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Novel set in Ehrenfest house

Leiden alumnus and writer Tomas Lieske has published a novel which is set in the house of Paul Ehrenfest. Ehrenfest was a famous physicist who organized round table events every Wednesday evening at his home in Leiden in the early twentieth century. The big names from modern physics frequented these evenings, such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and De Sitter. This lecture series, now called Colloquia Ehrenfestii, is still up and running.

In the novel De vrolijke verrijzenis van Arago, a girl resurrects from a deadly car crash, together with a fox who died in the same accident. She finds a new home in the Ehrenfest house, where she becomes part of the household. ‘The impossibility of rising from the dead makes it immediately clear that this is a fictional story,’ Lieske explains. ‘But the special thing about the book is that only part of it is made up. From the moment that the main character ends up in the Ehrenfest house, I think it is a completely accurate and historically correct account of the events that took place in that house.’

Impossible basis

The story’s impossible basis makes it easier for the reader to go along with the intuitively bizarre theories from quantum mechanics. Lieske: ‘I find it interesting to describe an occurrence in a way that the reader thinks it’s impossible, and yet they believe it is happing. In quantum mechanics you’re also faced with ideas that were previously deemed impossible.’

Two characters

In the story it remains unclear whether the girl actually came back to life, or if she is in a coma. The simultaneous existence of these two characters gives the reader an extra tool to get a feeling for quantum mechanics. Elementary particles also exist in multiple states at the same time; they spin for example both clockwise and counterclockwise.

Subject

Lieske thought of quantum mechanics as a subject while he was doing research on the Ehrenfest house. ‘The actual theme is the boundary between what is possible and the impossible, and I wanted to set the novel in Leiden, where I have been living for a long time. All the stories that I came across about the Ehrenfest house always came down to physics ideas that were immediately tossed aside at first, and then later on turned out to be possible. That element totally connects with the theme of the novel.’

Novel

Readers don’t have to worry about difficult mathematical passages. ‘It is still a novel, it was never my intention to write a physics textbook. I keep the physics accessible by portraying the discussions in the Ehrenfest house through the eyes of a very young girl. The physicists explain their theories to her in a childish way.’

On Thursday March 8th at 8pm, Museum Boerhaave organizes a literary evening on the occasion of the publication of De vrolijke verrijzenis van Arago.

The lecture series Colloquia Ehrenfestii has been running since 1912, and is still alive and kicking today. Once about every month a prominent physicist comes to Leiden to give a lecture on the traditional Wednesday night. After the colloquium, the speaker signs the historic signature wall, which contains big names such as Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Pauli.

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