Sunday, May 28, 2006

All Things Big and Small

As Marcus Chown sees it, scientists and science writers have a difficult time conveying to the masses the beauties of the twin pillars of modern physics -- quantum theory and Einstein's general theory of relativity -- because they don't completely understand the science themselves. In The Quantum Zoo: A Tourist's Guide to the Neverending Universe (Joseph Henry, $24.95), Chown has a go at making good on Einstein's promise that "the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone."

Chown, who holds degrees in physics and astrophysics from the University of London and Cal Tech, respectively, has the science chops for the job, and he also has had success as a writer of popular science through a series of books including The Magic Furnace and The Universe Next Door .

The Quantum Zoo is divided into two parts: "Small Things," which deals with quantum theory, and "Big Things," which deals with relativity and our understanding of the universe. Toward his goal of presenting this complex science in a way that both educates and entertains, he enlists a range of noteworthy explainers, from Einstein and the physicist Richard Feynman to "Star Trek" and the comic Steven Wright. It is a largely successful endeavor, with wonderful takes on such things as the nature of atoms (if all of the empty space in them could be removed, all of humanity would fit into a space the size of a sugar cube) and relativity (which, among other things, means that a person ages more slowly on the bottom floor of a building than on the top floors). On the other hand, the book's brevity (200 pages) means cases where advances or missteps are noted but not explained, which reduces the likelihood of confusing or boring readers but occasionally leaves them hungry for a how and why behind the what.

Chown notes that sometimes, the hows and whys aren't even there to be presented: "If you find the ideas of quantum theory a little difficult, you are . . . in very good company. It is fair to say that, 80-odd years after the birth of quantum theory, physicists are still waiting for the fog to lift so that they can clearly see what it is trying to tell us about fundamental reality."

In The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Universe (Riverhead, $26.95), the physicist Joel R. Primack and his wife, science philosopher Nancy Ellen Abrams, aim to pick up where Chown leaves off. Primack and Abrams argue that the explosive growth in our understanding of the universe has brought us to the to the brink of a revolution in cosmology similar to the one in physics after Sir Isaac Newton or in biology after Charles Darwin. The barrier, as they see it, is that the scientists leading us in this exploration are generally unwilling to accept the idea that humanity's desire to make sense of our place in the cosmos is evidence that we are in fact at the center of it all.

"From a Darwinian point of view," they write, "it may seem inexplicable that humans should be able to decode the origin and nature of the universe, since this kind of knowledge seems to have no practical consequences and thus no survival value." So their argument, essentially, is that modern science needs higher meaning every bit as much as did ancient societies that traced human ancestry back through the forces of nature. As an example, they note that the Huichol Indians of Mexico believe themselves to be descended from Grandfather Fire -- a decidely scientific idea, given our modern understanding that everything in the universe is the result of an unbroken chain going back to the Big Bang.

Primack and Abrams argue that one of the key findings from science's exploration of all things great and small is that man is right in the middle of the scale between the largest and smallest things in the universe. Their case is well-argued, if occasionally undermined by the introduction of concepts with fringe-sounding names like Cosmic Uroboros (for the size scale that places man at the center of the universe) and Midgard (the section of that scale where mankind exists). But given their goal of breaking down barriers between the modern and traditional understandings of the universe, the occasional odd-seeming concept is to be expected.

In the end, the book's argument is as much social and political as scientific or spiritual. In advancing the idea that man is at the center of the universe, the authors are implying a responsibility for seeing ourselves as intimately connected to the universe -- and, ultimately, responsible for it.

-- Gregory Mott

The Sunset Years

In The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life, and Other Dangerous Fantasies (Harvard Univ., $25.95), Muriel R. Gillick whacks all the major players orchestrating the Last Dance of America's senior citizens. Medicare is misguided, she argues. Nursing homes are like prisons. Assisted living facilities are too often motivated by greed. Doctors (Gillick is a physician, by the way) are too willing to extend life at any cost. Relatives often have lousy judgment about what's best for a loved one. Even those facing their own finality are too focused on themselves.

In assessing the nation's retirement and health care institutions, Gillick is not the first to see flaws that are ruinous both for the seniors receiving aid and for those of us receiving huge bills for that aid. For example, she notes that while most people want to spend their last days at home, only a quarter of people over age 65 do so. Twice as many die in hospitals, which are so focused on keeping patients alive that they haven't mastered the art of respectfully allowing those near death to leave this world.

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