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Properties of Light

Anne Dalke's picture

So, readers: respond. What are your reactions to (the first 1/2 of) Rebecca Goldstein's novel? Do you like it? What are you learning from it? What puzzles you? What role can a novel play in a course like this one? What role can this particular (melodramatic/gothic) novel play?

Anne Dalke's picture

the loaf of space/time

I very much enjoyed our discussion yesterday about Properties of Light, and was particularly struck-and-intrigued by our exploration of time, no-time, the loaf of space-time, etc. Anyone interested in learning more about these matters might want to check out the Symposium on Time that was sponsored here by the Center of Science in Society in Spring 2003; see in particular the opening talk, by Cheryl Chen, on The Philosophy of Time, which was where (hm--when?) I first learned about the "block universe" view:

"Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety - a timescape, analogous to a landscape - with all past and future events located there together ... Completely absent from this description of nature is anything that singles out a privileged special moment as the present or any process that would systematically turn future events into the present, then past, events. In short, the time of the physicist does not pass or flow." --Paul Davies, "That Mysterious Flow"

Not unrelatedly: this morning's Science Times has a piece called "Time in the Animal Mind," which seems related to the probings by Rebecca and Elizabeth, last week, about the problematics of limiting agency to human beings.

I remembered, too, A Conversation About "How To Get Through the Veil"
in which I participated a number of years ago, which also seemed relevant--

with continued pleasure in our shared explorings--


Rebecca's picture

He hates therefore he is.

I have really been enjoying Rebecca Goldstein’s Properties of Light and I think books like this can have a role in a Gender and Science class. Our discussions in this class have centered on the debate of the objectivity of physics and also who is excluded from the practice of physics. In her book Goldstein applies these theories to human emotions to form extremely powerful imagery.


1. Justin Childs is trying to convince himself of his own existence but unlike Descartes, he does not exist because he thinks, he exists because he hates. I would place him in the category of ontological realist and epistemological realist.

2. The deceased Dotty winds in and out of the story as a sort of mystic and symbolizes the ontological anti-realists that Justin abhors.

3. Finally, Dana is very proud of her physics aptitude but does she think she is an exception as a woman physicist. Even more importantly, Goldstein, through Dana, is supporting the feminist notion that we need diversity (a view from many somewheres) in order to create the best scientific theory.


These character traits provide an interesting, exciting way to look again at the dialogues we have been having in our class.

oschalit's picture

....i hate creating subject titles....

I am kind of falling in love with this book, too. Considering the majority of our reading thus far I was prepared for a book that wreaked with terminology that was over my head, or theories that are densely scientific and difficult to understand (for me). Oddly enough as I started reading Properties I found that I picked up on many of the references to scientific/philosophical theories and almost completely missed the incredible metaphors/similes that Goldstein has created. Certainly it was not because Goldstein creative writing is not good, in fact, I feel just the opposite, I love how she writes. When i did catch the metaphors (and reread them) I became very excited. Where the book drew me in was how flawlessly and fluidly Goldstein brought together (in the beginning) Justin's narration of his memories and the theories at play. The transitions that Goldstein makes which highlight justin's inner turmoil, so to speak, the battle between soft and hard are of particular interest to me. Justin has these moments where he seems to envy dana's assuredness, the confidence with which she argues and converses as well in the way she "manipulates". He discusses his self-doubt, a topic both superficial and as well deeply philosophical. And yet, Justin still appears to the viewer as the "harder scientist". This cross-over of roles and characteristics is interesting because it muddles the seemingly clear-cut approach that many scientists have taken to separate themselves from softer fields and softer thinkers. I apologize for my very cumbersome and unfocused writing. Properties left me with many thoughts that I have yet to completely organize. Is my chaotic state of mind evidence of the power of Goldstein's book or perhaps a result of the fact that she has taken on too much? Either way, i'm enjoying the ride.

Pemwrez2009's picture

Can You Feel It?

Properties of light made me feel as though I was being asked to make visualizations of science--physics...a lot of the time when we think about physics we think of sort of a flatland of mathematical equasions and one dimentional thinking. Even though much of physics is conceptual, there are mathematical equasions to prove these concepts (well except for quantum)


one thing that rose said that I really identify with is the idea of something being tangible but at the same time, open to sensation. Thinking about this idea makes me think about how reading novels would relate to a class regarding gender and science. Novels leave room for interpretation. Physics and the sciences are about evidence. THinking about the mathematical system represented in the book and how some people are just believing these findings--just on a leap of faith (this is doubly cool for me, as someone who would never take a leap of faith if my life depended on it)


Am I completely ridiculous if I said that some parts of this book reminded me of the Matrix (the first one) Sam sort of reminds me of Neo or Morpheus and the Mallachs remind me of Zion...or maybe even Morpheus

This was also such an interesting book to read in the structure of this class because there was so much relating to gender relationships in the novel. We have spent a lot of time in class talking about how the science lab atmosphere is sexist and the predudices there are against women. In the artical They're Not Dumb, They're Different, it was really interesting to read about how women can identify more with a scientific atmosphere when it is more visual and hands on. I felt that this notion was portrayed with Justin.


rmalfi's picture

A dark story about light

I have to say, off the bat, that I kind of love this book.  I can't put it down!  When I'm reading it, it actually gives me the same sensation that gothic novels, like Wuthering Heights do... I think it has something to do with the at times intense imagery (about people's appearance, the landscape, and idiosyncracies that people possess) as well as the multi-dimensionality of the characters... None of them are perfect, even the (sometimes) narrator, Justin Childs... sometimes the characters can be downright hateful, and I like that a lot about this book.... It really is just like a gothic novel in that way...

