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j. craig wheeler

Sense of Slush
Wheeler - March 23, 1997

Craig's Sense of Slush
Copenhagen January 1996

My first trip to Copenhagen I got to see neither the Little Mermaid nor the red light district. It was overcast and damp in mid-January 1996, which discouraged sightseeing. We also had a meeting with very full scientific sessions and that prevents routine tourism. Nevertheless, it was obvious that Copenhagen was a beautiful city full of healthy, energetic people (with one exception to be detailed below).

mermaid I had my first introduction to Copenhagen and the Little Mermaid from Danny Kaye playing Hans Christian Anderson and singing "Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, salty old queen of the sea..." Hard not to like anything Danny Kaye smiled upon. The reference to the red light district comes from a friend, Robert, who went to a meeting there ten years ago and returned complaining that he had not found the red light district until the night before he left when he discovered it just around the corner from his hotel. As a primer, I had also recently read Peter Hoeg's intriguing "Smilla's Sense of Snow. I did not expect to meet any tough-minded, thoroughly individualistic, Greenlandic women, and indeed, to the best of my knowledge, did not, but the book's background of modern Denmark was still very much in my mind.

The venue was the sixtieth birthday celebration of the remarkable Russian physicist and astrophysicist, Igor Novikov. Novikov had left Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union and a Center for Theoretical Astrophysics had been set up for him at the University of Copenhagen. I had learned about his stimulating work on worm holes and time machines from Novikov at a workshop in Snowmass, Colorado a year and a half before. This was one of the few scientific epiphanies of my mature scientific career. Novikov had worked on this subject for nearly a decade and I had simply missed out on it, being caught up with Supernova 1987A, chairing my department and other distractions.

In Snowmass, Novikov made some reference to his time machine work and I guess I was psychologically primed. I asked him a follow-up question, and he responded by borrowing some blank overhead transparencies and delivering a sparkling spontaneous lecture, responding to my continuous barrage of questions. I'm not sure how or whether any of the others recall it, but it seemed to me that of the twenty-odd people in the room, we were the only two participating in this dialog. In hindsight, I now realize that Novikov had given this lecture many times before, but I am still blown away by the clarity and enthusiasm with which he revealed his insights. It was literally as if a door had been opened for me.

This is high-falutin' stuff, bordering on metaphysical, but I was, and still am, impressed that hard-core physicists like Novikov and Kip Thorne of Caltech had spent much energy and ingenuity on it. Thorne has told his own version of the story in his book, "Einstein's Outrageous Legacy." Novikov came to Texas and talked about the subject in my undergraduate non-science major class the previous spring. I had written up my lecture notes on worm-holes and time machines and they had been converted to a recently published article in Astronomy Magazine. This meeting was my chance to apologize to both Thorne and Novikov for my shameless adaptation of their work. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thorne took the opportunity to respond to my query about a point of confusion and explained where I had gotten some of the physics wrong, even at the lay level That is the price for trying to address scientific issues only at a popular level and second hand.

I had picked a hotel, the Kong Artur, somewhat at random, but somewhat by price, since the Danes were generously picking up the tab. It was nice, but not lavish. It also turned out to be a bit further from the meeting place than the more central hotel in which all the experienced Copenhagen visitors were staying. It was about a fifteen minute walk from the Kong Artur to the Neils Bohr Institute and the Center for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University where the meetings were held. No problem.

The day I arrived, I slept off the jet lag a bit and then went for a walk in the late afternoon, just as the early dusk was settling in. I decided to try to find the meeting place, but then ended up forgetting the sheet with the instructions and proceeding from memory. I walked down along the lakes, took the second bridge, turned right and walked along a few blocks, as memory served. I did not see anything that leapt out at me, so crossed the street and doubled back to make sure that the huge hospital complex on the corner was not the University. I proceeded down the street in the opposite direction to cover the possibility that I had not remembered left from right and ended up downtown. In hindsight, I walked straight into the wall of the Neils Bohr Institute when I had crossed the street, but it was dark and I could not see the sign on one of the buildings of the compound, so proceeded in ignorance.

