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COSMIC VISIONS. Seeing theory in its natural beauty

Coming of Age in the Milky Way, by Timothy Ferris. New York: Morrow. 495 pp. $19.95. Science is a great pastime. Through it, we grasp the beauty of nature in the symbolism of number. The experience of beauty seems rooted in ultimate questions - what are we doing here; why is there something, rather than nothing; ``what is man, that God is mindful of him?'' as the Psalmist asked. But modern science has separated out those ultimate questions, finding them distracting, and has sought only practical ends.

As Timothy Ferris makes plain in ``Coming of Age in the Milky Way,'' beauty is still a strong inspiration in modern science. Many scientists test their theories on the touchstone of beauty.

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Indeed, the truth of the old Latin tag - pulchrum index veri - is backed up by Paul Dirac, whose textbook has taught a generation of quantum physicists. Dirac said that the beauty of a hypothesis was more important than its immediate usefulness. Stick with it as long as it seems beautiful to you.

Oh the romance of physics! Still, as Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar argues in ``The Limits of Science'' (Oxford University Press, New York), the beauty of science has no philosophic content - is not tied to ``last things.''

Even the most beautiful theory can come to ruins on the outer shores of the universe. In his chronicle of modern cosmological physics, Ferris tells stories about the heroes of science, sung and unsung, explains many obscure theories, sometimes with startling clarity, plays with words, paints scenes (sleepless Newton in his study, retiring Darwin in his garden), and chooses apt analogies. (He describes the neutron star as ``smooth as a ball bearing and smaller than a city but as massive as the sun....'')

An excellent popularizer, Ferris was recently named science editor of ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.'' His book is superb entertainment. The oddness of the title suggests Ferris's mixture of charm and cheek.

Turning his obdurate, diverse material into a story is quite an accomplishment. ``Much in little'' serves as his great theme, synthesizing a vast amount of material, scientific, anecdotal, mathematical, contextual. The book is elaborately organized, with epigraphs from scientists and poets for every section and chapter and two useful appendixes (a glossary and ``A Brief History of the Universe''.

Throughout the text, contrasts between big and small abound. One table shows ``The Scale of the Known Universe.'' Listing the radius (in meters) of ``characteristic objects,'' Ferris goes from 10 to the 26th power for the ``observable universe'' to 10 to the negative 35 for the ``Planck length: Quantum of space; radius of `dimensionless' particles in string theory.''

``Cosmological maturity'' took time to achieve. As Ferris shows, even the greatest astronomers and physicists had nonscientific, mystical, or metaphysical questions. The cosmos - with benign indifference - chooses which to echo. Many physicists ``waste time'' with metaphysical questions. The creative life is like that.

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Isaac Newton, his chambers strewn with papers full of mystical speculation, reduced the known physical world to three laws describing the relationship between mass defined in terms of inertia (``the tendency to resist any change in its state of motion'') and force.

``Never before in the history of empirical thought had so wide a range of natural phenomena been accounted for so precisely, and with such economy.'' Einstein called Newton master, then asked his forgiveness for finding shortcomings in his work. Over half of Ferris's book is devoted to Einstein's century.

``The late twentieth century,'' Ferris says, ``may be remembered in the history of science as the time when particle physics, the study of the smallest structures in nature, joined forces with cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole.''

Good theory possesses ``a beauty and scope worthy of the universe....'' Ferris's enthusiasm for the story of good theory seems justified.

Trustworthy and consistently diverting, Ferris has his vices. He can be arch, even catty (like any tour guide, he tells his stories for effect). He can be arrogant (as when he takes a swipe at Christian Science). Nearly everywhere, however, as he relates ``the business of the stars,'' he shines with reflected glory.

Like most modern scientists, Ferris disdains metaphysics - the ``precincts still ruled by Saint Augustine of Hippo and Isaac Newton the theologian.'' Modern scientists avoid saying things like ``the crab's pinchers were made to pinch,'' for this seems to be an argument from design and implies a Designer, a Creator. That's the old teleological argument associated with Aristotle (telos is the ancient Greek word for end or goal).

Yet Aristotle, both metaphysician and naturalist, said that science deals with parts, metaphysics with wholes. He said that one can't get from parts - science - to wholes - metaphysics. Modern writers like Peter Medawar in ``The Limits of Science'' have updated the argument, without Aristotle's confidence that, in doing metaphysics, one can and must start with wholes.

From Ferris we get a sense of the humanity, even the pathos, of the scientific search for truth. Indeed, the separation between empirical, useful science and philosophical metaphysics may seem necessary, but it's still artificial. In his masterly ``From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again'' (University of Notre Dame Press), philosopher Etienne Gilson asks, ``Final causes have disappeared from science, but have they disappeared from the minds of scientists?''

He tells a story about Darwin that illustrates his point. It dates from 1882, the last year of his life. In a discussion with Darwin about earthworms, the Duke of Argyll said he told Darwin that ``it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin's answer. He looked at me very hard and said, `Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,' and he shook his head vaguely, adding, `it seems to go away.'''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

[ excerpt ]

Beneath these visible and audible manifestations of symmetry lie deeper mathematical invariances. The spiral patterns found inside the chambered nautilus and on the faces of sunflowers, for instance, are approximated by the Fibonacci series, an arithmetic operation in which each succeeding unit is equal to the total of the preceding two (1,1,2,3,5,8 ...). The ratio created by dividing any number in such a series by the number that follows it approaches the value 0.618. [See illustration above.] This, not incidentally, is the formula of the ``golden section,'' a geometrical proportion that shows up in the Parthenon, the Mona Lisa, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and is the basis of the octave employed in Western music since the time of Bach. All the fecund diversity of this particular symmetry, expressed in myriad ways from seashells and pine cones to the Well-Tempered Clavier, therefore derives from a single invariance, that of the Fibonacci series. The realization that one abstract symmetry could have such diverse and fruitful manifestations occasioned delight among Renaissance scholars, who cited it as evidecnce of the efficacy of mathematics and of the subtlety of God's design.

Excerpt from `Coming of Age in the Milky Way'

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