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Book Review : The Beauty and Truth of Nature's Laws

September 12, 1989|LEE DEMBART

Reading the Mind of God: In Search of the Principle of Universality by James Trefil (Scribners: $18.95; 232 pages)

This is a beautiful book. From the picture of God on the dust jacket (a head-and-shoulders close-up from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) to the speculation about building a universe at the end, James Trefil tells the story of modern physics with simplicity and elegance.

He also has a thesis, which is that the most important discovery of physics is that there is such a thing as physics. That is, the discovery that the universe has laws that are universally true throughout time and space. Here and now, everywhere forever.

This is not immediately apparent. Isaac Newton's great contribution was to link the fall of an apple to the moon going around the Earth. They both demonstrate the law of gravitation, a universal of nature. Our primitive tendency is to think the Earth is special, made up of different stuff and governed by different rules than the rest of the cosmos.

"There is no logical reason why the same laws should hold everywhere in the universe," Trefil writes. "That the same force of gravity that keeps the Earth in orbit should govern all the stars in the Milky Way is every bit as miraculous as Newton's connection between the apple and the moon."

What we discover on the Earth applies on the sun and in the distant reaches of the cosmos, which we squint at through our telescopes. These are nature's laws. They are fundamental to the universe and exist, as it were, in the mind of God.

Physics, Trefil argues, is about the world out there. Its truths exist independently of us. Physics is fundamentally different from, say, philosophy or literature. We do not make it up. It does not depend on human whims or styles.

Trefil is a physicist at George Mason University in Virginia and an accomplished popular writer on science. "Reading the Mind of God" is his 10th book). He presents here the realist--some might say centrist--view of science.

This is the view, consistent with the other sustaining stories of our society, that history is progress and that we sit atop the apex of all that has come before us. Science is neutral. It strives to discover truths about the world out there. Scientists build on previous work to construct this picture.

Trefil disputes those who say that science is a social activity as subject to human tastes as hemlines. He distinguishes two separate activities in science: inventing theories and testing them. To be sure, he says, the creation of theories may indeed be indistinguishable from creation in other endeavors, but in science there is also objective verification. No scientific theory is accepted without being tested and verified against the world out there, a step that does not exist in many other human endeavors.

"This, then, is the fundamental difference between science and the humanities," Trefil writes in his straightforward style. "In the former there is objective testing for correctness that is lacking in the latter. "As I am fond of reminding my students, in science it is possible to start from reasonable premises, argue impeccably, and still make predictions that do not match the data. This is not the case in other disciplines. In the arts, questions of correctness are largely irrelevant, as they should be. In other fields, such as literary criticism and philosophy, they tend to be ignored. . . ."

But let us not digress. The main part of the book is a first-class recounting of the discoveries of modern physics from Newton to the present day. Trefil is a very good explainer, and in his hands the story is full of anecdotes and quirks of history.

Nowadays, Trefil notes, scientists take the principle of universality for granted. It's a given of their trade. But this was a hard-won principle that is now pervasive throughout the sciences. It is the principle on which the edifice of science stands. Trefil's book admirably gives it the attention it deserves.

Footnote: For some time now I have been bothered by the large number of typographical errors and misspellings I see between hard covers. I have generally chosen to overlook them, fearing that it sounds picky to complain about such things.

But "Reading the Mind of God" is so full of typos (percieve , millenium , has for was ) that it would be negligent not to ask the publisher, Scribners, and publishers in general, to please hire more proofreaders.

Aside from that, the book was a delight.

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