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An Interview With Mark Alpert, Author of The Omega Theory

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The Omega Theory caught my attention for two reasons. First, its main plot revolves around a theory of Albert Einstein’s, who I consider one of the most fascinating people in American history. Second, it has a character who is autistic and I’ve long been intrigued by — and do professional work with — people who are autistic. `My only concern was that the book would be so plot-heavy as to have empty characters, one of my gripes I’ve made before about The DaVinci Code.

Fortunately, that’s not the case – the characters are interesting, his portrayal of someone with autism matches that of “some” people with autism (as the saying goes “if you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve met one person with autism,” meaning not all are alike) and the book is a good thriller.

Consider checking it out.

Thanks to Mary A Summers for suggesting some great questions for this interview. And now for the interview…

Should readers start with your first book, Final Theory, or is it  OK for them – like me – to start with the second? Also, what is the status of the movie version of your first book?

A sequel needs to satisfy two audiences, the people who read the first book and the people who are coming to the story cold. When I wrote my first novel, Final Theory, I wasn’t thinking of it as the beginning of a series. Before Final Theory, I wrote four novels that didn’t get published, and I had no idea whether this one would sell either, much less become the first book in a series. But I liked the characters I created, so when I got the contract to write two more science thrillers I thought it would be an interesting challenge to continue the story in a second book. I knew I had to re-introduce the hero, David Swift, in the sequel, so at the start of The Omega Theory I show him giving a speech at the Physicists for Peace conference. He’s become a peace activist because of the events of the first book, but it’s not essential to know exactly what those events were. I figured that most readers would be inclined to sympathize with a peace activist. Everyone says they’re for peace, but very few people actually do something about it.

My film agent sold the rights to Final Theory to a Los Angeles production company called Radar Pictures. Last year Nicolas Cage was attached to star in the film and the production company re-optioned the rights. But selling the rights to a book and getting a star attached doesn’t always mean that the movie will actually get made. I’m not involved in the process and I know almost nothing about it. Still, it’s nice to dream. Final Theory would make a great movie. And so would The Omega Theory.

How has your background as a journalist and editor helped you as a novelist? What have been the high and low points as a writer (both journalism and fiction)?

Working in journalism is great training for a budding novelist, because the basic mandate of a newspaper or magazine story is the same as that of a novel: The story has to be clear, and it has to be interesting. In both journalism and fiction, you learn how to convey a story through the judicious use of telling details. And the process of getting good quotes is similar to writing good dialogue. I couldn’t have written Final Theory if I hadn’t worked as an editor at Scientific American for ten years. And much of the cool technology in The Omega Theory is based on the stories I edited for the magazine.

The high points in journalism for me were the many interviews I did with famous and infamous people – Carl Sagan, Edward Teller (I interviewed him for a cover story in Popular Mechanics), George Wallace (I covered his last year as governor of Alabama when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser), George W. Bush (I interviewed him for Fortune in 1989, after he became a part-owner of the Texas Rangers thanks to his father’s rich friends). The low points were the big stories I missed because I just wasn’t observant or aggressive enough. In fiction, the low points were all the rejections I got for my first four novels. But ever since we sold Final Theory, the experience has been one long high point.

I work with autistic teens and adults so I was intrigued by the autistic character, Michael. Did you do much research on autism? Do you know people with it? Why did you decide to have the character be autistic? Incidentally the best book I’ve read about autism is The Horseboy. I interviewed the Horseboy’s dad here, and I liked Temple Grandin’s movie about autism, which I talked about here.

I became fascinated with autism after editing a story about it for Scientific American about ten years ago. It’s a very mysterious disorder. It often runs in families, and scientists have identified certain genetic variations that make people more susceptible to it, but researchers believe there are also environmental triggers, although they haven’t positively identified any yet. (They can rule out some things, though. Very convincing studies have shown that vaccines aren’t the culprit. More likely, it’s something that affects the fetus, because the earliest signs of autism appear just a few months after birth.)

