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All the Lights of Midnight:

Salbatore Nufro Orejn, "The Physics of Eror"


and Livia Bassil's Psychology of Physics

Mark Z. Danielewski
[As set forth by I. Maldonado in the presence of Ricardo Justiniano who translated; Abel Izquierdo who retranslated;
Sergio Gutierrez who joked about Air Force Hawker Hunters;
Elena Huidobro who recalled a matter of Mapuche cosmology; Xavier Arellano who drank espresso and slept in his
chair; Antonia Muos who spoke quietly of Violeta Parra's
suicide; Dario Hernandez who had plenty to say about hidden
variables and wave mechanics and summer swims; Serena
Ortiz who arrived late but still told (again) of her stay at Villa
Grimaldi; Hector Corrilla who knew nothing about pair production let alone gardening but had personally met Dyson;
Gabriel de Benavides who brought with him a charango but
spoke only of street names; Sabastian Vasquez who at one
point quoted bitterly, "Hay que guardar silencio y olividar";
and Miguel Seplveda who sobbed once but still wrote it all
downall down at the Abelian Cafe on Spring Street on the
evening of February 13, 2001, between those ever uncertain
hours of dusk and dawn.]

conviction that mathematics and


physics reside beyond the influences of familial and social circumstances. Purportedly both fields still maintain an autonomy undisturbed by tear or bloodstain; integers, Greek letters, even the naked
back of an integral all shimmering beyond anything human. By contrast a musical composition, no matter how technical, would never
be deprived of the emotional beginnings characterizing its creation,
even though its language too remains so nonspecific as to verifiably
sustain any relation other than to itself. Except, of course, music fulfills in its hearing, its experience. Law as well achieves preeminence
in the name of ethical and social systems somehow by and for the
people but still apart from the people. Though Law too necessarily
fulfills in a hearing. Our citadel of equations, however, claims no
need of its own experience, its own human hearing. Its view is so
total, the way by which its builders come and gotheir lives, their
IT REMAINS A LONG-STANDING

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loves, their endsis absolutely irrelevant.
In Livia Bassil's powerful and brooding Psychology of Physics
(Lagrangian Rose Press, 2000), words such as "total" and "absolutely" are carefully scrutinized, while a word like "love" absent in
the absorber theory, quantum electrodynamics, or the double-slit experiment fills her pages like some ancient ether as unsubstantiated
as it is perhaps irrefutable.
By itself the prologue is a breathtaking accomplishment. More
questioning than conclusive, Bassil's dexterity with syntax, the
breezy compression of biography and detail can only leave one longing for the so much of the world she's contained and hence the so
much more of the world she's omitted. In a mere thirty-eight pages
Bassil peers into the lives of this century's greatest scientific minds,
whether Meitner, Noether, Hawking, or numerous others, daring
with each mention to demand what effect living has had upon the
integrity of an experiment or peer-reviewed theory. Quietly she asks
us to consider Schrdinger at the second battle of Isonzo in July of
1915 or imagine Tomonaga in the ruins of post-World War II Tokyo.
She prods us at least to wonder whether or not the loss of Einstein's
daughter, Lieserl, could have possibly "put the bend on Lorentz."
And what of Feynman, who in 1945, twenty years before he won the
Nobel Prize, lost his wife and childhood sweetheart, Arline
Greenbaum, to tuberculosis? "Even if we concede that experience
cannot alter the commutative properties of multiplication," Bassil
delicately ponders, "how certain can we be that it has not already
altered what figures or equations were chosen to be multiplied in the
first place?"
Unafraid of all she implies and perhaps in anticipation of the
accusatory declamation "what for?" surely to come her way, Bassil
concludes her prologue with this brief but clear statement of purpose: "It is a political imperative for any and all free thinkers to mistrust any institution claiming to be beyond the motions of our own
impulses. For without listening to what influences us, how can we
ever dare to hear what is beyond what our influences continuously
insist we hear?"
Of course in the chapters that follow, Bassil leaves the common
greats to concentrate exclusively on that genius from Chile,
Salbatore Nufro y Cuevas Ruvias Orejn Sandino, otherwise known
simply as Nufro, the pale, some say misshapen, man who once stood
unsteadily before an audience at M.I.T. delivering a proof with such
force and vitality, one associate later declared him to be "the Byron
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of Field Theory." No one ever denied ithis dark eyebrows; the fantastic flutter of fingertips whenever numbers were discussed; the
complicated wines he preferred; the black sweaters he always wore;
the ranging trips he would take from meadow to mountain; the
weeks he would lie alone in his study, suddenly infirm and deadly
all describing in near perfect opposition a man who was as defeated
as he was unbeatable; rooted as he was motive; as driven by silence
as he was determined by the music of his homeland. Rumors still
persist that he was the only professor who had ever made a student
swoon over mirror symmetry.
Nufro first became known in the United States for his early work
on quantum electrodynamics, studying with the likes of Julian
Schwinger, carrying on a well-documented correspondence with
Freeman Dyson, and writing some highly illuminating papers on perturbation technique. Had he done nothing more, his efforts in the
area of gauge theory would have assured him a place in the pantheon
of quantum mechanics.
As is well known, though, it was his unpublished paper "The
Physics of Eror," written in 1978 at the age of twenty-three, eventually resulting in the formal Particle Alternatives published almost
ten years later, which shocked Nufro into the spotlight. In it he
showed how a particle's "choice of path" actually determined "the
property of the destination" despite classical expectations when taking into account decoherence and path integrals; a claim which the
world at large initially viewed as incoherent but which a tiny cadre
of physicists viewed as nothing short of miraculous.
For the reader unequipped for the complexities of Nufro's discovery, Bassil expertly and somewhat poetically lays out the theory in
terms any high school student could understand: "With 'The Physics
of Eror' Nufro brought to the world all its possibilities. Into every
college textbook on quantum theory he introduced the concept that
not only was every path between 'origination point/particle S' &
'destination point/particle M' actual and present but the observance
of a path out of the so-called classical trajectory could go so far as to
renegotiate the very nature of the destination point/particle 'so that
M could change to F.'" As one of Nufro's colleagues explained:
"Observance was once again the key. What should have been a photon, thanks to an alternative path, could suddenly end up an electron
or proton. Hell, you could potentially wind up with a monkey and a
cat dressed in white tails sitting around a table discussing La Nueva
Cancin Chilena, sipping tea. That caused quite a stir. The macro
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set gets quite ripe when the quantum crew interferes." But perhaps
another chronicler of the physicist's life provided the simplest, albeit
weirdest, example: "Nufro went ahead and proved mathematically
that if you swim to an unknown boat out in the bay who you find
owns it could be vastly different from who would have owned it had
you taken a canoe there instead."
Some theorists still insist that quantum possibility dilemmas, particularly Nufro's, will eventually be resolved with advances in the
area of hidden variables, much like Zeno's paradox was resolved with
the mathematics of limits. In that spirited debate lie volumes. Bassil,
however, has no interest in speculating on the future of quantum
