The frontiers of science are dangerous and exciting, full of wonderful-sounding theories all but incomprehensible to the lay reader. One moment we are told that the universe is shaped like a trumpet; the next that other universes are pressing upon our own, or that everything is in fact made up of strings vibrating at a very high frequency. It is very hard to convey these sorts of things in a lucid and comprehensive manner, but Philip Ball has written several popular books on subjects as diverse as how water works, what molecules are and the world of Renaissance Magic and he brings his clarity of thought to this, his first novel.

Cover of The Sun and Moon Corrupted by Philip BallThe title refers to a mystical alchemical experiment. Mercury is the Moon, a female element, whilst sulphur is the Sun, the fiery male element, and seeking their union is the goal of the philosopher. Their perfect marriage is called “The Red King”, and the properties of this alloy have to do with the philosopher’s stone, turning base metal into gold. This essentially futile quest is the backbone of the book – it is the search for a perpetual motion machine – a machine that gives out more energy than is put into it, which would violate the laws of thermodynamics. If you were to look for one, the chances are that you would be thought of as “fringe”, or even as a lunatic – and these are the charges applied to Karl Neder, a Hungarian scientist who believes that he has found the secret.

Neder barrages the offices of science magazines with badly spelled, crazy letters: “Perpetuum mobile, Dr Battle, PERPETUUM MOBILE IS CONSTRUCTED BY ME!!!!!!!!!!” Needless to say, he is courteously discouraged and consigned to the scrap heap. It is not, say the editors of the magazine, that he may not have discovered it – it is just that nobody can understand the equations.

Intrigued by the idea, and by the figure of Neder himself, a young, failing freelance journalist manages to persuade a newspaper to send her after him. Lena Romanowick is the daughter of a physicist herself, living in the shadow of her brilliant father; obsessed with vampires as a teenager, she now spends her life subbing for bad pay in the offices of any magazine that will have her. This could be her break, and she sets off on the trail with alacrity.

The story also goes back into the early life of Neder and his associate Jaroslav Kam (an aristocrat whose father lives in a Dracula-like castle), who becomes first his friend and benefactor and then later his betrayer. They orbit each other “like wary moons”, and retreat to the castle to experiment in an “Institute Without Walls”. Ball is excellent at bringing to life the political turmoil of 1950s Hungary, when every move you made could land you in prison, everything you said or did was under scrutiny. This sense of oppressive powers at play runs throughout the book – Neder is always convinced someone is following him, and eventually Lena is too.

Despite its literary strengths there is a slight problem with the book’s own momentum. Everybody involved seems to think that the search for a perpetual motion machine is utterly futile, and Lena herself often stops to wonder why on earth she is chasing this object. Eventually this futility starts to creep into the reader’s own consciousness.

But Ball has still written a fine novel which achieves a kind of well-wrought luminescence and purity of its own: much like the glowing result of an alchemical experiment.

The Sun and Moon Corrupted is published by Portobello