• A Joan for Our Time: Talking with Mark Alpert

    Saint Joan of New York is a retelling of the Joan of Arc story, but this time the heroine is a contemporary New York City high school student instead of a 15th century French peasant. And instead of leading a medieval army, this 17-year-old math genius is given the sacred task of revealing the mathematical design of the universe. Over the course of the novel, she attracts followers who share her faith — an army of sorts — and fights heartless enemies who denounce and betray her.

    I spoke with science-thriller author Mark Alpert about his 10th novel, a knuckle-biting adventure filled with quirky urban characters and wonder at the universe. Readers learn quite a lot (but not too much) about string theory — Alpert is a former physics editor at Scientific American — while cheering on a team of teens with a mission. By novel’s end, you’ll meet Alpert’s Almighty, who isn’t what you’d expect. (And no, he isn’t riffing on the The Good Place‘s TV-mad God.)

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    TEMMA EHRENFELD: The historical Joan burns at the stake. That’s a tough ending for our modern Joan. Did you try writing it both ways, where she dies and doesn’t die? Don’t tell us which one you picked! How did you decide?

    MARK ALPERT: Joan of Arc’s enemies were the English soldiers who occupied northern France during the Hundred Years’ War. They and their traitorous French allies eventually captured Joan, put her on trial, and burned her at the stake. I wanted my heroine to confront a similar fate, and in the early chapters of the novel she begins to suspect that her story won’t have a pleasant ending. When I was halfway through writing the book, however, I had some second thoughts. I liked the character I’d created. And she was based in large part on my 17-year-old daughter. Could I really kill my Joan in such a horrible fashion? I had to figure out the best way to reenact Joan’s final challenge, to show her courage and determination in the face of death. I won’t reveal what happens to her in my novel — I don’t want to give away any spoilers — but I will admit that writing the book’s ending was an emotional struggle.

    Joan encounters a series of strangers with messages for her. As a New Yorker I can vouch that sometimes odd characters on the subway and street tell me things that seem like revelations. Has that happened to you? Did any event inspire you?

    In the 15th century, when religious faith was nearly universal, it was relatively easy for Joan of Arc to believe that she was seeing saints and angels in her family’s garden and hearing commands from God. Nowadays, though, we’re more likely to conclude that Joan had a mental illness, possibly a high-functioning kind of schizophrenia. When I was a graduate student in New York City in the early 1980s, there were plenty of mentally ill people living on the street or in decrepit halfway houses, and many of them raved about God on the street corners and in the subway cars. There was also a group of Christian fundamentalists who accosted passersby at the corner of Broadway and 96th Street, and one day I decided that I wouldn’t ignore their entreaties as I usually did. Instead, I stopped and listened to their proselytizing and agreed with everything they said. Because I wanted to feel what they felt, that confidence and certainty. And so I faked religious belief for 20 minutes or so, long enough for them to say a prayer over me and declare that I was saved. Then I said goodbye and walked on, feeling bad about lying to them, but the encounter got me thinking about faith and what it would take to truly convince me of God’s existence. And maybe a relic of that experience is in Saint Joan of New York. My fictional Joan is a mathematician who won’t believe that she has truly encountered God until she sees a rigorous mathematical proof.

    Joan feels like a misfit because she is a math prodigy, there has been bad stuff in the news about her family, and she kissed a girl. It’s a pileup. That feels real to me. If she had fewer problems, life would be too easy, right?

    Because the heroine of Saint Joan of New York is 17 years old, the book is technically a Young Adult novel, albeit one of the strangest YA novels ever written. I wanted to show the ordinary struggles of a teenager’s life as well as the extraordinary challenges that my fictional Joan faces. Joan is lonely, confused, and occasionally resentful of her parents and teachers, frequently indignant at the whole world. And mathematics is a refuge for her. She can escape her troubles as she gets lost in the equations. But her incredible gift for math and physics sets her apart from her classmates, and so does her growing awareness of her sexual orientation. The pileup of difficulties is overwhelming enough to unbalance her. So when she has her first encounters with the inexplicable at the start of the novel, she naturally assumes she’s going crazy.

    But I wonder if kissing a girl is such a big deal these days on the Upper West Side? Was there any evidence that Joan of Arc was lesbian or maybe you were just inspired by the warrior look?

    What upsets my fictional Joan more than anything is the horrified reaction of the girl she kissed. This was Joan’s only close friend, and after the impulsive kiss she won’t even speak to Joan anymore. But one of the great satisfactions of writing this novel was giving Joan a second chance to find love, with a romantic partner who shares her passions and recognizes her beauty.

    There’s no strong evidence that Joan of Arc was lesbian, but it’s very clear that she wanted nothing to do with men as sexual partners. She called herself La Pucelle — the Maid — and vowed to remain a lifelong virgin. (Skeptics in the French royal court, who doubted that a woman who traveled with soldiers could refrain from sleeping with them, ordered a medical examination that confirmed Joan’s virginity.) She wore men’s clothing on the battlefield because it would’ve been ridiculous to wear a dress under such conditions, and she continued to dress like a man when she was in prison because it was her only defense against sexual assault by her sadistic English guards. It’s possible that those guards eventually raped her; Joan’s trial transcripts suggest that this may have happened shortly before she was executed.

