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Being intrigued by the mysteries of physics, especially the exotic regions of quantum mechanics, does not mean understanding an iota of it.  Rebecca Goldstein, whose Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006 ) much impressed me, seems to have a better grasp than most and dares to wind it though a novel of lost love and dashed hopes in Properties of Light (2000.)

A friend, having heard I’d been impressed with her Spinoza book told me she was a novelist as well and thought I’d enjoy this one.  Let me say right off, it’s a tough read — not emotionally, as the phrase usually implies, but cognitively.

The great hope of the three principle characters is to reconcile quantum mechanics with the bed-rock theory of relativity — the holy grail of physicists since Einstein.  Goldstein’s great effort is to unify an often poetic diction with the thorny vocabulary and concepts of physics.  If velumen, ergodic, relativistic, pyrophoric are words you’d rather not grapple with, then don’t.  If references to Schrodinger’s Cat or the wave function psi leave you baffled then reach for lighter stuff.

If hatred as the motive force of a novel is not interesting to you, or if the syntax of this paragraph if difficult, let it go by.

My hatred is my cause: material, formal, final… Such hatred as mine might be described as obsessive, although the description would be false.  Would an obsessive even pose the possibility of his own delusion?  The stance of objectivity required in order to ask of oneself whether one is obsessing is unassumable for those who, in, fact, are.

However, as with much in life, effort repays.  It’s just that we, in our early 21st century zone of polished thrillers, historical fictions and fine tales of adventure and discovery, are not used to working at what we read.

There is a narrative thread — the slow unfolding of the pasts of  physicist Justin Childs, his older colleague Samuel Mallach, and Mallach’s daughter Dana, a physicist in her own, odd, right and Childs’ lover and eventual object of his hatred.  As in many modern narratives the revelations of the past aren’t given to us in a strong, visible arc; they are layered, backing and forthing, often leaving the reader in a state of puzzlement for pages until later passages recall earlier dropped hints that begin to reveal the shape we will eventually see.  In Goldstein’s case, however, even at the end, much, to this reader, is left unclear.

Family tragedies, secret love affairs, car wrecks, deaths, academic in-fighting, gypsy scholars provide the broad  back upon which the story rides.  The horse is encrusted with jewels of many sorts, however.  Our attention is pulled to them again and again.

Goldstein understands physics and its vocabulary. She is nothing, if not courageous, entering into the deepest problems of  understanding “the world as it is.”    She touches on the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen  Paradox, on quantum entanglement and its counter arguments, on the mysteries of light, its particles and waves.  The Copenhagen view of “non-locality” appears again and again.  She explains:

“A crude way of seeing that nonlocality –and therefore quantum mechanics– is at odds with Einstein’s relativity theory it to remember that it is fundamental to relativity that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, whereas these instantaneous propagations of influence seem to indicate something superluminal, in fact infinite. 


[nothing less is required] than a solution to the problem of time, the final explanation of how a correlate of illusive nonrelatavistic time appears caught up in the quantum situation known as entanglement…

Schrodinger and his famous cat thought experiment appear a number of times, once alongside a quote from Dante and several times when his fecund contributions to physics is attributed to eroticism of a high order.  Kundalini, “the very energy that fuels the cosmos lies coiled deep inside each of us” claim several.  Dana, having picked up these ‘metaphysical’ notions from her mother, wants Justin to believe.  She shows him drawings of erotic couplings and calls them ‘scientists of ecstasy.”

“And upon what, exactly, would they be meditating in their very advanced position?

“The same things upon which we meditate in our very advanced science, Justin.  The ultimate nature of reality.”

Mallach, the great gone-mad physicist at the center of the story, tells young Justin,

  “It was Carlotta who made it [my quantum theory] possible, who drew the kundalini up into the crown of my skull.”

This unity of the high, seeming, abstractions of physics with the most esoteric of sexual experience seems to be the heart of Goldstein’s interest, trying, fictionally at any rate, to re-integrate the famously bemoaned mind-body split, or to bring together the two loves of her life: physics and poetry.

Taking a reputed claim of Einstein’s

“He told me he also felt the equations inside his muscles, in sensations that lay deeper down than reason.”

she gives this attribute to Mallach and to his daughter, quite literally.  On a walk around a pond testing Justin’s mathematical fire, Mallach stops and

… danced out the motions of light for him.

As a weaver of words, she takes from the vocabulary of physics, singularity, entanglement, psi  and uses them to refer to human behavior. 

