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Powell's Q&A

Mark Alpert

Describe your latest project.
My first novel, Final Theory, is a thriller that combines awe-inspiring scientific ideas with FBI gun battles, white-knuckle car chases, and a desperate race to stop an experiment that would doom the world. If you like Albert Einstein, the Delta Force, robots, and Ferraris, you'll love Final Theory.

The novel's hero, Columbia University professor David Swift, is called to the hospital to comfort his mentor, an esteemed physicist who's just been brutally attacked and tortured. Fifty years ago Hans Kleinman had been one of Albert Einstein's young assistants, but now the old man is close to death and babbling nonsense. Just before succumbing, he pulls David close and wheezes two words in German: Einheitliche Feldtheorie. The Unified Field Theory. The Destroyer of Worlds. Could this be Einstein's proposed Theory of Everything, a single set of equations that would explain all the forces of Nature? Einstein spent the second half of his life searching for this theory, but he died without discovering it. Or did he?

Within hours of hearing his mentor's last words, David is running for his life. The FBI and a ruthless Russian mercenary are vying to get their hands on the long-hidden theory. Teaming up with an old girlfriend, brilliant Princeton physicist Monique Reynolds, David embarks on a frenzied cross-country quest, frantically trying to piece together Einstein's final theory to reveal its staggering consequences.

  1. Final Theory
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Final Theory

    Mark Alpert
    "The relentless action, including one giant twist and plenty of smaller ones, builds to a pulse-pounding conclusion." Publishers Weekly

    "[A] strikingly sweet-natured yet satisfyingly barbed high-tech, high-stakes adventure." Booklist (starred review)

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
My first job was working as a reporter for the Claremont Eagle-Times, a small daily newspaper in New Hampshire. One day the editor of the paper — a wonderful man named Poody Walsh — said he had a strange assignment for me. A woman had called the paper saying that she'd bred a wild boar with a cow. I laughed and said, "This is a joke, right?" But Poody (like a true newspaper man) gave me the woman's number and said, "Check it out anyway." So I called the woman and quickly ascertained that Poody had misheard her — she'd bred a boar with a sow, not a cow. This didn't sound quite so newsworthy, and I was about to hang up on the woman when she cried, "But the Fish and Game Department is trying to take poor Unkie away from us!" Unkie, as it turned out, was the name of her family's boar, a lovable animal that liked to eat Twinkies and play in their living room. So I went to their farm and took some pictures of the boar and pretty soon the story was on the front page of every newspaper in New Hampshire. The district court eventually ruled that the Fish and Game Department couldn't take the animal away, and Unkie lived happily ever after.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." The last line of Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Nine Billion Names of God." A nicely terse description of the end of the universe. I had the pleasure of meeting Clarke about ten years ago when he was in New York for a medical procedure. He invited me and several other Scientific American editors for an impromptu chat in his room at the Chelsea Hotel, the place where he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. He welcomed us in his pajamas and a bathrobe, and when we sat down he propped his swollen bare foot on an ottoman. You knew right away this was an unconventional man. We talked about space science and particle physics. He urged us to run more stories about cold fusion, a line of research that Clarke was quite enthusiastic about despite the fact that most physicists had dismissed it. And he was so charming, it was difficult not to agree with him. A great writer, a phenomenal thinker.

How do you relax?
Reading. I've spent a ridiculously huge portion of my life lying on the couch and reading the New York Times. But I can't help it — there are so many great stories in the Times! Hidden lusts among Saudi teenagers. Women in Mississippi who eat clay. A dictator in Central Asia who renamed the months after his relatives. I love to read novels, of course, but I won't crack open a book until I've scanned the day's newspaper.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
My wife and kids served me breakfast in bed on my birthday just a few weeks ago. It wasn't fancy, just Cheerios and coffee, but it was still pretty great.

Why do you write?
I like to fantasize. When I was a kid I had incredibly elaborate daydreams. I used to imagine that my neighborhood in Queens, New York, was a post-apocalyptic world that had regressed to a medieval state and 108th Street was the borderline between two warring kingdoms and I was constantly running from one threat or another. All my friends thought I was nuts. But I do the same thing now when I write novels. When I wrote the opening chapters of Final Theory, for example, I tried to imagine how I'd escape from New York City if an army of FBI agents were chasing me. In the course of writing the novel I got the chance to be each of the characters in the story, both the good guys and the bad, and best of all, my fictional avatars were smarter, braver, stronger, and sexier than I could ever hope to be in real life.

Name the best television series of all time.
The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan. I was only seven years old when this show came out in the late 1960s and it totally freaked me out. It was supposed to be a spy drama, with McGoohan trapped in a surreal English village (called, appropriately enough, the Village) where all the residents are absurdly cheerful and vaguely sinister. But the producers of The Prisoner never really explained what was going on, and the mystery made the show both frustrating and fascinating. They never even revealed the name of the main character, he was just Number Six. ("I'm not a number! I'm a free man! Ha-ha-ha-ha!") The best part was the huge white balloon that casually bounced down the streets of the Village and suffocated anyone who tried to escape.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I've been obsessed with Albert Einstein my whole life. When I was in college my goal was to understand the theory of relativity. My undergraduate thesis was an application of Einstein's field equation to a two-dimensional universe. (The paper, coauthored with my astrophysics professor, was later published in The Journal of General Relativity and Gravitation.) Before writing Final Theory I read several Einstein biographies; one of the best is Subtle Is the Lord by Abraham Pais, who did a great job of explaining Einstein's attempts to formulate a unified field theory. I came away with the sense that Einstein had led a very messy life; although he had high ideals and great compassion for people in general, on a person-to-person level he could be exasperating. This understanding turned out to quite helpful. Because I'd read so much about Einstein, I felt I could imagine what he would've done if he'd actually succeeded in his quest to discover the Theory of Everything.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Novels that Have Wonderful Scientist Characters

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Roger's Version by John Updike

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

÷ ÷ ÷

A self-described lifelong "science geek," Mark Alpert majored in astrophysics at Princeton University, writing his undergraduate thesis on an application of Einstein's theory of relativity. After earning an MFA in poetry at Columbia and working as a reporter, he became an editor at Scientific American, where he simplifies bewildering scientific ideas for the magazine's readers. Mark lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.


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