About the book
Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When the proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends
Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of history’s great theoretical physicists. The search for recognition blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter Meena and assimilating into suburban America. Across town, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.
With incisive prose and infinite humanity, Charmed Particles traces the collision of past and progress, science and tradition, and the unimagined elements that may arise in the aftermath.
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Reviews, interviews, Readers’ Guide, and Author Q&A
“Ambitious theoretical physicist Abhijat is consumed by his quest for new discoveries at the National Accelerator Research Lab outside Chicago, leaving his wife, Sarala, fresh from Bombay, largely alone as she tries to adjust to the strange quiet of small-town American life while caring for their highly intelligent daughter, Meena. Rose traveled the world with her explorer husband until returning home to this former farming community to raise their daughter, Lily, a true prodigy, while Randolph continues his expeditions. On the foundation of these parallel households, debuting novelist Kolaya adeptly builds a magnetizing, deeply perceptive tale of the clash between outsiders and insiders, personal obsession and family, tradition and change, dream and delusion. Writing with bright tenderness, piquant humor, and supple wisdom, Kolaya emulates, ever so subtly, the fleet dynamics of particle physics as she orchestrates a mesmerizing plot of revelation and adaptation. As the two brainy girls bond, the two marriages come under strain, and the town and the lab face off over plans for a Superconducting Super Collider, Kolaya investigates urgent questions of ignorance and fear, authenticity and deceit, of bridging gaps between cultures and individuals, and of recognizing and embracing what truly matters.”
About the Superconducting Super Collider
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was a real project under consideration at a number of locations around the United States in the 1980s. Scientists believed the collider would help them to understand more about the matter that makes up the universe, and as such, would help them to understand the circumstances under which the universe came to exist.
For many years, the United States stood at the forefront of physics research, and many proponents of the SSC believed its construction would help the United States retain that position. But this was the era of Chernobyl, of Three Mile Island; mistrust of the government was strong, and questions about the safety of scientific facilities were on the minds of many citizens.
Much like in the novel, physicists hoped the SSC would help to prove or disprove many of the theories about particle physics that were under consideration at the time. In the 1980s, the Department of Energy began the process of searching for an appropriate location for the collider; one of the locations under consideration was Fermilab and the surrounding communities. At the end of a long process that included environmental impact studies and public hearings, Waxahachie, Texas, was selected as the site of the future SSC.
Construction of the SSC began in 1991, but by 1993, with increasing costs, the U.S. government pulled the funding, having already spent 2 billion dollars on the project. The Waxahachie location, where construction had already begun on tunnels and buildings, was abandoned. For many years, the partially completed site of the SSC stood empty, vandalized and filling with rainwater. (You can find some really interesting photographs of the abandoned site taken by some urban explorers by searching around on the internet.) Recently, though, the site has been acquired by a company who uses it as chemical blending facility and who have, in an interesting twist, preserved the initialism SSC, which now stands for the “Specialty Services Complex.”
Had it been completed, the SSC would have been the most powerful accelerator ever constructed, three times as powerful as the LHC, currently the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider. Many scientists believe that had the SSC project gone forward as planned, discoveries such as the Higgs Boson (frequently referred to as the “God particle”) would have happened earlier and would have been made in the United States.
The story of the SSC has much to say about American attitudes toward science and the challenges scientists and science writers face with when communicating about such complex research for lay audiences.
About Fermilab, the inspiration for the National Accelerator Research Lab
Much like the novel’s National Accelerator Research Lab, Fermilab is a particle physics laboratory located in the Chicago suburbs. The lab focuses on research into one of the most the enduring mysteries of science—what is our universe made of and how did it come to exist? Named after renowned Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, Fermilab houses the Tevatron, which ceased operation in 2011 but was for a time the world’s highest energy proton-antiproton collider. Its technology has since been outpaced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland, where scientists recently confirmed discovery of the Higgs boson and a new class of particle called Pentaquarks. CERN has also been the subject of numerous conspiracies and much speculation about the creation of black holes, time travel, etc.
The story of the founding of Fermilab is fascinating—the campus is located on land that was once the town of Weston, Illinois, a town that no longer exists. Weston was annexed in the 1960s to allow for the construction of the Fermilab campus. As in the novel, many of the former town’s homes are still in use today as offices and to house visiting scientists and their families.
When Fermilab arrived, the area was still very much a small, rural community. Suddenly, this small farming community found itself home to a number of internationally renowned scientists; over the years this, other forces, and changing land-use patterns have been at the root of the area’s transformation into a busy suburban community. For more information about the founding of Fermilab, I recommend Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience, which was invaluable to me in my research.
In the late 1980s, Fermilab was one of the sites under consideration to house the proposed Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a project eventually begun in Waxahachie, Texas. Today, Fermilab is still considered by many to be the premier laboratory for particle physics in the United States. In recent years, Fermilab scientists have focused on experiments on dark matter, dark energy, and some really interesting projects, including an experiment called MINOS in which beams of neutrinos were sent underground all the way from Batavia, Illinois, to the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota to help provide scientists with a better understanding of neutrino oscillations.
About the Academy
The Academy is based on the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a residential high school for gifted and talented students founded in 1985. Leon Lederman, Nobel prize winning physicist and director of Fermilab at the time was one of IMSA’s founders.
How did the idea for this book originate?
In 1989, my family moved from Indiana to the Chicago suburbs. On one of my first days at my new high school, I was surprised to find protesters gathered out in front of the school. The school was hosting a public hearing, and I was curious to know what it was that the protesters felt so passionately about. I later learned that the hearing was on the proposed Superconducting Super Collider. The area near our school was part of the area proposed for the location of the collider. In watching how the issue polarized our community, I’ve been interested in the importance of communicating effectively about science.
What inspired you to write the novel? Where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve found that the best things for me to write about are the things I’m insatiably curious about. For this book, I drew inspiration from my childhood love of encyclopedias, from a number of texts that make an appearance in the book, from my early memories of the SSC conflict in the Chicago suburbs.
I had great fun researching this book. It felt very much like playing—imagining these people into being, this town into being. I immersed myself in books about physics, gentlemen explorers, and the fabulously weird Secret Museum of Mankind. These are what began to get the wheels slowly creaking, and then, once they were moving, I drew much inspiration from the interviews I conducted at Fermilab and at a nearby living history facility.
How do you develop your characters? Where do they come from?
I wouldn’t say that any of my characters are based on one particular person I’ve known. I’ve tried that, but it feels very limiting in terms of the fun parts of writing fiction—imagining, embellishing. I’ve found that the characters I most enjoy writing are a collage of character traits, personality ticks, and back stories, cut and pasted from people I’ve encountered, and stitched together, with a whole lot of imagining and embellishing mixed in. I tend to write about the types of people and the personality ticks I’m most curious about, though not necessarily those that are most like me.
One of the fun parts of writing this book was that because so many of these characters are so bookish, I had the chance to do some character development through the books and texts that are most important to them. That was an interesting way to get inside the characters and learn and understand more about them.
What about the story of the SSC intrigued you?
When I moved to the Chicago suburbs at the beginning of high school, the area where I grew up was in the midst of a great deal of conflict over the issue of the SSC. One of my first memories from my new school was a public hearing that was held there on the matter. Becoming aware of this conflict was for me a very real part of coming to understand this new town we were living in. What’s funny is that in writing the book, I talked with many of my fellow high school classmates who had been long-term residents of the area at the time, and this barely registered for them. For me, there was something about the idea of this being part of my first impression of the area that made it register in a way that it perhaps didn’t with my contemporaries.
As I learned more about the issue, I was struck, as Meena is later in the book, that the main problem seemed to be that the two sides were unable to talk to one another effectively. In many ways, they don’t speak the same language. And I think this is a situation we see replicated in lots of situations, politically, academically, culturally.
You write both fiction and poetry. When you start a writing project, how do you know which it will be?
I haven’t yet figured out how that works, beyond saying that I feel like I know once I start thinking about the writing. Partly it has to do with length: poetry allows you to focus on a moment, fiction on a world, a life. In many ways, poetry is freeing—not having to worry about plot and character development, or things like moving a character from one room to another. With fiction, though, one can create whole worlds, and as a writer you feel like you have more space in which to work.
What has been the toughest criticism you’ve been given as an author? What has been the best compliment?
As a writer, any time you’re told “no”—and it happens so often—it’s very difficult to maintain faith in your abilities and your vision of the work you’re doing. I think the toughest part of being a writer is just continuing to do it, no matter how many times you hear no. Of course, part of what’s important is listening to what information comes with that no—that’s where you have an opportunity to learn and improve
As for the greatest compliment, for me it’s the idea that someone reads my work and is engaged with it. As a writer, especially an emerging writer, there’s such a sense that your work just floats out into the ether never to be seen or heard from again. It’s a rare treat to be reminded that there are eyes on those pages besides your own.