Science of The Pink Room"Quantum physics does not need a novelist to elaborate on its weirdness. The science is strange enough its own."
My name is Mark LaFlamme. I am not a scientist. In fact, I'm quite lousy at math. And yet I feel qualified to have made the above statement at the beginning of "The Pink Room." I'm what you'd call a quantum wannabe.
As a boy, I gave up the dream of becoming an astronomer when some adult killer of childhood fantasies came along and explained much math is involved in the field. But my fascination lingered into adulthood, and when I discovered the weird science of string theory -- first through publications like Discover Magazine and Scientific American -- that fascination was renewed. When I read Brian Green's amazingly readable "The Elegant Universe," I was was transformed into an outright quantum junky.
A lot of people will start to nod off when I get to babbling about string theory. It's an apathy I don't understand. How can you be bored by a theory that suggests there may be many more spatial dimensions than the four we know? How can you not feel an almost uncomfortable sense of awe when you think about invisible dimensions and multiple universes populating a world too immense for any mortal mind to grasp?
I was tantalized when I heard the scientists discussing the possibility that gravity leaks from our world into one of these hidden dimensions. For those of you starting to nod off, consider this. Among the four forces of nature, gravity is almost laughably weak. It keeps our feet and our houses firmly planted on the ground, sure. But lay a pin on the floor and hold even a tiny household magnet above it. The pin will rise from the ground, proving that all you need to out muscle gravity is a 39 cent refrigerator magnet in the shape of a pineapple.
So if a force so powerful as gravity can leak into one of these invisible dimensions, what else might be getting sucked away?
Everything in the universe is composed of tiny, vibrating strings, according to the most basic version of string theory. And for these strings to exist, there must be extra dimensions to accommodate those complex vibrations -- up to eleven dimensions we can neither see nor detect. I just cannot stop my mind from wondering what it would be like for a human being accustomed only to up and down, back and forth and side to side, to happen upon a completely new spatial dimension. In "The Pink Room," I use the following analogy, plucked, I think, from Green's book. There are better analogies, but this one is somewhat easy to wrap the mind around.
Faced with lack of evidence to share with the non-scientific public, theorists began using basic analogies to explain the invisible dimensions of string theory. And the eleventh dimension was particularly inviting. Imagine, they implored a bored and skeptical audience, an ant crawling across a stretched garden hose. Watching from a distance, they said, that hose appears as a mere line, only one dimension for the insignificant bug to move in.
Yet on the surface of the hose, the ant is aware of another dimension, invisible to the observer, in which it can travel — the curvature of the tube on which it walks.
Around the time I was falling deeper and deeper into the quantum rabbit hole, I was also indulging in an entirely unrelated fantasy to lull me to sleep each night. I call this my cerebral cinema. I simply cannot fall asleep unless I have something like a movie script playing in my head. On this night, as I attempted to sleep after hours of geeking, I imagined a man walking down a very dark road in a very quiet place. A car rolls up beside him. A window rolls down. And a man inside says: "I understand you've been inside this house. I'd like to talk to you about that."
Not exactly "On the Waterfront" but it got the job done. And the next night, I played the same scene in my head. And the night after that. And then eventually, sleep did not come and I thought: what is so interesting about this man, this place or that house?
From insomnia and such prosaic questions, stories are born.
I lay tossing and turning, thinking about why the house was so special. Maybe, I decided, a very brilliant man lived there and tried to raise the dead. But why? Because the dead in this particular situation was a very young girl he could not live without. But how could it be done? The hell if I know. I'm a reporter, not a goddamn scientist.
It's great when two very different ideas meet, enjoy each others company and get married. All at once I decided that the very brilliant man would use string theory to bring his daughter back from the dead. If such a mighty thing as gravity could slip into an invisible dimension, than surely the soul of a little girl could get sucked down, too. In fact, maybe the energy of all dead things gets tugged into one of these dimensions.
I'm not scientist. But with the little I'd learned from nightly reading, I grasped that this was at least as plausible an idea as many others I have heard on the subject of death. And it was certainly enough to base a novel on. I got to work the very next night. I threw in planetary alignments and ley lines, and with all that cosmic power at work, all I needed was some likeable and despicable characters to make it happen.
Enter Theodore Currie, the world's leading physicist driven to insanity by the loss of his daughter. Grief for such a man, I reasoned, is compounded by the knowledge of things few others understand. In the novel, I described it thusly:
"So, on the days and nights when Theodore Currie imagined his precious, delicate daughter choking in a room full of smoke and crawling across her bedroom floor, it wasn’t just guilt or grief that gripped him by the throat. It was the kind of pain that pumped through the body like acid and ate a person up like cancer. That his little girl was irretrievably lost was not an idea Currie could fit inside the mind that could otherwise make sense out of anything. It couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be.
Denial is a fancy that visits all of those who grieve for an angry, fleeting period. A stage of grief, a temporary madness. But few, if any of those who have raged against the finality of death have had anything close to the power to defy it. Currie was different. There was nothing at all fanciful about his designs to reclaim his daughter from the clutches of doom. Currie knew the science. Currie was perhaps the only man alive who really knew it. The knowledge was at once a comfort and a curse."
My thoughts ran amok before writing this novel, while writing it and long after finishing. That much knowledge in one man's mind is a frightening thing. The ending to "The Pink Room" still gives me shivers. It troubles me. But let's not speak of that.
Since "The Pink Room" was published, I have offered copies of the book to a few noted scientists. I'm extremely confident that as a story, "The Pink Room" is an absolute page turner. But I'm also interested to learn how my handling of the science holds up. It's the geek part of me that won't go away.
I wrote to Brian Green. I wrote another great physicist named Michio Kaku, who appears on every television show you'll ever see on matters of quantum physics and string theory. I never heard back from them, which is understandable. Those guys spend most of their time trying to conjure a unified theory, the much ballyhooed Theory of Everything. They have little opportunity to read fiction from some dork they've never heard of. I understand. But I keep trying.
A respected theoretical physicist named Lawrence Krauss has offered to read my novel when he has the time. A physics student in Beijing named Jonathan Shock (a great name for a character in an intrigue novel) is also interested. And Mary Roach, author of the wildly popular book "Spook," wrote me a great letter to express admiration for the concept of using string theory to bring back the dead. That letter pleased me to no end. Roach, of course, writes non-fiction screamers about the scientific properties of death.
Not one person I've heard from has complained that the science in "The Pink Room" is too cumbersome. They are enthralled by it. The science is there to propel the story, not to weight it down. One of the taglines I use to promote the book states: "Your fascination with the science will be rivaled only by fear." The reviews and reactions so far have supported that idea. If you enjoy a good story, you will enjoy this book. If you have even a passing interest in the latest science, you will enjoy this book. If you occasionally look at the stars and wonder, you will enjoy this book. And you will understand why the book cover, designed by my supremely talented wife, shows a girl's face peering out of the stars.
For a novelist, short fiction author or teller of campfire ghost stories, science is a wonderful thing. And it gets better all the time. Consider M-theory and its creepy ideas. Imagine our universe as just a tiny bubble in a frothing sea of bubbles. Ponder the concept of multiple universes and the idea that all possible outcomes exist in one universe or another. Germany won the war. Christ was not crucified. Your grandfather never asked that pretty girl to waltz at the barn dance and thus, they never married. Your parents were never born. You were never born.
Think about that stuff too long and you won't be able to sleep at night. Your mind will wander. Pretty soon, you'll be writing novels at a fever pace. I don't need that kind of competition. Forget I said anything.