Science: a 4000-year history, By Patricia Fara
You Are Here, By Christopher Potter
Friday 08 May 2009
Books used to be about something. Then there was a phase of books about nothing. Now books are about everything. I can't help wondering, what is "about" about anyway? We are caught up in a pre-Copernican cosmology, in which something is presumed to be at the centre of the book and the book is at the centre of things, and we readers are mere satellites or moons orbiting around (or "about") it.
The trouble is that both Science: A 4000-year history and You Are Here: a portable history of the universe are, in their distinctive ways, post-Copernican works: de-centred, focused on the indeterminate horizon. They are variations on the theme of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know". Pascal said that the universe is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Both Patricia Fara and Christopher Potter are Pascalian in their scope and diversity of interests.
Inevitably, they run into the problem of infinity. As Lucretius first pointed out, you can always throw the spear that little bit further. Fara solves this problem elegantly by coming up with a 7x7 formal structure based on an ancient number system (reflected in "the seven days of creation"). On the one hand, she seems to be saying, we can encompass everything within this mathematical framework; on the other hand, it is self-evidently arbitrary, a flimsy fabrication of our over-heated brains. And in the very composition of her book she is mirroring something very important about science itself: that it is both a relentless pursuit of truth and, at the same time, the mere figment of a bunch of very limited earthlings.
Fara is hostile to any idea of "absolute truth" and hints at a link between an obsession with objectivity and the Holocaust. Although she rejects or at least puts in quotation marks any ideas about "revolutions" in science (as per Thomas Kuhn, for example), she conveys a strong sense of perpetual subversion amid the continuum. Scientists come across not as boring boffins but as rebels always looking to overturn the consensus or, at least, give it a new swerve.
There is no pure science, Fara argues. All science is radically impure, hybrid, tempted by metaphysics or mercantilism or the military. A lot of scientists turn out to be shrewd wheeler-dealers (Galileo), or closet alchemists (Newton, "the last of the magicians"). Not a few want to see or possibly be God (Hawking). But it is a mistake to rely on the "lone genius" label, largely a product of Enlightenment academies and shrewd PR. The word "scientist" is itself a 19th-century invention.
Fara demonstrates how much scientists belong to an international community, in a conversation that cuts across time and space, East and West. Some patriotic anecdotes, such as Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, are exposed as fairly mouldy and mythic. Crick and Watson, of double-helix fame, pilfered so much they come out as more like Crook and Watson. In her shrewd, globalised, interdisciplinary approach, there is a hint of Foucault-style structuralism, in which individuals are as insubstantial as a face drawn in the sand. She provides a wave-theory of history in which everything is really one, but bunching up into ghostly passing forms.
Potter is more of a quantum man at heart. Like quarks, his particles of information have the qualities of "charm" and "strangeness". When they collide they beam out massive shafts of illumination and occasionally open up vast black holes of doubt and anxiety about the meaning of the universe and everything that surrounds it. Miraculously, Potter manages to recompose them into a coherent model of the entirety of creation, a ship-in-a-bottle trick, but on the scale of the cosmos.
He effortlessly transcends any nonsense about CP Snow's "two cultures" (science vs humanities) as he weaves together physics, philosophy, palaeoanthropology and Proust into a grand synthesis. Although a mathematician by training, he eschews equations and is disarmingly honest about his (and our) limitations. Potter has a relaxed, man-in-an-armchair voice and an urbanity that put me in mind of Alastair Cooke, but talking about pulsars and genomes rather than American politicians. Potter is an ex-publisher too, and there is a faint suspicion of a palimpsest about his book, which seems to have gobbled up a lot of other books.
Jean Baudrillard said that there are really only two significant events, the Big Bang and the Apocalypse, while everything else in between is rather dreary. So we find ourselves yearning for book-ends of time and space, an absolute beginning and end. In the 19th century, positivism affirmed that the only proper concern of science was the bit in the middle. Ironically, ever since, science (large hadron colliders, for instance) has encroached on the territory staked out by theology and mysticism. Both Fara and Potter are anti-demarcationists. They would not sign up to Stephen Jay Gould's idea that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria". Karl Popper came up with that stern criterion of "unfalsifiability" to condemn Freud, Marx, Hegel et al as purveyors of false science and instigators of totalitarianism. AJ Ayer (quoting Hume) used to say that we ought to toss on the fire everything that was not immediately "verifiable".
I wonder what they would have made of string theory, which has dominated physics for the last quarter century, and has not come within a light-year of any experimental results. If quantum theory is right that the universe arose out of a fluctuation in the vacuum, then the answer to the question posed by Heidegger (and Leibniz), "why is there something rather than nothing?", is simply this: that something is nothing - and if you calculate the entire contents of the cosmos, it all adds up to zero. Fara and Potter show that science has a kind of poetry to it, and is not afraid of visionary absurdism.
Reviewers generally try to sound a little bit superior to the books they are reviewing and make minute corrections. Can I forego that pleasure? There is something in the vastness of these sweeping, learned works that makes a reader feel humble, like looking up at the night sky and admiring the constellations, wheeling across the firmament and lighting up the darkness.
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