Thursday, September 24, 2009

Physics Novels that make a Big Bang

To celebrate the return of my new favourite tv show, The Big Bang Theory, I've created a new book list. Here are a few suggested novels which use physicists as characters or physics itself as a large part of the storyline (and no, I haven't read all of them, yet):

1. Changing Light / Nora Gallagher
I read this one in 2007, and thought it was very, very good. It features Eleanor Garrigue, a painter living in New Mexico in the 1940's, and her encounter with a Los Alamos physicist on the run, Leo Kavan. Those two main characters, plus Eleanor's friend Father Bill, represent Art, Science and Religion -- and there is much to discuss in 1945 Los Alamos. Really intriguing story, and enjoyably well written.

2. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart / Lydia Millett
A strange novel, this features Ann (a librarian) and her husband Ben (a gardener) and the time travelling figures of Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi. The last thing these three physicists remember before appearing in modern Sante Fe, New Mexico, is the blast of the Trinity test, the first explosion of a fission bomb in the 1940's. It is a wild ride from thereon in, and I think the theme is summed up nicely by Jeff at Bearcastle Blog: Their story read to me like an allegory of how scientists who love science and who have strong ethical centers (except maybe Szilard!) could have nevertheless ended up creating the nuclear bomb. They overlooked so much for working on the sweet problem.

3. Anna's Shadow / David Manicom
A new release from Vehicule Press, this novel is set in Moscow, early 1990's, and 2007 North America. Adrian Wells is a young diplomat who is assigned to watch Anna Mikataev, a particle physicist whose work has political repercssions. As the publisher puts it:
Scientific romance, or post-Cold-War thriller colliding with the new war on terrorism? If only Adrian Wells could be sure what kind of story he was caught up in. ... In the small basement room where Anna Mikataev lives, the force fields of sub-atomic particles, individual lives, and the politics of terror all meet.

4. The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer / Carol Hill
A cult novel from its publication, this is the story of Amanda Jaworski, physicist, astronaut, and roller skater extraordinaire. She is training to become the first person to travel to Mars, and when she does get to space she ends up battling with an mysterious being made of light, the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, who embodies feminine power. The publisher states that "this ambitious novel is a rich and comic blend of physics, feminism, and political farce". And, Amanda has a marvellous cat named Schrodinger. Gotta love that!

5. Eifelheim / Michael Flynn
A science fiction novel nominated for a Hugo award in 2007, this is a story of first contact. But, the year is 1348, and a medieval churchman is the first to meet the Krenken, a race of giant grasshoppers. Yay, giant alien bugs. Just the book for me ;) All reviews I've seen praise his excellent depiction of the medieval mindset, and that alone makes me want to read it. There are also portions of the book set in contemporary times; a theoretical physicist and a cliometric [math] historian are both trying to figure out why the medieval village of Eifelheim disappeared suddenly during the years of the Black Plague and was never resettled like most other places.

6. Einstein's Dreams / Alan Lightman
This is the first novel by former working physicist Alan Lightman, who has gone on to write a few more novels and well as popular science books. This one is a brief set of meditations on time, framed by the idea that Einstein is mulling over all kinds of possible worlds. A beautiful little novel, it began Lightman's fiction career on a definite high note.

7. Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist / Russell McCormmach
Set in 1918, at a time when physics was changing irrevocably, this book details the thoughts of elderly physicist Victor Jakob, at the end of his career. His musings give us the history of physics and scientific life in the 19th century: the upheavals in science were enormous and right at this time classical physics was being overtaken by a much wilder modern approach -- it was the beginning of quantum physics and the ideas of relativity, and this poetic novel reveals the significance of those changes.

8. Properties of Light / Rebecca Goldstein
A novel full of crisp, intelligent writing and many academic conundrums, this features three physicists: Samuel Mallach (old, forgotten genius), his daughter Dana, and wunderkind Justin Childs. Justin rediscovers an old formula created by Mallach and wants to resolve it: it would be a way to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. When the Mallachs hear his intention, they manipulate him into marrying Dana; but professional jealousy, hubris, and the single minded pursuit of scientific truths unravel their relationships and they spiral down into a gothic morass of hatred, betrayal, suicide and more.

9. The Wave Theory of Angels / Alison MacLeod
Two sisters, a physicist for a father, an experiment with wave theory at the lab; and suddenly the elder sister is displaced in time, existing in two places at once -- today and feudal France. The two families are essentially identical: Giles, stone carver in France of 1248, has two daughters. The elder, Christina, is in a coma for no obvious reason. Skip to 2001: Giles Carver, physicist, is trying to figure out why his daughter Christina has fallen into a coma. Younger daughter Marguerite has a big part to play in deciphering the story's events. There are also many other parallels drawn between the two worlds. Fascinating stuff.

