Book Simple: Global Warming, Marital Infidelities, and Weight Gain
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
When he was little, my Dad would worry about the sun going supernova, instantly killing all of the Earth’s inhabitants. From that worried little boy, Dad grew up to be a physicist, because he wanted to understand the world around him, to discover and preserve the beauty of creation through his work. His choice of work has always been an inspiration to me, and influenced my own choice to study economics.
Of course, the noble choice does not always (or even usually) lead to the noble life. I have frequently cursed my simple-minded desire to make the world a better place while suffering through various projects that were more difficult than I anticipated. I always saw physics as the noble profession. Michael Beard, of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar, does not delude himself in this way, at least not anymore.
“A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage [Beard] could afford a touch of nihilism. The earth could do without … Michael Beard. And if it shrugged off all the other humans, the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years teem with strange new forms, perhaps none of them clever in an apish way. Then who would regret that no one remembered Shakespeare, Bach, or the Beard-Einstein Conflation?”
The Conflation, a brilliant piece of physics written years before we meet Beard, garnered him a Nobel Prize and has been Michael’s ticket to a series of sinecures with stipends attached. “It sometimes seemed to Beard that he had coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be.”
At the National Center for Renewable Energy, Beard’s latest venture, idealists preaching the terrors of global warning surround him. “There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days….” Beard wades through piles of harebrained schemes sent in by cranks who intend to save the world without knowing the least thing about it. “The nation’s inventors were up against the first and second laws of thermodynamics, a wall of solid lead. One of the postdocs proposed sorting the ideas according to which of the laws they violated, first, second, or both.”
One of these cranks, though, has a promising idea. Tom Aldous, a toothy postdoc at the Center, desperate for Beard’s attention, insists that the real solution lies in artificial photosynthesis. Aldous calls this idea “nanosolar,” but Beard remains skeptical. To Beard’s mind, solar energy is a term with “a dubious halo of meaning, an invocation of New Age Druids in robes dancing around Stonehenge at Midsummer’s dusk.” However, when Aldous dies in an unfortunate accident, Beard moves from taking credit from the obscure young man he was to taking credit from this new obscure young man, equally as lost. Beard becomes “consumed by his cranky affair with sunbeams,” and begins to preach the very same rhetoric that used to bore him at the Center, with predictable results.
It’s a fantastic read. Within the riotous humor, the book asks an important question. Can we hope to change a process as huge as global warming when humans can’t change such simple patterns as their marital infidelities, weight gain, or even, in a very funny sequence, the upkeep of a boot room? Beard’s vague desire to change, expressed at the beginning at every venture, is balanced by an inertial, misanthropic pessimism. “What defeated him was always the present,” Beard notes, “the moment of vivid confrontation with the affirming tidbit, the extra course, the meal he did not really need, when the short-term faction carried the day.”
My own struggles with weight gain make me deeply sympathetic to Beard’s ever-decreasing, alcohol-diluted self-control. After a few gin-and-tonics, doesn’t everyone simply plan to start the diet tomorrow? However, the classes I’ve taken in game theory tell me the same thing that Beard discovers – that the choice that you make any individual time will likely be the choice you’ll make every time, unless your incentives change.
Will Beard become a better man? Can humans deny themselves the short-term solutions of coal and oil for the longer-term optimal solution? The future doesn’t look that bright looking at me – or at Michael Beard.
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