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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

"We were living in rural Florida, and it was some distance to the bookstore. So I devoted a lot of attention to choosing the one right book."

Gradually the Ferris family's fortunes improved, and the boy bought a telescope for $45. When he was 13 or 14 he bought a fancier $125 scope on time payments.

In 1966, Ferris graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago with majors in English and communications. His only science class had been astronomy, and he attributes his ability to make his way amid esoteric ideas now to the fact that he absorbed so much science so early, even though he couldn't possibly comprehend it all at the time.

Wondered About Writing

After college, Ferris worked as a journalist for United Press International and the New York Post, then became New York editor of Rolling Stone.

"Once I began to get established as a writer, I naturally wondered whether I could write about this subject, which was of the greatest interest to me."

So, in 1972 or 1973, he wrote a piece about our place in the universe that seemed entirely out of place in Rolling Stone.

It was titled "How Do We Know Where We Are If We've Never Been Anywhere Else," and "It had no news angle, no this, no that, it just came out of nowhere. But it got a terrific response. People just wigged out on it."

When Ferris learned that someone had stood up at a party, turned off the music, and that others had stood and listened as the article was read aloud, he figured there might be more interest in science among the rock generation than was generally assumed.

Even as he worked on his other astronomy books, Ferris was researching the whole history of cosmology for "Milky Way."

As he tells it, the story concludes (for now) with the recent "shotgun wedding" between the disciplines of particle physics and cosmology--between the scientists studying the 40,000 galaxies arrayed across a million billion cubic light-years of space and those studying particles 10-to-the-negative-35th-power times smaller than a human.

But getting to that point came in fits and starts. Ferris points out, for instance, that if the world had listened to a Greek by the name of Aristarchus, who calculated a huge sun-centered universe, rather than the geocentric, gears-within-gears "wheeling and whirling Rube Goldberg fashion" view of Ptolemy four centuries later, "cosmology might have been spared a millennium of delusion."

Then the Middle Ages arrived and "the sky was demoted from a glorious sphere to its prior status as a low tent roof. . . . The proud round Earth was hammered flat, likewise the shimmering sun. Behind the sky reposed eternal heaven, accessible only through death."

But, theories, Ferris writes, quoting Ernst Mach, "are like withered leaves, which drop off after having enabled the organism of science to breathe for a time."

So, as Columbus, Magellan and others sailed about redefining man's understanding of the globe, Copernicus "sent his mind's eye journeying to the sun, and what he saw turned the Earth into a ship under sail, assaying oceanic reaches of space undreamed of since the days of Aristarchus."

In "Milky Way" Ferris gives approximately equal time to the theories and to the thinkers who thought them up.

Repeats Apocryphal Stories

While he points out the often apocryphal nature of scientific history, he also repeats stories that sound suspect--there's Newton, for instance, the archetype of the absent-minded scientist, walking home with a bridle and leader in hand, unaware that the horse he'd been walking, as he pondered the universe, had slipped away.

And Plutarch reports that Archimedes was so wrapped up in his calculations that he had to be bathed or anointed by force, and even then would "draw diagrams in the oil on his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science."

Ferris at least understands such absorption with science and is clearly excited that Berkeley's astronomy department has asked him to teach Astronomy 101 this fall, in addition to his journalism classes.

"What it is to be a student has never appealed to me very much," Ferris said. "I get along well with students now in part because of that. I sympathize. I used to hate the feeling of being imprisoned in a class . . . of having someone keep you a prisoner and not light things up for you."

Ferris sees as wrongheaded the current truism that the high priests of our culture are the astrophysicists and other scientists pushing the frontiers of what we know about creation.

"Science is egalitarian. Anyone who wants to learn the rudiments can go out and test any result in principle. . . . In religion you have to take things on faith because someone or something says so."

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