All parents remember the moment when they first held their children—the tiny crumpled face, an entire new person, emerging from the hospital blanket. I extended my hands and took my daughter in my arms. I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly think. Afterward I wandered outside so that mother and child could rest. It was three in the morning, late February in New England. There was ice on the sidewalk and a cold drizzle in the air. As I stepped from the curb, a thought popped into my head: When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the Earth. I stopped midstride. I thought, How is that going to work?
Many years ago, though not so many years, I sat in a room and listened to a writer speak. I considered him old; I was not yet 30. The writer was Barry Hannah, and he was somewhere in his sixties—an age far, far over my horizon. He was meant to deliver a craft lecture. As far as I can remember, he spoke mostly of his recent treatment for colon cancer. I can see him vividly still: certain moments, the way he sat sidelong in his chair in a toppled column of sunlight, describing how one morning he woke from a dream, a vision really, of Jesus at the foot of his hospital bed.
I can’t quote a word of that lecture. What I remember was how that day, those moments, shook me deeply. Made me feel embarrassed—for what? For him? Me? I was awake. I was scared. I wondered, Is this a craft lecture? Now I know it was.
The change of perception that occurs then leads to a realignment. That is, it has to do with a reordering of ideas you already have about what’s unimportant and what’s consequential. So it was with these houses. For years you don’t see them because they are not monuments. You don’t already know what to think about them, as you do when viewing a landmark. And, being modern, they belong to the realm of the everyday; they don’t embody heritage or a glorious past. So you don’t study them. Then a moment occurs when you do see them. This moment introduces an inversion. The everyday now seems unfamiliar; famous landmarks appear, in comparison, tedious. The moment in which radical realignment takes place is, then, akin to a work of the imagination. In every domain of knowledge—in the sciences, in history, in the news—there is relative consensus about what constitutes significance. Only in imaginative works—in poetry and fiction—is there a reformulation of what we think to be important or unimportant.
All in all, Schwartz’s biography adds importantly to the literature of the utterly remarkable men and women who opened up nuclear physics to the world.