'Milky Way' Author Comes of Age as a Modern Poet With His Head in the Stars

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago Timothy Ferris earned his living pontificating on the dubious aesthetics of bands such as Grand Funk Railroad. But rock stars were never as intriguing to him as the celestial bodies overhead.

So Ferris took a stab at writing about real stars.

That his subsequent books on astronomy--"The Red Limit," "Galaxies," "Space Shot" and now "Coming of Age in the Milky Way"--have been praised by scientists as well as book critics should be encouraging to those who still find the Big Bang, black holes, quarks and quantum physics to be over our heads. Especially considering that Ferris has achieved his grasp of astronomy and physics with virtually no formal education in the fields.

Teaches at Berkeley

The author, who began his writing career in journalism and now teaches at UC Berkeley, has received the American Institute of Physics Prize, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's prize for lifetime achievement, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for his popularizations of esoteric science.

"Ferris has pioneered a new style of science book," Carl Sagan said after the publication of "The Red Limit."

"His explanations are effortless and impeccable, and he brings a poet's command of the language to the illumination of ideas," said the Los Angeles Times review of "Milky Way." Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard called it "a major achievement."

"I think more and more people are coming to realize that science is to us what painting was to the Italian Renaissance, what music was to Baroque Germany with Bach," Ferris said as he sat on the sunlit patio of the Hotel Bel-Air recently, looking thoroughly frazzled after rocketing through eight cities in 12 days on the talk-show circuit.

"It's the hottest art form around, and not to know something about it is to ignore the foremost endeavor of our time."

In "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," Ferris, 46, details humanity's scientific rites of passage, charting how our views of the universe have expanded and contracted as peoples' minds alternately opened with scientific curiosity and slammed shut in ignorance.

Although that process continues, Ferris concludes that humanity can finally lay claim to a measure of "cosmological maturity."

"I've thought for 20 years that this was the greatest story on the face of the Earth," Ferris said of humanity's quest to understand its place in the universe. So Ferris writes like Mr. Wizard, his enthusiasm for scientific discovery spilling over like the bubbling goop from Mr. Wizard's beakers.

"There's an underlying groundswell of public interest in astronomy, cosmology (the study of the universe as a whole) and physics," Ferris said. "Readers are looking for a personality whom they can trust to tell them about it in a way they can understand."

The obvious example of this is Steven Hawking, a wheelchair-bound physicist whose book about quantum physics, "A Brief History of Time," has been perched atop the hard-cover best-seller list for 17 weeks (and which, incidently, Ferris said he edited "rather extensively").

A Hip Approach to Icons

Perhaps because of his background (Ferris was the New York editor of Rolling Stone in the early '70s), he takes an almost hip approach to portraying figures often treated with reverence in standard texts.

Take the way he describes the enlightening but lunatic pairing of astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in the 16th Century. Kepler was "neurotic, self-loathing, arrogant and vociferous" and drew "titters from the flunkies when he appeared in his baggy, food-stained suit."

Brahe, on the other hand, was a "despotic giant of a man, who sported a belly of Jovian proportions and a gleaming, metal-alloy nose. . . . He dressed like a prince and ruled his domain like a king, tossing scraps to a dwarf named Jepp who huddled beneath the dinner table."

It's important to Ferris that people realize that science is emotionally and spiritually as well as intellectually rewarding.

Reuniting Art, Science

Traditionally, art and science were seen as being of the same fabric, Ferris said. Copernicus wrote of "the ballet of the planets," Milton interviewed Galileo before penning "Paradise Lost."

Now the two are again intertwining, he said, pointing to John Updike's recent "Roger's Version"--"a novel about cosmology and particle physics really"--and the fact that well-written science books are competing with fad diets on the best-seller lists.

Ferris says that he has seen the increased popularity of science books coming for a long time. He caught on somewhere between age 5 and 8 when he read a child's history of the world.

"I thought . . . the Earth, every place we've ever been, is not the whole world," he said. "It came into being as the result of processes that involve a wider scheme of things. A cosmic scheme of things. I thought that was amazing and I still do."

So he kept reading. His parents were poor but they had a policy that once a month their child could pick out a new hard-cover book at the local bookstore.

"We were living in rural Florida, and it was some distance to the bookstore. So I devoted a lot of attention to choosing the one right book."

Gradually the Ferris family's fortunes improved, and the boy bought a telescope for $45. When he was 13 or 14 he bought a fancier $125 scope on time payments.

In 1966, Ferris graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago with majors in English and communications. His only science class had been astronomy, and he attributes his ability to make his way amid esoteric ideas now to the fact that he absorbed so much science so early, even though he couldn't possibly comprehend it all at the time.