10. Particles and Luck / Louis B. Jones
Reasons to be grateful for a back fence: you're a whiz kid physicist and your neighbour is a divorced, bankrupt pizza restaurant owner. Or, in this case, both of these characters band together against a faceless corporation to build their own fence in the middle of one Halloween night. Mark Perdue, rich and established theoretical physicist, is drawn into the scheme by his hapless and yet somehow convincing neighbor Roger Hoberman. This sets the stage for a novel of ruminations on life, luck, coincidence and subatomic particles. It's been described as "hilarious", "quirky", "gracefully written", "an engaging novelistic equivalent of a unified field theory".

11. The Book of God and Physics / Enrique Joven
A thriller featuring a Jesuit teacher who joins a group fascinated by the secrets encoded into the famously undecipherable Voynich Manuscript. From the publisher: Written in an unknown language and illustrated with enigmatic drawings that no one has been able to interpret, the work first surfaced in the court of Rudolf II of Bohemia. This same Bohemian court also gave refuge to two of the greatest, and most controversial, scientific minds of all time: famed Dane Tycho Brahe and German Johannes Kepler. Is there a connection between Voynich and the brilliant scientists who frequented the court? Could the manuscript perhaps be the codified findings of either Brahe or Kepler, written in a special language to conceal their scientific discoveries from the Church and its brutal Inquisition?

12. The Beautiful Miscellaneous / Dominic Smith
Nathan's father is a middling successful particle physicist. He and Nathan's mother wanted -- expected -- a genius child. Alas, Nathan is eminently, conclusively normal. Until he is 17, that is, when he has an accident and wakes up with a brain injury that has left him with genius-like propensities. He is sent off to a school for prodigies where he makes friends, of necessity, with the consort of differently gifted oddballs. There, together, they must come to terms with their varied mental abilities as well as heavy parental expectations, learning to be true to themselves and their need for a social as well as a mental life. This sounds a bit YA after-schoolish in this brief summary, but isn't at all. It's actually quite moving; funny and sad and thoughtful all in one.

And to finish off our scientific study, lolcats, of course!

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures


  1. Great list. I saw Big Bang Theory for the first time this week and really liked it.

    I've also been working my way on hulu through seasons of Stargate SG-1 and was just telling a friend that one reason I love to watch that show is that the main female character is an astrophysicist who is waaaay smarter than anyone else. It's nice to see a smart woman on television working with a team of men who acknowledge she's smarter than they are and that they are cool with that.

  2. What a fun list, although it does mean more reading, alas. I'm glad you included _Oh Pure and Radiant Heart_. It was indeed a peculiar book, but in the end I found it deeply satisfying and, still, oddly memorable.

  3. Physics was one of my weakest subjects! But I may have to give at least one of these books a chance. ;)

    A good friend is a photographer and a few months back, she did a shoot with one of the star's of Big Bang Theory!

    Adorable lolcat!

  4. What a great list! I only know Einstein's Dreams, which I enjoyed very much. I would add Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, set in Cambridge in England but veering between the present day and the life of Isaac Newton. It's atmospheric and complex and well-written.

  5. lol! I love the lolcat. And I love the list too! I'm bookmarking it for future reference :)

  6. maryb - I haven't watched Stargate but I like the idea of a really smart woman - the only problem I have with Big Bang Theory is that the nerds are all men. (except for random appearances of Sara Gilbert)

    Jeff - so glad my friendly neighbourhood physicist saw this list ;) I also liked Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, but found the premise quite peculiar!

    Rosemary - ooh, I am jealous of your friend! and, yes, this is one of my favourite lolcats ever.

    litlove - thanks for the tip! I always love to find new novels that have scientists in them; I'd heard of this but forgotten it.

    Nymeth - hope you will find at least one of these books to your taste. I've read about half of them so far myself.

  7. I should check this show out! I have heard of it, but that is about the extent.

    Thanks for the book recommendations!

  8. Great to hear you've discovered this show. I've been a follower since it started and thankfully it was renewed for two seasons last year.

    If you like this show you might also like "The Class". It was a short-lived tv show that I thought was hilarious. I think you can find it on YouTube.

  9. Also, I just gave you a little bloggy award. Happy Sunday!

  10. Great list! I'll be looking some of these up. I'm having trouble thinking of books to add to this list — although, almost anything by Robert J Sawyer would probably fit.

  11. Kailana, Duckthief - I don't watch a lot of tv (I only get one channel!) but I love this show. I'll have to check out "The Class" as well, thanks for the suggestion.

    Rosemary - thankyou! :)

    Isabella - good point, I am sure lots more science fiction books would have aspects of physics as an overt part of the story.

  12. I love the lolcat, and the list. I haven't heard of a single book on that list :( But you have given me quite a few books to check out.
    And nice to meet a fellow Big Bang lover.


Thanks for stopping by ~ I always enjoy hearing your comments so please feel free to leave some!