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Interview

The Newtonian Legacy emerges

Physicist Nick Evans uses fiction to bring his world to life

Jennifer Rohn 4 March 2007

www.lablit.com/article/220

All charged up: Evans promoting his novel

Like many authors I’m writing to try to fill what I perceive as a hole in the market

Editor’s note: Dr. Nick Evans is a theoretical particle physicist and lecturer at University of Southampton School of Physics and Astronomy who has just launched an entirely different kind of experiment: to see whether he can interest people in physics by offering his first novel, a ‘lab lit’ thriller, for free online as a downloadable e-book. LabLit.com recently caught up with Evans to find out more.

We'd love to hear a bit about your research – can you give us the digested read?

I work on understanding the forces at play within the nuclei of atoms and at even shorter distances. The strong nuclear force which binds quarks together to make protons and neutrons is very different from the forces in everyday life – in particular quarks don’t interact when close to each other but strongly attract or repel as they separate beyond nuclear distances (it’s as if they’re tied together with a rubber band!). That property of the force is responsible for why we never see a free quark – they’re always stuck in protons… this sort of theory is so rich that nature will almost certainly make use of them again at higher energies (as yet unexplored by man). There are links to understanding the origin of particle masses, to a beautiful symmetry called supersymmetry and even to the search for a quantum theory of gravity via string theory. I get to roam fairly freely amongst this set of ideas in my research life!

When and why did you first start writing The Newtonian Legacy?

I started writing about two years ago. The book is a primer on the ideas we have for what new physics will be found when the Large Hadron Collider is switched on at the end of 2007. The LHC, which is a 25km ring under CERN in Geneva, is a big step for our field since it will collide particles with ten times higher energy than we have achieved before. It’s very exciting because we know there must be new particles and theories to be found at these energies – there are many ideas as to precisely what, though. The prime motivation for the book was to spread the excitement of what’s about to happen.

I chose to write a novel rather than a popular science book because there are already decent pop science books on the subject – I wanted to try to reach a new audience. I was also interested in the challenge of trying to merge two different writing genres.

Why are you offering the book for free instead of trying to get it published – a route that might expose you to more readers?

My brief investigations of the publishing industry suggest it is rather conservative and entrenched – this is not unreasonable of them since they are deluged by would-be authors and need to take considerable financial risks every time they publicize a book. I prefer to establish a position of strength before assaulting their bastion! I hope that by using the web I can demonstrate the existence of a substantial audience for this sort of book.

I also don’t agree that I’m going to reach a smaller audience. As a University outreach project it’s much easier to get free advertising. I can directly contact all of the UK’s science teachers. The physics online community (blogs such as Asymptotia and Not Even Wrong) has also stepped in to advertise the book to a more international audience. Even the Institute of Physics has put a plug in their magazine Physics World. If the book were formally published none of this would have happened.

You should remember that, at least according to a recent Nature article, the average pop science book sells less than 1000 copies. The Newtonian Legacy web page has been getting over 100 hits a day so far. I think that if a book is going to “go ballistic” it’s because people recommend it to their friends. That growth is as likely to happen off a web page as a book store shelf.

Finally, there might just be a little academic integrity involved too! Remember I come from a field that invented the World Wide Web (try a web search on Tim Berners-Lee)… and gave it away for free.

Give us a brief sketch of the plot.

The novel is set in a (fictional) theoretical physics institute in Winchester, UK. A young researcher is found dead and a number of investigations are initiated. The police investigation is followed through the work of a young police woman who has been given the task of understanding the dead man’s work-life – was some academic feud responsible for his death?

Meanwhile one of the dead man’s colleagues, who found his body, begins to investigate his private life. He is astonished to find links to drugs and alchemy – he finds himself dragged into a murky world of pushers and secret societies. Soon he is pursued by a man or group who want him dead. He also has to contend with the fallout of an unintended sexual liaison.

Hovering in the background of all these events is a mysterious piece of work by Isaac Newton…

Let me not give too much more away though!

How hard is the science in the novel? Has having to teach undergraduates helped when you need to simplify scientific explanations?

At a research level particle physics has a very mathematical structure and even first year graduate students find reading real papers hard work. That hides the fact that the basic ideas on which our theories are based are elegantly simple and those can be explained very physically. I don’t think therefore that the science is too hard to follow – but it does require you to think a little. I wanted to communicate the ideas in the way that people in the research field view them, so there are no flowery analogies. I hope though that the reader will get a real insight into the subject for relatively little pain. I do assume a basic understanding of the existence of atoms and electric charges and so forth (someone who was interested enough to pay attention to such things at age 16 will be fine though!).

Certainly teaching has been crucial to developing the necessary communication skills. These days academics do a considerable amount of outreach work including talks in schools – past governments haven’t thought very well about supporting the science necessary for our economy, and school teaching in physics is creaking a little. At the University level we do all we can to support those we rely on at a lower academic level. The enthusiasm for science one finds at the school level is very rewarding and played a large part in supporting my belief that there is an audience for a book of this sort.

Novelists who need to impart scientific facts unobtrusively tend to have their favored strategies – what are yours?

Actually, I didn’t really want it to be unobtrusive! A clear aim of this book is to impart science knowledge.

What is important though is for the science to appear naturally within the story. By choosing an investigation of people in the field by an outsider (the police woman) I hope it is internally consistent to address in detail questions about what they work on. The characters also share with real world scientists a love of what they study so that they inter-mingle events of their every day lives, such as drinks in the pub, with discussions of physics. I hope that the reader will understand that you cannot know these characters unless you know the physics they work on.

