John Ziman on the true enchantment of physics

  • The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav
    Hutchinson, 352 pp, £4.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 09 139401 5

No scientist worth his research grant really wants to conceal his discoveries from the world at large. Many non-scientists are curious to know something of the latest scientific discoveries. There would seem to be quite enough moral earnestness and prospects of profit to get this gap bridged. Alas, the chasm is wide and deep, especially where it guards the mysterious heights of modern physics. As some recent television programmes have demonstrated, even a skilful web of visual aids and journalistic conceits may not succeed in establishing a connection between specialist and general knowledge of atoms, particles, forces and fields.

Some masters of high science have become sceptical of any possibility of popularising their subject without making a mere caricature of what they know and love. But it is more in keeping with scholarly universalism to welcome every effort of this kind with positive good will. Let us applaud the courage of Mr Zukav, who came to the edge of the chasm with no previous education in physics, and who has tried to build a bridge across it from the lay person’s side.

What is more – and this probably explains the considerable popular success of this book in America – his spirit has been uplifted by a personal vision concerning the nature of his subject. Whether or not he began with the laudable purpose of explaining physics as the physicists see it, he has evidently been seized with zeal to interpret what he was told in far wider terms. This is a book with a philosophical message, which the author summarises incidentally: ‘“The exact sciences” no longer study an objective reality that runs its course regardless of our interest in it or not, leaving us to fare as best we can while it goes its predetermined way. Science, at the level of subatomic events, is no longer exact, the distinction between objective and subjective has vanished, and the portals through which the Universe manifests itself are, as we once knew a long time ago, those impotent, passive witnesses to its unfolding; the “I’s”, of which we, insignificant we, are examples. The Cogs in the Machine have become the Creators of the Universe.’

We are thus faced with two distinct questions: has Mr Zukav given a satisfactory exposition of the new physics, and is his interpretation convincing. These questions demand fair and measured answers. For all our sympathy with the objectives of this work, we must not neglect our duty to indicate to the uninformed reader how far this sophisticated subject has been correctly represented.

Does Mr Zukav succeed in explaining the essence of the new physics to somebody as ignorant as he was when he began? Not being in that situation myself, I cannot judge whether what he says about various aspects of quantum theory, relativity and particle physics conveys an intelligible picture. The book could scarcely have had such a wide appeal if it did not make satisfactory contact with the minds of its ordinary readers. His bridge is constructed with simple words, short sentences, homely images and trite sentiments, but I have no idea whether it will bear any traffic. Many of his paragraphs state basic facts and concepts in a more or less coherent logical order, but there may be vital disjunctions in such a skeletal account of this highly articulated subject.

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