Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The love lives of physicists

I'm about halfway through Richard Cox's novel The God Particle. That would be the Higgs Boson, for those that don't regularly read the New York Times's Science Times page. The Higgs is the particle that supposedly cements the Standard Model of quantum physics and possibly connects it to other parts of physics, like general relativity and string theory. "Finding Higgs," as the physicists in the book put it, would be an earth-shaking development.

For physicists, at least, and physics-loving geeks like me. Unfortunately, the actual process in the search involves combing through petabits of data coming out of an accelerator, looking for the random squiggle that might represent a "Higgs event," then refining the search by applying complex statistical models to eliminate noise and outliers. Not exactly page-turning material. Clearly this presents Cox with a challenge when he's trying to come up with interesting conflicts for the novel.

To a large degree he's chosen to overcome it by focusing the novel on his characters' sex lives, or, since they are after all physics geeks, frequently the lack of them. This allows him to have Mike McNair, the main protagonist and head of the accelerator that's searching for the Higgs, explain why the Higgs is so important in the process of hitting on Kelly, a Dallas news reporter who's his seatmate on an airplane. McNair has a problem; his boss is pushing to find the Higgs faster and is hinting that he might push Mike out and replace him with Amy, a hotshot he brought over from CERN. Then there's the problem of trying to control his old college friend and current network administrator Larry, an alcoholic stalker creep who keeps harassing the other women working at the laboratory. And somehow this story will at some point be connected with Steve, an auto parts executive who has been thrown out the window of a whorehouse in Germany, resulting in severe brain damage and hallucinations (or not?) that he can read people's minds and levitate.

Cox's characters' personalities are painted with a brush wide as a paint roller, but they are entertaining and believable enough. You really want things to work out for Mike, and for him and Kelly to get something going. Even the bad guys are all bad for self-consistent reasons, so when he tells things from their point of view you can see why they think their actions are justifiable.

For awhile, the search itself seems pretty secondary to the plot, but as it advances it becomes more and more central. Cox is trying to do something with the synthesis of science and faith, since Kelly is a sort of believer (well, a Unitarian, but it seems like you can talk them into about anything). But the conversations about this are the least interesting part of the book. Still, I'm engaged enough that I'm looking forward to finishing it.

No comments: