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Creation energy

The God Patent by Ransom Stephens

Kirk Smith 31 March 2013

Starstruck: detail from the cover

Stephens has turned abstractions into an intense human drama

One of the best parts of my discovery of the Lab Lit List last April was the subsequent adventure in reading. I would never have found the “minor” novel of one of my favorite Victorian novelists, Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy, nor a recent techno-thriller based mostly on sound science, Petroplague by Amy Rogers. The God Patent by Ransom Sephens, a recent addition to The List, was another delightful find.

I may have put off reading it in favor of other titles on the List because of the improbable mix of themes in the one-sentence description. Once it reached the top of my own list, I found it lived up to the description, except I would quibble with the wording the latter. My revision would read, “Fueled by sex and drugs, quantum physics and artificial intelligence collide with faith and free will in a battle over the origin of the universe and the existence of the soul.”

I fell in love with Emmy Nutter when she told her class, “…the laws of nature are not dictated by the matter that fills the universe but by the geometry of space and time.” A subtle change of lips and tongue position turns “Nutter” into “Noether” in German. Amolie (Emmy) Noether was a real German mathematician, who in 1915 proved what has been called Noether’s Theorem. The quote is her concise statement of a mathematical principle that has guided the development of modern physics.

I should make it clear at this point that I understood what she was saying a good deal less than her students. But Emmy’s hard to resist. She loves teaching undergraduates and shepherding graduate students through the years in which they become working physicists. She thinks of them as her children and has no interest in biological ones. Although we never see her engaged in research, the snapshots we have of her as a lecturer and mentor are realistic glimpses into the life of a university scientist. Emmy is not, however. the protagonist.

That would be Ryan McNear, an engineer and computer programmer, who early in his career filed two patents along with his friend, Foster Reed. They had just been hired by a startup that offered employees a $500 bonus simply for filing a patent and an additional $5,000 if the patent was granted. Of course, both had signed waivers turning their rights to any patents over to their employer. The subjects of the patents were energy production and neural networking. Soon afterwards, the friends bought a boat for water-skiing with their bonus money. But then, both lost their jobs in the bust, Foster married, Ryan divorced, and their paths diverged: Foster went to Evangelical Word University, received his PhD in “earthly sciences,” and Ryan moved in with a stripper and became a meth addict.

The story begins with Ryan, threatened with failure to pay child support, running to California in search of a new life and a job. He lands in Petaluma instead of Silicon Valley. There he meets the other two main characters in the story: Dodge Nutter, an unscrupulous lawyer and landlord, and Katarina, a free spirited 11-year-old and as yet undiscovered math prodigy, who lives in one of Dodge’s apartments. We also find out that Emmy is Dodge’s much younger sister.

Ryan is trying to redeem himself and reunite with his son back in Texas. Meanwhile, Foster, who is now professor of cosmology and physics at Evangelical Word University, is on a mission to show the unwashed physics establishment on its own turf the literal accuracy of the Bible. Katarina is trying to grow up and badly in need of parental supervision because her mother, still in pathological mourning for Katarina’s father, is incapable of giving any. Dodge is scheming to make big money off a share of Ryan’s patents, and Emmy? She’s happy where she is and doing what she’s doing. She’s also leery of getting involved in any of her brother’s schemes. And when she first meets Ryan, she’s attracted to him, and the attraction is mutual.

Ryan wants to recapture some of the happy life he had before he and Foster lost their jobs and he plunged into drugs on a path to self-destruction. He finds a job but then learns that by leaving Texas he has broken a Federal law and is in even more legal trouble. He quits and goes into hiding, working at all kinds of temporary jobs where he’s paid in cash. He also strikes up a joking friendship with Katarina and develops a real concern for her future. Against his better judgment, he agrees to become her mentor. This involves helping her with her schoolwork as well as giving her serious advice about her social behavior. In the course of this he discovers that she has solved only the most difficult “challenge” problem on math assignment she didn’t turn in, and she’s done it using differential equations with an invented notation. He buys her a college calculus book, which with a little help she tears through like a buzz saw.

Dodge first asks Emmy to evaluate Ryan and Foster’s patents. She’s appalled that they were granted in the first place and wants to discredit them immediately, but Dodge has a carefully constructed legal plan involving several stages, the first of which assumes that the patents are valid and Foster owes Ryan royalties. But Ryan isn’t interested in suing his old friend. He contacts Foster, who immediately offers him a consulting job with Creation Energy, the company he has set up to implement the patents. He has already built a positron collider that depends on a neural network for optimization. However, the results have been disappointing, and he thinks better software will help. He’s confident Ryan can write a winning program.

Katarina is intrigued when Ryan explains his programming challenge: find a way to increase the efficiency of the network. Working together, they come up with software consisting of a population of neural nets with limited life spans that are capable of reproducing and teaching the daughter nets. In working out this idea, Katarina finds a way to believe that her dead father and walking dead mother are still part of her life. When Dodge’s initial strategies fail, Emmy gets her chance to debunk the patents, but negotiations with National Engineering Group, which has bought out Creation Energy, don’t come out the way Dodge had planned. And Emmy’s romance with Ryan blows hot and cold because he’s not sure how it fits with his hope of reconnecting with his son.

Stephens has assembled a memorable cast of characters and set them loose in an explosive tangle of intersecting histories and ambivalent desires. The plot is delicately choreographed to draw the characters together in pairs and triplets and drive them apart in dramatic confrontations. The stakes may not be high enough for readers looking for characters facing instant, violent deaths. But in a very real and compelling way, every one of the four characters is putting his or her future happiness on the line.

The cultural stakes are even higher. If Foster’s (and Ryan’s) invention can violate the first law of thermodynamics, Emmy’s entire worldview will come crashing down, bringing the physics establishment with it (although if she’s a good scientist, she’ll pick up the pieces and begin the long process of developing a new theory). If Foster’s lab is able to extract energy from “vacuum fluctuations,” in other words, by exploiting the symmetry between spiritual and physical energy, then he will have shown the compatibility of physics and the Bible, validation for the believers and a huge personal coup. And if Foster’s collider works because of the neural networks Katarina and Ryan have developed, she will have found a pathway to exercising her free will as the adult she desperately wants to become as well as a consoling interpretation of the immortal soul. Remarkably, Stephens has turned these abstractions into an intense human drama.

The God Patent ends as only a story that pits religion and science against each other should: It doesn’t resolve these weighty questions. The reader is free to finish it according to his own beliefs. However, Stephens introduces one twist at the end that I think will give even those most committed to one side or the other pause. A crushing enactment of the problem of evil will leave many readers pondering why bad things happen to good people, especially those they’ve grow fond of.