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Chapter 4 The Frontiers of Science

Novel:The Three-Bodyauthor:Cinxin Liu pubdate:2019-02-14 14:40

Chapter 4  The Frontiers of Science
Forty-plus years later
Wang Miao thought the four people who came to find him made a rather odd combination: two cops and two men in military uniforms. If the latter two were armed police, that would be somewhat understandable, but they were actually PLA officers.
As soon as Wang saw the cops, he felt annoyed. The younger one was all right—at least he was polite. But the other one, in plainclothes, immediately grated on him. He was thickset and had a face full of bulging muscles. Wearing a dirty leather jacket, smelling of cigarettes, and speaking in a loud voice, he was exactly the sort of person Wang despised. "Wang Miao? "
The way the cop addressed him by name only, so direct and impolite, made Wang uncomfortable. Adding to the insult, the man lit a cigarette as he addressed him, without even lifting his head to show his face. Before Wang could answer, the man nodded at the younger cop, who showed Wang his badge, having lit the cigarette, the older cop moved to enter Wang s apartment..
"Please don't smoke in my home, " Wang said, blocking him.
"Oh, sorry, Professor Wang. " The young police officer smiled. "This is Captain Shi Qiang " He gave Shi a pleading look.
"Fine, we can talk in the hallway, " Shi said. He took a deep drag.
Almost half the cigarette had turned to ashes, and he didn't blow out much smoke. He inclined his head toward the younger police officer. "You ask him, then. "
"Professor Wang, we want to know if you've had any recent contacts with members of the Frontiers of Science, " the young cop said.
"The Frontiers of Science is full of famous scholars, and very influential. Why can't 1 have contact with a legal international academic group? "
"Look at the way you talk! " Shi said. "Did we say anything about it not being legal? Did we say anything about you not being allowed to contact them? " He finally blew out the lungful of smoke that he had sucked in earlier—right in Wang's face.
"All right then. Please respect my privacy. I don't need to answer your questions. "
"Your privacy? You're a famous academic. You have a responsibility toward the public welfare. " Shi threw away the butt and took out another cigarette from a flattened pack.
"I have the right to not answer. Please leave. " Wang turned around to go back inside.
"Wait! " Shi shouted. He waved at the young cop next to him. "Give him the address and phone number. You can come by in the afternoon. "
"What are you really after? " Wang said, his voice now tinged with anger. The argument brought the neighbors, curious about what was happening, out into the hallway.
"Captain Shi! You said you—" The young cop pulled Shi aside and continued speaking to him in hushed, urgent tones. Apparently, Wang wasn't the only one annoyed by his rough manners.
"Professor Wang, please don't misunderstand. " One of the army officers, a major, stepped forward. "There's an important meeting this afternoon, to which several scholars and specialists are invited. The general sent us to invite you. "
"I'm busy this afternoon. "
"We know. The general already spoke with the head of the Nano-technology Research Center. We can't have this meeting without you. If you can't attend, we'll have to reschedule. "
Shi and the young cop said nothing. Both turned and went down the stairs. The two army officers watched them leave and seemed to sigh with relief.
"What's wrong with that guy? " the major whispered to the other officer.
"He's got quite a record. During a hostage crisis a few years ago, he acted recklessly, without concern for the lives of the hostages. In the end, a family of three all died at the hands of the criminals. Rumor has it that he's also friendly with elements of organized crime, using one gang to fight another. Last year, he used torture to obtain confessions, and permanently disabled one of the suspects. That's why he was suspended from duty.... "
Wang Miao suspected that he was meant to overhear the conversation between the officers. Maybe they intended to show him that they were different from that rude cop; or maybe they wanted to make him curious about their mission.
"How can a man like that be part of the Battle Command Center? " the major asked.
"The general specifically requested him. I guess he must have some special skills. In any case, his duties are quite restricted. Other than public safety matters, he's not allowed to know much. "
Battle Command Center? Wang looked at the two officers, baffled.
They car they sent for Wang Miao took him to a large compound in the . Since the door had only a number and no sign, Wang deduced is building belonged to the military, rather than the police.
