Cosm

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cosm.gif

Gregory Benford

GENRE:
Hard sci-fi

SUMMARY:
Particle physicist Alicia Butterworth is about to perform an experiment that will change her life and reverberate through religious, social, and scientific groups worldwide. Using a Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC as she likes to call it, Dr. Butterworth and her associates attempt to collide oblong uranium nucleii at intense speeds to create or discover a new form of matter.

Even her most improbable predictions couldn't foresee the odd metallic sphere that results after an unidentified explosion at the core of the RHIC. Quickly and secretly moving the basketball-size heavy sphere across the country to her own laboratory, Alicia and her associate Zak begin collecting data in order to better understand the object.

With no precedent information or clues as to its origin, they soon realize they will need help identifying the object. Alicia enlists the help of Max Jaron, a theorist at Caltech, who believes that the sphere is actually a solid wormhole into a completely different universe created at the explosion. As the so-called Cosm changes, his theory seems valid and Alicia and her colleagues become even more engrossed in its mystery.

Through media publicity, lawsuits, and the internal politics of the scientific community, Dr. Butterworth remains true to her beliefs and to her data. When she finally realizes the larger social implications of her cosm, it has taken on a life of its own....

RESPONSE:
I almost gave up on this book within the first 30 pages. I've never read a lot of hard sci-fi, and it's been a long time since I'd even read any. Cosm does not cater to the modern attention-deficit reader (me). The beginning of the book jumps right into technical jargon and complex particle physics. I pride myself of being scientifically knowledgable, but Benford's book made a moron out of me. So the book sat on my floor for a few days until I got angry enough at it to commit to finish it at any cost.

Surprise surprise, I found that I actually liked it and understood it (well, at least most of it). Once I got involved with the characters, the story flowed much better. Benford is very adept at describing the scientific principles behind his story, but he is even more successful at his descriptions of the scientific community. His observations of internal politics, interdepartmental attitudes, and emotions behind original research are completely realistic. As someone who is still comparatively low on the totem pole in the scientific community, I was enthralled with his astute observations of the little things. For example, he notes how most humanities instructors keep their doors closed making their presence to students a mystery while science instructors often have an open door when they are not around implying an inspired burst to their lab.

Alicia Butterworth at times epitomized the absent-minded professor... I find it hard to believe that she would be so oblivious to the spiritual and social ramifications of her creation. However, she was a likable character with a fully rounded personality (although I just couldn't get over her last name... pancakes and syrup anyone?). Unlike some other critics, I thought Benford did a great job handling her race and her ambivalence towards it. Not everyone wants to be an activist you know.

Max was a great foil to Alicia's experimental logic. Although sometimes his speculations and conclusions seemed a bit far-fetched, his verbal exploration of the actual meaning of the cosm and indeed all life was riveting.

To be honest, I do not know if the science was completely accurate; a lot of it was over my head. However, some of the scientific principles didn't seem to be seamlessly woven into the story. At times it seemed to be forced, and conclusions were reached when no ordinary person would have been able to make sense of the clues. However, the issues brought up by the science are interesting to say the least. Cosm is science, society, spirituality, romance, and philosophy all tied into a few hundred pages. It's hard, but give it a try, and contemplate eternity.

POINT BLANK:
A challenging read, but worth it if you have the attention span and effort. At the very least you'll be able to discuss particle physics at your next laa-dee-daa academic gathering, right?