I am, by training, a physicist, once said by some…to have inhabited a singularity of promise.

…they were engaged in every variety of copulation, femininity opening itself to receive immensities of maleness, configurations and entanglements of every conceivable permutation…

Only the psi of our union is defined now…

It’s a commonplace of human existence, given the power of metaphor and analogy in the human mind, to pull ideas and images from one sphere of life and apply to another.  Entanglement, a word with which to label the observed correspondence between measurements of certain properties of quanta over wide distances, and in defiance of the limits of the speed of light, becomes a wonderful image for lovers who mirror or repel each other even when widely separated.  In the hands of magicians such superpositions of metaphor are eye-opening, mind altering.  In life as it is lived, the problem often is that analogies all too rapidly collapse into equalities: because something is like the other they become the other. Instead of clarifying reality, metaphor and analogy can often, powerfully, obscure it.

As a weaver of words she gives us the unexpected and the interesting:

There was a noisy fire going, its crepitations syllabizing the angry silence…

We had shaken hard the tree of stars, and one had fallen down and shattered open at our feet…
The faculty of disbelief in Dotty had gotten jammed, and everything was getting through…
I fell into an abyss of trust.

We are treated to interesting references to the history of quantum physics, to “Bohr and his pack” and their “complementarity dogma,” to the “hidden variables” which might provide a counter explanation to “spooky action at a distance,” to Einstein and his ‘feeling the physics” and to the interplay of mathematical and physical physics.

She is  nothing if not erudite, with references not only to Schrodinger, Baltzman, to make believe cats and Arrows of Time but to Blake, Yeats, Dante, and even Proust.

For some this potentially heady mixture will be a welcome if fanciful excursion into humanizing the abstractions of thought, for others it will be confounding, unfaithful to the physics itself, or just simply opaque, not dazzling.

As befits the title, light is used continuously throughout the novel, sometimes as a metaphor common to western writing as “she lights up a room,” sometimes as the pre-modern notion of “light that was the sight streaming down from the sun god’s one eye, so that to be in the light was to be bathed in the very sight of god,” and sometimes as the mysterious wave/particle thing itself, about which Einstein said “I will devote the remainder of my life to thinking about ….”

Light appears, unusually, even in the erotic, as when Justin and Dana come together their first night:

“…my fingers reaching for the knowledge of her, moving over her cheeks, her neck, her mouth, and she pretended they burned her tongue, taking them into her softly opening mouth, fingers of light, her words against my ears, and with the fingers of my hand she led me to the otherness of her…

The problem is, for all the intriguing possibilities, Properties of Light fails to satisfy.  There is a love affair and Justin Childs is smitten and understands,

The world outside her sphere was suddenly given to me in all its drabness and all its coldness, the world as it really is, after all, the world as it really is, so that I wondered how I would from now on bear it…

— but we don’t like him much, being introduced to him as one who hates. And we don’t know her much, from the inside.  We know her as devoted to her father and one who “feels her physics.”  We know the old man,but as one made mad by his exclusion from the company of his peers, and coming to count Justin, who loved him, as the worst of his betrayers.

For all the promising poetry of her writing, the repetitions of words and phrases, the inversions of common locution, the arresting images there is too much trouble at times.  I still can’t make this out.

I can attend to nothing but the essential fact, its decoherent history, configurations traced impermanently among ill-defined confusions.”

And there are others.  When a serious reader has to back-track for meaning and even then come away puzzled, not for references to quantum mechanics or alive-dead cats but for human emotions something has not quite gone right.

What I did enjoy was the chance, in a work of fiction, to think about science,  especially the great quantum-relativity conundrum, to spin out in quarter hour investigations of the terms and history.  As to the human story, for all its promise of light I am left in obscurity.  The hatred that made a strong impression in the opening is not explained in the end — though it reappears, confusingly, in the mind of an other, unless I am to understand this as ‘entanglement’ at the human scale.  And, the man who I took to be alive in the beginning, is apparently dead at the end, though re-reading does not show me a dead man in thought or word in those opening pages.  Is this a case of Schrodinger’s cat?  I don’t know, and with some frustration, I have to conclude it is beyond me to know,  though I have enjoyed, if not the ride, watching it go by.

Goldstein was a lot more pellucid in Betraying Spinoza, which I highly recommend to anyone curious about the great Pantheist.  As for Properties, I await reports from those more dazzled by the light.