‘Do you believe it?’
Ah, that word again. It sounds odd in this space. They are all used to statistical odds, experiment, proof, even uncertainty, but they rarely talk about belief. It sounds too human. And they like to pretend that what they do is beyond human.
She looks at this man, whom she doesn’t know, and wonders what he thinks. She pauses before she speaks, because she knows this is important. It’s one thing to present an odd result, a peculiar image. It’s another thing entirely to have to explain your worldview. And she wants to get this right.
The Falling Sky, Pippa Goldshmidt
This snippet in a part of a scene at a conference on cosmology, where Jeanette (the protagonist of The Falling Sky) presents a sensational astronomical observation. Like many other scenes in the novel, it brings to life physicists, their agendas, convictions and prejudices.
Since physics and physicists rarely have a pivotal role in fiction (other than in science-fiction), I expect that one would want to know whether the novel illuminates the importance of physics. Considering the emphasis given in the last decade to promoting women scientists, one might also be curious whether the novel emphasizes the role of women in physics’ advancement?
Pippa Goldschmidt addresses the relevance of astronomy and cosmology. She gives an honest answer of someone who knows thoroughly the field, yet does not depend on grants and her peers’ affirmation (any details would be spoilers, but the author’s wry outlook shines through the twists and turns of the story).
As to the second question, well, Jeanette Smith is definitely not a poster girl who would draw young women into science. She reminds me more of Stephen King’s Carrie, rather than Isaac Asimov’s legendary Susan Kelvin. Jeanette is troubled, she is self-doubting, and she is the most REAL lead female physicist I’ve met in fiction.
Do I recommend this book?
In short, yes.
The physics is sparse – explanations are short and appear when they are needed. Some familiarity with the basics of the Big Bang theory will add to the understanding of what the characters are discussing, and what are their dilemmas. The academic life is portrayed vividly, and with a healthy dose of humor. You won’t meet Nobel laureates or scientific celebrities (aside from Hawking, who makes a cameo appearance in his wheelchair). Jeanette and her colleagues are mostly young scientists, who struggle to promote their careers. Competition is tough, and arms and poison are out-of-question, so these bright and ambitious researchers have to find other means to get ahead.