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Shift

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A structured revolution.

Hanson did not want to watch the old man die, but a sense of social responsibility kept him by the bedside until quite late into the night. Robbins's breathing was laboured, but there had been little change for several hours and so Hanson stepped out onto the balcony of the hospital to get some air. Below, the lights of the city spread out in a lacy sprawl, the red light at the summit of Canary Wharf blinking through the rain. Hanson took a deep breath of dirty London damp and tried to straighten his thoughts. Stress, and a lack of sleep, were beginning to take their inevitable toll, and on top of that was anxiety about the future.

Robbins's death would throw everything into doubt. The future of the funding programme had depended on him: he'd done all the legwork for it, calling in contacts in government and the various research councils. It didn't matter that Hanson had serious doubts about the project; the department had to stick together and he was a big believer in team playing, especially given the latest round of cuts. He'd seen enough of academic backstabbing not to want to see the Physics Department go the same way, mired down into a bloody morass of petty squabbling. For all his faults — dictatorial, overbearing, not-listening-to-reason, stubborn — all the things that Hanson had called him over the years, Robbins had held the department together and Hanson was willing to respect that. And now Robbins was dying, felled by the tumour that had, Hanson had learned only yesterday, been growing in his lung for the past eight months.

Credit: JACEY

He braced his hands against the rough wet concrete and looked down for a dizzying moment into the street below. If Robbins had only said something — but of course, he hadn't. He'd preferred it this way. Hanson suspected that the old man had really wanted to drop dead in the lab and be buried in his stained white coat, a workhorse to the end. And in spite of all his noble thoughts about keeping the department on an even keel, the fact remained: beneath the shock and the genuine sadness, there was a growing, guilty relief.

Because now they wouldn't be committed to the project.

Hanson was next in line for departmental head. Not a done deal, of course, but highly likely. He'd wanted it for a long time, but not at this kind of expense. Now, he wondered a little at his own naivety, given that Robbins had always expressed the intention not to retire until absolutely necessary. Hanson knew that neither Benjamin nor Eleanor was committed to Robbins's theories: like himself, they considered that line of enquiry to be old-fashioned. Ben had expressed enough doubts along the line and so had Eleanor.

“It's had its chips.” Eleanor's voice echoed in his head. “When you look at what the Yanks are doing — we ought to be going all out into that research, not piddling about with outdated theories, never mind what the old guard thinks.”

“Trouble is,” Hanson remembered replying, “it's not outdated. Ever studied Kuhn, Eleanor?”

“I'm not much of a philosopher.”

“He said that the paradigm couldn't change until the old guard died. Literally.”

They'd laughed about it then, but now it seemed sad, and not funny. He thought about it, leaning on the wet stone and feeling the rain cold against his skin. Robbins with his insistence on the old paradigm, on structures, on strings ... Numbers raced through his mind, unspooling like skeins of thread. It wasn't the answer, he was sure of it. He had the new experiments all planned out and now that there was a real chance of implementation, of testing, he was conscious of a growing burst of excitement, a keen anticipation ...

There were raised voices in the room beyond, urgent. He raced back inside, in time to see the screen flatline. “He's gone,” a nurse said. And Hanson turned back to the city beyond the windows. There was a line of light, far on the horizon; threads of brightness spreading through the rain-wet stone. It lasted only for a moment, then it, too, was gone, but he could feel the change inside himself. Not just the paradigm that shifts, when its last exponent dies — but as he tried to hold onto the thought, it ebbed away.

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Williams, L. Shift. Nature 472, 130 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/472130a

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