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BOOK REVIEW : A Physicist Gnaws the Cosmic Bone in Print : A PHYSICIST ON MADISON AVENUE by Tony Rothman ; Princeton University Press; $19.95, 147 pages

May 28, 1991|JOHN WILKES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cosmologists are like puppies gnawing on a soup bone. They growl at the universe, shake it, drag it around and then shake it some more. But they can't break through to the marrow.

Unlike puppies, though, cosmologists are fated to remain forever unable to crack their bone. The marrow they yearn for--certain knowledge of how the universe began, how it got to where it is today and where it's headed--remains beyond their reach, says South African physicist-author Tony Rothman.

That unalterable condition, Rothman writes in this spiky collection of articles on contemporary astrophysics and other topics, sets cosmology apart from other subjects of study. The universe's very uniqueness makes it impossible to comprehend by the usual methods of scientific investigation.

Researchers can't, for example, compare the universe's behavior to that of another universe. All they can do, Rothman says, is record the staggering cosmic events they see and try to devise explanations for them, testing their explanations against available data.

Problems arise, Rothman writes, when new information gathered by observational astronomers contradicts the cosmologists' ideas. At such times, some theorists scramble to reshape their ideas to fit the new data, while others abandon the old explanations in favor of completely new ones.

Of course, the new explanations have weaknesses of their own, which are immediately seized upon. The struggle continues, with much growling and shaking of the bone.

As a treatise on modern cosmology, "A Physicist on Madison Avenue" is less ambitious in scope than Stephen Hawking's best-selling "A Brief History of Time" or Dennis Overbye's recent "Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos."

More essayistic and fragmentary than those books, "Physicist" is the author's fifth book on science and his first written for a popular audience.

The chapters are self-contained articles, many of them previously published in such popular magazines as Scientific American and Discover.

The pieces range from a chronicle of the author's misadventures as an editor and radical business theorist at Scientific American (the title essay), to a detailed examination of the physics of musical instruments, to such truly cosmic concerns as the nature of time, our galaxy and some of the competing theories regarding the universe.

This last subject provides the material for the book's most memorable chapter, "Alternative Cosmologies." In the chapter, however, Rothman also reveals his most serious flaw as a science writer: an arrogantly dismissive attitude toward his editors.

Although the chapter represents the clearest and most accessible discussion of astrophysics in the book, Rothman claims that its editing by the staff of Scientific American before its first publication makes it "the most difficult article in the collection."

After grudgingly acknowledging the skill of a handful of editors he has met, he summarily rejects most of their work on his writing. "So long as 'A Physicist on Madison Avenue' is to be my book," he huffs, "it might as well be in my voice."

That voice is by turns amusing, quarrelsome and self-aggrandizing. Above all, it is haughty. From the outset, the author is at pains to distance himself from ordinary people ("I don't own a television set") and from science journalists, with whom, he complains, he is too often lumped. "My unease with the designation 'journalist' explains, to a large extent, the slightly peculiar nature of (this book)."

Despite Rothman's professed desire to carry the lamp of science into the darkness of popular culture, he clearly prefers the company of his own kind.

This reader is not surprised to learn that Rothman lasted less than a year at Scientific American and that he is now back among his fellow physicists, lecturing on relativity theory and, presumably, once again worrying the cosmic bone.

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Chutzpah" by Alan Dershowitz (Little, Brown).

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