Cosmology has always seemed to me to be a very strange discipline. Although it makes extensive use of sophisticated mathematical formulations, its subject matter strikes a nonphysicist like me as beyond the realm of empirical tests. As my knowledge and understanding of physics increased, I was struck by another facet of cosmology. Unlike the core of physics, there is presently no method for studying cosmological processes under the controlled conditions of a laboratory. Nor can other investigators repeat and confirm the validity of someone else’s findings.
With this background, I was very curious to see what the well-known physicist and science-fiction writer, Gregory Benford, would do in the aptly named novel, Cosm. What I found was a fascinating blend of respected cosmological speculation, imaginative near-future science-fiction, and best of all, a realistic portrait of a working physicist confronted with novel and unexplained events.
Alicia Butterworth, an assistant professor at the University of California Irvine, has succeeded in convincing the research administration of the Brookhaven Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (a real machine on Long Island managed by the Department of Energy) to let her explore new terrain. The RHIC is used primarily to accelerate two streams of gold nuclei to relativistic speeds (the 186,000 miles per second speed of light) in opposite directions and then focus them on each other. The high energy collisions of these heavy particles are observed by complex arrays of detectors for evidence of the component processes hypothesized to have occurred at the beginning of our universe. Alicia’s innovation is to accelerate uranium 238 nuclei to near the speed of light. The nucleus of the U238 atom is both heavier than gold and ellipsoid instead of spherical.
During Alicia’s first run on the RHIC, all goes well at first, but then the instruments begin to show abnormal behavior. Moving to examine the performance of the component that is malfunctioning, Alicia is knocked down by an explosion that severely damages the custom-built detector she brought from California for the experiment. When she and her post-doc recover and begin to explore in innards of the detector, they find a shining sphere the size of a basketball. On impulse, she spirits it into a crate with her post-doc’s help and ships it back to UCI. After some preliminary measurements and observations, she enlists the help of Max Jalon, a cosmologist from Cal Tech, and together they conclude they have a window into another universe at the very beginning of its life.
Alicia, and eventually Max, soon begin to face problems other than scientific questions. Alicia has to slight her Physics 3-B class to maintain full-time surveillance of the sphere, which they name Cosm. The Brookhaven administration quickly learns she’s taken a mysterious object home along with her damaged detector, and they want it back. When the Cosm proves dangerous briefly, the UCI administration insists it be moved to a remote location. As word of a tiny new universe at UCI spreads, environmentalists and religious fanatics attempt to interfere with her work and shut it down altogether. In the midst of her struggle, her father, a respected newspaper columnist shows up and hires a hotshot lawyer to protect her legally as lawsuits begin to gather around her. Her father also seems to have problems with the relationship he senses developing between his daughter and Max, who is white. (Alicia, by the way, is Afro-American.)
Alicia and Max’s adventure gathers steam as the Cosm continues to evolve. What makes the story plausible is that the frustrations of their research in an academic setting with government support are so typical. They just play out on a spectacular scale. The Cosm’s evolution reflects the state of cosmological theory in 1998 if Benford’s Afterword is to be believed. I found Cosm a compelling novel, partly for the insight it gave me into how a physicist uses both empirical and theoretical tools to understand a new and puzzling phenomenon, and partly for the glimpse I had into a working physicist’s emotional life.