Physics. Beach Reading. Really.

When I write about new science books in my On Science columns for the print magazine, I try to pick ones that are Important and Interesting--you know, those that expose how corporate scientists cook the books when it comes to studying the toxicity of their products, or that explore how the human brain evolved. Not exactly the kind of book you can read with one brain hemisphere tied behind your back.

So let me atone by recommending a pure potboiler, the kind of thing that will even make waiting half an eternity for a delayed plane flight bearable. "Final Theory," by Mark Alpert, is a "Da Vinci Code" lookalike (scientist gets killed in first chapter; mild-mannered scholarly hero swoops in to solve mystery and vanquish bad guys; thrills and more murders ensue) but with a physics theme: Einstein actually did discover a unified field theory (something he worked on--fruitlessly, in real life--until his death), but hid it away so that evil humans could not harness it to produce a weapon that would make atomic bombs look like BB guns.

Among those in pursuit of the theory: the FBI, the Pentagon, a crazed Russian hit-man fresh from assignment in Chechnya, a surprise villain whose identity is not revealed until more than halfway through, and our hero, Columbia University science historian Mark Swift, ex-grad-student of the physicist whose death by torture gets the ball rolling (and who was himself an assistant to Einstein during his last years). Well-plotted, well-written, the book even has sweet references to Scientific American, the magazine where author Alpert is an editor/writer. Extra points for loyalty.

Only quibble: the climactic scene takes place at Fermilab, amid superconducting magnets and speeding antiparticles. I kept waiting for Alpert to somehow make use of the lab's famous herd of American bison--have them charge the bad guy? provide a hiding place for our heroes?--but no such luck. You'll love it anyway.