Science Viewpoint: The human face of genius: The task of science writers is to communicate the messy process of discovery, not to translate its neat conclusions, argues James Gleick

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The Independent Online
PITY the poor science writer. Richard Feynman, the most brilliant and influential physicist of our time, once said: 'If you want to . . . appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language she speaks in.' That language is, of course, mathematics, which, Feynman noted, is 'hard for some people'.

Tough luck. 'All the intellectual arguments that you can make will not communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is,' he went on. 'In the same way, all the intellectual arguments in the world will not convey an understanding of nature to those of 'the other culture'.'

Let's call this Myth No 1: that science is a place apart; alien, the preserve of specialists, incomprehensible to the lay culture. If you don't have a ticket, you can't get in. (For the 'other culture' myth, we can blame C P Snow and his series of lectures in 1959, entitled 'The Two Cultures'. It was Snow who described the young Feynman as 'a little bizarre . . . he is a showman and enjoys it . . . rather as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist.')

Myth No 2 is more subtle. It is that the principal task of the science writer is to popularise, to translate knowledge from one language (mathematics) to another (in this case, English), however imperfectly.

Myth No 3 is a cousin of the others: that the science writer must fall back on metaphor and poetry, like puffs of gauze, whereas the scientist builds with numbers and equations, like steel rods.

Like all good myths, they rest on half-truths. Mathematics is the language that nature speaks in, and much of science has grown distant from our common-sense understanding. Certainly, a science writer is haunted by the spectre of compromise, the feeling of having to filter a lush panorama through a flawed lens.

Yet how absurd it is to speak of science as something apart from our culture, from the fabric of ideas, traditions, language and devices that surround us. If anything, in this century of the atomic bomb and the computer, of relativity and uncertainty and chaos, we are more deeply and knowledgeably embedded in a scientific world than ever before.

We may quiver at the sight of an equation, but we know how powerfully science changes our lives. We have seen our world, as our ancestors never could, through the eyes of microbes and galaxies. As the science writer and physicist Timothy Ferris put it: 'Science and mathematics are to our technically inclined societies what the composition of epic poetry was to the Homeric Greeks, or shipbuilding to the ninth-century Norsemen, or landscape painting to the Sung Dynasty Chinese: they are what we do best.'

Perhaps because I came to science writing by accident, I have never believed that it is right to set out merely to translate science. It seems more useful to behave as any other writer does: to report news, if one is a news reporter, and to write history if one is a historian. Let the explanation follow behind.

When I wrote Chaos, an account of the recent revolution in scientists' understanding of complex systems, my intention - at least my primary intention - was not to explain the ideas, as one might hold a finished objet d'art up to the light. It was to tell the dramatic story of how a few people, at first mavericks in their fields, managed to transform the way scientists and the rest of us think about the world.

Science as we learn it in school is cut and dried. Not so in real life. Scientists make false steps, miscommunicate with colleagues, endure confusion. My goal was to let this science emerge for the reader as it had for these pioneers: gradually, in uncertain steps.

Feynman himself knew how much messier real science is than our standard view of it. He once admitted, during a description of his achievement in quantum electrodynamics, that he was giving 'what I call a 'physicist's history of physics', which is never correct. What I am telling you is a sort of conventionalised myth-story that the physicists tell their students, and those students tell their students, and is not necessarily related to the actual historical development, which I do not really know]'

In Genius, I tried to write Feynman's biography as one would write the life of a politician, a painter, a cleric, or any other specialist in a discipline with its own jargon and tribal customs.

I believe that we have come to expect less from scientists' biographies than from those of others. We have tended to settle either for gross popularisations (Feynman's own anecdotal memoirs omitted the science that in reality he breathed from morning to night), or for stitched-together collections of technical explication; not biography at all.

Feynman's life in science encompassed far more than his profound contributions to quantum electrodynamics and other specific problems. I found myself drawn into the rapidly changing place of technology in our century's public life; the philosophy of scientific explanation, in a time so dominated by uncertainty; the role of visualisation in new scientific ideas; and the nature of genius itself.

And was it possible, in the end, to explain such subjects as quantum electrodynamics? Or does a science writer inevitably have to fall back on vague poetry? I'm not sure.

Feynman himself changed his mind during his lifetime, I discovered. He knew that the equations themselves are a kind of metaphor, always approximate, never final, a model for a more complex reality. They have a power for the scientist that mere words cannot have. But Feynman finally decided that it was possible to convey the essence of his physics even to those who could not do physics; to communicate music to deaf ears after all.

'To understand how subtraction works - as long as you don't actually have to carry it out - is not really so difficult,' he said by way of analogy, a few years before his death.

'That's my position: I'm going to explain to you what the physicists are doing when they are predicting how nature will behave, but I'm not going to teach you any tricks so you can do it efficiently.'

James Gleick, a former editor and science writer for the 'New York Times', is the author of 'Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics'. Like his 1987 book 'Chaos: Making a New Science', it has been shortlisted for the US National Book Award for non-fiction.

(Photograph omitted)