Fire in the Mind

By George Johnson

"The only laws of matter are those which our minds must fabricate, and the only laws of mind are fabricated for it by matter." -- James Clerk Maxwell

Published in September 1995 by Alfred A. Knopf and reprinted three times. The paperback is available from Vintage Books. Published in January 1996 by Viking Penguin in Britain. Editions have been published in German, Portugese, Japanese, and Italian. On the shortlist for a Los Angeles Times Book Award and for the Royal Society Book Prize.

Jacket painting: Putting Up the Stars by the Navajo artist Clifford Brycelea. Jacket design by Calvin Chu, copyright 1995 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reviewed by Stephen Jay Gould in The New York Times, by Roger Lewin in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, by Seth Lloyd in Scientific American, by John Horgan in The Sciences, by Gregory Chaitin in Complexity, by Michael White in The Sunday Times of London, by Ray Monk in The London Observer, by Ian Watson in New Scientist, by Jon Turney in The Financial Times and by Danah Zohar in The Independent.

Other reviews.

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From the jacket flap copy of the Knopf edition:

Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? Do the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from another galaxy find them as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as the world's religions?

In this stunningly original book, set among the mountains and canyonlands of northern New Mexico, George Johnson explores the human hunger for pattern, the innate drive to find (or impose) order in our capricious world. In this land of strange juxtapositions, where magic and science, religion and reason constantly bump up against each other, Johnson introduces us to an amazing diversity of people who see the world through different eyeglasses, who find vastly different pictures in the night sky.

Just north of Santa Fe, the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso sits at the bottom of the plateau on which the laboratory city of Los Alamos stands. While the people of San Ildefonso carry out secret ceremonies in the kivas and dance to the rhythms of the seasons, the physicists of Los Alamos struggle with some of the deepest ideas of quantum theory, particle physics, and a new science called the physics of information, which seeks to understand the very source of pattern and order in the world.

Los Alamos and San Ildefonso are just two pieces in this jigsaw puzzle of world views. In the dizzying heights of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, the faithful flock to an old Catholic church for samples of holy soil said to heal all wounds. Descending from this land of miracles to the foothills around Santa Fe, we visit a revolutionary think tank called the Santa Fe Institute. Here scientists are focusing their computational microscopes on questions that hover within the penumbra between science and religion: How, from the random jostling of molecules, did life arise and evolve to the point where it can contemplate its own beginnings? Are we accidents of the universe -- miracles -- or is there a reason for us to be here?

By examining some of the most radical new theories of physics and biology emanating from the laboratories of northern New Mexico and comparing them to the intricate belief systems of the Tewa Indians, a Catholic sect called the Penitentes, and other inhabitants of this land, Johnson casts the scientific enterprise in a startling new light. The result is an intellectual adventure story of the highest order, a journey to the far reaches of the scientific frontier where the human soul struggles to make sense of life's deepest mysteries.


"Is the emergence of organized complexity a fluke or part of a lawlike trend? A battle is raging between Darwinian traditionalists and an iconoclastic alliance of computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists and heretical biologists. George Johnson's masterly account of this battle provides some of the best science-writing I have come across in a long time. Here is a topic of immense scientific and philosophical significance, treated in a careful and even-handed manner, yet fast-paced and thrilling. A must for all those seriously interested in the key ideas at the frontiers of scientific discourse." -- Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God

"Fire in the Mind is a New Mexico mystery story of a different kind. Johnson has given us a thought-provoking look at a fascinating subject." -- Tony Hillerman

"Brilliantly illuminates the complex, deceptive relationship that exists between the physical universe and our perception of it." -- Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Life, the Universe, and Everything

"How can I know what is really true if the mind/brain is not a passive reflecter but an active constructer of worldly order? Where does myth end and science begin? George Johnson's brilliantly fresh exploration of these questions has an on-the-mat honesty along with an uncluttered feel for the logic behind the ideas of science and theology. In Johnson's hands, Santa Fe becomes a kind of living metaphor for the 'real-world/brain-world' problem, and with a novelist's skill, he pulls us into a story of wonder, beauty, and the human drive to make sense of the universe."

-- Patricia Smith Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego

The Table of Contents and Preface are available online.

Errata

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