I found a nice coffee shop downtown after wondering the pedestrian malls and did some writing. Then I looked for an inexpensive restaurant. I was not too hungry having eaten four or five meals on planes on the way over. That included a wolfed-down taco lunch in the Austin airport before finding that I could get a first class upgrade that entitled me to lunch on the way to Chicago while steerage starved. I ate it. First rule of warfare, or travel, eat when you can.

My wanderings did not reveal a likely small scale restaurant and I finally inquired in a bar, but they were not serving food. The barmaid directed me to a place downstairs. It was a Danish fondue restaurant, all you could eat for one price. It was not all that cheap and I could not then eat all I could eat, but I was tired of walking and a little hungry, so stuck it out. It was pretty good. I saw people at the ice cream bar and had a tiny bit of sorbet for dessert, thinking I did not need it, I was really full, but a tiny sweet would be nice and surely it came with the prix fixee. Nope, cost six dollars extra. Rich dessert.

I got back in the hotel and discovered my first encounter with Copenhagen slush. It had not been raining, nor did it, but there was a mist about and the roads and sidewalks were damp. I had dots of city grime, tire-rubbered mud, up the back of the calf of my new Haggars. I assumed I had unknowingly splashed in some puddle in the evening's walk. I washed the pant legs off as best I could and hung the pants up to dry on the heated towel rack in the bathroom, handy appliance.

street I walked to the meeting room the next morning, paying some caution to the road, avoiding puddles. I joined in the pre-session chit-chat and then sat down for the talks. Sometime through the first talk, I crossed my legs and noticed, to my chagrin, that I had a fresh supply of Copenhagen slush-dots all over the back of my leg. I registered some of the peculiarity of it, but not the full import. There was no sign of dirt on the bottom of the cuffs of my pants, either leg. Only these gray-black spots extending about six inches up my calf. I was sure I had trod in no puddles and could not explain the pattern. There was nothing I could do, so I tried to ignore the dirt. I did surreptitiously glance around and could not see that any of my cohort had the same problem.

I walked back to the hotel that evening especially carefully. I absolutely know I did not step in any puddles. I avoided anything that even hinted at more than the normal amount of damp. When I got back, there were new spots. I was flummoxed. Then another mystery hit me. They were mostly on my left calf. What did that mean? I'm left handed, sort of, but did I walk funny? What was the source of this asymmetry? Once again, I washed out the slacks and hung them to dry.

The next morning, I was ready. I started carefully out of the Kong Artur. I walked pussy-footed for a hundred yards. I checked my pants. No dots. I walked another hundred yards. No dots. I relaxed a bit and my mind wandered to some of the scientific issues we were discussing in the meeting. I looked again. Dots!!! On my left pants leg!!!! I proceeded to the meeting that way. Hundred yards. Check. No dots. Again. No dots. Mind wander. No puddles. But dots! This was confounding. I was wearing Rockports. Were the laces somehow getting wet and flipping spots onto my pants? Why on the rear calf, not the front, not the bottom of the cuffs? Why the left more than the right? What about the slightly worn heels? Were they the key, somehow? No clue. That night I walked home very carefully with my pants hitched up to somewhere near my solar plexus. That seemed to make a little difference. There were few new spots. I put on a clean pair of slacks to walk to the planetarium where we had the banquet. I wore them with the belt up near my armpits. Again that seemed to help and I did not shame myself at the dinner.

The banquet brought a surprise to everyone. The meeting, as one might expect, was full of Russians. Many I had met before, but an equal number I had only known as names on title pages of scientific papers during the cold war. For many others, for Novikov, the reunion was even warmer. We were assigned tables at the dinner. I ended up across from a rather attractive young woman. She turned out to be a Russian graduate student working with Novikov on a topic in which I am interested and whom I had being trying to identify. She was with her husband, an outspoken fellow with rather un-Russian long hair. Neither was inclined to speak very much, at least in English. The woman was polite enough to ask permission to smoke, which she did with great regularity. I talked a little about the recent Russian history, the parliamentary elections, with her husband.

