Where Einstein left off
Final Theory by Mark Alpert
15 June 2008
When I put the book down at the end, I wondered what the author actually wanted to tell us about the role of science in the world
Mark Alpert, an editor at Scientific American, recently wrote a column calling for more realistic scientists in literature. Inevitably, knowing this gave me certain expectations that were not entirely fulfilled when reading his novel, Final Theory. This book is, first and foremost, wonderful beach literature, and great travel reading. By all means, take it with you on your vacation this summer if you enjoy fast-paced thrillers. What makes this book somewhat different, however, is that it is marketed as a novel about science and scientists. Although the scientific ideas are seamlessly integrated into the story and the infodumps are well handled, when I put the book down I still felt that the author hadn’t quite achieved his goal.
In the story, Albert Einstein secretly finished his unified field theory before he died, but did not want this knowledge to get out because one of its applications could be an accessible doomsday weapon much worse than the nuclear bomb. Yet being a true scientist, Einstein could not just destroy his brain-child, but instead passed it on to a few of his most trusted young assistants to keep safe.
When some details of this theory leak out, years later, the people who were close to Einstein become living targets. When one of these, David Swift, is entrusted with a clue from his former professor, he is drawn into the action. For most of the book he is hunted by terrorists, the FBI and the military. Together with the theoretical physicist Monique Reynolds he tries to find key hidden documents before anyone else.
David has personal reasons to be fundamentally disappointed in science. He grew up with a love of stars and the natural world, worked hard to learn and got into grad school – only to realize that he was not cut out for theoretical physics. He fell into depressed drinking, then moved on to become a professor of the history of science instead. Early in the story we learn that he has very little regard for his own accomplishments, and a habit of comparing himself to those he perceives as smarter.
Through the eyes of David we get to sample some of the images of science and ‘the scientist’ that exist in our culture. This is an interesting topic. The usual attitudes are either awe or fear of the brainiacs in their hidden labs and offices, working on things too obscure for normal people to understand. In Final Theory we get to meet examples spanning the whole spectrum, from brilliant and wise heroes to the stereotypical mad scientist. We see enough of the extreme cases in popular culture already, so from my point of view the nuances in between are much more interesting.
The scientists in Final Theory come in four different varieties. First there are, of course, the giants: extremely intelligent, often old and wise men. They may have different colors, but the common features are a brilliant intellect and the burning desire to find things out. Another type is the robot-like grad student. There seem to be many of these sorts who worship their professors and are willing to blindly follow them no matter what they are asked to do. And third – there seems to be no way to avoid this one – we have a perfect textbook example of a mad scientist, short only of the maniacal laughter. The odd, fourth, contribution to this collection of scientist types is Monica, representing the heart in science. Not only is she very smart, but she is strong enough to rise above her circumstances using head and heart combined. Where David represents the failed dreams of science, Monica is the dream come true.
Final Theory is a well-executed thriller, and the tension is kept constantly high without any silly or contrived cliff-hanger scenes. There is even a little bit of political satire with comments about the war on terror. But it is also a story of scientists and their work, as much as this can be fitted into the genre. There is a lot about what science can mean to people, as an intellectual adventure and as a journey. There are hints about the slow workings involved in piecing a theory together. We also get to visit an accelerator lab, which is fun and frustrating at the same time. It’s difficult to achieve suspension of disbelief when you get too close to your own area of expertise. As an experimental physicist I always cringe when equipment is used for the first time for a new purpose in books and films. How can they always succeed on the first try? Where are all the failures, the unexpected breakdowns, the necessary fine-tunings? It seems so easy to know how everything should work and then just do it, which is very far from my own experience. I kept waiting for a portrait of the actual lab work with all its little frustrations, but this no doubt was consigned to the collection of the things that had to be sacrificed for the sake of storytelling.
The form of this story is not one that easily lends itself to subtlety. We get a lot of desperate action, but less of the ‘lab lit’ qualities. When I put the book down at the end, I wondered what the author actually wanted to tell us about the role of science in the world. David has already had his dreams about heroic intellectual achievement shattered, and in the end he cannot even get the indirect part of the big theory. Monica is in many ways the stereotypical heroic scientist, but she also ends up with her personal goals defeated. They both found the meaning in life through science, but the conclusion is that science is a menace. They have every reason to be disappointed.
As a reader, pulled along in the adrenaline-flooded journey, I too was disappointed by the end. That’s the problem with expectations. What I wanted was a novel about real scientists, but what I got was an action story. What I wanted was a story touching a world I can recognize, but what I got was a story about the awe of genius and fear of hidden knowledge. Moreover, what I expected was also change, development, not a return to status quo. In the final scene the seven-year-old boy who has been through some really extreme experiences plays in the park like nothing has changed. The protagonist shows no signs of having learned anything about himself. The 43-year-old heroine gets pregnant. Everyone is as forcedly happy as a Stepford wife, and the only remaining shadow of a threat comes from science itself. Where did all the real characters go, and why am I stuck with the image of the mad scientist in my head?