By Mark Alpert

Touchstone. 368 pp. $24.

Reviewed by Michael Brooks

There is a well-worn but probably apocryphal story in which Albert Einstein is confronted by a fan dementedly waving a notebook. "I use it to write down all my good ideas," the fan declares.

Einstein raises an eyebrow. "I don't seem to need one," he says. "I've only ever had three good ideas."

It was a good thing Einstein wasn't persuaded to invest in a notebook: His fourth good idea never came.

The first three were special relativity, general relativity, and the experiment that proved quantum theory. You have to give Einstein full marks for quality: Those three ideas revolutionized our view of the universe and everything within it.

But he spent the rest of his life trying - and failing - to come up with that fourth idea. He was desperate to combine relativity and quantum theory into a single mathematical description of the universe, the "Final Theory" of physics. In the end, he died without making his long-sought breakthrough.

Or did he?

Well, yes, but Mark Alpert is not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Alpert's novel is based on the suggestion that Einstein solved the problem but balked at the consequences. The final theory, in Alpert's imagination, happens to double as instructions for blowing up the world.

You can imagine the scene. Damn, the old physicist must have thought. Why can't these things ever be straightforward?

Because then we wouldn't have thrillers, Mr. Einstein. Isn't it obvious? It's like asking why Jesus had to go and marry Mary Magdalene, threatening the established order of things and forcing sectors of the Catholic Church to embark on a globetrotting spree of murder and mayhem while one man valiantly battles to protect the interests of truth and justice.

It's tempting to cast aspersions on

Final Theory

as a scientific

Da Vinci Code

. There are certainly similarities, besides the shamelessly imitated cover image. Although there are no religious overtones, Einstein's hidden breakthrough provides a focus for conspiracy. Add to that a shadowy gang of initiates who are in on the secret, a hero from academia, a psychopathically cruel villain, authority figures doing things they ought not to, and, of course, hapless law enforcement officers, and you've got a plot that Dan Brown might look twice at.

But if the plot devices are familiar, that really should come as no surprise. Though it is easy to snipe at thrillers for being cliched and formulaic, there are only so many ways to arrange the furniture necessary to such a book, and with so many thrillers and so few devices, something will always ring a bell.

And at least Alpert can write. While Brown's strength lies in his mind-bending plots, Alpert's prose is far superior to anything that has ever appeared between the covers of a Dan Brown novel.

Alpert does have a few annoying tics, though. Perhaps the most irritating is that his hero, a Columbia University history professor and ex-physicist called David Swift, would be lost without his encyclopedic knowledge of the archives of Scientific American magazine. Alpert is a contributing editor at SciAm, but he could now legitimately be transferred to the marketing department: Every time Swift needs to understand something, he realizes he's read about it in Scientific American and can thus proceed.


Final Theory

becomes business as usual for thriller readers: Once all the revelations and twists are over, that familiar race to the finish line takes over. The villain gets ever more deranged. The authorities, though equipped with Learjets and Black Hawk helicopters, are always one step behind. Swift happily remembers he has read a thing or two in Scientific American and manages to save the day.

Our hero even falls in love with his heroine, a hip, black string theorist who drives a red Corvette and describes the vagaries of quantum theory as being like "the nastiest, funkiest part of the South Bronx." Alpert might be accused of trying a little too hard here, but hey, it's only entertainment.

Final Theory

might stray into the absurd at times, but even when haunted by the spirit of Einstein, a thriller is never meant to be rocket science.