theory nor for that matter is she concerned with Nufro's presence
in the United States, only fleetingly touching on the young South
American's arrival in New York City and the paper he would soon
after scribble down at the Abelian Caf on Spring Street. That much
of Nufro's history is already well known; as certain, perhaps, as
our own knowledge of the modern world. After all, New York still
stands as does the Abelian Cafe. Bassil's quest is rather to examine
what stood before and more importantly determine those paths
that ultimately led Nufro to the autonomous purity of his particle
alternatives.
Born near Los Angeles, Chile, Nufro grew up wandering the banks
of the Bobo River not far from the falls of Salto del Laja. His father
was a civil engineer. His mother a common gardener from Isla de
Chilo who raised her son on stories of the Trauco and La Pincoya,
a blonde nymph who was said to emerge from the sea at sunrise and
dance on the beach. Supposedly, if she looked inland, the ocean
would seethe with fish. If, however, she looked back at the waves,
all fish would vanish. Even when Nufro's family moved to Santiago,
his mother continued to keep alive the rich cultural legends of the
Chilean Southland.
The delicious detail Bassil musters for her project can hardly be
anticipated here, be it Nufro's early determination to knit his own
sweater, dying the wool in crushed cinnabar imported from the
Hunan province in China, while at the same time deriving a series
of odd probabilities to anticipate and then even determine stitch patterns; or his efforts to create a game combining chess and poker; or
most notably his substantial musical ingenuity: "By fourteen, he
was playing the guitar feverishly, regularly busking deep into the
A.M. winds at the Mercado Central. It didn't matter if he was working his way down Paseo Ahumada strumming Vals a mi padre or
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singing Ha cesado, la lucha sangrienta near the Palacio de la
Moneda, he was always learning and tinkering with new arrangements, new material, visiting peas similar to Violeta Parra's famous
La Carpa de la Reina, mingling with artists and activists, accompanying anyone who was around, often a wide array of musicians
with bombos, quenas, and of course zampoas."
Off folk and Andean baroque, Nufro earned book money. Though
soon enough Bach and everything else were left behind in favor of his
own improvised works, which became increasingly more difficult to
hear, until rumor has it by the age of fifteen he declared to several
musicians from the Technical University pea, some of whom
would go on to join Inti-Illimani, "I have played it all," after which
his fingers moved but never touched, string and fret retaining their
accustomed distance, Nufro packing more and more shreds of homemade sweater into his ears so he "could hear."
Increasingly irritated by their son's behavior, his parents grew
more outspoken in their condemnation of his "pranks." They were
not alone. Few could understand what exactly Nufro was perceiving.
Soon even his friends withdrew from his strange concerns, turning
to the much more accessible musical tastes of Victor Jara or Roberto
Bravo. Then at seventeen, Nufro met someone who would not go:
Franisca Yepun de la Via Escalera. "Yepun," as young Franisca
was happy to explain, was her Mapuche name meaning el lucero
de la noche or "evening star." [Yeln = to carry; Pun = night.) Supposedly, though likely apocryphal, one of the first things she told
Nufro to do was pick her up: "Manage that Musician Boy and you'll
carry all the puns of this whole wide world .. . me." Nufro easily
lifted her and then went even further, walking the Alameda, all the
way from the University to Cerro Santa Lucia, with the giggling girl
in his arms, Nufro the whole time singing in her ear A la mar fui por
naranjas.
As Bassil writes: "[Franisca] was bright with the sentiments of
the time, surging with devotions for all an artist was supposed to
mean to the poor and the silent and the weary and the forgotten and
the persecuted and the ill. Upon her ankle she wore slender chains of
gold. In her hair flowed silks of many colors. She beguiled him. But
he beguiled her too, and whether it was his blue eyes or the stab of
madness in him, Franisca found in Nufro the conscription her own
future as a painter had always anticipated."
Or so she thought.
What really awaited her then awaits us all even now in Bassil's
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book, the merest viewing of which will with awful force cast upon
Nufro and his work the same shadow Heisenberg's political affiliations cast today. Somehow in the early days of Pinochet's rise to
power, Nufro was seduced by a radical political organization known
only as SENDA, a self-proclaimed descendant of such groups as the
mythic brujeria from the South and the secret society Logia
Lautarina, which back in 1818 is said to have ordered the execution
of three famed Chilean revolutionaries: Jose Miguel and the Carrera
brothers. Confirmed by the VEM Corporation, SENDA openly kept
council with several members from the Catholic prelature Opus Dei.
Most significantly, though, SENDA worked directly with DINA,
Direccin de Inteligencia Nacional, the Chilean security force that
under Pinochet's authority was responsible for the murder and disappearance of thousands, including eventually Victor Jara, who sang
famously in his song La luna siempre es muy linda: "Recuerdo el
rostro de mi padre como un hueco en la muralla."
Seeking to ensure the place of the new regime, SENDA worked
constantly to insinuate itself into the world of political dissidents
throughout the country. Supposedly Pinochet was referring to
SENDA in 1975 when he proclaimed that not a leaf in Chile moved
without him knowing it.
What attracted Nufro in the first place to such criminals remains
a mystery, even to Bassil, despite page after page of tireless examination. One point, though, becomes clear: It was not long after Nufro's
