Wonderfully, a readable book on what's known - and isn't

October 18, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

For 23 years, Sir John Maddox was editor of Nature, generally considered the most authoritative journal covering the full breadth of science in the world. It was his job not only to track the broad sweep of the sciences, but to deal virtually daily with many of the most distinguished scientists on Earth.

If anyone gets science, he does. His life has come to full flower and recognition - and to perspective. He was knighted for services to science in 1994 and was chosen a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences in 1996 and is now Editor Emeritus of Nature. He lives in London and Wales. He has written a book, just out - his fifth, but the first since 1974.

It is "What Remains to Be Discovered" (Free Press, 434 pages, $26). Its subtitle, which - after reading the work - does not seem overreaching: "Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race."

No, there's not an arrogant or condescending - or unexplained - word in the book.

To the contrary, Maddox has a craftsman's mastery for making histories of science succinct, authoritative and delightfully readable. Having noted that Democritus, 2,500 years ago, coined the term and concept of the atom, the basic building block of all matter, Maddox writes:

"The long search for more plausible atoms than those the Greeks proposed has been episodic, resembling the unpacking of a nest of Russian dolls. Unscrew Yeltsin and Gorbachev is revealed; unscrew him to find Andropov, Chernenko, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin and Nicholas II. Repeatedly it has seemed that all the elementary atoms have finally been listed - whereupon new observations have proved the belief mistaken."

A metaphor for the whole thing.

As the book moves on, Maddox fluently makes the global forum of scientific ideas and debate seem like a rushing, churning, field game - a very fast, well-played soccer or lacrosse game with a couple of thousand players in motion on a monster field. Maddox is there, a sort of universal field referee, recognizing and recording goals and fouls shifts of momentum, improvisations and what it all means.

Not Classic Comics

It's exciting reading, a masterful tour guide to what is known - and not known.

This is not a book for the casual reader. It is not "Classic Comics: The Genome," nor Reader's Digest Science. Yet I believe it can be followed and understood by any informed and inquisitive newspaper reader.

The reward is enormous. What is the meaning of time, the purpose of abstract mathematics? What is consciousness - its roots in physiology? How about imagination? Maddox states very clearly the limits of science's present capacities to explain.

He is a fearless man. On the immense controversies and speculations in the scientific world, he takes stands, with often startling simplicity:

"The old argument about the relative importance of nature and nurture in the development of the human beings seems to have been settled in favor of nature. But that is almost certainly an illusion. It may not be long before the external influences on the genes are well catalogued enough for the importance of nurture to become apparent again."

He takes on huge concepts with wonderful patience: the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, of everything; the quest, popular among many scientists of high station, for TOE - a Theory of Everything, a concept that will draw together all physics, chemistry, mathematics.

He's never timid "The idea that the universe began in a single event, the big bang," he writes, "will be will be found false. ... It will be time enough to talk about a theory of everything when we know what everything is."

Horrendous threats

He writes of perils that face the human race, including scientists. Some may be avoidable, some perhaps or probably beyond effective human intervention: global warming and a rise of sea levels; catastrophic collision with large meteorites or comet material; occurrence of disease forms that cause massive death before they can be scientifically understood.

Those threats and others provide the policy impetus for a commitment to research. The knowledge that diseases like polio and perhaps some day AIDS and even cancer can be controlled or cured is the driving force behind the work of many scientists.

The two most dramatic challenges in biology - what most remains to be discovered - are the origin of life and how the brain works. Both may seem abstract, even metaphysical. But the pursuit of the questions promises to benefit the human race and the planet it occupies.

So, what does it all mean and when will it end?

"The truth is," Maddox writes, "that the sheer success of science in the last half millennium has engendered a corrosive impatience. We too easily forget how recent are the empirical and theoretical foundations of present understanding. Prudence, or merely good manners, would dictate a seemly recognition that they may also be incomplete."

But his cry for mannerliness is not to encourage complacency. Far from it.

There "is not yet an end in sight to the process of inquiry," he writes in concluding the book. "The problems that remain unsolved are gargantuan. They will occupy our children and their children and on and on for centuries to come, perhaps even for the rest of time."

That is the most daunting challenge imaginable. But finding "what remains to be discovered" will, without doubt, go on improving the lives of our children and theirs.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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