Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

2 November, 2011

I first heard about Juli Zeh last year through one of Sarah Weinman’s posts (either on her now defunct and sadly missed blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind or her monthly crime column, Dark Passages, in the LA Times, I forget which) and promptly put her novel In Free Fall on my wishlist. It turns out Vintage published this novel under the title Dark Matter last year describing it as an existential crime thriller exploring the nature of man, philosophy and science. That ticks all my boxes and I chose it for my book group this month. I haven’t seen much coverage on the web except for Lizzy’s review.

Sebastian and Oskar are both physicists whose friendship goes back to their first encounter on their first day at university. Both tall, enigmatic and with minds like quick-silver, they stand apart from their peers although one is blond and the other dark. Their friendship is intense and touched with a competitive streak that will one day drive them apart as Sebastian chooses marriage to beautiful Maike and a domestic life coupled with a job as a Physics Professor at the university in Freiberg, while Oskar goes on to a glittering academic career and a job at CERN exploring the very fabric of reality. When Sebastian’s son Liam goes missing together with his car, he is given a clear yet enigmatic order. A split second decision will change the course of everyone’s lives and Sebastien turns to the one man who understands him more than anyone else, including himself. And once the course is set, can he and his family come out of it unscathed?

Can I just say how fracking brilliant it is? Juli Zeh’s debut has totally exceeded my expectations. In some ways, reading the blurb led me to believe the novel would proceed in a certain direction and although I sort of guessed the twist, Zeh’s intricate explanation was surprising and something I didn’t really expect. It went beyond the pedestrian and became a novel that is so much more than just a crime novel, or a novel of ideas. There was a perfect mixture of humanity, ideas and feeling. You cared about the characters as well as wanting to know what happens next. She doesn’t overexplain anything, yet gives you more than you expect. Her prose is delicate but robust. And she imbues daily life with the beauty of complex science. It made me want to read more about science just because science is about our world. That’s not an easy feat for a writer. And neither is it for Zeh’s translator Christine Lo who has done a remarkable job here.

The police component of the story was also nicely balanced. There is Rita Skura, the eccentric inspector who is looking into a hospital scandal and murder that may or may not be connected to Liam’s kidnapping. There is her old mentor Inspector Schilf who is brought in from Stuttgart to oversee the investigation and who is the only person who understands Skura. And there is her assistant Schnurpfeil who will follow Skura blindly and is a little in love with her. However cynical and weatherbeaten Schilf is, what I liked was the way he would not let go of hope and what he believed was worth saving.

Apart from the weaving of scientific ideas into the everyday narrative of the tale such as

Seb’s appearance in Maike’s life was – as he would express is – a wave function collapse in quantum mechanics

and

So Oskar is merely a random collection of matter from which the world is formed, containing everything that exists because it is impossible to be otherwise. He knows that the boundaries of his person blur in the enormous whirl of particles. He can literally feel his substance mixing with that of the people around him,

what I really liked about Zeh’s novel is how three dimensional the characters were including all their flaws, their strangeness, their intelligence and naïveté. Although reminiscient of the image of early 20th century scientists a la Einstein, Dirac or Oppenheimer, the fact that they are modern characters adds an edge to their make-up.

Probably the only weak point of the novel is at the end, the tying up of the various threads. But at the end, it’s no longer just about the crime; it’s a metaphysical journey into what is real and what is important and what you would sacrifice for your beliefs. It’s a clever and yet very poignant story about love and one that you may not expect when you start reading the book.

I don’t want to give away anything because I’d like you to read it and feel the sense of wonder I felt as each page slipped through my fingers, not knowing where this story was going, knowing that I will be surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about a book and I can’t wait to read more by Zeh.

Everyone at the book group enjoyed the book although the discussion threw up some interesting questions regarding belief, action and free will which made me think I may have to read this book again.

I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

Caroline who, together with Lizzy, is hosting the German Literature Month November 2011 has kindly reminded me that this qualifies so do go and check out their blogs to see what German treats other participants are reading this month.

Subtitled Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene’s popular introduction to the latest contender for the Theory of Everything (TOE) goes hand in hand with a tv programme he made a few years ago. I watched that and was dazzled and had been meaning to find out more about superstrings since then but never got around to it. Superstring theory was too advanced for undergraduate lectures when I was at university since we were still trying to grasp the intricacies of relativity and quantum mechanics, but I was still shocked to learn that although superstring theory is the new theory on the block, it’s been around since the 70s.

Even with a scientific background, The Elegant Universe is not the easiest book to read even though equations are kept to a minimum and it’s mainly descriptive. But the concepts Greene tries to explain visually are not visualisable. Although we try to visualise the wave particle duality of a photon, for example, in fact, what we try to do is to visualise it in terms of what we are familiar with. But quantum mechanics is a different animal and cannot be visualised or thought of in that way. I’m familiar with the issues but I still do it. And in some ways you learn that it’s ok to do so as long as you remember that it’s not really like that. Are you still with me?