Wang was surprised by the chaos as he entered the large meeting room. Around him were numerous computers in various states of disarray. They had run out of table space and put a few workstations directly on the floor, where power cords and networking wires formed a tangled mess. Instead of being installed in racks, a bunch of routers were left haphazardly on top of the servers. Printer paper was scattered everywhere. A few projector screens stood in various corners of the room, sticking out at odd angles like gypsy tents. A cloud of smoke hovered over the room.... Wang Miao wasn't sure if this was the Battle Command Center, but he was sure of one thing: Whatever they were dealing with was too important for them to care about keeping up appearances.
The meeting table, formed by pushing several smaller tables together, was piled with documents and odds and ends. The attendees, their clothes wrinkled, looked exhausted. Those wearing ties had all pulled them loose. It seemed as if they had been up all night.
A major general named Chang Weisi presided over the meeting, and half the attendees were military officers. After a few quick introductions, Wang found out that many of the others were police. The rest were academics like him, with a few prominent scientists specializing in basic research in the mix.
He also found four foreigners in attendance. Their identities shocked him: a United States Air Force colonel and a British Army colonel, both NATO liaisons, as well as two CIA officers, apparently acting as observers.
On the faces of everyone around the table, Wang could read one sentiment: We've done all we can. Lets fucking get it over with, already.
Wang Miao saw Shi Qiang sitting at the table. In contrast to his rudeness yesterday, Shi greeted Wang as "Professor. " But the smirk on Shi's face annoyed Wang. He didn't want to sit next to Shi, but he had no choice, as that was the only empty seat. The already thick cloud of cigarette smoke in the room became thicker.
As documents were distributed, Shi moved closer to Wang. "Professor Wang, I understand you're researching some kind of... new material? "
"Nanomaterial, " Wang answered.
"I've heard of it. That stuff is really strong, right? Do you think it could be used to commit crimes? " As Shi's face was still half smirking, Wang couldn't tell if he was joking.
"What do you mean? "
"Heh. I Heard that a strand of that stuff could be used to lift up a truck. If criminals steal some and make it into a knife, can't they slice a car in half with one stroke? "
"There's no need to even make it into a knife. That kind of material can be made into a line as thin as one-hundredth of a hair. If you string it across a road, a passing car would be sliced into two halves like cheese—but what can't be used for criminal purposes? Even a dull knife for descaling a fish can! "
Shi pulled a document halfway out of the envelope in front of him and shoved it back in again, suddenly losing interest. "You're right. Even a fish can be used to commit a crime. I handled a murder case once. Some bitch cut off her husband's family jewels. You know what she used? A frozen tilapia she got out of the freezer! The spines along the back were like razors—"
"I'm not interested. Did you ask me to the meeting just to talk about this? "
"Fish? Nanomaterials? No, no, nothing to do with those. " Shi put his mouth next to Wang's ear. "Don't be nice to them. They're prejudiced against us. All they want is to get information out of us, but never tell us anything. Look at me. I've been here for a month, and I still don't know anything, just like you. "
"Comrades, " General Chang said, "let's get started. Of all the combat zones around the globe, this one has become the focal point. We need to update the current situation for all the attending comrades. " The unusual term "combat zone" gave Wang pause. He also noticed that the general did not seem to want to explain in detail the background of what they were dealing with to new people like him. This supports Shi's point. Also, in General Chang's short opening remarks, he used the word "comrades" twice. Wang looked at the NATO and CIA officers sitting across from him. The general had neglected to add gentlemen. "
they're also comrades. Anyway, that's how everyone addresses each other here, " Shi whispered to Wang, pointing at the four foreigners with his cigarette.
While he was baffled by how Shi knew what he was thinking, Wang was impressed with his powers of observation.
"Da Shi, put out your cigarette. There's enough smoke here," General Chang said as he flipped through some documents. He called Shi Qiang by a nickname, "Big Shi."
Shi looked around but couldn't find an ashtray. In the end, he dropped the cigarette into a teacup. He raised his hand, and before Chang could even acknowledge him, he spoke loudly. "General, I have a request which I've made before: I want information parity."
General Chang lifted his head. "There's never been a military operation in which there was information parity. I have to apologize to all the scholars, but we cannot give you any more background."