The after dinner speakers were Vitaly Ginzburg and John A. Wheeler (no relation, most famous for giving the name to "black holes"), both revered physicists who each, not entirely coincidentally, had been active in the nuclear programs of their respective countries during WW II. Ginzburg went first. He said, "I know what you are supposed to do at these after dinner talks. You should say some nice things about the person we celebrate and tell some jokes. But I don't know how to do that, so I am going to be serious." He then launched into an amazing, unexpected, twenty-minute denunciation of the Soviet past and a plea to prevent that history from repeating itself. He argued that Soviet communism and Nazi fascism were the same thing, that Hitler and Stalin were two of a kind. He warned of the particular seduction of communist propaganda with the claim that at least fascist slogans were brutal and straightforward, but communist slogans of "peace," "equality," and "brotherhood" masked the same evils only in an especially sugar-coated way. He warned that totalitarian regimes were a special danger to "kind and gentle people" who were least prepared to resist extremes of the regime. He called for these "kind and gentle people" to be prepared to resist any return to the old way even though resistance was not in their nature. He clearly included himself in this charge and was, among other things, chastising himself for an overly passive past. He pointed out that forty percent of the electorate had voted for communists or fascists in the recent Russian parliamentary elections. He noted that Stalin had killed as many people as the populations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden combined. He listed specific young physicists who had been executed for minor infractions and related the fact that Novikov's own father had been executed.

The audience was silent and dumbfounded throughout this entire cris de coeur, save for an isolated cry when he compared Stalin to Hitler. It was an amazing outpouring of bottled-up angst. I learned afterward that Ginzburg had led a rather easy life as one of the nuclear elite. He also had divorced his wife while he worked in the officially non-existent, highly secure nuclear Gulag. There he met and married a Zek, one of the prisoners who served as slave labor to build the nuclear cities and their laboratories. That clearly gave him some access to another side of life in Russia. There must be a story there of how he managed to meet such a person, since the scientists led a sheltered life in their labs and nice homes built by the prisoners who filed back and forth from rude barracks. There was some mixing of scientists and prisoners in part because some of the latter could work off their sentences and still were not allowed to leave the restricted nuclear zone. I presume this woman was the one with him in Copenhagen. They were also in the Kong Artur in the room just across the hall from mine, but I never spoke to them.

A much less serious note was my encounter with The Cold Guy. I never heard this fellow speak, nor did he wear a name tag where I could get a glance at his name and affiliation. He appeared about Wednesday, at least that is when I first noticed him. He took a seat next to me as the afternoon session started. And sneezed. A big, huge, unmuffled sneeze. Then he coughed. His nose ran like a sieve. He had no handkerchief. He used the cuff of his flannel shirt to attempt to stem the tide. He sneezed again. I cringed. I tried as best I could to turn away from him and face away from the germ ejaculations he was spewing into the atmosphere.

I sat though the talk in this way and made my move at the coffee break. I had started this trip fully aware that it was the beginning of flu season and that nice cramped, crowded, dry-aired, airplanes were a great place to exchange various bugs. I had tried to keep up my fluid intake and get enough rest. I did not need a direct injection from The Cold Guy. After the coffee break, I sat a few seats away. I was still trying to sit where I could see the speaker's projected information. This was not good enough. The Cold Guy sat in the same place and proceeded to sneeze and cough and cuff-wipe his way through the next talk. Although I was a bit further away, I still felt endangered by this erratic scud-launched germ warfare. By the next talk, I was across the aisle, as far away as I could practically get.

