I 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.
As I mentioned before, I expected a few of this summer’s big science fiction movies to be overrated: sadly, for me, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army was one of those. As I said on Friday, I enjoyed the first Hellboy because of its H.P. Lovecraft overtones. Lovecraft’s fiction was inspired by the cosmological shift in our perception that occurred in the first decades of the 20th century: Edwin Hubble proved that the universe was incredibly bigger than anyone had suspected, with island galaxies separated by vast voids; Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity demolished the previously rock-solid absolutes of time and space; and a cabal of quantum theorists played merry buggers with the definition of reality. Lovecraft’s writing spoke to the dark underbelly of uncertainty and insignificance that could be inspired by new discoveries: his stories are often about scientists plunged into events that are way over their heads.
Minus the Lovecraft, Hellboy 2 is simply average superhero fare, borrowing heavily from the original celtic folklore regarding fairies and elves (by “original” I mean before the Victorian era turned fairies into pretty winged sprites and Tolkien turned elves into beautiful warrior-snobs.) In this folklore, elves and fairies are generally best avoided due to their capacity for malevolence—Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is a great contemporary take on this. Despite the lavish visuals, it’s all rather predictable, featuring not one, but two, romantic subplots.
Oh well. At least I did enjoy the season five opener of Stargate Atlantis, as Robert Picardo becomes a regular cast member. I’ve liked Picardo’s performances since China Beach, and his character of the reluctantly self-aware medical AI on Star Trek: Voyager was the most interesting thing on that show. Fingers crossed for the rest of the season.