"We are not the same as the eggheads," Shi said. "The police have been part of the Battle Command Center from the start. But even now, we still don't know what this is all about. You continue to push the police out. You learn from us what you need about our techniques, and then you send us away one by one."
Several other police officers in attendance whispered to Shi to shut up. It surprised Wang that Shi dared to speak in this manner to a man of Chang's rank. But Chang's response surprised him even more.
"Da Shi, it seems that you still have the same problem you had back when you were in the army. You think you can speak for the police? Because of your poor record, you had already been suspended for several months, and you were about to be expelled from the force. I asked for you because I value your experience in city policing. You should treasure this opportunity."
Shi continued to speak roughly. "So I'm working in the hope of redeeming myself by good service? I thought you told me that all my techniques were dishonest and crooked."
"But useful." Chang nodded at Shi. "All we care about is if they're useful. In a time of war, we can't afford to be too scrupulous."
"We can't be too fastidious " a CIA officer said, in perfect Modern Standard Mandarin. "We can no longer rely on conventional thinking - The British colonel apparently also understood Chinese. He nodded. "To be, or not to be . . ." he added in English. "It's a matter of life and death."
"What is he saying?" Shi asked Wang.
"Nothing.' Wang replied mechanically. The people before him seemed to be speaking out of a dream. Time of war? Where is this war? He twisted to look out one of the floor-length windows. Through the window he could see Beijing in the distance: Under the spring sun, cars filled the streets like a dense river; on a lawn someone was walking a dog; a few children were playing. . . .
Which is more real? The world inside or outside these walls?
General Chang said, "Recently, the enemy has intensified the pattern of attacks. The targets remain elite scientists. Please begin by taking a look at the list of names in the document."
Wang took out the first page of the document, printed in large font. The list seemed to have been generated in a hurry, containing both Chinese and English names.
"Professor Wang, as you look through these names, does anything strike you?" General Chang asked.
"I know three of the names. All of them are famous scholars working at the forefront of physics research." Wang was a little distracted. His eyes locked onto the last name on the list. In his mind, the two characters took on a different tint than the names above it. How can her name appear here? What happened to her?
"You know her?" Shi pointed to the name with a thick finger, stained yellow from smoking. Wang did not reply. "Ha. Don't know her. But her?"
Miao understood why it made sense for General Chang to have this man who was once a soldier under his command. Shi, who appeared so vulgar and careless, had eyes as sharp as knives. Maybe he wasn't a good cop, but he was certainly a fearsome one.
A year earlier, Wang Miao had been in charge of the nanoscale components for the "Sinotron II" high-energy particle accelerator project.
One afternoon, during a brief break at the Liangxiang construction site, Wang was struck by the scene before him. As a landscape photography enthusiast, Wang often saw the sights around him as artistic compositions.
The main component of the composition was the solenoid of the superconducting magnet they were still installing. About three stories high and only half completed, the magnet loomed like a monster made of giant blocks of metal and a confusing mess of cryogenic coolant pipes. Like a junk heap from the Industrial Revolution, the structure exuded inhuman technological grimness and steel-bound barbarity.
In front of this metal monster stood the slim figure of a young woman. The composition's lighting was fantastic as well: The metal monster was buried in the shadow of a temporary construction shelter, further emphasizing its stern, rough quality. But a single ray of light from the westering sun coming through the central hole in the shelter fell right on the woman. The soft glow lit up her supple hair and highlighted her white neck above the collar of her overalls, as though a single flower was blooming in a metal ruin after a violent thunderstorm. . . .
"What are you looking at? Get back to work!"
Wang was shocked out of his reverie, but then realized that the director of the Nanotechnology Research Center wasn't talking to him, but to a young engineer who had also been staring at the woman. Having returned from art to reality, Wang saw that the young woman wasn't an ordinary worker—the chief engineer stood next to her, explaining something respectfully.
"Who is she?" Wang asked the director.
"You should know her," the director said, waving his hand around in a large circle. "The first experiment on this twenty-billion-yuan accelerator will probably be to test her superstring model. Now, seniority matters in theoretical physics, and normally, she wouldn't have been senior enough to get the first shot. But those older academics didn't dare to show up first, afraid that they might fail and lose face, so that's why she got the chance."
"What? Yang Dong is ... a woman?"
"Indeed' the director said. "We only found out when we finally met her two days ago."
The young engineer asked, "Does she have some psychological issue? Why else wouldn't she agree to be interviewed by the media? Maybe she's like Qian Zhongshu(*11), who died without ever appearing on TV." 
[Translator’s Note(*11):Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998) was one of the most famous Chinese literary scholars of the twentieth century, witty, and aloof, he consistently refused media appearance. One might think of him as a Chinese Thomas Pynchon.]
"But at least we knew Qian's gender. I bet Yang had some unusual experiences as a child. Maybe it made her somewhat autistic." Wang's words were tinged with a hint of self-mockery. He wasn't even famous enough for the media to be interested in him, let alone to turn down interview requests.
Yang walked over with the chief engineer. As they passed, she smiled at Wang and the others, nodding lightly without saying anything. Wang remembered her limpid eyes.
That night, Wang sat in his study and admired the few landscape photographs, his works he was the most proud of, hanging on the wall. His eyes fell on a frontier scene: a desolate valley terminating in a snow-capped mountain. On the nearer end of the valley, half of a dead tree, eroded by the vicissitudes of many years, took up one-third of the picture. In his imagination, Wang placed the figure that lingered in his mind at the far end of the valley. Surprisingly, it made the entire scene come alive, as though the world in the photograph recognized that tiny figure and responded to it, as though the whole scene existed for her.
He then imagined her figure in each of his other photographs, sometimes pasting her two eyes into the empty sky over the landscapes. Those images also came alive, achieving a beauty that Wang had never imagined.
Wang had always thought that his photographs lacked some kind of soul. Now he understood that they were missing her.
"All the physicists on this list have committed suicide in the last two months.' General Chang said.
Wang was thunderstruck. Gradually, his black-and-white landscapes faded into blankness in his mind. The photographs no longer had her figure in the foreground, and her eyes were wiped from the skies. Those worlds were all dead.
"When . . . did this happen?" Wang asked mechanically.
"The last two months," Chang repeated.
"You mean the last name, don't you?" Shi responded with satisfaction. "She was the last to commit suicide—two nights ago, overdosed on sleeping pills. She died very peacefully. No pain."
For a moment, Wang was grateful to Shi.
"Why?" Wang asked. The dead scenes in those landscape photographs continued to flicker through his mind.
General Chang replied, "The only thing we can be sure of is this: The same reason drove all of them to suicide. But it's hard to articulate. Maybe it's impossible for us nonspecialists to even understand the reason. The document contains excerpts from their suicide notes. Everyone can examine them after the meeting."
Wang flipped through the notes: All of them seemed to be long essays.
"Dr. Ding, would you please show Yang Dongs note to Professor Wang? Hers is the shortest and possibly the most representative."
The man in question, Ding Yi, had been silent until now. After another pause, he finally took out a white envelope and handed it across the table to Wang.
Shi whispered, "He was Yang's boyfriend." Wang recalled that he had seen Ding at the particle accelerator construction site in Liangxiang. He was a theoretician who had become famous for his discovery of the macroatom while studying ball lightning. 
[Translator’s Note(*12):For more on Ding Yi, see Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu.]
Wang took from the envelope a thin, irregularly shaped sheet exuding a faint fragrance—not paper, but birch bark. A single line of graceful characters was written on it:
All the evidence points to a single conclusion: Physics has never existed, and will never exist I know what I'm doing is irresponsible. But I have no choice.
There wasn't even a signature. She was gone.
"Physics . . . does not exist?" Wang had no idea what to think.
General Chang closed the folder. "The file also contains some specific information related to the experimental results obtained after the completion of the world's three newest particle accelerators. It's very technical, and we won't be discussing it here. The first focus of our investigation is the Frontiers of Science. UNESCO designated 2005 the World Year of Physics, and that organization gradually developed out of the numerous academic conferences and exchanges that occurred among world physicists that year. Dr. Ding, since you're a theoretical physicist, can you give us more background on it?"
