Jacob Brogan is an assistant editor for The Washington Post’s Outlook section.
Sometimes science aligns with the lyrical. “Perhaps poetry is another of science’s deepest roots: the capacity to see beyond the visible,” writes quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli in his remarkable book “The Order of Time.” When we carefully attend to the world’s workings, Rovelli suggests, we can sometimes tune in to its rhythms and rhymes, reveling in the meter of reality itself.
Science writer Stefan Klein sets out to prove a similar point in his new book, “How to Love the Universe,” but he does not affiliate himself with the poets so much as attempt to correct them. As he explains, he hopes to assuage “sensitive people” — by which he means poets and their like — who supposedly worry that learning about the nature of things makes reality less mysterious. He takes Edgar Allan Poe to task for characterizing science as “a predator on poetry” and singles out an unnamed but “well-known” German poet who supposedly “detested our ever more precise knowledge of genes because decoded man was a bore.”
Not so, Klein assures us: Poets need only recognize that nature’s wonder is evident in the enigmas that emerge from new discoveries, enigmas that show just how complex our world can be. B orrowing an example from Richard Feynman, he writes that the botanist’s gaze does not wilt the rose’s beauty but amplifies it, leading us back to the dazzling origins of life itself and ultimately to the realization that the flower’s delicate petals are “metamorphosed stardust.” It’s a lovely image, but it’s also one that’s now decades old. Pushing ahead, Klein proposes to demonstrate “how twenty-first-century physics changes our thinking, the way we see the world.”
If he hopes to substantiate his central premise that science makes the world stranger, Klein must do two things. First, he has to explain challenging scientific discoveries. Second, he has to show us that new puzzles ensue once we make sense of those revelations. Over the course of 10 chapters, he tries to do just that, leading us through an array of topics, from the big bang to the seemingly limitless scope of the cosmos, touching on dark matter, the organization of time and the immateriality of matter.
Many of these topics already exude an inherent gee-whiz quality, but Klein wants to show us that they are even more peculiar than they seem. Tackling the immensity of space, he writes that there must be countless earthlike planets orbiting sun-like stars. From here, he leaps to another conclusion, arguing that, given the near-infinite multitude of stars, there must be other worlds that exactly duplicate the conditions of our own, such that “with a probability close to certainty, each one of us has an infinite number of doubles in the cosmos.” It is mathematically likely, he contends, that a person exactly like me is writing a book review exactly like this one over and over again across the universe.
Here we see Klein’s method at work: Yes, there are a lot of stars. And yes, many of those stars have planets orbiting them. Once we acknowledge these established facts, we can let our minds wander. Are we alone in the universe? Almost certainly not. If not, is it possible that there are other worlds like our own, even if they are very far away? Almost certainly! If there are, is it possible that some of those worlds exactly re-create the conditions of our own, down to the precise details of our individual lives? Maybe! Always squinting at the fuzzy edge of the horizon, Klein insists we should be most amazed by the things we suspect but can never fully know.
He gets at this point most directly when he tackles the limitations of predictive systems such as meteorology. The more precise our attempts to anticipate the future become, he argues, the more data we require, and hence the more likely it is that errors will creep into our analysis. He writes, for example, of a storm that scientists failed to predict because the equipment at a single outlying weather monitoring station wasn’t calibrated properly. By my read, this feels more like a failure of scientific instrumentation and process than like evidence that we can never fully untangle the knot of reality. Nevertheless, such events lead him to oddly metaphysical musings: “It is as if nature had ensured that it would keep on surprising itself,” he enthuses. “To me it seems that it is precisely this unpredictability that marks the boundary between life and death.”
Such nonsensical phrases suggest that Klein longs to be one with the poets he criticizes. Perhaps this is why he, a trained physicist, tends to treat hard-won scientific realizations as if they were still-mysterious puzzles, often making them more difficult to understand than they would be otherwise. He weaves a bizarrely complicated fictional crime story, for example, to explain quantum entanglement, but the resulting narrative is so obtuse that it is difficult to comprehend. Klein’s tale finds a detective investigating a series of simultaneous thefts in London and New York, an implausible sequence of events that is profoundly puzzling on its own terms. Though he never catches the perps, the detective does conclude that “all the places in the world are in reality just one place,” which may explain the behavior of protons under experimental conditions but makes no sense within the world of his story.
Going into that tale, I thought I had a layperson’s understanding of quantum entanglement — the way objects can act in concert even when they have no clear causal relationship — but reading Klein drove me to other sources for a refresher on the topic. It wasn’t that he revealed new complexities, just that he explained things so strangely that I ended up doubting my own knowledge. As a rule, if you hope to articulate something that challenges our understanding of reality, you must do so in realistic terms. Klein, meanwhile, seems committed to making everything a little more unreal from the start.
Eager to astonish, Klein prizes mystery over solution. Thus, we find him working by sleight of hand, often starting with questions before establishing a foundation of understanding. Science may well make the world stranger, but it helps no one to estrange us from science.