9780395986592 / 0395986591

Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics


Publisher:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



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About the book:

For smarty-pants only. Rebecca Goldstein, who made her debut with The Mind-Body Problem, has written a romance about three physicists. The narrator, a young hotshot named Justin Childs, falls in love, first and foremost, with a little-known formula put together by Samuel Mallach back in the 1930s. Justin, a newly appointed professor, discovers that Mallach teaches at his university: "He was a burned-out star, they said (when they bothered to speak of him at all), although when he was little older than the twenty-three that Justin then was, Albert Einstein had confided in several colleagues that he regarded Samuel Mallach as his heir apparent." In the meantime, though, the old man and his work have fallen from favor, and he has retreated into quiet insanity: "Mallach's work, having been declared impossible, had passed unnoticed among men, and now Mallach himself had entirely forgotten it." Justin begins fantasizing about disinterring his work, and here's where the smarty-pants part comes in: "I had thought to propose to him that he and I might work together, together approach the formidable problem of merging quantum reality, now clarified through his work, with Einstein's truth. He had presented a realistic model of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics. The task now was to reconcile it with relativistic time."

Just when you're berating yourself for skipping Physics for Poets in college, though, the love story kicks in. Justin falls for Mallach's brilliant daughter. And slowly it dawns on him that Mallach is manipulating both of them: "He meant to get the glorious physics out from me." Each character wants nothing more than to solve Mallach's original problem; each character is destroyed in the process.

Properties of Light seamlessly interweaves problems of physics and problems of love. So when Justin says things like, "I assumed he spoke, of course, of the subatomic situation," many of us may feel a little lost. But this, perhaps, is Goldstein's strongest suit: she leads us up close to these heady ideas but always guides us back to more manageable emotional ground. She's firmly in control of both realms, and one suspects that her science scans as well as her prose. --Claire Dederer

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