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'Milky Way' Author Comes of Age as a Modern Poet With His Head in the Stars

September 02, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago Timothy Ferris earned his living pontificating on the dubious aesthetics of bands such as Grand Funk Railroad. But rock stars were never as intriguing to him as the celestial bodies overhead.

So Ferris took a stab at writing about real stars.

That his subsequent books on astronomy--"The Red Limit," "Galaxies," "Space Shot" and now "Coming of Age in the Milky Way"--have been praised by scientists as well as book critics should be encouraging to those who still find the Big Bang, black holes, quarks and quantum physics to be over our heads. Especially considering that Ferris has achieved his grasp of astronomy and physics with virtually no formal education in the fields.

Teaches at Berkeley

The author, who began his writing career in journalism and now teaches at UC Berkeley, has received the American Institute of Physics Prize, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's prize for lifetime achievement, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for his popularizations of esoteric science.

"Ferris has pioneered a new style of science book," Carl Sagan said after the publication of "The Red Limit."

"His explanations are effortless and impeccable, and he brings a poet's command of the language to the illumination of ideas," said the Los Angeles Times review of "Milky Way." Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard called it "a major achievement."

"I think more and more people are coming to realize that science is to us what painting was to the Italian Renaissance, what music was to Baroque Germany with Bach," Ferris said as he sat on the sunlit patio of the Hotel Bel-Air recently, looking thoroughly frazzled after rocketing through eight cities in 12 days on the talk-show circuit.

"It's the hottest art form around, and not to know something about it is to ignore the foremost endeavor of our time."

In "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," Ferris, 46, details humanity's scientific rites of passage, charting how our views of the universe have expanded and contracted as peoples' minds alternately opened with scientific curiosity and slammed shut in ignorance.

Although that process continues, Ferris concludes that humanity can finally lay claim to a measure of "cosmological maturity."

"I've thought for 20 years that this was the greatest story on the face of the Earth," Ferris said of humanity's quest to understand its place in the universe. So Ferris writes like Mr. Wizard, his enthusiasm for scientific discovery spilling over like the bubbling goop from Mr. Wizard's beakers.

"There's an underlying groundswell of public interest in astronomy, cosmology (the study of the universe as a whole) and physics," Ferris said. "Readers are looking for a personality whom they can trust to tell them about it in a way they can understand."

The obvious example of this is Steven Hawking, a wheelchair-bound physicist whose book about quantum physics, "A Brief History of Time," has been perched atop the hard-cover best-seller list for 17 weeks (and which, incidently, Ferris said he edited "rather extensively").

A Hip Approach to Icons

Perhaps because of his background (Ferris was the New York editor of Rolling Stone in the early '70s), he takes an almost hip approach to portraying figures often treated with reverence in standard texts.

Take the way he describes the enlightening but lunatic pairing of astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in the 16th Century. Kepler was "neurotic, self-loathing, arrogant and vociferous" and drew "titters from the flunkies when he appeared in his baggy, food-stained suit."

Brahe, on the other hand, was a "despotic giant of a man, who sported a belly of Jovian proportions and a gleaming, metal-alloy nose. . . . He dressed like a prince and ruled his domain like a king, tossing scraps to a dwarf named Jepp who huddled beneath the dinner table."

It's important to Ferris that people realize that science is emotionally and spiritually as well as intellectually rewarding.

Reuniting Art, Science

Traditionally, art and science were seen as being of the same fabric, Ferris said. Copernicus wrote of "the ballet of the planets," Milton interviewed Galileo before penning "Paradise Lost."

Now the two are again intertwining, he said, pointing to John Updike's recent "Roger's Version"--"a novel about cosmology and particle physics really"--and the fact that well-written science books are competing with fad diets on the best-seller lists.

Ferris says that he has seen the increased popularity of science books coming for a long time. He caught on somewhere between age 5 and 8 when he read a child's history of the world.

"I thought . . . the Earth, every place we've ever been, is not the whole world," he said. "It came into being as the result of processes that involve a wider scheme of things. A cosmic scheme of things. I thought that was amazing and I still do."

So he kept reading. His parents were poor but they had a policy that once a month their child could pick out a new hard-cover book at the local bookstore.

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