The Flicker Men is science-fiction, hard science-fiction. It is rooted in the real world science of Feynman’s double slit experiments that proved the duality of light, that light is both wave and particle. Coincidentally, just one year ago, the very first photo was taken of this duality of light. I know sometimes people run in fear of hard science and quantum physics in particular, but Ted Kosmatka does an excellent job of making it easy to understand in his book. If only the people who wrote textbooks could write with such clarity. For those who are still afraid of the science, this short video explains the experiment and even a little more, explaining how they were able to photograph light as both wave and particle.
The double slit experiment in the book and in real life demonstrates the observer effect, because when light goes through the slits unobserved, they are waves. When they are observed, they are particles. Observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. All of this is real science, rooting this novel deeply in reality, which makes its progression into speculative fiction more exciting.
The speculation begins when the scientists discover than frogs observing the light do not change its nature, nor do cats, dogs, chimps or apes. Is it possible that the difference is explained by human consciousness, maybe even the human soul? Of course, our scientist Eric Argus is only thinking of the science, not its implications in society.
He and his friends publish their findings and ready or not, justified or not, the rest of the world immediately jumps to the conclusion that the double slit experiment could be used to measure consciousness, to find the soul. An anti-choice activist essentially bribes the lab where Argus works to use his experiment to identify the moment when life begins. Satvik, his friend who helped him with the experiments, runs the test. The results, though, were not what anyone expected. Satvik, begins testing people everywhere, looking for patterns and explanations.
Anthony Leggett, who won the Nobel for Physic in 2003, wrote in Reflections on the Quantum Measurement Paradox, “It may be somewhat dangerous to explain something one does not understand very well by invoking something one does not understand at all.” It is true that we do not understand quantum mechanics very well and the question of human consciousness is a continuing conundrum that goes far beyond Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum.” That should have been a warning for Argus and Satvik, but the dangers they face are far beyond and far more fantastical than anything Leggett would have contemplated.
In the modern world we have divided the arts from the sciences but they used to be entwined. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and a scientist and that was not particularly unusual. Reading The Flicker Men, Kosmatka reminds me of how I picture the sciences as paired with the arts, tethered to each other by mathematics. Biology is the prose and poetry of the sciences, chemistry is the paintings and sculptures, and physics is the philosophy. The Flicker Men asks the big questions, what is the life, what is human, whither the universe? Where are the answers? In the science or the philosophy, sometimes it it hard to tell the difference.
This is a unique and wonderful book, perfect for book groups and long into-the-night discussions. Best of all, with all the science, the writing is clear and fast-paced. It will not bog you down in things you cannot understand, because Kosmatka is that good a writer. Beyond that, he is masterful at creating a sense of place. When Argus crawls through a pipe or slogs through tidal flats or bakes in the desert sun, you feel it. His prose is active, descriptive and often lyrical. There are times when I had to read a section again, not to understand it better, but just because it was so beautifully written.