Final Theory: Einstein's Last Stand

By Stephen Cass | December 2, 2008 6:11 pm

Cover of Final TheoryI was able to catch up on my reading over the recent holiday weekend, which included Mark Alpert‘s entertaining science-thriller, Final Theory. Alpert is a veteran science journalist and often when I read fiction penned by journalists, I’m reminded of the old maxim that “every journalist has a novel in them, which is where it should stay.” But not in this case: Alpert keeps the book fizzing along with all the stuff of any good thriller—mysterious clues, car chases, helicopters, commandos, Russian assassins—as well as bunch of neat science settings and plot twists. (Alpert’s Fermi National Laboratory is a heck of a lot more realistic than Dan Brown’s CERN for example.)

The plot imagines that Einstein did not actually fail in his quest to develop a unified theory of everything. Instead, horrified by the atomic bomb and fearful of the uses to which his unified theory might be put, but unwilling to destroy his work completely, Einstein entrusts the theory to a few trusted students. Decades later, those students–now elderly physicists–start turning up dead as a malevolent entity tries to piece together the theory for its own ends. While visiting him in hospital, a former student of one of the physicists is entrusted with a clue to the location of Einstein’s final theory, sparking a cat and mouse chase to discover the deepest secrets of the universe–and in best Crichton fashion–the key to the destruction of humanity.

Bearing in mind that coming up with a real unified theory of everything would be a bit of a tall order, Alpert none the less had to come up with a reasonable fictional theory for Final Theory, a difficult trick given that it needed to be more-or-less compatible with the current standard model of particle physics, consonant with the hints researchers are garnering from the bleeding edge, and workable in terms of the physics and maths available to Einstein in the 1940s and 1950s. But Alpert pulls it off, giving the book a nice meaty finish instead of collapsing into anticlimactic technobabble. If you’re looking for something to sink your teeth into during these long winter evenings, give Final Theory a try.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Physics

Comments (6)

  1. I agree that it’s well written and a good story, but I nevertheless had some problems with this book. I guess I’m a little picky, but I prefer it when the psychological reactions of the fictional people are realistic. The thriller convention is that people walk away unchanged after experiences that should be really traumatizing, and this really destroys my “suspension of disbelief”. Also, i found myself shaking my head at the flock of obedient grad students, and the evil master mind…

    I guess my standards are just too high after reading lots and lots of really good books… This one was not bad, but I just could not feel drawn into it.

  2. “Bearing in mind that coming up with a real unified theory of everything would be a bit of a tall order” . . . “a difficult trick given that it needed to be more-or-less compatible with the current standard model of particle physics,”
    A “unified theory” will not be compatible with the “standard model,” no more than the theory of universal gravitation needed to be compatible with the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe.
    A unified theory won’t need “exchange particles” and “forces” [double sic] to explain quantum gravitation, no more than gravitation needed “epicycles” and “crystalline” spheres” to explain the behaviour of the planets. See:
    http://gaudwin.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!75D2857795790980!236.entry

  3. Want to overturn General Relativity? Assault its founding postulates, like unique lightspeed and isotropic vacuum in the massed sector (Einstein’s elevator). Lightspeed is easy – the Scharnhorst effect.

    Do Casimir etalons violate the Equivalence Principle? Horizonally spin a flat silicon torus over alternating vacuum sputter deposition zones. 70 nm of pure aluminum then 37 nm of 60:40 MgF2:LiF. Matched CTEs; RI = 1.628 a at 121 nm (lambda/2 optical thickness). Round and round to build a bifilar spiral 37 wt-% Casimir etalons. Cut a piece and free the support. Eötvös experiment!

    Do metaphoric left and right shoes violate the Equivalence Principle? A parity Eötvös experiment (pdf) is easy to perform. Divergence will birth more capable theory to amplify the effect.

    Perhaps the reason gravitation will not quantize is that physics arises from postulates empirically no better than Euclid’s parallel postulate. Somebody should look.

  4. “70 nm of pure aluminum then 37 nm of 60:40 MgF2:LiF. Matched CTEs; RI = 1.628 a at 121 nm (lambda/2 optical thickness).”
    “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein

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  6. I agree that it’s well written and a good story, but I nevertheless had some problems with this book. I guess I’m a little picky, but I prefer it when the psychological reactions of the fictional people are realistic. The thriller convention is that people walk away unchanged after experiences that should be really traumatizing, and this really destroys my “suspension of disbelief”. Also, i found myself shaking my head at the flock of obedient grad students, and the evil master mind…

    I guess my standards are just too high after reading lots and lots of really good books… This one was not bad, but I just could not feel drawn into it.

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