In his second foray into fiction, MIT physics and writing teacher Lightman (Einstein's Dreams, 1993, etc.) integrates hard science into a commentary about chaos and order in human experience. Bennett Lang is born in Memphis to an elusive father, who buries himself in books, and a demanding mother, who wanted a daughter but bore three sons instead. Bennett's closest brush with intimacy comes from the family's black maid, Florida. But class and race prevent him from ever getting too close. To fill this emotional void and create a sense of order, Bennett turns to science at a young age. Lightman's descriptions of a young boy wondering why the sky turns red at sunset or why soap bubbles form nearly perfect spheres guide readers gently toward the more complex questions that haunt Bennett as he grows older. He loves sifting through the debris of the physical world and coming up with a ``single mathematical equation of inescapable solution.'' This compelling desire for absolute certainty drives him to pursue physics at a northeastern college where, as a graduate student, he determines the configuration of a mixture of light and heavy particles flying about in a sphere after they've achieved a balance. While he accepts that the problem is trivial, we're drawn into the poetry he finds in theory: When he writes down an equation and ``ten thousand stars would appear, careening through space...if he paused to eat tuna fish, the stars suddenly froze.'' When Bennett becomes a professor, he recognizes that he can only bury himself in calculations for so long. But his marriage to a self-deprecating artist, his effort to gather the discoveries of a reclusive and genius physicist, and his attempts to reconnect with his best friend from childhood all fail. An enchanting and resonating lesson that perfect order exists only on paper and another kind of perfection, ``fragile and flutelike,'' orders the everyday world.