The rest of the week proceeded that way. The Cold Guy sat right in the center, blasting away. I sat across the aisle, feeling moderately safe and keeping a weather eye on him. Each lecture a blissfully unaware colleague would take a convenient seat only to find him or herself next to this scourge of germs. They would grimace and turn away and eventually move away, as I had done that first day. By the second day, The Cold Guy was somewhat better armed. He was wearing the same flannel shirt. I could not, in my most charitable thoughts, imagine that he had washed it out. He no longer used the cuffs, anyway. Instead he was equipped with rolls of toilet paper lifted from the bathroom. He would try to stifle his sniffing nose for awhile and then conspicuously pull out an arm's length of asswipe and loudly blow his schnoz into it. About every minute and a half. I arranged to talk to a colleague at lunch to follow up on a previous conversation. As we shuffled to a table, here came The Cold Guy, all bright eyed and friendly. I was forced to whisper to my colleague that I was trying to avoid infection from this guy and we made our way to another table. Not very friendly, but there are limits.

I avoided any hint of illness during or after this trip, but my encounter with The Cold Guy had one last chapter. I took a taxi to the airport on Saturday morning. I checked in and still had an hour or more before going to the departure gate. I decided to grab a cup of coffee and see if I could get a little writing done. I was wearing my nylon ski parka and carrying all my luggage in two carry-ons (a bit of paranoia that traces from having all my family's luggage lost on our first trip to Japan -- another story). I got the coffee, fresh and hot from the espresso machine. As I picked it up I looked at an adjacent counter and there was The Cold Guy! He had a cup of coffee balanced on a large glass of orange juice, a little late for his vitamin C, and was looking for a table. I thought, great, I donÍt know this guy, nor he me, but he'll surely recognize me from the meeting and want to visit. No way. So I skulked a bit as I paid for the coffee and then looked around and did not see him. I headed for a nearby vacant table, wanting to get down out of sight lest somehow The Cold Guy wander back from wherever he went. I hurried a little to get past a couple of occupied tables. I got to my target table. I had the coffee in my left hand and a piece of luggage on a strap on each shoulder. I leaned down toward the table to set the coffee down.

Nylon is slippery. In quick order, too fast to do anything about it, just slow enough that I could register the disaster as it transpired, I dipped my left shoulder to place the coffee on the table and the strap slipped off my shoulder. The bag ended up dangling from my forearm. I did not drop the cup, but the weight of the bag jerked my arm and tipped the cup over sloshing coffee over the saucer, across my hand and completely dousing the bag that dangled in easy range below the tilted cup. I said a bad word. The group at the next table looked at me in dismay, but offered no help to clean up the great puddle of coffee that washed over the table, the floor, my parka, and my carry-on. I went back and got a bunch of napkins. By the time I returned one of the bus boys was swiping fitfully at the mess. I joined him as best I could and then left him to it.

Then I noticed that my hand hurt. I developed an instant rapport with the "McDonald's Lady" who sued when she spilled the coffee in her crotch. That coffee had been hot! I had scalded my thumb and forefinger to a fair degree, but not, like the McDonald Lady, requiring plastic surgery. With the carry-ons back on my shoulders, I grumbled my way down the stairs to the toilet. My wife has long since taught me to put ice on a burn. The best I could do was run tap water on my hand. Two things about the Danes. They have hot coffee and they have cold water, at least in winter. This water damn near numbed my hand. It flowed, but that was the only thing that distinguished it from ice. I let it run on my hand, first my thumb until it was numb, and then my forefinger. I did this for several minutes until I got bored and frustrated. I went back up stairs. My thumb started to burn again, so I trudged back down the stairs and did another ten minutes. That did the job. My hand was pretty red and I could feel the sting all the way home, but it was fine a day or so later.

You may think this was rather dumb of me, to juggle hot coffee in such a precarious way, but I hasten to point out that I would not have done so had I not been trying to escape. This was all clearly the fault of The Cold Guy!

I never did figure out how I was producing those dots of Copenhagen slush. Smilla, where are you when I need you?!

3 October 2005
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