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Answers About the Universe : Is science a tool or a crutch? : FIRE IN THE MIND: Science, Faith and the Search for Order, By George Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf: $27.50; 400 pp.)

October 01, 1995|Roger Lewin | Roger Lewin's latest book, "The Sixth Extinction," co - authored with Richard Leakey, will be published by Doubleday in October

New Mexico is a land of intense natural beauty and deep history, both of which inspire an awe of religious dimension. Some of the earliest archeological sites are there, at Clovis and Folsom, raising questions over the date of human entry to the Americas: 10,000 years ago, or earlier?

Built later in history, the stone Great Houses of the Anasazi defy ready explanation, both in why they were connected with one another by long straight "roads" and in why, suddenly, they were abandoned. Mystery, mystery, mystery.

Modern New Mexico is a blend of three cultures: Native American, Hispanic and Anglo, laminations of successive colonizations, each imposing its presence on the land, each influenced by the other, each with its own view of nature and its place in it. Modern New Mexico also is the home of the atomic bomb, built among the Jemez Mountains at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, five decades ago. And the intellectual descendants of those great names--Bohr, Fermi, Bethe, Feynman, Rabi, Von Neuman and Oppenheimer--continue to labor at the edge of knowledge. Not far away, at Santa Fe, New Agers wandering in their ethereal mind-scapes mix with researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, who are seeking to build a new science of complexity, seeking the workings of the universe of things.

George Johnson, a science writer for the New York Times who now lives in Santa Fe, chose this location--this mix of ancient and modern, of science and religion, of mystery and mysticism--to explore the human mind's hunger for answers about the universe, and the desire for control. It's a hunger to tell stories about "how and why we sprang from primordial waters--and of what happened after the grand emergence."

Johnson argues that this storytelling is much the same, whether it is in the dances of the Tewa tribe, the rituals of the Catholic Penitentes, or the unfolding scientific theories at Los Alamos and Santa Fe. "The drive to seek and impose order on the world has given birth to the sciences of biology, geology, particle physics, astronomy, cosmology," he states; "it has generated grand cathedrals of abstraction like quantum theory and Tewa religion."

It was a bold and ambitious choice, this attempt at a grand synthesis, one fraught with ripe dangers of kitsch intellectualism and pretentiousness. Johnson avoids these and other pitfalls, and has produced what can only be described as a brilliant and powerful exploration of the nature of humanity and the way we, in diversity, see our world and our place in it. He has caught the bow wave of a newly emerging freedom in science, one that to some seems threateningly mystical, but in reality reflects a greater insight into nature. And the parallels he draws between scientific thinking and ancient and modern mythological explanations of the world thrill in their revelation of the connectedness of things.

The book is in three parts, each of which addresses order in the world of nature, at different levels. In the first part, Johnson explores particle physics and astronomy, the sciences of the very small and very large, linked by their different expressions of the fundamental properties of matter; of the transformation of energy into matter, in the Big Bang, producing the organized structure we know as our universe. The second part deals with a puzzling paradox: the recognition that randomness, or chaos, exists in the workings of nature, and yet order flows from those workings. How does this happen? And the third part asks how was it that creatures such as ourselves, complex and curious as we are, evolved in life's flow?

The "single mystery arching over the rest," says Johnson, is this: "Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? Do the patterns found by the scientific subcultures of Santa Fe and Los Alamos hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from a distant galaxy consider them as culturally determined as those divined by the Tewa and the Penitentes?"

To many, it is little short of heretical to suggest that the scientific endeavor is anything but a search for the Truth, a concrete reality out there somewhere. Johnson takes an agnostic stance between science as discovery and science as construction. "In the end," he argues, "there is no way to know whether science is converging on a single truth, the way the universe really is, or simply building artificial structures, tools that allow us to predict, to some extent, and to explain and control."

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