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The Lure of the Unfathomable

January 13, 2002|MARGARET WERTHEIM

Stephen Hawking admits his international mega-hit "A Brief History of Time" was a bit of a slog. Translated into 40 languages since its debut in 1988 and selling more than 10 million copies worldwide, the tome is probably the most unread book of all time. Hands up all those who got past Chapter 2. Be honest now. Notwithstanding the legendary arcana of book No. 1, Hawking's second effort at "popular" science writing, "The Universe in a Nutshell," is currently climbing best-seller lists.

From an equally daunting corner of the physics pantheon came another surprise science success story, Brian Greene's 1999 book on string theory, "The Elegant Universe." Following Hawking, Greene is now penning his second volume, for which he is rumored to have received a whopping advance. An elegant stylist himself, Greene acknowledges that string theory requires a grasp of large slabs of the most fiendishly difficult mathematics humans have ever encountered, and although his text is mercifully free of equations, "The Elegant Universe" remains a difficult text.

What is going on here? Why are so many people paying hard-earned cash for books they can barely begin to understand?

Part of the answer, surely, is vanity. A Hawking or Greene sitting on the coffee table--preferably with a few pages conspicuously bent back at the corners--sends a powerful message to visiting friends, prospective dates, and (above all) to oneself, that an intellect is present in the house. Whether or not you read them, possession alone looks good. Intellectual vanity is as potent a force as the sartorial variety.

But most purchasers are honorable in their intentions--at least at the time of acquisition. They want to read; they believe they will read; they just don't quite get around to it. Which brings us to the question of why the arcane reaches of theoretical physics attract such interest at all. There is no obvious reason why they should. Before "A Brief History" came out, Hawking's publishers worried that they had an unsalable monster on their hands. No one, least of all Hawking, expected the breathtaking success the book was ultimately to have. Greene and I share the same editor, who tells me that our publishing house, too, was quite unprepared for the success of "The Elegant Universe."

Hawking in particular has transcended mere fame, rising into the realm of the iconic. Marilyn with her pleated dress billowing around her, Elvis swiveling his hips, Marlon Brando's what-have-you-got slouch and Hawking in his wheelchair--these are some of the most instantly recognizable images of our time. More even than Hawking's image is his voice, or rather the computer-synthesized signal that now stands in for his natural voice, which was a casualty of his crippling illness, Lou Gehrig's disease. Hawking has been accorded the ultimate celebrity nod--a starring role in an episode of "The Simpsons." In Britain, he also appeared in a commercial for breakfast cereal. On "Star Trek: The Next Generation" he entered the Holodeck and played chess with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, the suggestion being that he was their equal.

What is going on here is hinted at on Newton's own tomb. Taking pride of place in Westminster Abbey, alongside kings and statesmen, the great physicist's sarcophagus is emblazoned with the epitaph: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."

Like many people after him, Alexander Pope, who penned these lines, saw Newton as someone specially chosen by God. If God had created the world according to mathematical laws, as educated Europeans of the early 18th century were coming to believe, then the person who could get "closest" to God was the physicist. Ironically, in the secular age, ushered into being by the rise of modern science, it is the physicist who has been increasingly endowed with the mantel of the divine. The divination of Newton began even in his own lifetime, with Edmund Halley, discoverer of the eponymous comet and Newton's longtime champion, writing in an ode: "Nearer to the gods no mortal may approach."

The allure of theoretical physics, especially in its cosmological mode, has, in short, always been tied up with an essentially religious sentiment. It is no accident that in "A Brief History" Hawking speaks of God as if he were a colleague, a fellow physicist trying to assemble the most mathematically elegant set of cosmological laws. The elision of God and physics has indeed become a mainstay of contemporary science publishing.

Paul Davies, one of the first authors to plow this field, speaks of a "cosmic blueprint," a mathematical plan for creation. It is physicists with their deep-space telescopes, their high-energy particle accelerators and their awesome mathematical tools who will discover this plan and stand, so to speak, in the shoes of the Creator. At the end of his book, Hawking famously declares that when we have found the ultimate set of these laws we will "know the mind of God."

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