Wondered About Writing

After college, Ferris worked as a journalist for United Press International and the New York Post, then became New York editor of Rolling Stone.

"Once I began to get established as a writer, I naturally wondered whether I could write about this subject, which was of the greatest interest to me."

So, in 1972 or 1973, he wrote a piece about our place in the universe that seemed entirely out of place in Rolling Stone.

It was titled "How Do We Know Where We Are If We've Never Been Anywhere Else," and "It had no news angle, no this, no that, it just came out of nowhere. But it got a terrific response. People just wigged out on it."

When Ferris learned that someone had stood up at a party, turned off the music, and that others had stood and listened as the article was read aloud, he figured there might be more interest in science among the rock generation than was generally assumed.

Even as he worked on his other astronomy books, Ferris was researching the whole history of cosmology for "Milky Way."

As he tells it, the story concludes (for now) with the recent "shotgun wedding" between the disciplines of particle physics and cosmology--between the scientists studying the 40,000 galaxies arrayed across a million billion cubic light-years of space and those studying particles 10-to-the-negative-35th-power times smaller than a human.

But getting to that point came in fits and starts. Ferris points out, for instance, that if the world had listened to a Greek by the name of Aristarchus, who calculated a huge sun-centered universe, rather than the geocentric, gears-within-gears "wheeling and whirling Rube Goldberg fashion" view of Ptolemy four centuries later, "cosmology might have been spared a millennium of delusion."

Then the Middle Ages arrived and "the sky was demoted from a glorious sphere to its prior status as a low tent roof. . . . The proud round Earth was hammered flat, likewise the shimmering sun. Behind the sky reposed eternal heaven, accessible only through death."

But, theories, Ferris writes, quoting Ernst Mach, "are like withered leaves, which drop off after having enabled the organism of science to breathe for a time."

So, as Columbus, Magellan and others sailed about redefining man's understanding of the globe, Copernicus "sent his mind's eye journeying to the sun, and what he saw turned the Earth into a ship under sail, assaying oceanic reaches of space undreamed of since the days of Aristarchus."

In "Milky Way" Ferris gives approximately equal time to the theories and to the thinkers who thought them up.

Repeats Apocryphal Stories

While he points out the often apocryphal nature of scientific history, he also repeats stories that sound suspect--there's Newton, for instance, the archetype of the absent-minded scientist, walking home with a bridle and leader in hand, unaware that the horse he'd been walking, as he pondered the universe, had slipped away.

And Plutarch reports that Archimedes was so wrapped up in his calculations that he had to be bathed or anointed by force, and even then would "draw diagrams in the oil on his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science."

Ferris at least understands such absorption with science and is clearly excited that Berkeley's astronomy department has asked him to teach Astronomy 101 this fall, in addition to his journalism classes.

"What it is to be a student has never appealed to me very much," Ferris said. "I get along well with students now in part because of that. I sympathize. I used to hate the feeling of being imprisoned in a class . . . of having someone keep you a prisoner and not light things up for you."

Ferris sees as wrongheaded the current truism that the high priests of our culture are the astrophysicists and other scientists pushing the frontiers of what we know about creation.

"Science is egalitarian. Anyone who wants to learn the rudiments can go out and test any result in principle. . . . In religion you have to take things on faith because someone or something says so."

Besides his books and magazine pieces, Ferris wrote and narrated the PBS television special "The Creation of the Universe," and produced the music component of the special record for extraterrestrial communication that was fired into space on Voyager. But he has grown pessimistic about the possibility of getting himself blasted into space.

"I'd hoped that I'd be on the space shuttle by now," he said. He was one of the 40 finalists for NASA's Journalist in Space program. But he doubts that another civilian will get off the ground.

"I estimated the odds of getting killed at 15% prior to the (shuttle) accident. I still think that's pretty good estimate. And that's plenty robust enough. I think the story is worth it. I had a book I wanted to write on that. I can see that book hovering before my eyes."

Not that he thinks whirling around the earth will give him any final answers or pure cosmic enlightenment.

In "Milky Way," he concludes ". . .it becomes clear that we are never going to learn more than a tiny fraction of the story of our galaxy alone--and there are a hundred billion more galaxies."

Paradoxically, though, it's our awareness of this ignorance, more than anything else, that "marks the coming of age of our species."

Alexander the Great wept upon being told there were infinite worlds, Ferris writes. "No thinking man or woman ought really to want to know everything, for when knowledge and its analysis is complete, thinking stops. . . .

"Hell," he writes, "would be a small universe that we could explore thoroughly and fully comprehend."

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