In quantum fiction, things as they are

August 20, 2000|By Frank Roylance | By Frank Roylance,SUN STAFF

"Properties of Light," by Rebecca Goldstein. Houghton Miffin. 244 pages. $23.

Those of us who gaze up at the night sky like to think we know what we're seeing: the familiar stars and constellations, the predictable procession of planets -- the inevitable clockwork of time passing.

It's the physicists who disturb our self-assurance with what is known to be true. The icy, crystalline stars are actually grotesque, violent places, they say. The light that strikes our eyes reveals not what is, but what was, millions of years ago. And most of what's really there is invisible, its light too ancient and feeble to register in our eyes, or beyond the wavelengths to which they are tuned.

Rebecca Goldstein is a physicist who, in "Properties of Light," her fifth novel, disturbs our sense of what's true with an eerie and unsettling story of things as they really are -- of love, lust, ambition and betrayal in a universe all but invisible to us -- the cerebral realm of the theoretical physicist.

In "Properties of Light," Justin Childs is a newly minted Ph.D. and a brilliant mathematician captivated by the work of Samuel Mallach, whose eloquent claims to have found the Holy Grail of modern physics have been summarily dismissed by the academic establishment.

Mallach insists he has discovered the "hidden variables" that would finally unify the comparatively recognizable physics of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, with the bizarre, counterintuitive world of subatomic particles -- quantum mechanics.

They both believe Childs' equations will prove Mallach's insights irrefutable, at last.

Childs also discovers Mallach's daughter, Dana -- beautiful, brilliant and fiercely protective of her father. And from this collision, and others that have not yet reached his senses, burst all manner of betrayal, violence, confession and death.

One need not subscribe to Physics Today to fathom this book. But Goldstein has woven enough of the mysteries of physics into her tale to illuminate the rarely expressed passion and jealousy of discovery.

Best of all, "Properties of Light" is a brilliant and inventive piece of writing. Goldstein's prose is hypnotic, rich with unexpected metaphor and astonishing poetry.

Childs is flesh and blood, and then he is an unseen wraith, competing with summer insects for a glimpse of his lover: "Held captive on the glass, wings outstretched and unmoving, the light-headed moths and light-headed me, pressed flat against the smooth, hard surface..."

Goldstein gives us no fixed point of view, no present, no inexorable "arrow of time." We flit effortlessly back and forth in the narrative chronology, in and out of Justin Childs' head, picking up understanding and bits of conversation that echo from past and future alike.

For, as Childs tells us, time "is a chimera spun out of gauzy consciousness, and nothing more. Time is static, the flow, unreal: it is Einstein's truth, and it is the truth ... The ebb, which seems so terrible and real, which seems to carry off one's every treasure, leaving one like a chest spilled open on the waves: unreal, unreal."

And for physicist and lover alike, the imperative must be truth -- things as they really are, Goldstein says. For "we are things that would know, and we are things that would love, and oh how fused is that entanglement ..."

Frank Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade. He covered the post-Challenger launch program and tracks developments in physics as well as other disciplines.

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