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Now in Paperback

February 15, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Keeping in Touch, Ellen Goodman (Fawcett: $4.95). She takes the complex and makes it concise, she looks at discouraging news and finds in it cause for hope, she's liberal but not hesitant to cross party lines, she's concerned about the direction in which we're heading but she hasn't forgotten the redeeming force of humor. Like the yuppies who form a large part of her readership, Ellen Goodman tries to arrive at a bright, constructive vision of our nation through good-natured inquiry rather than blind patriotism. And so, while her essay topics range far and wide--from Penthouse magazine and the Strategic Defense Initiative to Bernie Goetz and Raisa Gorbachev--they echo the voice of a generation in search of meaning. "Do you think I'm losing my ambition?," asks a lawyer friend of Goodman's who stopped working 12-hour days so she could spend time with family and friends. "Do you think that my get up and go got up and went?"

On the contrary, Goodman sees this as "creative confusion," a new liveliness that has emerged out of "old certainties." It's no surprise, then, that Goodman reserves her greatest scrutiny for dogma (such as President Reagan's "pep rallies for USA High") and pessimism (a Dr. Seuss book that concludes with two children wondering which superpower will drop the Bomb first). Always accentuating the positive can have its drawbacks, however, as is illustrated by Goodman's piece on the time best-selling author Doris Lessing tried to get one of her novels published under a pseudonym and failed decisively. The hoax demonstrated that we all-too-often value celebrity over substance, but Goodman doesn't consider this critical conclusion about society, looking instead at what the hoax meant to Lessing: "Life is too fragile if your identity is solely defined by others; it is hard, a lifelong task, to go on defining and redefining yourself." But, while Goodman may not always take on the Establishment like a muckraking reporter, her pieces suggest how, through a more enlightened attitude, we can change it.

The Unfinished Universe, Louise B. Young (Simon & Schuster: $8.95). Popular science writers have come to sound like preachers for a secularist religion. Early texts tried to stir our faith by evoking the wonders of the cosmos. More recently, popularizers have presented the current search in physics for a theory uniting matter and energy as a quest for a deistic "superforce." Shaping data to fit one's beliefs makes for bad science, however, and, in truth, the actual principles of classical dynamics do not lend themselves readily to faith. They posit that every individual, atom or star is just another cog in a great machine, obeying immutable laws. Twentieth Century physics is no more romantic or reassuring, allowing for some degree of indeterminism but depicting man as little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world. Veteran science writer Louise Young, however, has found a way of softening this scientific vision with minimum distortion.

Positing that the universe is still involved in "the act of creation," she takes on the traditional view that the universe is losing energy, appealing, in the process, to the faithful lot who don't believe God retired after setting the wheels spinning. She also appeals to the ambitious movers-and-shakers through her argument that "the possibility of foresight has entered the cosmos" with the advent of the human brain. Young's publishers say these are new ideas, but they are actually alternative ways of presenting established theories. The presentation, nevertheless, is as evocative as the photographs that are scattered throughout the book: The Empire State Building towers like a Tourmaline crystal ("Manifestations of nature's tendency to build ever higher and more complex levels of form"), the lines of a frost flower arch gracefully in the shape of a bird's feather ("Life is a stage in the organization of matter"), the Andromeda Galaxy glows bright white in its center like a human cell under an electron microscope ("The whole is immanent in all parts, no matter how small").

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