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Book Review : Fine Story of Science History

July 15, 1988|LEE DEMBART

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris (William Morrow and Co.: $19.95; 495 pages)

The history and development of science is civilization's best story. Starting with the ancient Greeks more than 2,500 years ago, it is the saga of humanity's use of its intelligence to understand the world and the universe around us.

After Daniel Boorstin's monumental history, "The Discoverers" (Random House: 1983), who would have thought that the story of humanity's increasing awareness of its place in the universe could profitably be written again?

And yet, in "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," Timothy Ferris has told it again and told it with insight, authority and sweep. A distinguished science writer and teacher of science writing, Ferris has written a multitextured, multilayered history of science that bristles with ideas and the people who conceived them. It is also imbued with the understanding that science cannot answer all questions.

The cast of characters is familiar--Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and many, many others--but like every great classic, each time this story is told, it contains details and insights that give it new life.

The story and its themes are also helped by Ferris' skill as a writer. His explanations are effortless and impeccable, and he brings a poet's command of the language to the illumination of ideas.

"Cosmologists tend to be loners," he writes, "their gaze fixed on the far horizons of space and time and their data tenderly garnered from trickles of ancient starlight; none will ever touch a star. . . . Physicists (on the other hand) work hard and fast, haunted by the legend that they are unlikely to have many useful new ideas after the age of 40, while cosmologists are more often end-game players, devotees of the long view, who can expect to still be doing productive research when their hair turns white."

When Ferris reaches the 20th Century, in which the quest for certainty was smashed on the rocks of quantum mechanics, he follows the dilemma of contemporary physics to its seemingly incomprehensible and self-contradictory understanding of the universe.

Geological Time

Suddenly the pieces no longer fit together right. Experimental physicists have found a plethora of particles and spins and charges and other parameters that work--sort of--but hardly make up an elegant theory. "Though the standard model gets results," Ferris writes, "few imagine that it represents the last word on the subject. The model is a crazy quilt, not a mandala."

How could this have happened? How could several millennia of increased understanding of the physical world have led to the current mess in theoretical physics? After spelling out for nearly 400 pages in minute, loving detail what we know and how we know it, Ferris concludes that we are ignorant.

"Our ignorance," he writes, "has always been with us, and always will be. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species. Space may have a horizon and time a stop, but the adventure of learning is endless."

In Ferris' telling, the history of science is the history of the expansion of humanity's understanding of space and time. Ancient people thought that the stars were on a fixed sphere relatively close to the Earth. As time went on, the distances got progressively greater.

Similarly, until fairly recently, the age of the universe and of humanity's history in it was considered young--a few thousand years. The concept of geological time--stretching back millions, and now billions of years--did not become well established until the 19th Century.

These two discoveries--of great distances and great amounts of time--are the "coming of age" that Ferris refers to in the title of his book. But our knowledge of these things has not helped answer the ultimate question that puzzled ancient people and still puzzle us: Where did the universe come from?

Ferris writes: "We are left . . . with an image of genesis as a soundless and insubstantial castle, where our eyes cast innovative, Homeric beams and the only voices are our own. Having ushered ourselves in and having reverently and diligently done our scientific homework, we ask, as best we can frame the question, how creation came to be. The answer comes back, resounding through vaulted chambers where mind and cosmos meet. It is an echo."

Somehow, that explanation isn't satisfying, though, for the moment, it's the best that science has.

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