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October 26, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Universal Machine: Confessions of a Technological Optimist, Pamela McCorduck (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $7.95). Scientific sophistication and social introversion used to go hand in hand in images from popular culture. Today, however, technology, power and popularity seem more closely intertwined; one leading computer ad even places its pitch for "a high-powered 16-bit PC" over the image of a Porsche. In "The Universal Machine," Pamela McCorduck expands on that image, showing that mind-and-computer can be far more powerful than hands-and-wheel. This at first sounds like a humanistic message, but, in fact, McCorduck spends a good part of this book criticizing the "pessimism and paranoia" in the humanities; in fact, she tries to redefine "the humanities" as "structures to grasp the natural world . . . to express and shape our deepest longings." McCorduck's book is essentially libertarian, for it places individual achievement over cultural legacy: "Why the glory that was Greece?," she asks a professor of classics. "Written language," he responds, after failing to find some other enduring, dominant cultural contribution. Like others celebrating high technology, McCorduck at times envisions an overly grand role for microprocessors (the superpowers "might just be able to sit down (with computers) and model together," she writes). Still, this 1985 book remains the best articulation yet of the humanism behind high-tech.

New Worlds: In Search of the Planets, Heather Couper with Nigel Henbest (Addison Wesley: $12.95). One can't help but inspire wonder when guiding readers through something as vast as the universe, but, unfortunately, many tours of the cosmos fail to do more than that. The author, president of the British Astronomical Society, is unabashedly enthusiastic in these pages, especially when she describes dramatic new images sent back last year by Voyager 2: One, for example, shows a craggy, ash-gray moon lost in the swirling, turquoise clouds of Uranus. Heather Couper's text never wanders in wonderment, however, because she recurrently returns home to make points relevant to the here-and-now. After examining the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Venus, for instance, she speculates on whether the continued burning of fossil fuels on Earth could cause a similar "greenhouse effect." All of her planetary journeys begin with a lively history, one dominated by recurrent rifts between astronomers and skeptical leaders. Since they started rejecting Earth-centered visions of the universe (such as the Babylonian notion that "five wandering stars" presaged political unrest), astronomers were continually being outcast. Couper continues to emphasize our planet's minor role in larger matters, bringing the idea home through everyday examples: It would take 21 years to reach the sun by transatlantic jet, she tells us, 850 years to get to Pluto, 6 million years to get to the nearest neighboring star and 100,000 million years to cross the Milky Way Galaxy.

Visions of a Vanishing Place, Edward Sheriff Curtis (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95). In his noble endeavor to chronicle disappearing Indian cultures, the author did not always employ the noblest of methods. When signs of the 20th Century showed up on the clothes of his photographic subjects, he'd give them traditional costumes. However, Curtis' approach cannot be harshly criticized, for he was racing time, trying, after more than 30 years and 40,000 negatives, to highlight Indian pride, not modern encroachments on tribes from the Southwest to the Arctic. These broad and luminous portraits are soft-edged, bathed in warm, diffuse light. Equally warm is an accompanying text by Victor Boesen and Florence Curtis Graybill, one of Curtis' granddaughters.

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