The disorder has also shed light on the workings of the brain, showing how empathy and imitation are part of neural development. I don’t know anyone with autism, but I’m a big fan of Temple Grandin’s books. In The Omega Theory, I decided to narrate several of the chapters from the point of view of Michael, the autistic teenager who has phenomenal mathematical skills. Before I started writing those chapters I reread Temple Grandin’s books thoroughly, trying to get her voice inside my head. I wanted Michael to speak in a similar voice, very precise and logical. I’m happy with the way those chapters turned out. I think they’re the best part of the book.

The publicity material accompanying this book describes you as the literary heir to Michael Crichton. How do you feel about that label and comparison?

I loved Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. I also loved The Terminal Man and Jurassic Park. (And of course the movie Westworld, which Crichton wrote and directed — brilliant!) I wasn’t as fond of his later books and I heartily disagreed with Crichton’s stance on global warming, but it’s still a great thrill to be compared with him. He inspired so many people to become interested in science, and I hope I can do the same.

Can you talk about how you decided to include Einstein’s theories — not to mention an Einstein relative — as plots in these books?

Several years ago I edited a story about Albert Einstein for a special issue of Scientific American. The issue commemorated the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s miracle year — 1905 — when he published the papers that laid the foundations for the two main branches of 20th-century physics, relativity and quantum theory.

But I became more interested in the second half of Einstein’s career, from the 1920s to the 1950s, when he struggled to develop a unified field theory that would incorporate both of these branches and explain all the forces of Nature, from gravity to electromagnetism to the nuclear forces.

Despite 30 years of effort, none of Einstein’s attempts to devise a unified theory proved successful, and most of his contemporaries saw his quest as a tragic waste of time. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that physicists revived the effort and formulated what is now known as a string theory, which is the leading contender for a unified theory, although it remains very much unproved (and the recent experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have so far yielded no evidence to support the hypothesis).

I’ve always loved to construct “What if?” scenarios, and one of them occurred to me while I was thinking about Einstein: What if he really did discover the unified field theory, but decided to keep it secret because he saw that it would enable the development of weapons even worse than the atom bomb? This became the premise of Final Theory, my first novel. In The Omega Theory, I take the premise a little further by considering why the universe follows mathematical laws in the first place.

Einstein often speculated on this question, and his writings on the subject have a somewhat mystical bent — he took it for granted that the universe has an underlying order, a plan perhaps conceived by some kind of divine intelligence (sometimes he called it “the Old One,” sometimes simply “God” or “the Lord,” although this may have been simply a turn of phrase rather than evidence that Einstein truly believed in a divine being).

In recent decades some theorists have proposed that the laws of physics function like a computer program. Quantum mechanics, for example, regulates the interactions between particles in much the same way that software guides the computation of batches of data. According to this view, the entire universe is a kind of natural computer that’s been running ever since the Big Bang, following a program that could’ve emerged from chaos without divine intervention. A particular set of computational rules could’ve become the laws of our universe simply because they were more robust than any of the alternatives. This idea made me think of another “What if?” scenario: If the universe is really a computer, what could make it crash? This became the premise of The Omega Theory.

The more I read about Einstein, the more I marvel at what a complex character he was. Twenty-five years ago historians learned through a batch of newly discovered letters that Einstein and his first wife Mileva Maric had a daughter before they were married. Because of the scandal, Mileva went back to her native Serbia for the birth. The daughter, named Lieserl, is mentioned several times in the letters between Einstein and Mileva, but then she disappears from the correspondence. Historians don’t know what happened to the baby. So this is another element I decided to incorporate into my thrillers, a previously unknown descendant of Einstein who has inherited the physicist’s genius.

Do you think the knowledge and progression of science throughout the years is related to the ancient stories of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Hebrews? If so, how?