    In your book Joan is traumatized by the recent death of her sister, who’d volunteered in soup kitchens and was the true saint of the family Your Joan, in contrast, is more into math and running track than doing good deeds. Were you worried that if you made the Joan in your book a do-gooder, she would be less relatable?

    One of the little-known facts about Joan of Arc is that she had a sister named Catherine, who apparently died at about the same time that Joan embarked on her mission to drive the English out of France. (We know almost nothing else about this sister.) I gave my heroine a deceased sister too and bestowed upon her many of the saintly qualities usually associated with Joan of Arc. I didn’t want my fictional Joan to be a saint; I wanted her to be a real person with plenty of flaws and strong emotions. She lies to her parents, she defies her teachers, she’s occasionally jealous and hot-tempered. And in truth, the saintly Joan of Arc also had a temper. She got furious when she saw the camp of prostitutes who accompanied the French army on its campaigns. Saint Joan drove away one of the women by whacking her with the flat of her sword.

    Joan’s mother is also a do-gooder. So how come you give her father the big moral choice at the end?

    Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle was an extremely devout woman who made a holy pilgrimage to Rome, and she clearly passed on this strong faith to her daughter. Joan’s father Jacques was more of a practical man, a relatively successful peasant farmer and village official. But I didn’t exactly replicate this family portrait in Saint Joan of New York; in my novel, Joan’s mother is partly based on my wife, and Joan’s father is a pretty close approximation of me. He’s a freelance journalist who writes stories about physics and string theory, even though he doesn’t understand the mathematics nearly as well as his daughter does. So I gave the father character the big moral choice at the end of the novel, because it mirrors some of the editorial choices I had to make while writing the book: Do I kill off my fictional Joan or keep her alive? Do I let her reveal her solution to string theory — the long-awaited Theory of Everything — to the world? And do I make it clear that Joan has actually heard the voice of a divine being, or do I leave open the possibility that the whole series of encounters is imaginary?

    In your novel, Joan attracts attention from top physicists for her discoveries even though they just filter out through the Internet. Is it credible that if a kid solved for a particular number in physics, scientists around the world would notice? What number is that? The one in the book?

    One of the perceived failings of our current theory of particle physics — the so-called Standard Model — is that it doesn’t offer an explanation for the values of its fundamental constants.

    My heroine uses string theory and a revelation about the geometry of the universe to discover a Theory of Everything. Joan knows her theory is correct because it specifies the fundamental constants; when she uses her equations to calculate one of those numbers — the fine-structure constant, which determines the strength of the electromagnetic force — she finds that her calculated number matches the value measured in physicists’  experiments. In fact, she can calculate the fine-structure constant to even greater precision, determining its exact value right down to the umpteenth digit, and that’s how she proves her theoretical prowess to the physics community. When Joan announces the result of her calculations, the experimental physicists who specialize in measuring the fine-structure constant realize that her number is the same as a new, more precise measurement that they haven’t made public yet.

    The challenge for me was to dramatize this scientific achievement, which can be hard to grasp if you’re unfamiliar with theoretical physics. So Joan makes her announcement at a sunrise prayer meeting attended by hundreds of her followers at a Native American archaeological site. Although the scene is fictional, I didn’t invent the number that Joan recites at the meeting; I lifted it from a research paper written by a group of Berkeley physicists who made the best-ever measurement of the fine-structure constant in 2018. (See https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6385/191)

    To get back to the physics, our current theory doesn’t shed any light on why the masses of the electron, the quarks, and the other elementary particles vary so greatly, nor does it explain the vast differences in the strengths of the fundamental forces (which include the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces). In the Standard Model, these properties of nature are simply brute facts that can be measured quite precisely in particle-physics experiments but can’t be derived from quantum theory or basic principles such as the symmetries of space-time. The great hope of fundamental physics is to develop a more comprehensive Theory of Everything — like my Joan’s theory — that specifies and explains all the physical constants (and also provides a quantum theory of gravity, the fourth fundamental force).

    Having written the book, has your spiritual life changed? Where will this novel take you next?

    I didn’t change my religious beliefs, but writing the book helped to sharpen my thoughts about the connection between science and religion. Many people who have written about this subject (I’m thinking specifically of Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist) see the two fields as completely separate. Science can’t answer questions of faith, they say, and religion shouldn’t influence the scientific method. But in recent years scientists have started to tackle some questions that have long been the exclusive province of theologians: Is the universe infinite and eternal? Why does Nature follow mathematical laws, and are those laws inevitable? Cosmologists — researchers who study the history of the universe — have proposed several hypotheses to explain how the Big Bang got started, and new observations of galaxy distribution and primordial radiation may offer some evidence for these proposals. In other words, scientists may soon get a better understanding of how the universe came to be. And I think the answer to the How question may also shed some light on the Why.

    In the meantime, I’ve started writing a new novel. It’s a comic take on the climate apocalypse. If our government won’t do what’s needed to stop global warming, and if rising sea levels and mass starvation become unavoidable, then there’s nothing left to do but laugh about it. The working title of the novel is “The Doomsday Show.”

     

     

    Mark Alpert is a contributing editor at Scientific American and an internationally bestselling author of science thrillers. His first novel, Final Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2008), was published in 24 languages and optioned for film. His 10th and latest thriller is Saint Joan of New York: A Novel about God and String Theory.

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