SCIENCE BOOKS: New age, old spirits

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The Independent Culture
FIRE IN THE MIND: Science, Faith and the Search for Order by George Johnson, Viking pounds 18 SCIENCE AND WONDERS: Conversations about Science and Belief by Russell Stannard, Faber pounds 8.99

When my children were very young, we exposed them to different religious frameworks, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist. "But which is true?" they asked, noting that each had its own way of describing the world and their place within it. We told them that each was true in its way. These two books extend the exercise to science, laying that apparently very different framework alongside the others.

In Fire in the Mind, science journalist George Johnson of the New York Times directs his gaze to the mountainous regions of northern New Mexico. Here the land has been settled in turn by generations of South and North American Indians, by Spanish conquistadors accompanied by their priests, Anglo-Saxons who brought an unforgiving fundamentalism, and more recently by the Los Alamos physicists who built the atom bomb and later the Santa Fe Institute for complexity science. There are also visits from the Dalai Lama and New Age trippers who gaze hopefully into crystals. Each has imposed a different framework on the land and human existence, yet Johnson sees clear patterns of similarity in their apparently different enterprises.

"The descendants of the Anazi dancing in resonance with the seasons, the fundamentalists with their attempts to predict the future through Biblical interpretation, and the physicists and biologists with their search for hidden harmonies are battling over the same spiritual ground. All are trying to make sense of life's overwhelming complexity, to come to terms with the fact that, for all our well-laid plans, we are buffeted about by contingency and chance." Each seeks some creation myth, some pattern to give our lives meaning. We assume there is more reality in the patterns seen by scientists, some "gold standard" in the scientific currency, "but what if science is as historical a process as anything else, a labyrinth of branching possibilities?" What if, at the very least, the patterns scientists discern are necessarily filtered through the neural apparatus in our brains?

Johnson declares himself an agnostic in the debate between science as pure discovery and science as pure construction, yet his book is the most powerful I have ever read in describing the mythic dimensions of science and in revealing the deep common origins of the spiritual and the scientific quests. The juxtaposition throughout of Tewa corn dances, Franciscan candlelight processions, scientists who wire their shoes with computers meant to discern patterns in spinning roulette wheels and others who, "dipping into the artificial world of isospin and Dark Matter", speak of spin which is not spinning, colour which is not coloured, and of waves that spin, gives us a strong (and uneasy) sense of the indisputable commonality of the passion that drives them. "We all share a faith that lurking beneath the world's complexity is simplicity."

So is there any difference between the circular rhythms of the Indian dance and the underlying physical laws that scientists say have generated the cosmos? Johnson admits that Tewa dances never produced television or the atom bomb. So one difference between science and faith is predictability and results. But there is another. If we think of the cosmos as one of those children's dot puzzles, where fewer dots mean we have more room for interpretation and more dots mean that the actual picture is more implicit, we see the scientists' amassing of dots (experimental data) as giving a more definite emerging picture. Science stops and myth takes over where the data becomes sparse. So a crucial difference between the scientist and the shaman or philosopher is that never-ending scientific quest for the Holy Grail of data.

Those who believe that science is value-neutral and culture-independent, that its truth gives us some magical access to the absolute, will hate this book. But those excited by science precisely because it does have a mythic dimension will find here a treasure of powerful writing and beautiful imagery. The account of how light binds atoms together and thus ultimately gives us a universe alone makes the book worth reading. Johnson's explication of chaos theory is the clearest I know, and his analysis of Santa Fe scientists' attempts to prove that information is as basic a constituent of the universe as mass, energy and space-time stretches the imagination.

Fire in the Mind exposes the roots of both faith and science, and raises subtle questions about the complexities of their relationship. Russell Stannard's Science and Wonders is more prosaic. A direct translation into print of a series of Radio 4 interviews with scientists and philosophers, it wants for a dimension of depth that would have been provided by an author's synthesis and reflection, but it is nonetheless a valuable adjunct to the Johnson book. Stannard's interviewees for the most part take for granted that science gives us a more direct access to objective reality, but their debate makes real the question of whether that is enough.