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It seems to be a semi-educational book. The woman talks about how light travels through different mediums, and that light always takes the path with the shortest travel time to its destination (e.g. refraction through water, and discussing the effect of gravity on light and how light bends around planets instead of going in a straight line past planets), almost as if light already knows which path is the shortest. I believe the woman's purpose was to stall or prevent Earth's destruction by showing Earth's progress?

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    I'm sure I read this one. Earth is due to be destroyed, and the teacher stalls it a day at a time by showing all sorts of science results - refraction, combining sodium and chlorine to make salt, etc. I think in the end the destruction is put off indefinitely when the alien meets her schoolchildren and they show a better attitude towards the future than the adults do. Can't think of the name though.
    – Michael
    Mar 25 at 19:41
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    This reminds me a little of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. I don't know if there was a novelization of it. However, the attempt to prevent Earth's destruction was by John Cleese's character, a professor to whom Jennifer Connelly's character brings Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves. Mar 26 at 0:41
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    @Michael Kind of the Arabian nights story but forestalling the destruction of Earth rather than the execution of wives? Can you remember when and where you read the story? Mar 26 at 6:35
  • @John Rennie Exactly! English language, probably mid-90s?
    – Michael
    Mar 26 at 6:38
  • @Michael I think we're thinking of the same book! I read it in the 2000s, so I don't think it was one of Liu Cixin's books.
    – Fantasizer
    Mar 26 at 13:27

5 Answers 5

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I think this is World of 1001 Mysteries by Russell Stannard, published in 1993. The Google books summary is brief but relevant:

The Council of the Federation of Universes has decreed that our universe is to be destroyed because it is obsolete. The Federation has sent an Appeals Judge from Elsewhere to tour the universe listening to any argument to stop the extermination - but so far he remains unswayed.

I can't find much online, but my recollection is that the referenced Judge meets a school teacher who delays the destruction of Earth one day at a time by showing scientific wonders and teasing the next one day at a time.

Ultimately she tricks the Judge into coming to her school and meeting her pupils who convince him that there is hope for Earth and the destruction should be postponed.

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    Thanks! It didn't occur to me when I posted the question, but the "1001 nights"-style stalling is something I definitely remember. Along with the explanation of the properties of light, I think this is exactly it!
    – Fantasizer
    Mar 26 at 14:02
  • Yes I also instantly associated it with the 1001 nights stalling tactic.
    – NJohnny
    Mar 26 at 17:35
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I wonder if you are misremembering Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

There is a scene where the physics you describe (Fermat's principle) is described, and it does involve aliens (heptapods) visiting Earth, but there is no threat to destroy the Earth.

If it is this story the woman is Dr. Louise Banks, although it's actually a colleague of hers who describes Fermat's principle to the heptapods. Dr. Banks is a linguist not a physicist.

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  • I thought this might be it, but I went to check Story of Your Life and its explanation of Fermat's principle is much shorter. In the book I'm thinking of, I believe the explanation goes more in-depth, including discussing the effect of gravity on light and how light bends around planets instead of going in a straight line past planets. I'll edit my post to include this.
    – Fantasizer
    Mar 26 at 13:31
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    “Story of your life” is of course the basis for the 2016 movie “Arrival” Mar 26 at 20:19
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In the novel Death's End by Cixin Liu, the third book in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, there's an announcement made about the destruction of the universe received by a woman, and some exposition given to physics—stuff about the geodesics (i.e. the path taken by light) within a pocket dimension within our universe (and where the announcement about the destruction of the universe was received), technologies that locally alter the speed of light, etc..

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  • Does this match the description given (e.g. the properties of light)?
    – Valorum
    Mar 26 at 7:28
  • @Valorum 'Properties of light' is pretty vague, but there's all kinds of stuff about the geodesics (i.e. the path taken by light) of a pocket dimension within our universe, technologies that locally alter the speed of light, etc.
    – Lexible
    Mar 26 at 14:42
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Is this perhaps the 3 Body Problem that is out on netflix? It also is based on a book that deals with alien, light travel, physics, etc..

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    – Community Bot
    Mar 25 at 18:59
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Have you conflated stories? Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams starts with the arriving Vogon's declaring they're about to demolish the earth to build a galactic freeway.

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