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The Physicist Behind the Physicist in the New McEwan

At last, a new Ian McEwan novel: Solar. The author’s website recites a list of reviews; there are so many. Tucked among them is a nod to a blog post written by a physicist friend of McEwan’s who the author asked to check his facts. McEwan also asked Graeme Mitchison, a physicist at the Centre for Quantim Computation at the University of Cambridge, to assist him in writing a Nobel Speech given by his central character. An unusual honor; the physicist leapt.

This is Mitchison’s post; on his page you can see a picture of him with McEwan.

Last September, I found myself aboard a yacht in the Galapagos with writer Ian McEwan. One evening, we were all asked to provide some entertainment. Ian read a section from his latest novel, Solar, and I, a physicist, contrived a demonstration of a quantum phenomenon known as “Dirac’s spanner” using three boots and a pair of scissors.

It turned out that Ian and I were both celebrating the electron. The main protagonist of Solar, Michael Beard, is a physicist who wins a Nobel prize for his discovery of what becomes known as the Beard-Einstein conflation. This is an extension of ideas in Einstein’s famous 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, which gives a quantum explanation for the emission of electrons when light strikes a suitable material. Beard’s conflation carries this further, and suggests new ways of harvesting energy from the sun; how this is exploited involves many twists of the plot. As for Dirac’s spanner, this is an ingenious demonstration of the symmetry of the electron, showing that it takes two turns through 360 degrees to bring a fermion back to its original configuration.

Following this event, Ian and I talked about physics, and I got some idea of the scientific background he had invented for Solar. The physics in Solar is of central importance, but is portrayed more sketchily than the neuroscience in Saturday. There, we enter into the detailed mental workings of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, whereas we are never privy to Beard’s technical thought processes. This is perhaps just as well given the rather idiosyncratic nature of mathematical imagery.

Ian asked me if I would like to check the physics of the final draft of Solar. He also suggested I might concoct a presentation speech for Beard’s Nobel prize. These speeches are short and non-technical, intended to be intelligible to the Swedish royal family and hoi polloi alike, and are delivered by members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences; they are something of an art form, and often conclude with a belletristic flourish. 

These relationships form the fabric of literary history; one could imagine an A.S. Byatt novel in which the novelist and his fact-checking physicist fall in love. In McEwan’s case, in Solar‘s case, the relationship was platonic, but the level of respect, and the neatness of the exchange of skills (facts for art) is notable. A fine romance.


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