I like to think of myself as someone who understands the basic principles of science. I’ve read Darwin, I can still remember some of the chemistry I learned at school (with frequent reminders from Pointless and Tom Lehrer) and I idolise David Attenborough. Because Rob is particularly interested in physics and astronomy we also watch just about anything Professor Brian Cox does and, to give credit where it is due, I usually understand everything he is talking about while he is explaining it…Afterwards, I will confess, if you asked me to explain cosmology I’d start muttering about balloons and fruit. And then, probably, attempt to change the subject. Physics has always been my weak spot. Last year, however, I surprised myself by reading a slim book on the subject which then went on, quite rightly, to become a bit of a surprise Christmas bestseller. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was written in a way which makes it very approachable for the non-scientist: the focus is far more on the elegance of how physics works rather than the maths which proves it. I’m not going to say I understand physics now but I do appreciate how beautiful it is. And I finished it, which is more than you can say for A Brief History of Time…
What I am far more used to reading is fiction which makes me think about the problems and pleasures of life. And, it is fair to say, Antonia Hayes debut novel Relativity does this. The story centres around Ethan, who is twelve and loves physics, astronomy and his mother, Claire. He’d like to know his father but he left when Ethan was four months old. Ethan becomes ill and finds out that not only had he suffered a brain injury in the past but also that it may still be affecting his life now. In an unusual twist it seems that the boy can ‘see’ physics: sound waves, electrical fields, stuff that is invisible is visible to him. At this point his father, Mark, comes back to Sydney – he wants to get to know his son and, despite Claire’s refusal, they do meet.
It is hard to say more about the plot without giving away major spoilers. Let’s just say that the events which led to Mark leaving the family were tragic and serious but that he is not a bad person.
I loved this book because of this. It doesn’t try to make anyone in the book out to be a totally bad person but it does allow them all to be seriously flawed. And yet you still feel for them and come to understand the complex factors that made them the people they are. There is a warmth and humanity about the writing which makes you care about these people’s lives and I’m pretty sure I had ‘something in my eye’ at one or two points. I don’t usually prioritise language over plot when I’m reading (I usually only notice really bad writing, and that is, usually, accompanied by fairly awful storytelling) but it did strike me in this book. Each chapter is named for a concept in physics – entropy, mass etc – and the plot fits the concept. And all without it feeling too heavyhanded or as if a shoehorn was necessary. As a way of linking style to story I think it can be summed up as a study in constants – when emotional and psychological constants are swept away those of physics remain. And, as I have already learned, physics can be beautiful.