguments. Some have no argument, but simply make emotional appeals. This is pretty much the way I remember seeing my friends and neighbors on display during the John Freshwater trial, for teaching creationism in the local public middle school.

The two families who are the center of the action in this novel are Abhijat’s and the family of Meena’s childhood friend Lily. It turns out that, while both girls are very intelligent, only Meena has the talent for explaining difficult concepts to people who don’t grasp them wholly and immediately. At the end of the novel, Lily’s father discovers in himself a new talent for making what he is interested in come alive to children, inspiring their curiosity about places they’ve never been or even heard of. We see that it is the talents of these two characters that we need more of in the real world. Otherwise we’ll be left with abandoned super collider tunnels, as in Waxahachie, and with two groups of Americans who can’t communicate with each other, dividing friends and families down a line as invisible and sure as an underground course of whizzing particles.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2015 7:36 pm

    I never feel there are enough books about scientists in this world. Does the book talk much about what it’s like being a scientist, or is it mostly more about how the conflict is dividing the town?

    (I’m such a junkie for books that depict what it’s like to have jobs I’m interested in but will never have.)

    • November 10, 2015 9:42 pm

      It talks a little bit about what it’s like being a scientist at a big lab where there are lots of up and comers. It ends with seeing the job in terms of Abhijat wanting to make a big discovery but never getting to, finally seeing that he’s ignored his family in favor of a job that he could be less consumed by and still do well.

  2. November 12, 2015 12:08 pm

    This sounds like an interesting premise. I grew up not far from Fermilab so I’d like to put it on my list. Did you like it or was it disappointing?

    • November 13, 2015 4:51 pm

      Oh, I liked it. It’s rather densely written, so I tried to focus on a couple of aspects that I found most interesting.

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