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The Write Stuff

David Schoonmaker

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 unexplored pages.

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 or carp?

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 me, too."

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.

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