Author Krista Foss with her new novel, Half Life.
At the Milwaukee high school where she teaches physics, Elin, the protagonist of Krista Fosss new novel, Half Life (M&S), often uses unorthodox methods to explain principles like nuclear fission and chain reactions to her students. Far more complex, and at times less explicable, however, are the reactions occurring in Elins own family in the wake of the sudden death of her father, a revered Danish-born furniture designer.
Foss has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize for her short fiction. Her previous novel, Smoke River (2014), won the Hamilton Literary Award. She lives in Hamilton.
This novel is a notable departure from your previous one, at least in terms of subject matter. How did it come to you?
Story continues below advertisement
I spent four years writing something else an entirely different book that I would have kept expanding and retooling had not my daughter, whose judgment I trust implicitly, found the courage to tell me it wasnt working and wasnt likely to either. As far as moments go, that was a devastating one. And not an easy message for her to deliver. At a gut level, I knew she was right as she was when she pointed to this other story, sniffing around the edges of the unsalvageable manuscript, suggesting I dig into that. It scared the bejeezus out of me. But my other option was to get depressed over having noodled away for four years with nothing to show for it.
So, Half Life was written in a swoon of fear, with equal parts humiliation and humility, but also a lot of love for mothers, daughters, the complexities of family. And those really brave moments when someone has to say something thats both true and devastating.
The grace note was the first draft came out quickly; it seemed to have been there all along. And because Half Life is a close character study, told with a singular voice, it feels wholly different from my first novel, which had 12 points of view. I got to stretch myself in a new way.
The specificity of its setting and characters is one of the most interesting things about Half Life. Why did you set it in Milwaukee?
Milwaukee was the whim that became the premeditated choice. I wanted Elin to live in a mid-sized city, that for her feels midway to somewhere else, namely the bigger cities her more accomplished siblings left Milwaukee for.
I also mistakenly thought Milwaukee had a large Danish-American population, so when I landed there during a January snowstorm, I thought Id be tripping over Scandinavians. But the more I discovered about Milwaukee the more it felt kindred to me, an inveterate Hamiltonian: its ugliness and its beauty and other troubling contradictions. Its the largest city in the U.S. to have elected socialist mayors. Yet, it remains racially segregated, divided by money, full of industrial pride, yet abandoned by many industries.
And then I discovered the curious, not-so-well-known role Milwaukee played in The Manhattan Project, and it worked so perfectly with the novel, I started to believe Id chosen the city on purpose, rather than acting on a gut feeling that led to productive serendipities.
Story continues below advertisement
The patriarch in the novel, Tig, is a famous Danish mid-century furniture designer. How much did you know about such things before you began writing?
My childhood home was originally filled with Scandinavian mid-century modern furniture, but it didnt hold up under assault from me and my siblings: five very large, unruly children born in quick succession. It was replaced with rough-hewn pine benches and homemade durable sofas. Still, I never shook the impression of the earlier furnitures angles and curves, the low-lustre teak, the dark-striped boucle, all of it registering as birdlike, weird and beautiful.
So, my knowledge of Danish mid-century modern design begins with an old emotion supplemented by some later book-learning, BBC documentaries and hours spent staring at the offerings of online auction houses. Also, if a chair is unadorned physics it has to hold itself up under the forces of gravity, and then it has to hold you the Danish made it look cool to my eyes.
For much of my life, that was about my working level of physics that, and a disastrous first year of university engineering.
And yet physics and physicists also play a major role in the novel, so Im assuming you had to do a lot of research in that realm as well?
I backed into theoretical physics for this book through recreational reading on whats called the hard problem of consciousness and stumbling on how neurology, philosophy, computer science and physics have all staked out turf in this debate (and turfs inside turfs). Its vociferous, and sometimes veers toward the polemical. And in going down that rabbit hole, I read more about theoretical physics than I expected to. At the simplest level, I became intrigued by how much we do in this world that breezes over underlying paradox: science works even when its practitioners dont fully understand or agree on how or why. The consciousness question didnt show up in my book, but the physics did.
Story continues below advertisement
Eventually, research has a showdown with hubris. I couldnt become an expert on subjects others have dedicated their lives to mastering. In an early draft, my main character had long conversations with Niels Bohr on the epistemological questions arising from quantum mechanics. Thats not great fiction or at least not the way I wrote it. And it taught me another lesson: resist using most of your research.
Ultimately, I needed to understand as much of the physics that interested my character and that she would use in the context of her story arc. That allowed me to approach the subject with more wonder. What does she contemplate walking through busy halls holding a full cup of coffee? How does Schrodingers cat show up in her dreams? Who are the physicists she wishes she knew?
So did you emerge from it with a favourite physicist, or theorem?
Physicists fascinate me how often messy lives produce brilliant, elegant science. But it was the female physicists in the period straddling the foundations of quantum mechanics and the beginnings of nuclear physics who left the deepest impressions, because other than Marie Curie and her daughter, they were largely shut out of recognition and rewards a reality thats only recently shifting with the 2018 and 2020 Nobel Prizes in Physics. Among them was Lise Meitner, exiled from her beloved Berlin, tromping off in the snow with her nephew to sit down in a Swedish forest and scribble calculations on the back of stationery that confirmed nuclear fission. For the man whod betray her. She had that trifecta of emotional complexity, deep humanity and utter brilliance.
People like to say things dont matter, and yet objects in this novel have a weight and a power. Can you talk about that?
Things matter in this novel insofar as they are matter. Which is Elins central dilemma. Her memory is analogous to quantum physics: she cant produce visible tangible evidence. It is dogged by uncertainty. And yet, it is an underlying reality.
Story continues below advertisement
The other reality is material, the realm of classical physics dealing with the insults of time to her body and home, seeing her daughter bruised, a branch falling in her path. Even the bombs that fell in the past have macroscopic footprints.
So, the objects in the book a beautiful chair or dining set, a collection of smoky Danish glass mirror the dilemma. They have their own classical reality, the substances they are made of and their tactile aesthetics. But these are overlaid with strata of narrative: who designed them, how they are made and where the wear and tear came from. And finally, that invisible encoding of memory: the laughter, meals, song, comfort and wounds they hold. The secrets.
The paradoxes we cant see joy co-existing with pain along those we can aesthetic delight simultaneous with ugliness, with stain can all be the reality of something as utilitarian, yet intimate, as a chair or a table or a drinking glass.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.
- How Quantum Physics Allows Us To See Back Through Space And Time - Forbes - May 14th, 2021
- Is everything predetermined? Why physicists are reviving a taboo idea - New Scientist - May 14th, 2021
- New evidence for electron's dual nature found in a quantum spin liquid . New experiments conducted at - Princeton University - May 14th, 2021
- A wobbling muon could unlock mysteries of the universe - Vox.com - May 14th, 2021
- Quantum science, particle physics and nanoscale motors awarded support from Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Tech Fund - Princeton University - May 14th, 2021
- Quantum Computing In Finance Where We Stand And Where We Could Go - Science 2.0 - May 14th, 2021
- Pathogenic, auto-immune or viral, all diseases are actually epigenetic - The Times of India Blog - May 14th, 2021
- Outlook on the Quantum Technology Global Market to 2026 - - GlobeNewswire - May 14th, 2021
- Researchers confront major hurdle in quantum computing - University of Rochester - May 9th, 2021
- Can a Patent Be Valid and Invalid at the Same Time? - Bloomberg Law - May 9th, 2021
- Breaking the Laws of Physics: Steering Light to Places It Isnt Supposed to Go - SciTechDaily - May 9th, 2021
- Are We on the Brink of a New Age of Scientific Discovery? - SciTechDaily - May 9th, 2021
- Can you really put a price on your college major? - The Boston Globe - May 9th, 2021
- Physicist and jazz pianist combines music and science at Rochester - University of Rochester - May 7th, 2021
- On the marvels of physics | symmetry magazine - Symmetry magazine - May 7th, 2021
- What financial crises and quantum mechanisms have in common - The New Times - May 7th, 2021
- MIT Researcher Says UFO Research Could Lead to New Laws of Physics - Futurism - May 7th, 2021
- Collins Aerospace upgrades US Navy C-130 fleet with long-lasting wheels and carbon brakes - PRNewswire - May 7th, 2021
- Andy Weirs New Space Odyssey - The New York Times - May 3rd, 2021
- The coherence of light is fundamentally tied to the quantum coherence of the emitting particle - Science Advances - May 3rd, 2021
- The battle for free will in the face of determinism - The Guardian - May 3rd, 2021
- Tulane part of Navy/Army-funded research on improving communication - News from Tulane - May 3rd, 2021
- A clocks accuracy may be tied to the entropy it creates - Science News Magazine - May 3rd, 2021
- Wellness Wednesday advice: If going to be sad? Don't! - Campus Times - May 3rd, 2021
- Beyond Books: Creative ways to combat the summer slide - Chillicothe Gazette - May 3rd, 2021
- #PulpNonFiction: Advertisers, be clear about what you want to say and why! - Bizcommunity.com - May 3rd, 2021
- Q&A: Are We on the Brink of a New Age of Scientific Discovery? - University of Virginia - May 3rd, 2021
- In Quantum Physics, Reality Really Is What We Choose To Observe - Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence - April 21st, 2021
- Multiple Realities | Physics - Denison University - April 21st, 2021
- IISER physicist Prof Arvind is Punjabi University VC - The Tribune - April 21st, 2021
- Theoretical Physicist Prof Arvind appointed Punjabi Varsity Vice Chancellor - The Tribune - April 21st, 2021
- A cosmologist throws light on a universe of bias - Salon - April 21st, 2021
- Recent Reports Of Overturned Scientific Theory Are Premature - Forbes - April 21st, 2021
- Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli - read an exclusive extract - RTE.ie - April 17th, 2021
- Researchers Visualize the Motion of Vortices in Quantum Superfluid Turbulence - SciTechDaily - April 17th, 2021
- Will we ever know exactly how the universe ballooned into existence? - Livescience.com - April 17th, 2021
- 'The Disordered Cosmos', A Contemplation of the Exclusionary Culture of Physics - The Wire Science - April 17th, 2021
- Albert Einstein Death Anniversary: How did the greatest physicists of all time die? - Free Press Journal - April 17th, 2021
- Scott Aaronson Winner of 2020 ACM Prize In Computing - iProgrammer - April 17th, 2021
- Book Review: A Cosmologist Throws Light on a Universe of Bias - Undark Magazine - April 17th, 2021
- Realization of an ideal Weyl semimetal band in a quantum gas with 3D spin-orbit coupling - Science Magazine - April 17th, 2021
- Quantum computers are revealing an unexpected new theory of reality - New Scientist - April 15th, 2021
- Student's physics homework picked up by Amazon quantum researchers - News - The University of Sydney - April 15th, 2021
- The Big Theoretical Physics Problem At The Center Of The 'Muon g-2' Puzzle - Forbes - April 15th, 2021
- 615 Million Euros Awarded to Quantum Delta NL for Quantum Research in the Netherlands - HPCwire - April 15th, 2021
- The God Equation Review: One String Theory to Rule Them All - The Wall Street Journal - April 15th, 2021
- The Disordered Cosmos review: An insider take on physics and injustice - New Scientist News - April 15th, 2021
- Course explores 'Magic, Witchcraft and Healing' > News > USC Dornsife - USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences - April 15th, 2021
- How matters hidden complexity unleashed the power of nuclear physics - Science News Magazine - April 15th, 2021
- Scientists Perform First-ever Ultracold Atom Interferometry in Space, Leading to Possible Physics Breakthroughs - Science Times - April 15th, 2021
- The windswept German island that inspired quantum physics - Spectator.co.uk - April 6th, 2021
- Junior wins Goldwater scholarship | The Source | Washington University in St. Louis - Washington University Record - April 6th, 2021
- Raytheon Technologies Announces $500 Million Social Impact Initiative - PRNewswire - April 6th, 2021
- Raytheon Technologies to release first quarter results on April 27, 2021 - CapeNews.net - April 6th, 2021
- An Interstellar Trip with Einstein, Newton, and Tesla - EE Times India - April 6th, 2021
- Searching for New Physics in the Subatomic World - SciTechDaily - April 6th, 2021
- QCI Expands Sales and Marketing Team to Accelerate Growth and Advance Enterprise Adoption of Quantum Computing - GlobeNewswire - April 6th, 2021
- Quantum Physics to Disrupt Geospatial Industry over the Coming Decade - GIM International - April 4th, 2021
- Imaginarity: New Paper Says The Imaginary Part Of Quantum Mechanics Can Be Observed - Science 2.0 - April 4th, 2021
- The mystery of the muon's magnetism | symmetry magazine - Symmetry magazine - April 4th, 2021
- Your Guide to Products and Technologies That Are Pseudoscience - Interesting Engineering - April 4th, 2021
- 6 Quantum Computing Stocks to Invest in This Decade - Investment U - April 4th, 2021
- What if youre living in a simulation, but theres no computer? - The Next Web - April 4th, 2021
- Quantum physics: what to expect - Study International News - March 31st, 2021
- Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli review a meditation on quantum theory - The Guardian - March 31st, 2021
- 'Spacekime theory' could speed up research and heal the rift in physics - Big Think - March 31st, 2021
- Some Black Holes Are Impossible In Our Universe - Forbes - March 31st, 2021
- Scientists Have Simulated The Primordial Quantum Structure of Our Universe - ScienceAlert - March 31st, 2021
- Post-Doctoral Research Associate Experimental Condensed Matter Physics job with ROYAL HOLLOWAY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON | 250229 - Times Higher Education... - March 31st, 2021
- No free will, no ideas: Physicist Brian Greene reduces everything to 'particles and fields' - National Catholic Reporter - March 31st, 2021
- Carlo Rovelli on his search for the theory of everything - Prospect - March 31st, 2021
- Do Alternate Realities Exist? This Artist's Machines Are Ready to Find Out - PCMag - March 31st, 2021
- After 50 Years, Physicists Confirm The Existence of an Elusive Quasiparticle - ScienceAlert - March 25th, 2021
- Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli review the mysteries of quantum mechanics - The Guardian - March 25th, 2021
- Quantum Week 2021 Unveils the Latest in Quantum Computing and Engineering - PRNewswire - March 25th, 2021
- QMAP Will Have Data Science and AI as Downstairs Neighbors - UC Davis - March 25th, 2021
- Has the black hole information paradox evaporated? - Symmetry magazine - March 25th, 2021
- Ultracold Quantum Collisions Have Been Achieved in Space for the First Time - Scientific American - March 25th, 2021
- Measuring the invisible - MIT News - March 25th, 2021
- Einsteins Fridge Review: Heated Arguments - The Wall Street Journal - March 25th, 2021