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Properties of Light Paperback – November 14, 2001
This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Putting her Ph.D. in the philosophy of science to good use, Goldstein (The Mind-Body Problem) chronicles the quest of three physicists seeking to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity theory in this epistemological gothic romance. It's soon evident that the narrator, Justin Childs, a physicist at one time skeptical of the soul's existence, is now, ironically, a ghost haunting his former lover, Dana Mallach, whom he blames for his death. Beginning a few years after Justin's demise, the story unfolds as he "relives" events. Justin is a young professor at a prestigious eastern university when he meets Samuel Mallach, an embittered old theorist based on real-life mid-20th-century physicist David Bohm. Despite Justin's disgust at Mallach's mystical leanings, he believes he can harness the man's talents to his own mathematical genius. Mallach and Dana, who's his devoted and brilliant physicist daughter, have their own plan to that end: they intend to lure Justin into tantric sex with Dana, in an attempt to elicit scientific inspiration. Justin and Dana do become lovers, and Mallach, Justin and Dana grow so close that Mallach feels deeply betrayed when he discovers Justin has been assisting his well-respected nemesis at the university. He commits suicide, and Justin is killed soon after in a car accident, the driver a furious Dana. Not until many years after his death is Justin's spirit able to forgive Dana and fully understand the vulnerabilities of all involved in the tragic liaison. Though the rarefied air the characters breathe can be stifling, at its best the novel is bewitchingly ethereal. Goldstein gracefully deconstructs our contradictory impulses, suggesting, as Justin concludes, that "we are things that would know and we are things that would love." Agent, Tina Bennett. Author tour.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
The complication of people characters is described very thoroughly.
I did like aspects of this book as well, but overall it somewhat dissapointed me.
It is written in a much more mysterious tone than the other two books; however, it seemed rather forced... The language is also often quite complex (and not just due to the subject matter - quantum mechanics), but it has been a long time since I had to look up so many words. Not that liguistic complexity in writing is necessarily bad, but when there are perfectly useable simpler synonyms for everyday words, it seems a bit artificial to use dictionary-only words...
Overall, I found the descriptions of the physics department dynamics the most fascinating and focused part of this book, the characters and their mysterious interactions less so. And the Love Story - well, frankly it seemed too forced and too convenient for the story. Furthermore, it does not help that the language describing their love making sessions is a bit Danielle Steele-like...A great contrast to the bitter-sweet love stories of her other two books.
I did like some of the quantum mechanics descriptions - I mean, what a hard subject to tackle for a fiction novel! I remember being fascinated with the Measurement Problem when I took courses in physics years ago, and I must give Goldstein credit for incorporating highly readable extracts of such conundrums (even though I sort of doubt I would have been able to follow if I had never taken a physics class in my life).
Finally, I doubt I would recommend this book to people who has had no background in the hard sciences, and if they did - I would be worried about recommending such a cheesy love story, no matter how mysteriously the language flows... If you are reading Goldstein for the first time, pick up a copy of the delightfully clever Mind-Body Problem.
The beginning is poetic enough, with the references to Yeats and Blake that will resound throughout the novel. Unfortunately, these literary interjections, although very skilfully placed by Goldstein, are a reflection of the very American campus 'Physics for Poets' courses that make me want to smirk uncontrollably. Samuel Mallach has been reduced to teaching such a course. Once a brilliant physicist, whom Einstein regarded as his successor, Mallach regards himself as "destroyed" by the reception his work on "hidden variables" received. Thus does Rebecca Goldstein strive to fight the cause for reality, a curious thing for a novelist to do. Justin Childs is also summoned to the cause. The product of an unconventional childhood, and a brilliant mathematician, Justin comes across Mallach's seminal work and is duly inspired. There are a few coincidences that bring Justin Childs and Samuel Mallach together, mainly through Mallach's beautiful daughter, Dana. It's the Kevin Bacon game and the Six Degrees of Separation all over again. Certainly, the physicist with whom Justin also works seems to have got his name cobbled together from the film poster for 'Judgement at Nuremberg', starring Spencer Tracey and Marlene Dietrich. 'Spencer Dietrich', you come to think, may not be the best pseudonym for a ... on the run.
The language of 'Properties of Light' seems quite modern. There appears to be an essence of timelessness about the novel. We know that it's probably set in the early 70's, but no one's smoking dope or saying "Peace Man!" 'Properties of Light' is nowhere near as humourous as 'Boogie Nights'. It's also rather dark and heavy, more akin to strange matter than a solar flare. The physics is quite hard going, so it's something of a relief to discover that Mallach is somewhat of an eccentric in his ... habits. Justin is disgusted to discover that the otherwise rational Dana fully believes in the Kundalini mumbo jumbo that spouts forth from the Self-help books of her late mother. Justin is very willing to help Samuel Mallach complete his work, to produce the mathematical proof for his contentious physics, but the way that Mallach believes that the knowledge will be drawn out of Dana and Justin is most unusual.
Both Justin's parents were killed in a car crash, leaving him an orphan. Dana's eccentric mother was also killed in a car crash. Part of Mallach's work is that apparently distant particles can have an effect on each other. So it is that an announcement from Stockholm sends Mallach into a mad frenzy that threatens to undo all their work...
Rebecca Goldstein has mentioned elsewhere that only she could have written 'Properties of Light', and I would agree with that. Certainly, her husband, Sheldon Goldstein, a mathematician at Rutgers, has written a great deal about David Bohm, upon whom Samuel Mallach is based. Maybe Sheldon Goldstein has his own biases, since David Bohm certainly dated the author of 'The Feminine Mystique', Betty Goldstein (a relative perhaps?). Like Mallach, David Bohm did find complementarity with certain Eastern beliefs (along with Schrodinger). Mallach's name is taken from the Hebrew for "Angel", and maybe Goldstein's referring to Lucifer rather than Gabriel. Dana is also described as "this Pharaoh's girl". Maybe there is a tyrant hiding beneath Mallach's seemingly placid nature? Justin certainly regards him as a king of Physics. David Bohm himself seems to have been closer to Philosophy than Physics, and Goldstein has a philosophical basis herself. To a certain extent, Bohm mistrusted mathematical proofs, so it's not entirely realistic that he would have sought out a mathematician like Justin Childs to validate his work once and for all.
'Properties of Light' has been described as a Gothic novel, and I believe that this is where it falls down. The gothic melodrama is more akin to the risible antics of 'The Castle of Otranto' rather than the racy excitement of Matthew Lewis's 'The Monk'. The drama of 'Properties of Light' is simply light years away from Hamlet, and the book is only occasionally rewarding. The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy's approach to life, the universe, and everything is so much more fun, and you can always stick a Babel Fish in your ear to comprehend the more difficult parts. Rebecca Goldstein tries to do too much in 'Properties of Light': you can admire her bravery, but you wouldn't want to go there yourself.
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