Ding nodded. "I have no direct connection with the Frontiers of Science, but it is famous in academia. Its core goal is a response to the following: Since the second half of the twentieth century, physics has gradually lose the concision and simplicity of its classical theories. Modern theoretical models have become more and more complex, vague, and uncertain. Experimental verification has become more difficult as well. This is a sign that the forefront of physics research seems to be hitting a wall. "Members of the Frontiers of Science want to attempt a new way of thinking. To put it simply, they want to use the methods of science to discover the limits of science, to try to find out if there is a limit to how deeply and precisely science can know nature - a boundary beyond which science can not go. The development of modern physics seems to suggest that such a line has been touched."
"Very good," General Chang said. "According to our investigation, most of the scholars committed suicide had some connection with the Frontiers of Science, and some were even members. But we've found no evidence of the use of illegal psychotropic drugs or techniques akin to the psychological manipulation of religious cults. In other words, even if the Frontiers of Science influenced them, it was only through legal academic exchanges. Professor Wang, since they recently contacted you, we'd like to ask you for some information."
Shi added gruffly, "Including the names of your contacts, the times and locations of meetings, the content of your conversations, and if you exchanged letters or e-mails—"
"Shut up, Da Shi!" General Chang said.
Another police officer leaned over and whispered to Shi, "Do you think we'll forget you have a mouth if you don't use it all the time?" Shi picked up his teacup, saw the drowned cigarette butt inside, and put it back down.
Shi's questions irritated Wang again, not unlike the feeling a man has upon finding out that he has swallowed a fly with his meal. The gratitude he had felt earlier was gone without a trace. But he restrained himself and answered, "My contact with the Frontiers of Science began with Shen Yufei. She's a Japanese physicist of Chinese descent who currently works for a Japanese company here in Beijing. She once worked at a Mitsubishi lab, researching nanotech. We met at a technical conference at the beginning of this year. Through her, I met a few other physicist friends, all members of the Frontiers of Science, some Chinese, some foreign. When I talked with them, all the topics were . .. how do I put this? Very radical. They all involved the question that Dr. Ding just described: What is the limit of science?
"Initially, I didn't have much interest in these topics. I thought of them as only an idle pastime. My work is in applied research, and I don't know much about these theoretical matters. Mainly, I was interested in listening to their discussions and arguments. All of them were deep thinkers with novel points of view, and I felt that I was opening my mind through the exchanges. Gradually, I grew more interested. But all our talk was limited to pure theory and nothing else. They once invited me to join the Frontiers of Science. But if I had done so, attending the discussions would have turned into a duty. Since my time and energy were limited, I declined."
"Professor Wang " General Chang said, "we'd like you to accept the invitation and join the Frontiers of Science. This is the main reason we asked you here today. Through you, we'd like to learn more about the internal workings of the organization"
"You want me to be a mole?" Wang was uneasy.
"A mole!" Shi laughed.
Chang gave Shi a reprimanding look. He turned back to Wang. "We just want you to give us some information. We have no other way in." Wang shook his head. "I'm sorry, General. I cannot do this " "Professor Wang, the Frontiers of Science is made up of elite international scholars. Investigating it is an extremely complex and sensitive matter. For us, it's like walking across thin ice. Without someone from academia helping us, we cannot make any progress. This is why we're making this request. But we'll respect your wishes. If you won't agree, we understand."
"I am . . . very busy at work. I just don't have the time."
General Chang nodded. "All right, Professor Wang, we won't waste any more of your time. Thank you for coming to this meeting."
Wang waited a few more seconds before realizing that he had been dismissed.
General Chang politely accompanied Wang to the door. They could hear Shi's loud voice behind them. "It's better this way. I disagree with the plan anyway. So many bookworms have already killed themselves. If we send him, he'd be a meat dumpling thrown to the dogs."
Wang turned around and walked back to Shi. Forcing his anger down, Wang said, "The way you speak is not appropriate for a good police officer.
"Who said I'm a good cop?"
"We don't know why these researchers killed themselves, but you shouldn't speak of them so contemptuously. Their minds have made irreplaceable contributions to humanity."
