When molecular biologist Max Delbrück received the Nobel Prize in 1969, he rejoiced but also had a lament. Samuel Beckett’s contributions to literature, which were honored at the same time, seemed to Max universally accessible, unlike his own. In his Nobel lecture, he imagined his imprisonment in an ivory tower of science. “The books of the great scientists,” he said, “are gathering dust on the shelves of learned libraries. And rightly so. The scientist addresses an infinitesimal audience of fellow composers.”
Unlike Max, I am not convinced that the joy of scientific creation must remain mysterious, locked away from all but a few informed colleagues. I lean toward my other historical hero, physicist and prankster Richard Feynman, in this matter. I think Feynman would have said, “If you can understand it, you can explain it.” I’m grateful that an ever-increasing number of scientists now do.
That said, most of my favorite books are by physicists trying to make some communicable sense out of a quantum reality that cannot really be understood. There comes a time, in reading this type of book, when I think I’m about to get it, and then I realize I don’t understand it at all. Maybe I like the befuddled feeling and the assurance from the authors that nobody else really understands it either.
In The End of Time, for instance, Julian Barbour argues that time as we know it does not exist. It is a faulty perception, similar to our perception that the world is flat. In a twist on the Copernican revolution, Barbour portrays a silent world devoid of action, where nothing, neither heavens nor Earth, moves. David Bohm, in a classic called Wholeness and the Implicate Order, suggests rather convincingly that the structure of our language is what prevents us from being aware that nothing actually happens here. Bohm’s philosophy was way out there (he had a cult of devotees when he died), and you should come away from this book doubting your sanity.
Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos’s book, The Non-Local Universe, skillfully lures you to confront the same kind of madness, if you don’t instead pitch it into the nearest body of deep water. To appreciate this book, you must accept the disturbing fact that things can be immediately and intimately connected to each other even if they are light-years apart. In other words, there is nothing that corresponds to our classical concept of geometric distance, and every particle in existence since the so-called (and probably not singular) Big Bang is, in a way, the same stinking particle.
Dean Radin’s book, Entangled Minds, extends this diabolical puzzle to extrasensory perception. ESP usually implies people sensing what has happened to a loved one thousands of miles away, but Radin describes something different: mind influencing matter. For the Global Consciousness Project, scientists set up 36 computer programs running separately, in different labs scattered around the earth, whose job is to generate random numbers. They do this by timing the decay of radioactive nuclei, which any physicist will agree occurs at random. Yet the results seem to be inexplicably affected by worldwide psychological reactions, like the ones sparked by the horrible events of 9/11. That is, they become less random—an effect analogous to a coin toss turning up heads many, many times in a row. Radin describes this as an unavoidable consequence of the interconnected, entangled physical reality we live in. I know Radin, and I know he’s not intentionally fooling himself or anybody else.
Books like Radin’s doggedly pursue scientific evidence for ideas that have been widely, but unreasonably, discredited for decades, or even centuries. Fortunately, scientists (at least in the Western world) no longer get confined to quarters or excommunicated for their books. But when an author puts himself on the line by embracing an unfashionable idea, even though he is guaranteed to generate scorn or indifference, this should somehow be recognized.
Moving toward biology, Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene made a lot of people uncomfortable by suggesting that our genes are not really ours and that they have no serious interest in us except as convenient vessels in which they can copy themselves. Minor errors in the copying process are what give natural selection room to operate. The novelty here is that the genes do the evolving, not us. This was a little difficult for people with a humanistic bent to swallow, but most of them have washed it down with a great many bottles of Scotch by now, and the arguments have faded.
I also recommend Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which may be the finest examples of the philosophical literature of our times. I recently watched an old Monty Python skit that portrayed a soccer match between philosophers from Greece and Germany. Archimedes, Heidegger, Kant, Socrates, Nietzsche—all contemplate the ball thoughtfully, murmuring, but nobody kicks it. Finally Archimedes, with a flash of insight (Eureka!), kicks the ball, and the Greeks win. Daniel Dennett, in his recent book Breaking the Spell, kicks the ball. He wants to know why we do not have the privilege to question other people’s personal religious convictions. He doesn’t say it with venom, and he is careful to avoid stating directly that, after much sincere questioning, many of us find certain religious beliefs socially destructive and morally repugnant.
I’d like to conclude with one of my favorite books, Oncogenes, Aneuploidy, and AIDS, by Harvey Bialy, about the career of scientist Peter Duesberg. Though centered on one man, it speaks to issues of power in the scientific establishment that will outlive Bialy and his hero. Duesberg recanted his own much-celebrated theory of how cancers form—a theory that earned him the California Scientist of the Year Award—when he eventually saw the arithmetic illogic in it. Scientists don’t generally do this. I can’t think of a single one, including Einstein, who, when confronted with all the reasons in the world to back off from a bad position, ever did, except for Duesberg. As Bialy describes it, everybody cared about cancer, but the only man who understood that it was not caused by oncogenes was scorned by his peers for changing his mind. Bialy fills his book with direct quotes, allowing a number of the unsavory characters in this story to hoist themselves by their own inelegant petards. In the courage of both scientist and author, I see greatness.
Nobel laureate Kary B. Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction.