The Physicist is a story of midlife love and regeneration, a romance wrapped in international intrigue and served with a generous helping of government malfeasance.
A University of Washington physics professor is caught up in a clandestine CIA operation that is inspired by a partially declassified government project from the sixties called the “Nth Country Experiment,” in which the U.S. government hired two physicists to determine whether they could design an atomic bomb without the benefit of classified documents.
Jim Whalen was once a budding physics superstar out to claim his place in history by developing string theory, the grand theory-of-everything. Now in midlife, his research has gone nowhere, his marriage has grown stale, and he has lost hope. But Whalen’s first graduate student reenters his life and hires his old professor to see if he has the skills to design a workable bomb without the benefit of classified information. If Whalen succeeds, the CIA will know it must expand the network of physicists it tracks.
But all is not what it seems.
In the midst of this, Whalen takes Eliza Block, a successful lawyer he is teaching to fly, on an adventure to the Alaskan wilderness to deliver a single-engine Cessna. On the red-eye flight back to Seattle, they realize they have fallen in love.
Whalen is transformed, energized by the challenge of an important new project through which he can prove his worth, and consumed by the passion he feels for Eliza. He loves life with an intensity he thought he had lost forever.
But then his world collapses.
The Physicist is Whalen’s first person account of his professional and personal transformation. The story is told with balance and humor. The main characters are rich and multidimensional, and the minor characters, a bush pilot, a defense lawyer, a judge, a prosecutor, and the regulars at a fisherman’s bar, are varied, colorful, and sometimes profane. The book is set in Seattle, which is described in rich detail.
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Einstein and Oppenheimer
Nth Country Experiment
University of Washington, Photo Joe Mabel
I have lived with the sea since exploring Gloucester Harbor at age ten in a beat-up dory that I owned with Tommy Gray. We paid forty-five dollars for that boat — I raised my share from an early morning paper route delivering the Boston Herald Traveler. Back in those days it got so cold in the winter that the inner harbor skinned over with ice. I still remember putting frozen toes next to the radiator after predawn newspaper deliveries.
My first real job was assistant sailing instructor at sixteen. I was assigned the task of teaching fifteen-year-old girls how to race International 110s. I have often said, only partly in jest, that it was the best job I have ever had. Next were four years of summer jobs on the Gloucester docks, first as a stevedore and then as a forklift driver. The latter is one of the few jobs where you alternate between twenty below zero in the warehouse and eighty above on the dock. On humid days it snowed at the freezer door when we opened it to drive a pallet of frozen fish in or out.
After nine years in the Gloucester public schools, my dad decided that boarding school was the place for me, so at age fifteen I went away to the Phillips Exeter Academy. I found out later that mom cried all the way home on the drive back after she and dad had dropped me off.
The first year at Exeter was the hardest of my life. I had always gotten excellent grades in the Gloucester school system. At Exeter I nearly flunked out of English my first year, and I was required to repeat Latin 1. After getting an A in Gloucester High School, I got a C+ the second time around at Exeter. To say it was demoralizing is to understate the angst of it all. By my third year I had adjusted, and I will be forever grateful that I learned to write while there. I had been mostly a science geek, still am I guess, and would never have branched out if I hadn’t been forced to do so. David Weber, barely out of college, was one of my English teachers. Seven years ago, I reconnected with David, now retired from a long and esteemed career teaching at Exeter. He has helped me immensely in my new career as a writer. One of the great joys of my life has been renewing my friendship with him.
After Exeter, I went to Bowdoin College, where I majored in physics and mathematics, and then to MIT, intending to get a graduate degree in physics. But I changed course and got a law degree from Harvard instead. After law school I moved to Seattle and have had a career as a trial lawyer, often suing fishing companies for mistreating their fishermen. My clients were men and women who endured great hardship under harsh conditions that resembled nineteenth century Charles Dickens more than twenty-first century America. They had little economic power, no clout, and too often were badly abused. Many Seattle fishing company executives will disagree, but I always felt good about what I was doing. By and large, it was great way to make a living.
In 2004, I had the privilege of being the lead trial attorney for eight gay and lesbian couples asserting their claim to marriage rights equal to those granted heterosexual couples. I am proud to say we prevailed at trial, the first time those rights were established in the State of Washington. Sadly, we lost five votes to four in the Washington Supreme Court. My clients had to wait until Washington voters granted equal rights via the ballot a few years later, and men and women across the country had to wait a few more years until the U.S. Supreme Court made equality the rule nationwide.
Starting in 2007, my wife, Sally, and I took a sabbatical to sail eleven thousand miles from Seattle to Tahiti and back on the thirty-nine-foot cutter Pax Vobiscum, named after a Latin benediction (“peace be with you”) that my brother and I often heard our dad say during moments of agitation. Most of our friends and family members warned Sally and me against confining ourselves in a tiny sailboat on ocean passages of up to twenty-five days out of sight of land. Too much togetherness, everyone told us, too easy to ruin a marriage. Not for us, though, it made our bonds stronger.
Taking a sailboat across an ocean was a lifelong dream for me. My other lifelong dream was to write a novel, and as the sailing trip wound up I decided to do just that. I started writing Georges Bank, which plays off my knowledge as a sailor and lawyer, on my return to Seattle. After I finished that book, I wrote The Physicist, which also draws on my experience as a lawyer, as well as my knowledge of flying light aircraft, and my physics education. I have recently completed a third book, Bergie's Dilemma. More about that later.
These days I am a part-time flight instructor, part-time writer, and retired lawyer.
I also devote time to a not-for-profit that funds research into finding a cure for FSHD, a type of muscular dystrophy. I have the disease. When I was a teenager it took away my ability to raise my arms over my head, and these days it is slowly depriving me of my ability to walk.
No tears, though. I’ve learned how to use walking sticks, people open doors for me, and I qualify for one of those blue stickers that get you the good parking places.
Life is grand.
Bradley Bagshaw — 2018
On the Gloucester Docks — 1958
Marriage Equality — 2004
Off Bora Bora — 2008
Georges Bank Events
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Off Bora Bora — 2008
On the Gloucester Docks — 1958
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