Truth—or Tabloid?

Respectable publishers use sensationalism to sell science.

EVER SINCE THE RUNAWAY success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, publishers have dreamed of finding a successor as profitable. For a while it seemed that anyone with a science PhD could land a contract to write a book on his or her specialty, however dry and unlikely that specialty might be. For the most part, the results were just dry and unlikely, and ill-written to boot. With few exceptions—Jarad Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Seattle's own Peter Ward—scientists are rotten writers, unable to communicate their own excitement about bosons, prions, or nautiloids to a general audience. In Search of Deep Time

by Henry Gee

(The Free Press, $26) NonZero

by Robert Wright

(Pantheon, $27.50) The End of Time

by Julian Barbour

(Oxford University Press, $30) Recently, there are signs that publishers and agents are becoming less choosy: To hell with PhDs, they seem to be saying; for that matter, to hell with hard science. Just give us some sensational speculations sprinkled with a little technical jargon and a catchy tabloid tag ("Time Does Not Exist!") to sell them. Leave the rest to us. All three books discussed here come from reputable publishers; only one has the slightest claim on readers who prefer their "popular science" be laced with a modicum of substance. The publicity for In Search of Deep Time takes the most extravagant tack ("Everything you thought you knew about the history of life on earth is wrong!"), but the book itself is a model of good science writing, not only making a desperately arcane subject comprehensible but entertaining. Author Henry Gee's subject is evolutionary cladistics, a new way of looking at fossils—any fossils: human, birds, even one-celled critters that leave behind them only a chemical trace that life once lived here—which eliminates the single biggest problem encountered by evolutionary-tree-makers since long before Darwin. By their very nature, fossils are scarce, a mere sampling of the totality of beings that have swum, soared, and trod the earth before us. Every attempt to figure out who begat whom is necessarily a game of connect-the-dots, and the dots, more often than not, are separated by millions of years. The family trees one sees so confidently displayed in textbooks or the Tuesday New York Times, showing how birds descend from dinosaurs, humankind from gracile australopithecenes, are guesswork, and often biased guesswork at that. Cladistics, developed by a cabal of dissident English, American, and Australian paleontologists in the early 1980s, is a way to squeeze at least some of that bias out of the art and science of classifying the varieties of living things. Gee, now an editor of the British science journal Nature, was lucky enough to be a graduate student working at the Natural History Museum in London's South Kensington district when the group he calls "The Gang of Four" was thrashing out the basics of the controversial new approach over endless gallons of warm beer in a shabby pub in the Old Brompton Road. Cladistic analysis is one of those ideas that at first look absurdly simple but on acquaintance prove to be very hard to wrap the mind around. Thanks to a deft admixture of personal reminiscence, professional gossip, and large dollops of fascinating biological arcana, Gee avoids any hint of dryness in his exposition of the theory and practice of the subject: By the time he introduce cladistics head-on, the reader already understands the problems it's designed to solve. Why should you care whether they're solved or not? Because the evolutionary way of thinking is probably the most significant new gadget added to our intellectual tool kit since Aristotle and his friends codified the rules of formal logic nearly 2,500 years ago. But if we're not careful, evolutionary thinking can lead us astray, deriving origins from outcomes instead of the other way around. Cladistics is a way of keeping evolutionary thinking honest. Evolution's enemies can do enough damage without its advocates providing them with ammunition. In Nonzero (excerpted in the December 13 issue of The New Yorker), Robert Wright contends that celebrity paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is one such: Gould is not only the most articulate of living advocates for evolution but the most abrasive and irritating as well, and it wouldn't displease even his fans to see him taken down a peg. But Wright, unfortunately, is not up to the job. In fact, now that Nonzero has been published in full, it's clear that he has more in common with creationism that Gould does. For 20 years, Gould has relentlessly affirmed that evolution is a wholly random process, moving in no predictable direction and hence quite devoid of "meaning." Wright, on the contrary, sees in the slow processes of evolution and human history signs of definite orientation, progress, "positive feedback." He doesn't postulate a personal god in charge of writing or directing the script, but we, as thinking, feeling beings, still end up playing the starring role in the show. This certainly would be comforting news, if Wright were able to present any evidence in its support. But what facts Nonzero contains are awash in so much speculative inspirationalism that the book ends up as "scientific" as The Celestine Prophecy. (Don't take my word for it: Wright provides extensive excerpts from every chapter on his Web site, http://www.nonzero.org/) In the preface to The End of Time, Julian Barbour explains how a bad headache in the Bavarian Alps led him to the realization that time does not exist. This epiphany led him to abandon studies for a PhD in astrophysics and retire to an Oxfordshire farm to think about its consequences. That was in 1963. The results of those 35 years of thought are now available to all as The End of Time. With its computer-generat-ed charts of phenomena like wave-interference patterns and entangled quantum-states, The End of Time (subtitled "the next revolution in physics") looks like respectable popular science, but in its own way is even goofier than Wright's. Barbour says that time as we usually conceive it—a steady abstract flow of cause and effect inexorably directed from "past" to "future"—does not in fact exist: that it's an illusion, an artifact, an invention of the mind or a construction of social convenience. Well, excuse me, but who ever said otherwise? From the callow adolescent speculating about the nature of life, the universe, and everything to Albert Einstein assigning a negative sign to the time factor in his relativity equation, nobody's ever seriously contended that time, whatever it "is," exists in the same way as bosons, beef, or Barcelona. Barbour claims that instead of Heraclitus' metaphor of a river, time is better described as a kind of infinite, multidimensional library of static, eternal states. So what? No what, apparently. He doesn't contend that his "discovery" (anticipated by Zeno of Elea some 2,500 years ago) has any practical consequences; he just wants to set the record straight: Time, whatever you thought it was, isn't what you thought it was but something completely different. The whole 350-page argument (published by the once-distinguished Oxford University Press) reminds me mightily of the gentleman who spent 50 years proving to his own satisfaction (if no one else's) that the plays of Shakespeare were not in fact written by Shakespeare, but by another Elizabethan playwright of the same name.

 
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