"SCIENCE IS OUR CENTURY'S ART," says Horace Freeland Judson in his new book, The Search for Solutions, a discussion of the nature of the scientific endeavor drawing on a wide range of disciplines from astronomy to geology. What is interesting about Judson's comparison of science and art is not only what it says about science but, just as much, the conception of art implicit in it. "If to compare science to art seems -- in the last quarter of the 20th century -- to undervalue what science does," he acutely observes, "that must be, at least partly, because we now expect art to do so little." The notion of art Judson has in mind in making his comparison is not the modern one in which the artist expresses in his works his subjective feelings and ideas. Rather, it is a more traditional (and ultimately Aristotelian) notion in which the artist "imitates nature" by capturing its necessary, objective features, producing what might be called (to paraphrase Francois Mauriac) "fictions" that do not lie. Science, in Judson's perspective, in today's preeminently truthful fiction.

All of which sound a little suspicious -- to scientists, if not to artists -- if it were not clear that Judson's understanding of science as science is "almost as intimate . . . as that possessed by the investigator sitting at the bench," to quote from Lewis Thomas' introduction to this book. If science is an art, then Judson is its "critic," and like any good critic he has taken the trouble to acquaint himself thoroughly with his materials -- any in many cases the scientists who have "created" these materials -- before trying to interpret them. In The Search for Solutions, Judson (who is also the author of The Eighth Day of Creation, a monemental history of the chief discoveries of molecular biology) has expressed his perceptions of the nature of science in a graceful and articulate way, mingling them with an abundance of large, color photographs and a series of interviews with prominent scientists. For anyone who has ever tried to discern "the figure in the carpet" of scientific methodology, puzzling over how science achieves what it does, Judson's book will provide, if not a solution that leaps out at one, then something of its felt presence.

Among the insights contained in The Search for Solutions is that "the evidence" doesn't play quite as major a role in gaining the acceptance of scientific theories as most people are used to thinking it does. As the English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (quoted by Judson) wrote, "It is . . . a good rule not to put too much confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they are confirmed by theory." If this seems the reverse of "the scientific method" we learned in school, the sentiment is nonetheless echoed by many of the scientists Judson interviewed. Thus, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murry Gell-Mann described the events leading to the development of his theory of "the weak interaction force": "there were nine experiments that contradicted it -- all wrong. Every one. When you have something simple that agrees with all the rest of physics and really seems to explain what's going on, a few expeprimental data against it are no objection whatever. Almost certain to be wrong." Even the criterion of reproducibility, the ability to repeat a given experiment in different laboratories with the same results, is not entirely reliable since, as molecular biologist Walter Gilbert said, artifacts or errors introduced by equipment can be reproduced "very, very well." Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, went so far as to tell Judson: "evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as you can."

None of which is to say, however, that scientific theories are simply "free speculations." On the contrary, as Judson says, "They face rigorous restrictions." The point is that these restrictions may very often take the form not of any contradictory evidence or data but of limitations in the current state of knowledge, lack of appropriate techniques and equipment, or simply the prevailing prejudices of the scientific community, which narrow the range of choices researchers feel are acceptable to take.

Judson also notes other kinds of restrictions which science is subject to, but no doubt one of the more interesting is the requirement which some scientists, physicists especially, impose on themselves that their theories be "beautiful" and "elegant." Thus, when Judson asked Paul A. M. Dirac, discoverer of antimatter and one of the outstanding physicists of the 20th century, "what was the relation between theory and observation," the latter replied: "it's most important to have a beautiful theory." But how, Judson then asked him, does one recognize beauty in a theory? Dirac's answer not only provides support for Judson's thesis that "science is our century's art," but also points up the difficulties, the peculiarly satisfying difficulties, which any interpreter of science or art must face. "Well -- you feel it. Just like beauty in a picture or beauty in music. . . . And if you don't feel it, you just have to accept that you're not susceptible to it. No one can explain it to you. If someone doesn't appreciate the beauty of music, what can you do? Give 'em up!"