The peoples of the ancient Middle East were wonderful observers of the sky, since the movements of the heavenly bodies were so important for their agriculture and religious ceremonies. But they didn’t practice science as we know it today. They philosophized about things such as the states of matter, but it was more guesswork than scientific method, and their guesses were wrong just as often as they were right. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that natural philosophers recognized the importance of using experiments to test their theories. That’s when science was really born.

Regarding parallel universes: Do you think our brains act somewhat like a hologram, creating our own reality in which every person moves in, out, and intertwined? There is SO much of the brain we don’t know about

There’s a lot of debate among physicists about whether objective reality actually exists. The problem is that the laws of quantum mechanics assign a special role to the “observer” of a subatomic particle; before the particle is observed, it’s spread across space in a wave-like probability cloud, but once it’s observed it “collapses” to a specific location. That’s one of the reasons why Einstein hated quantum mechanics; it made no sense to him that the mere act of observation could change the physical nature of the particle. And yet the laws of quantum mechanics have been verified again and again to incredible accuracy.

Some physicists have proposed alternative explanations, notably the many-worlds hypothesis of Hugh Everett, which postulates that at the moment of observation there is a bifurcation into many parallel universes, each with the particle in a different position. But the observer still plays a special role in this scenario. We may just have to accept the fact that the universe is odder than anyone can imagine.

What are your thoughts regarding the “Holy Land” area? Do you think in pre-ancient history, man had more knowledge of science than we do today? If so, how did they get such knowledge? The science fiction of alien visitation only in pre-ancient times?

As I mentioned, the ancients didn’t really practice science. They made guesses about their world, and most of them turned out to be wrong. And there’s no compelling evidence of alien visitation at any time in earth’s history.

I visited Israel about 20 years ago and had a wonderful time there, especially in Jerusalem. Some of the scenes in The Omega Theory are set in Israel; in particular, there’s a fun chase through the tunnels underneath Jerusalem’s Old City. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a place unless I’ve been there. I visited the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan in 2008 because I knew the plot of The Omega Theory would involve a secret military camp on the border between Turkmenistan and Iran. It was a little difficult getting a visa for Turkmenistan — the country’s government is a nasty dictatorship that treats its people terribly. But I saw some amazing things there — the Burning Gas Crater of Darvaza, the cliffs of Yangykala, the geothermal lake inside the enormous cavern of Kow Ata — and I put them all into the novel.

Science fiction eventually crosses over to true science. In your opinion, what science-fictions should be heeded?

The old adage is true: We have to be careful about what we wish for, because we just might get it. Humanity wanted a limitless source of energy, and it got the atom bomb and nuclear waste. I’m not saying we should stop doing science; that would be insane. But as a species, we have to stop acting like brutal children. We’ve developed some very dangerous toys, so we need to learn the rules of civilized behavior. As Einstein recognized, what we really need is a world government, some kind of supranational organization that would restrain the worst of our nationalist and tribal impulses.

What’s it like to get praised by such authors as Walter Isaacson, author of the great book about Einstein, (I interviewed him here) and James Rollins?

I love Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. It’s a truly wonderful and entertaining book. And I also love Jim Rollins’s Sigma Force series of science adventures. It’s great to get blurbs from authors you admire!

What are you working on next?

I’m glad you asked! I just handed in the first draft of my third book. It’s not another sequel; in the third book I created a whole new set of characters. And instead of focusing on physics, the new thriller is all about the brain-machine interface, the amazing new devices that are melding living things with microprocessors. The hero, for example, has an advanced prosthesis, a mechanical arm that’s directly connected to his nervous system. (The Pentagon is funding the development of such devices, in part to help all the maimed soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.) The hero battles swarms of cyborg insects that have been implanted with tiny computer chips and antennas. (The Pentagon’s working on this, too.) And other characters view the world with the help of retinal implants that feed video images to their optic nerves. (Again, this is a real technology.) I had a blast writing the book. There’s no title yet, but it should be published sometime next year.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.