Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Review of Impact by Douglas Preston

There are a number of writers In the action-adventure genre these days who really know how to fashion a story. Lots of them have an element of science fiction, but usually not too far out. Michael Crichton was one of the best. Robin Cook is another. Lincoln Childs and Douglas Preston, authors of the Pendergast series, write in a similar vein and I always like what they do. Last night, I completed Impact, a novel by Douglas Preston, sans Lincoln Childs and I'd like to tell you a little bit about it.

Impact, released in 2010, concerns the discovery of an ancient machine on Deimos, one of the Martian moons. The machine turns out to be a weapon of sorts that fires a bundle of quarks like a cannon fires a shell. The bundle of quarks is also referred to as a stranglet composed of strange matter.

A strangelet is a hypothetical particle consisting of a bound state of roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks. An equivalent description is that a strangelet is a small fragment of strange matter, small enough to be considered a particle. The size of an object composed of strange matter could, theoretically, range from a few femtometers across (with the mass of a light nucleus) to arbitrarily large. Once the size becomes macroscopic (on the order of metres across), such an object is usually called a strange star. The term "strangelet" originates with Edward Farhi and Robert Jaffe. Strangelets can convert matter to strange matter on contact and have been suggested as a dark matter candidate.

The known particles with strange quarks are unstable because the strange quark is heavier than the up and down quarks, so strange particles, such as the Lambda particle, which contains an up, down, and strange quark, always lose their strangeness, by decaying via the weak interaction to lighter particles containing only up and down quarks. But states with a larger number of quarks might not suffer from this instability. This is the "strange matter hypothesis" of A.R. Bodmer and Edward Witten. According to this hypothesis, when a large enough number of quarks are collected together, the lowest energy state is one which has roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks, namely a strangelet. This stability would occur because of the Pauli exclusion principle; having three types of quarks, rather than two as in normal nuclear matter, allows more quarks to be placed in lower energy levels.

Now, in Impact, Douglas Preston doesn't really go into so much detail, but he does have his characters state that the strangelet particle constitutes a threat not only to the earth and the rest of the solar system, but also our neck of the galaxy. Naturally, something's got to be done.

That's where our heroine enters. Abby is a college dropout from Princeton who lives with her lobster-fisherman father in a small town in Maine. She is a waitress in a diner as well as an amateur astronomer who likes to smoke pot and look at the stars while she hangs out with her best friend, Jackie. Abby is also adopted and apparently is the only person of color in her small town. Abby is portrayed as the smartest person in the proverbial room and this is indicated by the number of correct guesses she makes during the course of the story. At one point, Abby manages to guess a computer password on a highly-secured government disk drive. Later, she works out the trajectory of one of the strangelets and tracks it to an island where it makes impact (ergo, the title of the book). Abby's extraordinary ability to overcome all challenges, both physical and intellectual, stretches thin and gives an air of incredulity to Impact, far beyond running across a machine on a Martian moon that shoots hypothetical particles at the earth. All this talk of theoretical particles pales in comparison to the achievements of our dropout waitress.

Unfortunately, Impact is rife with a number of similar faux pas' that simply asks too much of the reader to accept. Personally, I was disappointed with Impact. As I stated earlier, I like the Preston and Childs books and the Pendergast series. Heck, I like other books by Douglas Preston, but this one just asks me to bend backwards a little too far. A Superman comic makes more sense. Come on, Douglas, you can do better.

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