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THE INFLATIONARY UNIVERSE: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins. By Alan Guth . Addison-Wesley: 368 pp., $25 : GOODBYE, DESCARTES: The End of Logic and Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind. By Keith Devlin . John Wiley & Sons: 320 pp., $27.95

May 25, 1997|K.C. COLE | K.C. Cole is a science writer for The Times

Almost 20 years ago, I tagged along with the great physicist Victor Weisskopf as he talked to a Cambridge, Mass., high school class about the Big Bang, the explosive origin of the universe. One student asked him what happened before the Bang, what caused the Bang? That question, said Weisskopf, fell outside the realm of physics. It was a question for God.

Not anymore. Today, some scientists, it seems, just won't take no for an answer. The more impossible the task, the more it appeals, perhaps because these scientists sense that the most exciting discoveries lie beyond established boundaries. The physics of how the universe came into being from an unstable speck of nothing is highly respectable work, thanks in large part to MIT cosmologist Alan Guth, who has concluded that the universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, forever bubbling up out of nothing at all.

A kindred spirit is mathematician Keith Devlin, who gave up a career as a respected logician at the University of Lancaster in England to explore the appalling proposition that 2,000 years of logic, developed by Aristotle, Rene Descartes and George Boole, simply won't do when trying to program computers.

Both these scientists have taken on big, almost breathtaking, questions. Guth wants to know why there is matter and how the universe came into being. "Where did all this come from?" he calmly asks as he cooks up recipes for creating universes from his lab at MIT, where he is now the V.F. Weisskopf professor of physics.

Devlin, on the other hand, wants to develop a mathematics of thought to encode common sense into computers. Working from St. Mary's College of California, he believes that logic is inadequate to understand thought because thought isn't logical. That's why computers can't think. Ultimately, the road to intelligence is not reason, he's concluded, arguing for an entirely new kind of mathematics--an "algebra of conversation"--that will grasp the essentials of the mind.

"Modern science has been remarkably successful in understanding the inner workings of the atom, the structure of distant stars and the origins of the universe," he writes in "Goodbye, Descartes." "And yet we have been far less successful in understanding the thought processes involved in the everyday use of language. Why?"

Both scientists are suitably humbled by the difficulty of their tasks. "How much can we know, I asked myself, about the first seconds of the existence of the universe?" Guth writes early in his discovery process in "The Inflationary Universe." "At the time, cosmology seemed to me to be the kind of subject about which you can say anything you like--how can anyone prove you wrong?"

Devlin recognizes that his discussion and conclusions are likely to be dismissed by some scientists, and he jokes about the problems his book will pose for librarians and bookstore owners who will have to decide under what category to file it: Math? Philosophy? Linguistics? Psychology?

Both men have written rich, satisfying accounts of their intellectual explorations, food for thought that is likely to prove indigestible for some casual readers. Guth's book requires coming to terms with such arcane concepts as curved space, false vacuums, Higgs fields, magnetic monopoles and negative gravity. Devlin's is a thinking person's book about thinking that requires a willingness to play difficult mind games.

But it is in these sometimes excruciating details that Devlin's work rises above speculation and that Guth proves why, to physicists, the Big Bang is more than just a cartoon. Read together, both books present a confident picture of the validity of these ideas, no matter how subtly they are presented. Luckily for the reader, both scientists are also lively, lucid and frequently amusing.

Of the two books, "The Inflationary Universe" is the more personal. Guth includes diary entries ("Hell of a Good Day." "Damn it. How did I miss that?") and the advice from Chinese fortune cookies that he's followed. He portrays the pressures of being a post-doctoral researcher, struggling to publish in "a very marginal position" while juggling personal medical emergencies, lawsuits, cross-country moves and young children. After ignoring entreaties from his colleague Henry Tye, he came to the study of creation when Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg visited Cornell, where he was then a post-doctoral researcher. "I was shown that a respectable (and even highly respected) scientist could think about things as crazy as . . . the universe at 10 (to the minus 39th power) seconds. . . . In hindsight, my reluctance to work with Henry was foolish."

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