I have to admit this book took me a long time to finish partly because I could only absorb about 50 pages at a time because, although Greene writes beautifully and his illustrations are simple and easy to understand, the concepts have a depth to which I am no longer accustomed to thinking. That’s what happens when you stop studying like a student.

But The Elegant Universe opens up a world that is fantastic and bonkers. Our universe and everything in it is composed of tiny one dimensional strings that vibrate and exist in a 10 (or 11) dimensional universe all folded in to each other in varying shapes called the Calabi-Yau manifolds. We only know the approximate nature of superstring theory, although there are 5 versions that differ slightly. Together with supergravity, these 5 different versions of superstring theory make up what is called M-theory which theoretical physicists are hoping will be the Theory of Everything. Yet it’s so complex that we only know the approximate equations. And this in turn may lead us to speculate upon multiverses and pre-Big Bang scenarios. How exciting and mind-boggling is that? I didn’t even know we were allowed to speculate upon what happened or existed before the Big Bang as I thought it was a scientifically taboo topic.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Greene’s explanations are lucid, yet accessible, as he keeps the chapters short and manageable. And I’m eager to read more about the advances in superstring theory, especially since this book was first published in 1999 and revised in 2005. But I’d also like to learn more about dark matter and dark energy which account for 95% of our observable universe and which no one has a clue about. Intriguing or what?? The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek sounds just like what I need to read next.

Do also check out Swapna’s review of the book.

And Prof. Greene also makes a cameo appearance in The Big Bang Theory season 4 episode 20 – The Herb Garden Germination. Total geek out.

was rather different from what I expected. Well, not that different as I was expecting a mystery set in the 1930s in Germany with a psychiatrist, an amnesiac lady, maybe a bit of history and science and possibly a murder. But Philip Sington delivers much, much more. The Einstein Girl brings history, science, war and the workings of the human heart together in a quiet, unassuming way which slowly unfolds and becomes a deep, sorrowful study of hope vs. reality. It’s beautifully written and slots you right into Weimar Germany and the shoes of lone psychiatrist Dr. Martin Kirsch.

The story opens with the discovery of the naked body of a young woman by a lake. Miraculously she is alive, but cannot recall anything of her past. Dr. Martin Kirsch, an eminent psychiatrist about to get married to a beautiful socialite, finds himself drawn to this unnamed woman given the sobriquet The Einstein Girl by the press, for a flyer announcing Einstein’s lecture was found near her. As Kirsch begins to unravel her past, travelling to Zurich where she studied maths and physics and Slovakia where she grew up, he slowly finds his own past closing in on him as he slowly succumbs to his own demons. But the woman’s past is bigger and more complex than he thought. Is she an imposter involved in blackmail? What is her connection with Einstein? And can Einstein’s troubled son Eduard shed light upon the mystery? As Germany finds itself tumbling into an era of tight control and hidden agendas, Kirsch finds his control of his own life slipping away. It’s a little difficult to give a summary of this novel without giving anything away, so I’ll stop here.

I confess I was a little startled that Einstein played such a big part in Sington’s novel. I was expecting just a cameo, but Sington doesn’t shy away from discussing the scientific problems which plagued Einstein’s later years prior to his move to Princeton, especially his work on the Grand Unified Theory in which he unsuccessfully tries to tie relativity and quantum mechanics together. Nor his muddy personal life with his first wife Mileva Marić.

With the appearance of Mileva and their younger son Eduard in the story, Sington has obviously researched extensively into Einstein’s private life which surfaced in 1989 with the release of letters between the couple from before their marriage. I remember the uproar that followed with several prominent academics publishing books about Einstein’s personal life, his passionate love affair with Mileva and the fate of his daughter born out of wedlock. Up until then, he was untouched, the god of modern physics, and many of his colleagues and family tried hard to keep it that way.

Although sometimes the scientific explanations reminded me of the history of science lectures I attended at college, Sington really knows his stuff but in no way does his writing try and show off that knowledge. In the end, I felt that Einstein’s scientific theories and his theories of life coalesced beautifully painting a picture of a real man. You may not admire Einstein as a husband or a father, but you cannot escape from the fact that he was a singularly gifted scientist. What Sington does beautifully is to weave a tale of the people he left behind.

After finishing this book I started The Sun and Moon Corrupted by Philip Ball, another mystery with a hint of science and history which I was looking forward to reading, but I stopped after a chapter because compared to Sington, it just didn’t cut the mustard (shame because the title is beautiful). In The Einstein Girl, Sington really immerses the reader in the culture and events of the period; you can almost smell the restrained lives of the people living in a time of uncertainty. As you can probably tell, I was seriously impressed with this book.

I read this for Nymeth’s 1930s Mini-Challenge and the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010!