AMIT GOSWAMI, a theoretical physicist born and educated in India and now at the University of Oregon, is interested in the possible link between mind and matter. He has written a brave and delightful work, The Cosmic Dancers, that occupies the border between physics and science fiction. Early in his book, Goswami mentions a prediction psychologist Carl Jung made in the 1950s that two disciplines, nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious, would someday, coming from opposite directions, draw very close together. He then asks, are the "problems" of quantum theory, taken together, evidence that something transcends the physical universe, something perhaps that connects mind with matter. Is there evidence for the "unitive consciousness" that, in Eastern mystical thought, is said to underlie all things? Could this all-encompassing consciousness be the same as Einstein's "hidden variables"? Are the physicist and the electron unable, ultimately, to act independently of each other because they are in some way inextricably part of each other?
Signs of possible linkage between the domains of mind and matter--telepathy, precognition, and psychokenesis (moving objects with the mind)--have been grist for the science fiction writer's mill for decades. Although study of these phenomena has gained some respect, most theoretical nuclear physicists would answer a resounding "no" to Goswami's questions. Cultural idiosyncrasies and prevailing scientific ideas tend to preclude physicists from serious consideration of an idea like the unity of matter and consciousness. Conventional thinking is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Remember Galileo and Copernicus, and even Einstein, whose theory of gravitation was not rapidly accepted because it would banish Newton's great idea to the far corner of the classroom.
A more valid "scientific" objection to a grand transcendental unifying theory would be that a systematic method of testing it has not been conceived. Goswami does not attempt the task. But he deserves a hand for asking what the evidence in support of such a theory might look like, and for asking in a way acceptable to Western thinking.
Goswami's larger thesis is that humanity might benefit from a new, more comprehensive model of reality than our existing concepts allow. The theme of The Cosmic Dancers is the creation of new paradigms at the spot where physics and science fiction overlap. Though it is not music to everybody's ears, it is definitely music and not noise. The book is an opus in honor of "the fire of defiance that drives science fiction writers against scientific dogma." It is a medley of physics, philosophy, history of science, psychology and science fiction. But its crescendo is not at the end, amid speculation on the human mind. To me, the glory of the cosmic dance is most evident midway through the book, in Goswami's description of interstellar travel.
You have probably read a book that you wished would not end. While immersed in the physics of interstellar travel, I felt that I was having a dream from which I did not wish to awaken. If this is evidence of a connection between the physical world and my subconscious, so be it. But I suspect, instead, it is evidence of some fine writing about what may exist beyond the reality scientists have already verified.
Ironically, this part of the book pays strict attention to the rules of conventional physics, insofar as they apply. Pure fantasy, fakery, and even philosophy are forbidden. As a literary form, this segment is a remarkable blend of fiction and nonfiction; yet, in the course of the book, the reader is taught how to distinguish between them.
Starting, for example, with known mathematical relationships between the weight and payload of a rocket, its maximum speed and the velocity of its exhaust, Goswami catalogues the technologies that could propel future rocketships across interstellar expanses at speeds nearing that of light. (Don't worry about the math and science. Everything you need to know for this trip is presented clearly, even the special theory of relativity which you may once have considered a cruel and unusual form of punishment.)
Next, the writer puts you at the controls of a starship which uses hydrogen gas both as its intake "air" and its fuel. "In this case," Goswami says, (and you know it's true because you now understand the formula), "there is no limit on the maximum velocity except for that imposed by relativity, the speed of light . . . One of the main problems . . . is that the density of hydrogen in interstellar space is really thin, about one hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter. Thus the collecting area of the ship has to be very, very large . . ."
On and on Goswami goes, alternating problems and their solutions, until you find yourself gliding along in a "relativistic" starship, unable to see the stars ahead because their light has surpassed the visible spectrum, and only blackness behind because light there has slowed too much for your perception; but to the sides you see a splendid rainbow--this without the assistance of a single earthly water droplet.
Are you ready for intergalactic rainbows or does your fascination dwell with those you have seen on earth? James Trefil's book The Unexpected Vista enables you to take intellectual trips closer to home and conserve energy. Ask him why you've never seen a rainbow in cold weather, why a magnet doesn't pick up pennies, or why people use a light bulb for reading when it produces more heat than light. His answers will take you far from the place where you started, but the landscape will occasionally look familiar.
The reason is that Trefil wants to convey the idea that thinking about a phenomenon can lead, surprisingly and circuitously, to an "unexpected vista." He also believes that it is one of the great achievements of human intellect to comprehend the seemingly infinite variety of material objects in the universe through a handful of general laws--perhaps only one law.
His examples succeed so well in conveying the idea of the unexpected discovery that the book serves as a hearty justification of pure science. The Unexpected Vista, however, does not engender the awe that Trefil, himself, apparently feels as his colleagues attempt to tie the universe together in one neat bundle.
The Cosmic Dancers does inspire. Perhaps, by recognizing the constraints upon our knowledge, we are that much more amazed by the concepts mankind has already proved and by those we only dream about.