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Novel by Physicist Creates Big Bang

Gregory Benford's "Cosm" Is Popular In and Out of the Lab

March 04, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sky wasn't even close to the limit when Gregory Benford, a UC Irvine physicist, plotted his newest work of science fiction. His new suspense novel--"Cosm"--delves into nothing less than the mystery of the origin of the universe.

As Benford puts it: "I like audacious ideas."

"Cosm" is set in not-so-distant 2005. Alicia Butterworth, a brilliant young UC Irvine physicist, is at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., to conduct the first experiment in which uranium ions are shot through a collider at close to the speed of light. The goal: to produce conditions that resemble those during the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang.

But an explosion cuts Butterworth's experiment short. The powerful release of energy caused by two colliding uranium nuclei tears a hole in the collider. Left behind is a mysterious piece of debris suspended in a magnetic field--an eerie, bowling-ball-sized sphere that fizzes with light.

Itching to study the shiny object--and unwilling to take a back seat on collecting the data--Butterworth smuggles the orb out of Brookhaven. It's not until she's got it back in her lab at UCI that she discovers what the strange sphere really is: a space-time wormhole into a newly created universe.

"Nobody's ever written a book remotely like this," Benford, 57, says of "Cosm" (Avon Eos). And forget that nonsense about wormholes on "Star Trek," which Benford calls "technically moronic."

Known for his lively intellect and keen interest in new ideas, Benford has never been one to be shy about expressing his views, particularly when it comes to what he scoffingly dismisses as "junk science."

Although the existence of wormholes remains just a theory, no one's likely to accuse Benford of depicting junk science in "Cosm." A UCI faculty member since 1971, Benford conducts research in astrophysics and plasma physics, the study of gases made out of ionized atoms. He's also served as an advisor to the Department of Energy, NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy.

So when Benford writes in "Cosm" that "the resulting high-energy densities could conjure up a spitting particle fog called the quark-gluon plasma," readers can be assured he knows what he's talking about.

That's not to say "Cosm" reads like a dry lecture. Benford dishes up the requisite page-turning ingredients as Brookhaven battles for control of the sphere--including an unexpected surge of radiation that flash-fries a grad student, a kidnapping, a national media feeding frenzy and a chase by federal agents.

Benford, who lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, Joan, and their two children, uses "Cosm" to make some choice observations about Orange County. Comments a visiting Caltech physicist: "I like Orange County. . . . It's like L.A. without caffeine."

And there's the restaurant near UCI that features menu items such as a "mellow, tempting blend of our hand-rolled angel hair pasta, smothering in a saffron-laced sauce of aged fromage, served on blue-white china with complete, authentic silverware."

To which Butterworth observes: "Law of the universe. The longer the menu description, the worse the food."

Benford also delves into university politics and has fun with students, one of whom writes in a final exam that "water is melted steam." And there's the exasperated student who complains after taking the test, "My calculator keeps making the same mistake."

But at the heart of "Cosm" is Benford's depiction of how scientists think and react to a scientific discovery of immense proportions. Publishers Weekly says this may be the most enthralling science-fictional portrayal of how actual science is done since Benford's own Nebula Award-winning 1980 bestseller, "Timescape," about a team of scientists that attempts to communicate back in time to prevent ecological disaster.

Steve White, a professor of physics and astronomy, is a colleague of Benford's at UCI. He gives Benford high marks for his depiction of scientists at work--"the little things like the bizarre answers that you get on exams" and the division of time between teaching and research. "A lot of the physics professors in our department are not science-fiction fans," White says. "I happen to be one who is."

For some, Benford goes too far in his accurate depiction of scientists at work. While acknowledging that Benford's extensive use of "authentic [scientific] jargon and cutting-edge physics" is "manna from heaven for scientists and hard-core sci-fi fans," a review of "Cosm" in The Times said, "the rest of us are left scratching our heads."

*

Benford sips the dregs of a Pepsi as he discusses "Cosm"--his 20th novel in 28 years--in his cluttered office. He has just returned from a promotional tour in the Midwest and will be leaving in a few days for a publicity swing up to the Northwest. A series of book signings in Los Angeles will wait until March when Benford returns from a monthlong research stint as a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.

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