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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