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Lovers of Popularized Science Will Find Teacup Half Empty

Randall Black

The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty. K. C. Cole. 214 pp. Harcourt Brace, 1998. $22.

This book, purportedly about mathematics, reminds me of an old joke. A new prisoner, after lights out, hears his fellow inmates begin shouting out numbers. A voice yells out, "73." Everyone laughs. Someone else shouts, "45." Laughter rings through the cell block. Taking pity on the baffled newcomer, his cellmate explains that the inmates have told these jokes so many times that they now amuse themselves merely by telling the numbers of the jokes. Once the system is explained to him, the greenhorn decides to give it a try. He shouts out, "88!" But no one laughs. With bitter disappointment in his voice, his cellmate complains, "You didn't tell it right."

Relying on the reader's previous exposure to the great ideas of science, The Universe and the Teacup regurgitates in broad strokes some of the best of previously popularized accounts of physics, astronomy, game theory, Gödel's theorem and other scientific bon mots. The pace is breathless, jumping from one topic to the next, usually long before an idea could be properly understood by the uninitiated and, in some cases, even before the informed reader can summon a fond memory. To one who has benefited from the great popularizers of science, the ideas presented second-hand here are familiar and beloved.

But in this book, where key concepts are trotted out in such a rushed, haphazard fashion, one can only assume that a naive reader will be left as baffled as our greenhorn prisoner hearing numbered jokes. In other words, if you have kept up on the popular literature of science, you will not need this book; if you have not, it will be of little help.

The steady proliferation of federally funded research was made possible by popular political support for science. Although scientists rightfully lament the average American's continuing ignorance of basic concepts, a core of educated lay people know more about science than any previous generation. This appreciation of and interest in what scientists do can be traced in large part to the availability of a lay-scientific literature, pioneered by such popularizers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Paul Davies (misidentified by the author as "Paul Davis"). These and other great science writers proved that complex matters like general relativity, black holes and neutrinos could be explained in prose that is lively, entertaining and, most important, understandable. This remarkable feat, the creation of a book-buying lay science literati, has opened the door for the literary equivalent of Batesian mimicry: books that are ideationally parasitic on the genuine works that preceded them.

An odd editorial style pervades this book, with overabundant, often irrelevant, parenthetical remarks, footnotes and incessant references to other chapters whenever a topic is even mildly suggestive of material covered elsewhere. For example, Chapter 6 ends with a footnote advising us to see Chapter 7. The tone vacillates disturbingly between an attempt to be disarmingly impish (the Energizer bunny is mentioned twice in different contexts) and a ponderous propensity to wax eloquent about the mysteries of the universe and make sweeping generalizations. Offhand remarks on IQ tests and race, twin studies, the right to bear arms or whether God is a woman come off as more smug than edifying. Such politically and emotionally charged topics may be most worthy of discussion, but embedding foregone conclusions about them in a discussion of science and mathematics is distracting and off-putting. The author would benefit from emulating the cool-headed clarity of some excellent popular science authors whose works are abundantly sampled in this glorified annotated bibliography.

Unfortunately, sometimes even the simple act of paraphrasing the giants results in inexactitude. Writes Cole, "As Feynman noted, nothing we know about elementary particles and forces can tell us anything about green reptiles that croak in the night, or the music of Mozart, or the Ten Commandments." Except Feynman might have remembered that green amphibians, not reptiles, croak in the night.

There are bright spots, although these are almost exclusively furnished in the form of quotes or paraphrasing of other writers. The author sometimes does a tolerably good job of glossing popular science books and articles. Sections on voting schemes to replace simple majority rule and on the effectiveness of the Golden Rule in game theory are interesting and fairly original treatments. But often the desire to entertain and disarm produces silliness, while the drive to utter profundities and to find mystery in the mundane leads to genuine foolishness. Cole writes: "Forced into a game of Trivial Pursuit by my family once, I couldn't answer a question that asked: How many colors are there in a rainbow? Since the spectrum is a continuous band of frequencies, the question is unanswerable—except, perhaps, as infinite." This seemingly intentionally obtuse discussion continues with the assertion that neither the Greeks nor the Natchez Indians distinguished yellow from green since they had one term for both colors. Then, addressing "egregious examples of drawing boundaries where none exist," the author reports, "In a recent survey, 41 percent of anthropologists said that there is no such biological thing as race." And in the next paragraph, "Indeed, in a chemical sense, we really blend in with the people around us like spilled paint; your molecules and mine are continually drifting off the surface of our skin, breathed out of our noses, flaked off hair and scalps. Individuals don't have sharp edges." This pseudo-philosophizing becomes particularly unpalatable when contrasted with tantalizingly incomplete reminiscences of actual ideas from science.

Perhaps most irritating is that the book sets a simplistic tone, as though addressing children, then suddenly introduces complicated, never-to-be-explained scientific concepts—for instance, radioactive decay while discussing Schrödinger's Cat. Ultimately, the book is little more than a grab bag of derivative, inadequately fleshed-out concepts taken from popular accounts of scientific topics. It will confuse the novice while offering the connoisseur of modern thought only a sketchy reminder of great ideas heard before.

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