Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan

On pages 201/202 McEwan's protagonist, Nobel prize-winning physicist Michael Beard seduces his soon-to-be first wife Maisie Farmer while they are both at Oxford University by mugging up on her pet subject of John Milton in a week.

"Going after Maisie was a relentless, highly organised pursuit, and it gave him great satisfaction, and it was a turning point in his development for he knew that no third-year arts student, however bright, could have passed himself off, after a week's study, among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard's colleagues. The traffic was one-way.

"His Milton week made him suspect a monstrous bluff. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could be remotely construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily on his course.

"That very week of the Randolph dinner [with Maisie], he had studied the Ricci scalar and finally understood its use in general relativity. At last he thought he could grasp these extraordinary equations. The Theory was no longer an abstraction, it was sensual, he could feel the way the seamless fabric of space-time might be warped by matter, and how this fabric influenced the movement of objects, how gravity was conjured by its curvature. He could spend half an hour staring at the handful of terms and subscripts of the crux of the field equations and understand why Einstein himself had spoken of its 'incomparable beauty' and why Max Born had said it was ' the greatest feat of human thinking about nature'."

Thus Beard comes to the view that the oh-so-superior arts people are intellectual frauds.

"Many years later Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong who said, 'But Michael, you've missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end, the poets I mean, and synthesised your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English Literature. But don't pretend it's easy."

In Solar Ian McEwan takes easy pot-shots at ludicrous targets: post-modernists who think science, engineering and technology are all merely 'socially-constructs'; press hacks who label any scientist holding that men exhibit a broader distribution of mathematical abilities than women as neo-nazi.

McEwan more carefully hedges his bets on whether the latter proposition is actually the case (it is), or whether Theoretical Physics is actually harder than English Literature (it is), or whether runaway Climate Change is worth worrying about (a small amount of precautionary geo-engineering research is in order as is a tax to capture the negative externality represented by CO2 emission).

Still, criticising the novel on the basis of its portrayal of science is like reviewing Lady Chatterley's Lover on its Game Keeping accuracy (I know, it was done). Solar is knockabout fun, charting the rise and fall of a slobbish, self-centred, overweight and solipsistic scientist. A fun read (took me a day) and a triumph of style and general erudition over actually getting off the fence and saying anything truly daring.


With a broken filling I'm off to the dentist tomorrow morning: Clare is gloomily predicting I'll need a crown. As I write this the riders of the Tour de France are cycling up something to first approximation vertical in the Pyrenees (ITV4) while out of the window the low dark clouds drip lovingly over the southern slopes of the Mendips. .. "Good for the garden"...