Review of "Fire in the Mind"
By George Johnson
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 1, 1995

Answers About the Universe

Is science a tool or a crutch?

By Roger Lewin

copyright 1995 The Los Angeles Times

New Mexico is a land of intense natural beauty and deep history, both of which inspire an awe of religious dimension. Some of the earliest archeological sites are there, at Clovis and Folsom, raising questions over the date of human entry to the Americas: 10,000 years ago, or earlier?

Built later in history, the stone Great Houses of the Anasazi defy ready explanation, both in why they were connected with one another by long straight "roads" and in why, suddenly, they were abandoned. Mystery, mystery, mystery.

Modern New Mexico is a blend of three cultures: Native American, Hispanic and Anglo, laminations of successive colonizations, each imposing its presence on the land, each influenced by the other, each with its own view of nature and its place in it. Modern New Mexico also is the home of the atomic bomb, built among the Jemez Mountains at the Los Alamos National Laboratory five decades ago. And the intellectual descendants of those great names -- Bohr, Fermi, Bethe, Feynman, Rabi, Von Neumann and Oppenheimer -- continue to labor at the edge of knowledge. Not far away, at Santa Fe, New Agers wandering in their ethereal mind-scapes mix with researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, who are seeking to build a new science of complexity, seeking the workings of the universe of things.

George Johnson, a science writer for the New York Times who now lives in Santa Fe, chose this location -- this mix of ancient and modern, of science and religion, of mystery and mysticism -- to explore the human mind's hunger for answers about the universe and the desire for control. It's a hunger to tell stories about "how and why we sprang from primordial waters -- and of what happened after the grand emergence." Johnson argues that this story-telling is much the same, whether it is in the dances of the Tewa tribe, the rituals of the Catholic Penitentes or the unfolding scientific theories at Los Alamos and Santa Fe. "The drive to seek and impose order on the world has given birth to the sciences of biology, geology, particle physics, astronomy, cosmology," he states; "it has generated grand cathedrals of abstraction like quantum theory and Tewa religion."

It was a bold and ambitious choice, this attempt at a grand synthesis, one fraught with ripe dangers of kitsch intellectualism and pretentiousness. Johnson avoids these and other pitfalls, and has produced what can only be described as a brilliant and powerful exploration of the nature of humanity and the way we, in diversity, see our world and our place in it. He has caught the bow wave of a newly emerging freedom in science, one that to some seems threateningly mystical but in reality reflects a greater insight into nature. And the parallels he draws between scientific thinking and ancient and modern mythological explanations of the world thrill in their revelation of the connectedness of things.

The book is in three parts, each of which addresses order in the world of nature, at different levels. In the first part, Johnson explores particle physics and astronomy, the sciences of the very small and very large, linked by their different expressions of the fundamental properties of matter; of the transformation of energy into matter, in the Big Bang, producing the organized structure we know as our universe. The second part deals with a puzzling paradox: the recognition that randomness, or chaos, exists in the workings of nature, and yet order flows from those workings. How does this happen? And the third part asks how was it that creatures like ourselves, complex and curious as we are, evolved in life's flow.

The "single mystery arching over the rest," says Johnson, is this: "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 the scientific subcultures of Santa Fe and Los Alamos hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from a distant galaxy consider them as culturally determined as those divined by the Tewa and the Penitentes?"

To many, it is little short of heretical to suggest that the scientific endeavor is anything but a search for the Truth, a concrete reality out there somewhere. Johnson takes an agnostic stance between science as discovery and science as construction. "In the end," he argues, "there is no way to know whether science is converging on a single truth, the way the universe really is, or simply building artificial structures, tools that allow us to predict, to some extent, and to explain and control."

Throughout, Johnson describes the genesis of modern scientific thought and reveals its new direction. We are in the midst of an important shift here. Earlier ideas were often somewhat mystical, including, for instance, the notion of a vital force that imbues all of nature, endowing a living Spirit. So-called modern science left all threads of mysticism behind, in a riot of reductionism, in which everything would be explained, once we know the component parts. But these days, at least in some realms, scientists are speaking in terms that have curious echoes of the past while reaching for the future. There is a growing sense that nature itself is the source of much of the order in our worlds, in a mechanistic not mystical sense, although the outcome seems mystical.

And throughout, too, Johnson interweaves stories of the Tewas and the Catholic Penitentes, showing the uncanny reverberations of the existence of similar world views grown out of completely different perspectives.

The human brain is wired to see patterns and significance, often when none exist: think of inkblots and clouds. And we often endow nature's events with meaning where none exists: coincidences hold a powerful sway of our view of the world. And when one of nature's events is the emergence of humankind itself, how else is it to be explained than as a given in life's flow? Or so it seems.

Western science has long grappled with this issue, with some content to see the emerging complexities of life, including ourselves, as the outcome of the chance events of natural selection. Rewind life's tape and run it again, says Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and a very different world would emerge, one absent of humans. Not so, argue a growing band of complexity theorists, who see much of life's order as inevitable, an expression of something fundamental in nature. Re-run the tape, and the new world might look very familiar, including ourselves and our urge to explain. Evolution is not so much about the survival of the fittest, they say, but the arrival of the fittest.

"Fire in the Mind" is a masterwork of synthesis of these various world views, these different branches of science, including chaos and complexity. Some of the views presented here will be familiar to many readers but, as with the limitation of reductionist science, it is not the individual parts that illuminate the significance of the whole, it is the way they are assembled and what higher insight flows from that assembly.

And, if nothing else, Johnson is a beautiful wordsmith. Whether he is describing his own experiences in and around Santa Fe, the arcane ways of difficult science, the entrancing rituals of the Tewas and Penitentes or the philosophical standpoint that brings it all together, his prose is both crystal clear and a joy to read.