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Now in Paperback

November 29, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, photographs and text by Robert del Tredici (Harper & Row: $17.95). Film makers and journalists, doctors and physicists often remind us of its destructive potential, liberal politicians carefully emphasize their opposition (in principle at least) to its proliferation. It seems that our age is savvy about the A-bomb. And yet, as Del Tredici points out, our mental pictures of rockets in the atmosphere, the tapered cone and cities turned to ash are so distant that they have become "icons worn smooth by time and use." Del Tredici's remedy is not to inundate us with gruesome photos, but to compose a book for nuclear-world-weary eyes. The focus is on the immediate--weapons manufacturing in the United States--rather than on the intangible--past and future wars.

One can espy a touch of scorn in some of the pictures--one blond Goodyear representative displays her company's contribution to the Pershing 2 Missile System, smiling and gesturing like an automobile salesperson. There is, however, a dearth of sarcasm in this book. Toward the beginning of the text (photographs of factories, scientists and dissidents such as Admiral Hyman Rickover populate the book's first half), the authors feature an interview with a weapons plant official who seems less-than-anguished about radiation problems. "I've seen nuclear explosions in Nevada, and I've seen 'em in the Pacific, and big deal . . . . Sure, it's an awesome sight, but it didn't change my life. I'm very blase about the whole thing. There's no hazard to it that particularly affects me." And, while one wishes the author had investigated a bit more, finagling interviews with plant workers, for instance, his decision to refrain from lambasting these officials seems wise, for our concern is heightened when we learn the hard facts in later pages: the half-life of highly radioactive uranium, for instance, the time it takes for the element to decay into another, possibly less dangerous form, is 4.46 billion years.

Illuminations: A Bestiary, Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould (Norton: $19.95). Were the pictures in this book not accompanied by a richly informative text, one might expect to find them on the wall of a haunted house. Intent on provoking readers to contemplate the divisions between art and science, humans and animals, life and death, photographer Rosamond Wolff Purcell and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould take everyday natural history museum exhibits--bugs on poster-board, animal vertebra--and transform them through creative placement, lighting, background, point of view and accompanying text. The consequently bizarre creatures first look surreal, and, then, as our recognition of their kinship with humans and appearance of life after death sets in, disturbingly real. The book principally focuses on how science reflects our culture--Gould finds the museum identification number on a "bumpy-toothed" seal "ordinary and discordant," while Purcell saw it as "a prison signature with many layers of meaning." Similarly, the authors look at the white stripes on black zebras and see in our misperception "an interesting commentary on cultural bias." Gould and Purcell retain a sense of wonder and respect for science, nevertheless. Their intent is not to knock science, but to show the fallacy in the traditional notion that art creates, while science studies what has already been created. Art and science are closer in character than we might think, Gould and Purcell remind us, illuminating the scientific shapes and structures that color our perception of the natural world.

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