parents left Santiago for the North that Nufro handed his guitar over
to Franisca"Paint the strings solid to the frets," he saidand
began an even closer association with SENDA, hiding it at first from
Franisca and then by the spring of '74 revealing it like "a poisonous
petal pushing up to kiss a new world."
On June 11th around 4 A.M. Franisca confronted Nufro on the
corner of Los Pescadores and Covarrubias, not far from the Estadio
Nacional, where he had arranged to meet several SENDA members.
Words quickly lost their shape in the blast of shouts and screams. He
struck her. She spat her blood on his cheek. And then it was over,
Franisca gone, folding like an evening into a different evening of
exactly the same name, edgeless and beyond illumination.
What followed Nufro himself would later describe tersely as "two
and a half years of lunacy." And perhaps it could have remained just
that, a silly crusade in the name of distant associations carried out
with flyers, phone calls, and coffee-talk noise, were it not for the
Maldonado family (no relation to Supreme Court President Luis
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Maldonado); for unfortunately still interred with them lie all the
horrible consequences the political exacts on unready youth; when
motives derived from matters as slight as a neglected dinner invitation, loosely paraphrased public statements, unsuspected familial
rudeness somehow one day become a police concern, black roots
suddenly visible in a bitter winter rain, heralding low-bent rumors of
headlights and pistols and knife blades and rifles and shadows lurching in wail, bewildered even, stumbling in the confusion of so sudden and unexpected an end, no matter that the crossed-stars of melipal still wheeled above the smoldering back of villarrica or down by
the Valdivian waterfront fishermen ate crudos and drank glasses of
pisco and told sour jokes, not one of them suspecting what was happening so close by, how they had fallen, the uncompromised remainder of all who would not could not hold till daybreak. And if even
upon those amber-glazed tiles the murder of three generations of
farmers could escape judgment, there was in addition to the old
couple and their sons an infantIzarra Maldonadolimp in a deep
granite basin, nothing more than her own beautiful becoming drowning in the shadow of her own slowly unfolding rose.
Nufro had not been there. Enough evidence surfaces in Bassil's
chapters to assure us of at least that. But there is also enough evidenceequal evidencethat he was the one who carried the sealed
note, which, though hidden from his eyes, conveyed sentence upon
a family, all of whom would perish that night with the exception of
young Incendio Maldonado, who was overseas at the time.
It is thus Bassil's contention, in view of such horrendous involvements, that in spite of its integers and functions and motionless
Greek letters, the pristine autonomy of "The Physics of Eror" was
deeply influenced by Nufro's profound desire to undo the paths of his
past.
Though obvious to many has been the cunning error inherent in
"Ero r " (for who could possibly ignore all the Latinate implications
especially in light of the quantum subject matter?), Bassil's assessment still proves far more comprehensive. By concentrating on the
story of Nufro and Franisca, Bassil reveals how Nufro's use of the
letter M to indicate the point/particle of destination in his formulae
suddenly takes on new meaning when M, perhaps for Maldonado,
transforms to Fthe first letter in Franisca's name. The point/particle of origination proves just as curious. Where A or other would
have sufficed, Nufro chooses the letter S or the initial of his own first
name: Salbatore.
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Bassil's list of letters and symbols along with their possible historical counterparts grows from there but is still nothing compared
to the most intriguing discovery of all: the results of her own inspection of the actual tea-stained page on which Nufro first scribbled out
"The Physics of Eror." No spelling error, she finds, but a transcription error and a pen shy of ink. It seems the superscript " r " was not
an "r" but ratherfollowed by a near invisible gutter pressed into
the paper, void of pigmentthe beginning of an "s." In other words,
not "Ero r " but "Eros."
It appears then that Nufro's quantum miracle, autonomous before
the call of all human influences, was first and foremost a love poem
for Franisca, the woman he spent a lifetime regretting he'd left.
To her credit, Bassil, while delighting in the romance of this story,
never goes so far as to let Nufro escape the mistakes of his past. The
shadows remain. The specter of the Maldonado family possesses her
book. One of course wishes it didn't. In some ways one wishes there
were no "Psychology of Physics" and hence no "Physics of Ero r " and
so no brutal evening on the outskirts of Valdivia. Just a different
path, a different way, where perhaps for a moment you and I might
be free to imagine, if only fleetingly, scenes of alternate possibilities:
quantum theory deprived of one of its most breathtaking discoveries,
undone on the corner of Los Pescadores and Covarrubias, where in
spite of that treacherous clan a different choice is made, her lip
unbroken, his cheek unstained, the two of them fleeing for wholly
other places, perhaps south to Isla de Chilo in search of the ghost
ship Caleuche or west to Te Pito te Henua to eat oranges and swim
above the black reefs, or even east over the Andes, as far as Peninsula
Valds, where they might linger now, forever in the shadowmatter of
their dreams, Franisca with color in her hair and slender chains
of gold upon her ankle, Nufro beside her, ears red from the wind,
unpainted guitar on his knee, while beneath his fingertips the notes
of strange coastal moans bind all the lights of midnight with the
powerful prophecy of a song.

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