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Book review: 'Seeing Further,' edited by Bill Bryson

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Seeing Further

The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society

Edited by Bill Bryson

William Morrow: 506 pp., $35

There are about 1,400 people currently entitled to tack on "F.R.S." to the end of their names, possibly the world's most enviable initials. These are the brethren and sistren of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Dirac. They are fellows of the Royal Society, celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, having been established on "a damp weeknight" in London in 1660 as a "Colledge for Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning." The dozen founders met weekly as a Society, became Royal two years later when Charles II granted them a charter, and in 1665 began publishing their Philosophical Transactions, which still appears and is the world's oldest surviving scientific journal.

In the age of the Kindle and the Nook, it is an enormous pleasure to pick up and leaf through a book like "Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society." It has a satisfying heft; it makes you want to sink into a hammock. Its smooth, creamy pages are liberally strewn with engravings, portraits of many of the members (international and no longer exclusively male), and illustrations of artifacts from the Society Archives — including a photograph of Newton's death mask, which editor Bill Bryson found "transfixing" on his tour of the basement storeroom.

But the greatest thing here is the prose. Bryson, an Anglophilic polymath and award-winning science writer, has solicited essays from the best science writers I know of. The exception is novelist Margaret Atwood, who leavens the collection (I guess that was the intent) early in the book with a funny meditation on the mad scientists of fiction and film. Then we get down to business. This is not really a history of modern science as shepherded by the Royal Society, which the subtitle suggests, but a survey of current thought on what we know today and what we're still looking for.

A few of the contributors are scientists themselves. Scientists who write well about their science are rare birds, and some of the best are here: Martin Rees (the society's outgoing president), Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, John D. Barrow, Ian Stewart and Gregory Benford. Dawkins, who is now probably better known as a militant atheist than as an evolutionary biologist, predictably celebrates Darwin's demolition of the Rev. William Paley's "argument from design." Paley argued in the 18th century that just as a pocket watch cannot have assembled itself, we and the rest of the biota are the products of a designer. "The answer is cumulative natural selection," Dawkins writes, and he even backs toward teleology: "Provided that a smoothly cumulative gradient of improvement exists ... natural selection is likely to find it, and will propel evolution up the slopes of 'Mount Improbable' to apparently limitless heights of perfection." Amen.

Margaret Wertheim contributes a graceful, penetrating essay on how our conception of space has changed over the centuries from a cozy worldview to the recently arrived 11-dimensional hyperspace with its vibrating one-dimensional "strings." "This is an extraordinary philosophical move," she writes. "Newton's cosmos contained three fundamental things: matter, space and force.... With hyperspace theories there is now just one fundamental thing — space — everything else being a by-product of this fundamental 'stuff'." And then she skids merrily over the edge: "In the mathematically defined space of modern cosmology do any of us exist?"

Davies is a theoretical physicist who has taken up astrobiology (which I wish were still called "exobiology," since life is unlikely to exist on stars), but he's not much of an arm-waver: "We still don't know whether the origin of life on Earth was a freak event and whether the evolution of human intelligence was a statistical fluke.... The universe might be teeming with life, or it might turn out that life is very rare — intelligent life more so."

Barrow, a mathematics professor and co-author of "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" (why is the universe so finely tuned as to have permitted our evolution, when the alternatives are limitless and god-awful?), writes about complexity: "Complex adaptive systems" — that's you and me — "thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos."

Rees — Baron Rees of Ludlow — signs off in this collection, exhorting his colleagues to "engage in public debate," and makes a charming analogy: "We feel there is something lacking in parents who don't care what happens to their children in adulthood, even though this is largely beyond their control. Likewise, scientists shouldn't be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas.... [T]hey should campaign to resist, so far as they can, ethically dubious or threatening applications."

Properly pragmatic and baronial. But as you rock back and forth in your hammock, you may be more inclined to ponder your place in the infinite, unknown and possibly megadimensional cosmos.

Lippincott is a freelance editor specializing in science.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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