The Flicker Men: A Novel, by Ted Kosmatka

To paraphrase one character in this book, the more physicists move from math to words to describe quantum theory the more they sound like mystics. This book, while it works as a solid adventure story, is pretty thick with discussions of quantum theory, and I know I’m not the first person in the world to try to absorb the theory and end up more confused than when I started. This book has passages dense with technical ideas and, perhaps, moved me a little closer to being able to visualize some of these ideas even without having anything near clarity.

The lead character/narrator of the book is Eric Argus, a physicist who no one wants to hire. Something happened (we learn into the book that he had a breakdown after working with a mathematical formula) that pushed him toward alcoholism and depression.

He’s brought into a new research facility through the encouragement of a friend. The only stipulation is that he has three months to develop something worthwhile. Discouraged about his own prospects of being able to do anything worthwhile Argus flounders for a time and finally, feeling nothing will work for him anyway, decides to reproduce an experiment along the lines of Schroedinger’s Cat in which the viewing of a light pattern will determine if light is traveling as a particle or as a wave. The results are so startling, especially for other scientists working in nearby laboratories, that they decide to see whether animals other than humans can produce the same results. They find that only humans can and another scientist decides to use the experiment to determine at what stage of development a foetus gains human consciousness. This experiment brings even more shocking results as well as death threats from the public, inquiries from the leaders of a mysterious endowment, and at least one warning to “beware of the Flicker Men.”

Kosmatka does a good job with a complicated plot, though the book balances on a pretty hotly debated idea among physicists that there are multiverses, alternative universes, branching out infinitely. Many physicists simply say: Even if it’s true how do you go about proving it? I suppose the key to this book is that someone has proved it and there are those with a strong interest in destroying the device created to do so.

While the basic storytelling is very involving I can imagine people who will hit a wall with some of the science. If you’re willing to take the approach that the descriptions are realistic (if not completely accepted) bits of quantum theory and not let the details detract from the story you can still have a pretty good time. If you’re super analytical or yawn in the face of a lot of science fact you may become too distracted for a good time. My movie pitch synopsis: Michio Kaku rewrites the Maltese Falcon.