Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cosm by Gregory Benford

CosmGregory Benford has written quite a bit of good hard science fiction over the years, and I've collected a number of his books. Cosm is an interesting story about a professor, Alicia, from UCI (Benford is a professor at University of California, Irvine) who is conducting particle physics experiments with uranium at Brookhaven. Something goes wrong, damaging her lab equipment, and an odd reflective sphere is formed in the accelerator after an explosion.

She conceals this anomaly from the staff at Brookhaven and takes the sphere back to UCI to study. It appears to be pretty much impervious to things like diamond drills, but has some reflective and refractive qualities in various wavelengths that give her some ideas about what it might be. She decides to enlist a theoretical physicist from CalTech, Max, to help her figure out what she's come up with, and he comes up with the idea that the sphere is one end of an Einstein-Rosen bridge between our universe and a brand new universe that was formed when the uranium particles collided in the lab.

The sphere turns out to be somewhat dangerous, as they find out when one of her lab assistants is burned to death by a sudden emission of radiation from the Cosm, as they have begun to call it. The universe at the other end of the bridge is evolving far more rapidly than our own, and the sphere provides Max and Alicia with a window of insight into our own universe's past and future.

Unfortunately, the story is only interesting for the technical details, really. I never really developed any great empathy with the characters, and their social interactions seemed contrived more in order to flesh out the framework of the cosmological theories that Benford wanted to talk about in this book, than to advance a real plot.

For example, Alicia's best friend, Jill, is described in one of the bar scenes as being very quirky, in a number of ways, but in specific she liked to carry a set of lockpicks with her. Southern California single gal with lockpicks? Later on in the story, when Alicia has to grab the Cosm and run from the authorities, Jill is there with her lockpicks to get them past a locked gate.

Alicia's father is a famous columnist in the story, but his only purpose seems to be to provide her with an introduction to a sharp lawyer when Brookhaven and the feds sue her for misappropriation of the sphere. Max is eventually given a shot at being Alicia's love interest, but his primary role is really just to provide the theoretical context for Alicia's particle physics discovery. There's quite a bit of what I'm sure is fairly accurate detail about university politics and funding, and the ambition of grad students, but most of the human interactions in this book really seem to me to fall flat.

Worth reading for the science in the science fiction, but don't expect a gripping story line.

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