Who is Karl Neder?
‘These people tend to define themselves by what they don’t like, which is usually much the same: relativity, the Big Bang. Einstein. Especially Einstein, poor fellow.’
In my novel The Sun and Moon Corrupted, where these words appear, I sought to convey the fact that the group of individuals who scientists would call cranks, and who submit their ideas with tenacious insistence and persistence to journals such as Nature, have remarkably similar characteristics and obsessions. They tend to express themselves in much the same manner, exemplified in my book by the letters of the fictional Hungarian physicist Karl Neder. And their egocentricity knows no bounds.
I realised that, if I was right in this characterization, it would not be long at all before some of these people became convinced that Karl Neder is based on them. (The fact is that he is indeed loosely based on a real person, but there are reasons why I can be very confident that this person will never identify the fact.)
And so it comes to pass. The first person to cry ‘It’s me!’ seems to be one Pentcho Valev . I do not know who Valev is, but it seems I once (more than once?) had the task of rejecting a paper he submitted to Nature. I remember more than you might imagine about the decisions I made while an editor at Nature, and by no means always because the memory is pleasant. But I fear that Valev rings no bells at all. Nonetheless, says Valev, there are “Too many coincidences: Bulgaria + thermodynamics + Einstein + desperately trying to publish (in Nature) + Phillip [sic] Ball is Nature’s editor at that time and mercilessly rejects all my papers. Yes most probably I am at least part of this Karl Neder. Bravo Phillip Ball! Some may say it is unethical for you to make money by describing the plight of your victims but don't believe them: there is nothing unethical in Einstein zombie world.” (If it is any consolation, Mr Valev, the notion that this book has brought me "fortune" provokes hollow laughter.)
Ah, but this is all so unnervingly close to the terms in which Karl Neder expresses himself (which mimic those of his real-life model). In fact, Valev seems first to have identified ‘his’ voice from a quote from the book in a review in the Telegraph:
‘Actually, what [Neder] says is: "PERPETUUM MOBILE IS CONSTRUCTED BY ME!!!!!!!!!"; his voluminous correspondence being littered with blood-curdling Igorisms of this sort.’
Even I would not have dreamt up the scenario in which Mr Valev is apparently saying to himself “Blood-curdling Igorisms? But that’s exactly like me, damn it!” (Or rather, “LIKE ME!!!!!!!!!”)
Valev continues: “If Philip Ball as Nature’s editor had not fought so successfully against crazy Eastern Europe anti-relativists, those cranks could have turned gold into silver and so the very foundation of Western culture would have been destroyed” – and he quotes from a piece I wrote in which I mentioned how relativistic effects in the electron orbitals of gold atoms are responsible for its reddish tint. This is where I start to wonder if it is all some delicious hoax by the wicked Henry Gee or one of the people who read my book for the Royal Institution book club, and therefore knows that indeed it plunges headlong into alchemy and metallic transmutation in its final chapters. What are you trying to do, turn me paranoid?