You're saying they're better than me?" Still seated, Shi lifted his eyes to meet Wang's. "At least I wouldn't kill myself just because someone told me some bullshit."
"You think I would?"
"I have to be concerned about your safety." That trademark smirk again.
"I think I would be much safer than you in such situations. You must know that a person's ability to discern the truth is directly proportional to his knowledge."
"I'm not sure about that. Take someone like you—"
"Be quiet, Da Shi!" General Chang said. "One more sentence and you're out of here!"
"It's okay," Wang said. "Let him speak." He turned to General Chang. "I've changed my mind. I will join the Frontiers of Science as you wish " "Good!" Shi nodded vigorously. "Stay alert after you join. Gather intelligence whenever it's convenient. For example, glance at their computer screens, memorize e-mail or Web addresses—"
"That's enough! You misunderstand me. I don't want to be a spy. I just want to prove you're an idiot!"
"If you remain alive after you've joined them for a while, that would be the best proof. But I'm afraid for you . . " Shi lifted his face, and the smirk turned into a wolfish grin.
"Of course I'll stay alive! But I never want to see you again "
They kept Wang out of the way while the others left so he wouldn't have to deal with Shi Qiang again. Then General Chang walked Wang all the way down the stairs and called for a car to take him back.
He said to Wang, "Don't worry about Shi Qiang. That's just his personality. He's actually a very experienced beat officer and antiterrorisim expert. Twenty years ago, he was a soldier in my company."
As they approached the car, Chang added, "Professor Wang, you must have many questions. "
"What did everything you talked about in there have to do with the military?"
"War has everything to do with the army."
Wang looked around in the spring sun, baffled. "But where is this war? This is probably the most peaceful period in history."
Chang gave him an inscrutable smile. "You will know more soon. Everyone will know. Professor Wang, have you ever had anything happen to you that changed your life completely? Some event where afterward the world became a totally different place for you?"
"Then your life has been fortunate. The world is full of unpredictable factors, yet you have never faced a crisis."
Wang turned over the words in his mind, still not understanding. "I think that's true of most lives."
"Then most people have lived fortunately."
"But. . . many generations have lived in this plain manner."
"All fortunate."
Wang laughed, shaking his head. "I have to confess that I'm not feeling very sharp today. Are you suggesting that—"
"Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age till now, no real crisis has occurred. We've been very lucky. But if it's all luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It's ended. Prepare for the worst."
Wang wanted to ask more, but Chang shook his head and said goodbye, preventing any more questions.
After Wang got into the car, the driver asked for his address. Wang gave it and asked, "Oh, were you the one who took me here? I thought it was the same type of car."
"No, it wasn't me. I took Dr. Ding here."
Wang had a new idea. He asked the driver to take him to Ding's address instead.
Chapter 4Vocabulary Note
grate - to annoy someone
thickset - having a wide strong body; stocky
haphazardly - happening or done in a way that is not planned or organized
odds and ends - small things of various kinds without much value
smirk - to smile in an unpleasant way that show that you are please by someone else's bad luck or think you are better than other people
descale - to remove the white substance that forms on the inside of pipes, kettles etc
focal - the focal thing is the one that people pay most attention to; focus
egghead - someone who is very intelligent, and only interested in ideas and books
scrupulous - very careful to be completely honest and fair; 
fastidious - very careful about small detains in your appearance, work etc
solenoid - a coil of wire around an iron core; becomes a magnet when current passes through the coil
cryogenic - the scientific study of very low temperature
exude - to flow out slowly and steadily, or to make something to this
barbarity - a very cruel act
supple - (leather, skin wood etc )soft and bends easily
stern - the back of a ship
reverie - a state of imagining or thinking about pleasant things, that is like dreaming
limpid - clear or transparent
vicissitudes - the continuous change and problems that affect a situation or someone's life
birch - a tree with smooth bark and thin branches;
bark - the outer covering of a tree
psychotropic - psychotropic drugs have an effect on your mind
cult - an extreme religious group that is not part of an established religion
gruffly - speaking in a rough unfriendly voice
bookworm - someone who likes reading very much
contemptuous - showing that you think someone or something deserves no respect; scornful
discern - to notice or understand something by thinking about it carefully


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