 Like some others have said, the physics imagery, analogies and metaphors trip me up a little bit sometimes.  I think the authors does a good job explaining concepts sometimes, but not at others... I usually have to read those sections or lines a little more carefully, but I don't mind, and I don't think it takes away from the story.

 What I really like about the book is the achronological way it is told (if that's a word).  Justin mentions earlier on in the book that, according to Einstein, there is no time, and I like that the story is told out of order, and from different points of view... The format of the book is a commentary in and of itself.  We disussed in class after reading Traweek's anthropological study on high-energy physics how physicists are obsessed with the notion of time.  I think this book captures that idea very well - when the book reflects on Justin's life, whether from his perspective or the "perspective from nowhere," we see moments, glimpses from his life... it's truly as if one were nostalgically recollecting times past... your mind just wanders and brings you to these different memories that are stored in your brain somewhere. 

I like and am simultaneously confused by the notion that one can feel physics but still believe that there is some objective truth.  Justin uses the contained system of mathematics as a foundation for his beliefs, but the Mallachs feel physics inside and have faith in this equation that Samuel produced... I have a little farther to read yet, so I'm interested to see how this pans out... I may know by the end of tonight!

Flora's picture

articized physics?

While reading this book, I kept feeling distracted by the physics language. More specifically, I suppose I was less interested in the physics that Childs described that I was in the personal relationships and live histories of the characters. This sounds silly since the book was very much about physics, but I thought that there could have been another way of conceptualizing the relationships in the story. I guess I really don't view physics as a way of entertaining myself in free time, the way I do novels, so I was annoyed by its presence in the fiction. Knowing that it was inspired by real events did not help me to focus on the physics content of the story; it just made it seem even more detached from the characters and seemed to force heavy-handed themes onto the plot.


sky stegall's picture

first of all...

liz, i think you're completely right about the big point (ok, A big point) of the book being that idea about feeling the physics inside yourself... and why that can be so good and can be so bad. i've got to admit, this novel scared me a bit, as a physicist and as a person. as a physicist because justin is what (i think) every female science student dreads - that guy so smart he can't handle himself, not actively seeking to be arrogant maybe, but horrifically so because he doesn't respect other people. i hate the way he keeps calling dana "mind-proud," and how he compares it to other women being, for example, husband-proud. icky. anyway, obsession is so easy to fall into... and can have such awful consequences. on the other hand, justin's experience with "awful consequences" (his parents' death) comes not from science or obession but with a gentle love of music, something i think most people are taught is safe and lovely. i don't know - i think i'm going to be posting alot about these books, because although i read them two weeks ago i'm still sifting through what they've done to and in and around my brain. i'm looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say, very much, because i hope that'll give me the opportunity to sort out my own thoughts.

eli's picture

Musings on Light

I'm trying to think: would this book be scarier to a scientist or a humanities major?

The physics, at least in the first fourth of the book, seems to be more of a backdrop. The author seems to expect that you know something about physics, because the principles aren't explained in more than a smattering of sentences. But the constant references to Yeats just leave me even more confused. When poetry is tossed out like that, in a book pertaining to physics and the pursuit of scientific theory, I have to consider that the poetry means something more than just a reference to beautiful literature. But for the life of me, beyond the connection to the personal relationships portrayed in the book, I don't get it.

I'm left pretty much with the romance aspects of the book, the personal relationships and bonds. I love it how the Child's family dynamic works; with the triangle of interests, with the connection between science and beauty. I feel that this is one of the most important messages behind the book: that science isn't about equations, but about understanding the meaning of those equations in your bones. Such as on page 102, where Einstein is referenced. "He told me that he also felt the equations inside his muscles, in sensations deeper down than reason."

Through the hardships of the Mallachs, we can see how science is both seen as a moving and yet steadfast (stubborn) field. We can see how physics, not the science itself but the people who run departments, is highly territorial, and biased. At the same time, it's hard for me to really feel that they are as 'savvy' as Justin because of their constant reference to poetry and beauty. This is NOT because they are not. Dana and her father are both smart. However, Justin, I realize, fits more into the stereotype of being a scientist; he graduated early from college, he got honors, is the pride of his departments, etc. I think this is a theme that we can relate to our course.