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Book Review : An Offbeat View of Science's Larger Issues

June 24, 1988|LEE DEMBART

The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature by David Quammen (Delacorte Press: $17.95; 302 pages)

A couple of months ago in this space I commented favorably on "The Man With No Endorphins" by James Gorman, a collection of funny, off-beat articles about science that had originally appeared in Discover magazine.

So when I started reading "The Flight of the Iguana" by David Quammen, a collection of funny, offbeat articles about science that had originally appeared in Outside and other magazines, I wondered what I was going to say about this book that I hadn't already said about the last one.

Fortunately, I was in for a surprise. For although the essays in "The Flight of the Iguana" start off being funny and offbeat (and very funny and very offbeat at that), part way through, the tone and focus shift. The articles become serious (well, most of them), and Quammen uses science as a way to reflect on other subjects, some political, some philosophical, some just wise ruminations on this and that.

First the funny part. Quammen writes about biology and the world of living things with a jaundiced, cock-eyed view. He has a proper and healthy respect for the absurdity of life as well as its silliness. (There's a difference between the two. Silliness is a local phenomenon. Absurdity is cosmic silliness.)

The Right Attitude

Quammen has the right frame of mind about things. He knows that the purpose of life is to entertain yourself. He also knows that the most interesting things are what we don't know rather than what we do know. So his book his full of whys and how comes .

And he is not afraid to tell the truth. He writes, "Paul Dirac describes a positron as 'an electron hole.' According to Dirac, these holes might exist everywhere throughout empty space, but generally they would not be detectable because they are filled each with a complementary electron. Every electron in our world of matter must have some particular level of energy; the electrons stuck in antimatter holes are those with energy levels less than zero. So they can't get out. And when an electron falls into such a hole, that electron disappears in a burst of surrendered energy. Do you understand that much? Neither do I."

Sometimes his humor is more straightforward. In a little essay on scorpions, he writes, "My own heartfelt conviction is that scorpions are perhaps the most drastically, irredeemably repulsive group of animals on the face of the Earth, even including toy poodles."

You have to like the guy just for that, right?

But, as indicated, the funny stuff is just the come-on that gets you into the tent. Quammen then turns serious. He writes of evolution and species extinction on far-away islands and the threats to living things around the world. He writes with effortless control over his material and a quiet passion about it.

The Sanctuary Movement

Then come three essays on the Sanctuary movement in the Southwest aimed at helping political refugees from Central America. Three moving essays, loosely linked to the ecology of the desert, but more about politics than about biology.

When I began reading this section, I wondered what it was doing in this book about science. But as I read on, I was happy that Quammen included it. The plight and suffering of human beings is part of biology, too.

Finally, there are more personal essays: a glorious piece on the biological and emotional splendors of monogamy; a gritty, fly-filled recounting of a canoe trip through the Okefenokee Swamp; a bit of homage to William Faulkner and Hughes Rudd, a former network correspondent.

Quammen likes science for its own sake, but he also likes it for the larger truths it suggests. He works the fringes of science and draws conclusions that are universal.

"The study of biology is such a fine antidote to rigid, normative thinking that perhaps all our televised preachers and tin-whistle moralists should be required occasionally to take a dose of it," Quammen says. "The experience couldn't help but be broadening. No general truth emerges more clearly, from even a browser's tour of the intricacies of the natural world, than this: Chances are, there is more than one right way to do it."

On one wall of my house is a clock that goes backward. It keeps perfect time, mind you, but the hands go around counter-clockwise. The 1 is where the 11 normally is; the 2 is where the 10 normally is; and so forth.

Guests sometimes ask me about that clock, and I've never had a succinct explanation for it. Now I do. I'll quote the message of David Quammen: "There is more than one right way to do it."

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