Books: Theorising on a whinge and a prayer

Will Big Science disappear up its own black holes?; The End of Science: facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age by John Horgan, Little, Brown, pounds 18.99 The Second Creat ion: makers of the revolution in 20th century physics by Robert P Crease and Charles C Mann, Quartet, pounds 14
The End of Science does not, unsurprisingly, predict the literal end of science, and the title depends on a shameless desire to exploit millennial sentiment. John Horgan's persuasive book, based on dozens of interviews with leading scientists, argues that the great revolutionary discoveries (Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, particle physics) have all been made, and that science is destined to occupy itself with filling detail within these big templates. Few would disagree. More provocatively, though, Horgan proposes that the sciences have entered a postmodern, ironic mode in which they increasingly resemble the interpretative arts of philosophy or literary criticism. This is a large generalisation guaranteed to enrage many scientists patiently engaged in the pursuit of verifiable knowledge about nature.

Horgan is quite upbeat about this development, averring that it "reminds us of how little we know". This is an idea he has borrowed from Karl Popper who, in the course of a splendidly comic interview with Horgan, unearths a copy of his book Conjectures and Refutations and reverentially declaims his own words. Horgan interviews three great, now late philosophers of science - Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend - and traces the line of thought from Popper's falsification tenet to Feyerabend's radical scepticism. Feyerabend's mischievous mind is encapsulated in his observation that "Prayer may not be very efficient when compared to celestial mechanics, but it surely holds its own vis-a-vis some parts of economics".

Horgan deploys the critic Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence to portray today's scientists as tinkering in the long shadows of their mighty precursors. The conceit is appealing but - as cute theoretical models tend to - it gets him into trouble. Richard Dawkins is depicted as more dogmatically Darwinian than Darwin himself in his efforts to repel the oppressive influence; but Stephen Jay Gould has "sought to resist the influence of Darwin by denigrating his theory's power". This doesn't really get us anywhere with understanding their ideas.

"People still have an Einstein complex," remarks the physicist Howard Georgi in Robert Crease and Charles Mann's magisterial history of 20th- century physics, but there are few other indications of Bloomian angst. The Second Creation is altogether different in tone from Horgan: enthusiastic and laudatory, a celebration of one of the greatest intellectual adventures in history. The authors argue that since the solitary breakthroughs of Maxwell and Einstein, physics has become an increasingly collegiate activity "which recalls the effort that produced the great Gothic cathedrals".

This is a necessarily difficult book about a difficult subject, but there are plenty of good sidelights. Murray Gell-Mann famously borrowed the word "quark" from Joyce's Finnegans Wake; what was new to me was the discovery that he appropriated the phrase "the eightfold way" from the teachings of the Buddha to describe his model of particle physics. This joke, the authors note, "has fed the notion that quantum physics has something to do with the mysteries of Eastern mysticism". Surveying the shelf-loads of rubbish which have propounded this notion, Gell-Mann must rue his sense of humour.

Crease and Mann, too, foresee a possible end of physics in the quagmire of grandiose but untestable theories - superstrings, super symmetry and whatnot. The goal of a unified field theory might yet be achieved, but it is equally possible that - as Kant argued in the Critique of Pure Reason - some aspects of reality might remain forever beyond our ability to know them. What Popper proudly read out to John Horgan, by the way, was this: "In our infinite ignorance we are all equal".