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Nonfiction in Brief

April 10, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

FLANAGAN'S VERSION A Spectator's Guide to Science on the Eve of the 21st Century by Dennis Flanagan (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95) American popular science writing, steadily improving since the late 1970s, is now better than ever, clarifying scientific concepts while retaining the sense of magic and mystery that lures people into science's complex and counterintuitive world. Even among this formidable group, however, Dennis Flanagan, former editor of Scientific American, seems exceptionally eloquent and well-informed. Flanagan does more than popularize; he's able to pinpoint the philosophical implications behind the daily rush of science news. In physics, for example, he recognizes that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, positing that more complex organizations are degraded into less complex ones, can seem scary in its implications. So he explores the question, "Is there some kind of force to counter the effects of the second law?"

Though Flanagan is an independent thinker, his views essentially mirror those of the scientific establishment, which occasionally causes him to uncritically accept the conventional wisdom. In a chapter on medicine, for instance, he implies that a high GNP ensures a healthy populace. In fact, China, with a very low GNP, also has a very low infant mortality rate, while wealthy South Africa has a high infant mortality rate. Usually, though, Flanagan's writing is wise, far-sighted and (often) funny, however, as in this speculation on how civilizations more advanced than us might create a population of self-reproducing human beings and land them on the Earth to study it as ecologists. "They would look a bit strange, and they would certainly be smarter than human beings. Since they would get bored with their assignments, they would be disproportionately represented in fun activities such as movie-making. In short, they are Hungarians."

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