How closely are the characters, settings and the science to your real-life research environment?

One of my aims was to record (fictionally) the feel of working in the field at the moment, just before the LHC, which may very well turn all our thoughts on their head (I hope!). Having said that, the book is a piece of fiction and the character interactions are blown up for entertainment purposes. I think workers in the field will recognize the environment, characters and frictions as a representation of how it is. I hope it will be seen as playful homage by my peers!

Anything of yourself in Carl, the scientist protagonist?

That question reminds me of the story of a psychology professor who began his lecture course by giving his students a random personality profile pretending it had been carefully put together based on data… most of the students saw a good match in the random assignment!

Is Carl me? Well, he does much of the science explaining and in those sections he is a mouthpiece for my explanations. Otherwise though his life is pure fiction (alas, I’ve never had a boss who could afford a trophy wife!). Actually I rather pound the poor guy with problems in order to stress that scientists are real people!

You’ve said that the book is suitable only for people with a strong science interest and some science background. Do you think you could have told this tale in a way that any reader could enjoy it? Or would that have entailed too much dumbing down for your liking?

It would certainly be possible to write on this subject at a lower level. I think the reader would then miss out on understanding the subtleties of the subject and wouldn’t get a good feel for the research environment. I actually like the challenge of pushing an audience as far as I can whilst keeping their attention. Also the skills I bring to a project like this are that I know the science so well (I hope my writing is very readable but I’m not going to win the Nobel prize for literature!) so this I think is the right level for me to be hitting.

Physics has been going for 500 years or so now and not surprisingly some of the best minds on the planet have pushed the subject a long way. It’s very stacked... to go back to essentially nothing (the level of someone who quit science, probably with great relief, at age 14) seemed silly – if you don’t know the unifying wonders of the atomic theory of matter, read a book about that before you worry about current particle physics! That’s not to say that I might not have a go at that audience down the road!

How do you balance research and writing?

My biggest fear as an academic is of letting the research drop – it’s much the hardest and most frustrating part of the job to do, although it’s the most rewarding to succeed at. You have to sacrifice a good deal of cash to hold a position in academia rather than industry, and research ambition is the only reason! As a result I’m pretty ruthless in insisting I write three or four publications a year.

Another benefit of academia, though, is that I’m free to explore new ideas and I certainly find outreach work rewarding. So I’m happy to miss the fifth paper of the year to try writing a novel – that’s basically what I’ve done over the last two years. Writing is also a hobby for me so I’ve used evenings and holidays to type away too.

What are a few of your favorite works of ‘lab lit’ fiction (novel, film or play) and why?

I don’t think I have any great insights into lost gems I’m afraid. Like many authors I’m writing to try to fill what I perceive as a hole in the market. Carl Sagan’s Contact in all its forms reads very believably. The play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn did a super job of highlighting the tensions between Bohr and Oppenheimer. Its science is a bit arty for me though! I liked the film Twelve Monkeys because it is essentially unique amongst Hollywood films in not loosing its own logic.

Do you think interest in scientific themes in novels is on the rise? Why do you think that so few actually get published?

I don’t see a huge trend I’m afraid. If one thinks back to the 80s when Carl Sagan would take over the BBC for an evening to do science, Horizon was less flaky and so on I’m not sure we haven’t gone backwards. Science has crept more into crime fiction but not I think for the science’s sake – it just adds a new level of gore!

The problem I think is fairly clear – the publishing industry is arts based. Most of the editors and agents are amongst those that gave up science at age 14, at least in the UK. They don’t interact with the part of the population that would read this sort of fiction and so don’t see an audience. The science publishers who publish pop science books won’t touch fiction either.

I don’t have a big axe to grind here – this state of play is not so surprising. The wonderful thing is that the web allows large minorities to state their presence and prove their market value (LabLit.com is a great example). Amazon now makes much of its profit from non-chart material. So if you want to read science books, support the ones you like by contacting the author, recommending them to friends, talking about them on blogs. Market forces will enlarge new markets very quickly.

Any plans to write another? If so, can we have a sneak preview of the general idea?

The Newtonian Legacy has been so well received so far that I am tempted… In fact, NL is, in a sense, only half a book. It introduces the anticipation for the LHC but we don’t yet know the answer... when we do I hope there will be a part two or follow up with the same characters. That could be 2010+ though by the time the dust has settled.

I’m a little aware that I paint string theory as a long shot in this book. There have been a number of high profile shots at string theory recently too. I’m actually a massive convert to the enterprise, not so much because of the original ambition but because of the tremendous spin-offs that have flooded through theoretical particle physics over the past 15 years. I would like to write a novel that explores something mysteriously called the “AdS/CFT Correspondence”– it’s the discovery of an astonishing link between string theory and our current theories of forces...right now my notes on that are intermingled with Aztec mythology and mental breakdown...so who knows how that might come out!

Related information

Read moreabout this interesting experiment in the popular press.

The opening to The Newtonian Legacy:

We live our lives immersed in the illusion that we are immortal souls. Only shocking events of mortality bring us back to the true frailty of our animal existence. The man’s body slumped in the grassy ditch, unnaturally twisted, certainly brought Carl’s thoughts to a dead halt. He was caught in the unflinching gaze of lifeless eyes turned up towards his face. There was something familiar...Andreas. Dead.

Read the entire novel for free here!