The Write Stuff
The Best American Science Writing 2005. Edited by Alan
Lightman. xvi + 304 pp. Harper Perennial, 2005. $13.95, paper.
Anthologies are an inherently risky proposition for the book
shopper. Browsing the bookstore shelves, you can read only brief
passages from a few of the contributors to get some sense of whether
you're likely to enjoy the material. Real clunkers may lurk on
That possibility was a concern of mine on picking up The Best
American Science Writing 2005. Many of the authors were
familiar, and I had my opinions, not all of them positive. I was
confident I'd find profit and pleasure in reading, for example,
Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Dennis Overbye, Laurie Garrett, Edward
Hoagland, David Quammen or Diane Ackerman. But some of the other
contributors were unknowns—would my fishing trip net walleye
Frank Wilczek's scientific achievements are certainly familiar to
me, but his popular writing was not. In "Whence the Force of
F=ma?" the Nobelist explores his
long-standing problem with the left-hand side of Newton's second
law. It had never occurred to me how insubstantial the concept of
force is, so I was intrigued to learn that thinkers like Wilczek
have been questioning its value to physics as a concept for more
than a century. No less than Bertrand Russell titled the 14th
chapter of his book The ABC of Relativity "The
Abolition of Force." Wilczek notes that "the concept of
force is conspicuously absent from our most advanced formulations of
the basic laws. It doesn't appear in Schrödinger's equation, or
in any reasonable formulation of quantum field theory, or in the
foundations of general relativity."
Wilczek then gets to the nub of his concern: "If
F=ma is formally empty, microscopically obscure,
and maybe even morally suspect, what's the source of its undeniable
power?" His answer is that force is more a cultural concept
than a physical one. "F=ma by itself does not
provide an algorithm for constructing the mechanics of the world.
The equation is more like a common language, in which different
useful insights about the mechanics of the world can be expressed."
Score one for risk taking. Frank Wilczek's insights are worthy and
clearly presented, and his prose is lively and engaging. I look
forward to reading more from him.
Next I read Jim Holt's "How Will the Universe End?" Holt
takes as his departure point the confirmation in 2003 that the
expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating. Then he sets
off to talk to cosmologists about where they come down on the fate
of the universe: Do we face the Big Chill (unending, steady
expansion, with the temperature going to absolute zero), the Big
Crunch (expansion stops, contraction begins, and the temperature
goes to infinity) or the Big Crackup (expansion speeds up as dark
energy pushes against gravity, and the universe becomes so diffuse
that it's dark and bleakly empty)?
Holt's first stop is Freeman Dyson's office at the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, where we quickly learn that this
travelogue is going to be entertainingly droll. Holt asks Dyson
whether the evidence for an accelerated expansion "had blighted
his hopes for the future of civilization." (Bear in mind that
we're discussing events that may take place roughly a hundred
billion years from now.) Dyson's reply is, "Not necessarily.
It's a completely open question whether this acceleration will
continue forever or whether it will peter out after a while."
From Dyson's office, Holt strolls down the hall to Ed Witten's.
Witten expresses hope that the acceleration is temporary, and Holt
asks him whether a slowing of the acceleration to zero would allow
civilization to go on forever. Holt writes, "Witten was unsure.
One cause for concern was the possibility that protons will
eventually decay, resulting in the dissolution of all matter within
another, oh, 1033 years or so." You begin to get the picture.
Holt then visits Lawrence Krauss at Case Western Reserve, who tells
him, "We appear to be living in the worst of all possible
universes. If the runaway expansion keeps going, our knowledge will
actually decrease as time passes. The rest of the universe will be
literally disappearing before our very eyes surprisingly
soon—in the next ten or twenty billion years."
At Tulane University, Holt talks to Alabama native Frank Tipler, who
favors the Big Crunch (implosion) but with a twist: It's a happy
ending because "the final moments before universal annihilation
would release an infinite amount of energy . . . that could drive an
infinite amount of computation, which would produce an infinite
number of thoughts"—something Tipler calls the Omega
Point. Holt tells us that when he mentioned to Tipler that Freeman
Dyson doesn't see why this should be so, "Tipler shouted in
exasperation, ‘Ah went up to Princeton last November and ah
tode him the argument! Ah tode him!' Then he told
I won't spoil the fun further, except to say that Holt eventually
also speaks with Michio Kaku, J. Richard Gott III, Steven Weinberg,
Andrei Linde and John Leslie, each of whom provides more gems. This
was a marvelous piece, easily my favorite in the collection and
worth the cover price on its own.
Having devoured the physical-science pieces (nine in all), I came
face to face with the anthology's structure: physical science first,
followed by biology, medicine, social sciences and artificial
intelligence. Uh-oh. Seventeen more to digest.
Of these, my favorite turned out to be David Berlinski's "On
the Origins of the Mind," wherein he takes on (or, perhaps more
aptly, takes apart) evolutionary psychology. If I were, through some
miracle (or catastrophe), to find myself teaching freshman
composition, it's an essay my poor charges would read. Supremely
logical—no surprise given that Berlinski has taught philosophy
and logic—it is at the same time exceedingly wry. I found
myself breaking out in laughter even more often than when reading
Jim Holt's piece.
In brief, Berlinski describes what he refers to as the three similes
of evolutionary psychology: that "the human mind is
like a computer in the way that it works," that
"the individual human mind is like . . . any other
organ of the body in the way that it is created anew in every human
being," and that "the universal human mind—the
expression in matter of human nature—is like any
other complicated biological artifact in the way that it arose in
the human species by means of random variation and natural
selection." Then, taking differential equations as his
model (they give one the task of determining "the overall, or
global, function from its local rate of change"), Berlinski
proceeds to analyze the similes. All three succumb to a variety of
logical faults, but a crude summary is that evolutionary
psychology's charge is to determine initial conditions, which it has
thus far failed to do. Evolutionary psychologists find themselves in
the position of trying to run a differential equation backward.
Berlinski comments, "Inverse problems are not in
general well posed."
Evolutionary psychologists may have their rejoinders to Berlinski's
analysis, and I certainly know too little to declare it the
definitive put-down. But as sound argumentation and exemplary
writing, it has few equals that I'm familiar with.
So how did my risky venture turn out? As a fishing trip, it was a
rousing success. I netted three authors I hope to read further and
laughed quite a bit.