The Last Three Minutes.

The Last Three Minutes. – book reviews

Richard Farr

Write a nontechnical introduction to your field in fewer than 200 pages. That’s the brief for an impressive list of authors in Basic Books, new Science Masters series. Minsky on artificial intelligence, Gould on paleontology, Smoot on cosmology, Dennett on cognitive science, Dawkins on gene evolution . . . you get the picture. So far, 22 titles have already been commissioned. Just in case that doesn’t impress you, the series will be published simultaneously by 16 publishers from Sweden to Korea, in languages which include Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Slovene.

In any language, the first three volumes–The Origin of the Universe by John D. Barrow, The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies, and The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey-give a fascinating glimpse of what’s to come. The outlook: variable, with brilliant sunshine and an occasional cloud.

By far the best of the three titles under review is Leakey’s. It’s a fine little introduction to paleoanthropology which explains and guides while giving a rich sense of what it’s like to work in a living discipline. Leakey will always stop long enough to define a technical term, but his style is so economical that he fits a huge story into the allotted space, from the origins of bipedalism to the origins of art. Above all, he doesn’t fall into the popularizer’s trap of cheerleading the field and leaving you with an exaggerated view of its coherence. He conveys his love for anthropology while admitting both that it is blotchy with irrationalities (for instance the racism which prevented European scientists from believing that humanity originated In Africa) and that it is full of fierce, often angry dispute (Was Ramapithecus an ape or a hominid? How many species in the Hadar fossils? Have we really proved the mitochondrial Eve hypothesis?). He even charms you by cataloging his own doubts and mistakes and changes of mind. No cheerleading here: just an infectious delight in the business of inquiry

John D. Barrow accepted a difficult assignment. The material he covers was also recently covered in a book written by Steven Weinberg (The First Three Minutes, 1977, revised 1988). Barrow explains some issues particularly well–such as why the steadystate theory died, why cosmological predictions help theory-building in particle physics and vice versa, why the COBE satellite was a big deal, and so on–but in other areas he is much less successful. In the best tradition of physics books which don’t quite work, his material on Hawking’s no boundary condition and wormholes lunges from oversimplification to total opacity and back again in the space of a paragraph. The inevitable comparison is Weinberg’s book, which has the same subject, the same audience, and even the same publisher. In a close call, I’d say Weinberg’s book is better.

Davies, tribulations have a different source. These books are meant to be guides to established fields; as he sheepishly admits, a book on the destruction of the universe has to be either unscientific crystal-balling or at best a rag-bag of unrelated science lessons. Davies gives us a bit of both: Nothing if not a good teacher, he-manages to fit in simple but elegant discussions of Olber’s starlight paradox, the quantum vacuum, and what we learned from the Sanduleak supernova. But the more he runs out of any science which is even half-way related to his theme, the more pseudophilosophical he becomes, and the last few chapters tend more toward musings, rather than a structured area of inquiry. It’s a shame, not because these reflections are not interesting, but because Davies is such a lucid writer and is so capable of translating difficult theory into ordinary language.

Other authors in the Basic pipeline include linguist Steven Pinker, mathematician lan Stewart, particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann, paleobiologist Lynn Margulis, and physicist Freeman Dyson. No series on this scale can hope for uniformity; but, it’s a great idea, the author list is so prestigious it glows in the dark, and if some of the volumes are at times uneven, it’s certain that the series will provide a valuable resource for all of us.

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