Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar is now out, with a plot featuring Michael Beard, an aging theoretical physicist. Beard won a Nobel prize early in his career for the “Beard-Einstein Conflation”, which supposedly involves some unexpected coherent behavior in QED, based on the discovery of a structure in Feynman diagrams that involves E8. An appendix of the novel reproduces the Nobel presentation speech, evidently it’s the work of physicist Graeme Mitchison (see here).

As the novel opens in 2000, Beard is in his fifties, having spent quite a while coasting on his Nobel Prize. He’s director of an alternative energy research center, and one of the activities there employs postdoc theorists to evaluate unconventional ideas that are sent in, largely by cranks:

Some of these men were truly clever but were required by their extravagant ambitions to reinvent the wheel, and then, one hundred and twenty years after Nikola Tesla, the induction motor, and then read inexpertly and far too hopefully into quantum field theory to find their esoteric fuel right under their noses, in the voids of the empty air of their sheds or spare bedrooms – zero-point energy.

Quantum Mechanics. What a repository, a dump, of human aspiration it was, the borderland where mathematical rigor defeated common sense, and reason and fantasy irrationally merged. Here the mystically inclined could find whatever they required and claim science as their proof.

The postdocs have little interest in the old history of Beard’s discovery about QED, but instead baffle him by making “elliptical references to BLG or some overwrought arcana in M-theory or Nambu-Lie 3 algebra.” McEwan seems to have gotten this from Mike Duff, who is thanked in the acknowledgments. There’s the obvious problem though that Bagger-Lambert-Gustavsson, a hot topic while the book was being written, dates from 2007, so is anachronistic as a topic of discussion in 2000. Beard’s reaction to what the postdocs work on is:

Some of the physics that they took for granted was unfamiliar to him. When he looked it up at home, he was irritated by the length and complexity of the calculations. He liked to think that he was an old hand and knew his way around string theory and its major variants. But these days there were simply too many add-ons and modifications. When Beard was a twelve-year-old schoolboy, his math teacher told the class that whenever they found an exam question coming out at eleven nineteenths or thirteen twenty-sevenths, they should know that they had the wrong answer. Too messy to be true. Frowning for two hours at a stretch, so that the following morning parallel pink lines were still visible across his forehead, he read up on the latest, on Bagger, Lambert and Gustavsson – of course! BLG was not a sandwich – and their Langrangian description of coincident M2-branes. God may or may not have played dice, but surely He was nowhere near this clever, or such a show-off. The material world simply could not be so complicated.

To some extent, Solar is an entertaining comic novel of physicists and the alternative energy research business. The dominant theme though is a topic not all will find interesting: Beard’s personal life, which involves five failed marriages over the years. At the end of the book, Beard is in his sixties, a fat, unpleasant slob, with two younger women fighting over the possibility of being number six on the list.

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9 Responses to Solar

  1. Nigel says:

    Second sentence:

    “… based on a the discovery of …”

    You need to decide whether it is “a” or “the” discovery.

    “… a topic not all will find interesting: Beard’s personal life … At the end of the book, Beard is in his sixties, a fat, unpleasant slob, with two younger women fighting over the possibility of being number six on the list.”

    I suppose it would be interesting why two women would fight over such a person … if it wasn’t just fiction.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Nigel, fixed.

    The phenomenon of attractive younger women throwing themselves at much older unattractive and unpleasant men is one that seems to have been exhaustively dealt with in literature. Whether it correlates to anything statistically common in reality, I have no idea. To be fair to McEwan, in this book, one of the two women is portrayed as unattractive herself…

  3. roland says:

    I think no “real” physicist would think of a primary school exam that features non integral solutions when confronted with some new theory that he thinks is too messy or complicated or whatever to be true.

  4. Kea says:

    So all crackpots are men? Phew, that let’s me off the hook.

  5. cormac says:

    Hi Peter,
    I just finished ‘Solar’ too! I must say I thought it was a very good book indeed, in many ways.
    First and foremost, I thought the description of the main character utterly plausible, and most impressive for a non-scientist. I also thought McEwan’s antihero a much more complex character than you imply.
    There were several other themes I liked – the conversion from gw sceptic to convictee was very convincing. Also the tension between genuine believer and later commercial interest was very well done – a theme that few scientists seeem to be aware of.
    Re personal angle, well it is a novel! It’s a book I look forward to reading a second time..

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Cormac,

    I’m afraid I was rather unfair to the novel in limiting my remarks about the non-theoretical physics parts of it to some easy snark. I agree to some extent with your comments and hope they go a ways to giving a better idea of the rest of the book.

  7. Andrew L. says:

    First off,big fan of your blog,Peter. A second year graduate student in pure mathematics at Queens College and The City University Of New York Graduate Center.
    Never read the novel under consideration-sadly,literature,once a great love of mine,has long since been back seated to my personal life. But to answer your question from my own limited experience, attractive younger women are attracted to fat old slobs of questionable character for one very simple motivation that takes a myriad of forms: riding the storm.They feel attaching themselves to such a man who’s regarded as an eminent person will share that eminence with them and increase thier importance in society’s eyes. It’s why rock stars marry 20 something models who they are old enough to be grandfather to,why Anna Nicole Smith married a 90+ year old billionaire,and why half the Senators,lawyers in Cambridge and doctors on Park Avenue have second wives younger then thier daughters.It’s not really just about wealth,although that’s the simplest and most obvious example.It’s about hooking thier car to a train everyone gathers around to watch when it pulls into the station.

  8. Jen says:

    Aw, like some people (including yourself) the non-science stuff is reviewed rather harshly.
    I found it quite an intriguing novel, also because of the science involved. I’m a senior EE major/ philosophy minor at the U of southern calif (at the moment at the ETH in Zurich, switzerland, which – by the way – is a waaaay cool university) and I love my physics classes and ever since my friends heard of that, all presents I’m getting for birthdays etc involve physics in some way or other. Solar was one of them.

    anyhew, the main reason why I’m writing a comment is that I’m one of those 20-something women involved with an older, not always pleasant to others guy, and that I MUST protest! Our relationship is not even a publicly known fact, so I’m NOT doing it to get some glory or money or whatever.
    you know, love can sometimes be even harder to describe than the laws of physics. and people sometimes fall in love completely irrationally, creating really bad matches. but what’s a mere mortal to do?

  9. Jen says:

    haha, sorry for the unfinished sentence there! of course, it’s supposed to say
    “like some people, including yourself, wrote …”

    sorry! tired me produces half-way sentences. brain thinks, fingers too tired to keep up.