The Ethanol in W-3
She had planned to meet Vaygay’s plane in Albuquerque and drive him back to the Argus facility in the Thunderbird. The rest of the Soviet delegation would have traveled in the observatory cars. She would have enjoyed speeding to the airport in the cool dawn air, perhaps again past an honor guard of rampant coneys.
And she had been anticipating a long and substantive private talk with Vaygay on the return. But the new security people from the General Services Administration had vetoed the idea. Media attention and the president’s sober announcement at the end of her press conference two weeks before had brought enormous crowds to the isolated desert site. There was a potential for violence, they had told Ellie. She must in future travel only in government cars, and then only with discreetly armed escorts. Their little convoy was wending its way toward Albuquerque at a pace so sober and responsible that she found her right foot
of its own volition depressing an imaginary accelerator on the rubber mat before her.
It would be good to spend some time with Vaygay again. She had last seen him in Moscow three years before, during one of those periods in which he was forbidden to visit the West. Authorization for foreign travel had waxed and waned through the decades in response to changing policy fashions and Vaygay’s own unpredictable behavior. Permission would be denied him after some mild political provocation about which he seemed unable to restrain himself, and then granted again when no one of comparable ability could be found to flesh out one or another scientific delegation. He received invitations from all over the world for lectures, seminars, colloquia, conferences, joint study groups, and a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, he could afford to be a little more independent than most. He often seemed poised precariously at the outer limits of the patience and restraint of the governmental orthodoxy.
His full name was Vasily Gregorovich Lunacharsky, known throughout the global community of physicists as Vaygay after the initials of his first name and patronymic. His fluctuating and ambiguous relations with the Soviet regime puzzled her and others in the West. He was a distant relative of Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, an old Bolshevik colleague of Gorky, Lenin, and Trotsky; the elder Lunacharsky had later served as People’s Commissar for Education and as Soviet Ambassador to Spain until his death in 1933. Vaygay’s mother had been Jewish. He had, it was said, worked on Soviet nuclear weapons, although surely he was too young to have played much of a role in fashioning the first Soviet thermonuclear explosion.
His institute was well staffed and well equipped, and his scientific productivity was prodigious, indicating at most infrequent distractions by the committee for State Security. Despite the ebb and flow of permission for foreign travel, he had been a frequent attendee at major international conferences including the “Rochester” symposia on high-energy physics, the “Texas” meeting on relativistic astrophysics, and the informal but occasionally influential “Pugwash” scientific gatherings on ways of reducing international tension.
In the 1960s, she had been told, Vaygay visited the University of California at Berkeley and was delighted with the proliferation of irreverent, scatological, and politically outrageous slogans imprinted on inexpensive buttons. You could, she recalled with faint nostalgia, size up someone’s most pressing social concerns at a glance.