The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer
LATE OCTOBER 1942
NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Late afternoon sunlight poured through the classroom windows, and Winnie watched the light dapple her lab bench in a dancing pattern of oak-leaf shadow. Freedom was near. It was the final period of the day, and Mr. Claremont, her physics teacher, stood at the front of the room leaning heavily on his wooden podium.
"Consider an archer's bow," he said. "The perfect example of potential energy! When the archer pulls back the string, he loads the cocked bow with potential."
Maribel, a classmate in the next row, yawned at Winnie dramatically and mouthed, "Boring!"
Winnie smiled back, and the girl gave her a confused frown.
Oh. Maribel's pantomime must have been meant for Winnie's lab partner. Winnie's cheeks went hot with embarrassment.
Communication was a funny thing. Winnie was fluent in German—her first language—as well as the English she'd learned when she and her father immigrated to the United States eight years earlier. And Mr. Claremont's science-speak came naturally to her; she'd been surrounded by such talk since childhood. But the effortless, unspoken teen-girl language her classmates shared? Winnie didn't think she'd ever master that.
Would she have been such an outsider if she and Father had stayed in Germany?
The dismissal bell rang, and Winnie quickly slid her heavy physics textbook into her knapsack, eager for escape. She was normally happy to consider the bow—or the mechanics of any machine, simple or otherwise—but even Winnie sometimes got sick of school. The past week had been full of clouds and cold rain. Who could be immune to the lure of a sunny fall day after all that?
"Miss Schulde, do you have a moment?" Mr. Claremont asked gruffly.
Winnie gave a startled look in his direction, squinting in the glare reflected off the cabinets along the side of the room. All the sciences at her small, private girls' school shared one lab, so the cabinets were full of an odd cross-disciplinary assortment of beakers, barometers, and taxidermized animals. Few students there studied the hard sciences—and fewer still stuck with them through physics, the most advanced course offered. Winnie was one of just seven students in the class.
"Of course," she answered.
Some of the other girls shot her gleeful "oh, you're in for it now" glances, probably hoping this meant the "class pet" was about to be taken down a peg. Winnie had only one true friend at school—Dora—a girl both fierce and fiercely liked, and if she had been there, the girls wouldn't have dared give Winnie those looks. But of course Dora wouldn't be caught dead enrolled in something as drippy as a physics class.
Winnie put on a smile to show those girls she wasn't worried. Although the smile was forced, it was true that she wasn't afraid of Mr. Claremont. Other students complained about what an ogre he was, but if they thought he was a strict taskmaster, they should try working with Father.
After the classroom emptied of stragglers, Mr. Claremont cleared his throat. "Barnard College is going to establish a physics department," he said. "They contacted me in hopes of recruiting scholarship students with aptitude in the field. May I give them your name?"
Winnie was stunned.
"But I'm just a junior," she stammered.
And she was a young one at that—Father had Winnie skip third grade when they moved, since she was working above her grade level in all her classes. Keeping her schoolwork up on top of trying to become fluent in English had been quite the challenge, but Father firmly believed that there were two ways of doing things: you were either pushing yourself to the limit, or you were being lazy.
"I know what year you are," Mr. Claremont said with a snort. "But you could graduate early. It would require a few extra classes this semester and next, but it's early enough in the year to change your schedule."
Winnie said nothing.