Coming of Age in the Milky Way
Something of a challenger to Carl Sagan’s position as the leading American science journalist, Timothy Ferris, who teaches journalism and astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley, has written an unusually polished and elegant history of our ideas of the universe and Earth’s position in it. He comes to this book with an authority and assurance demonstrated in many articles and essays on science in a variety of journals, ranging from Harper’s to Reader’s Digest, from The New York Times to Rolling Stone. The range of readers reached by these magazines reveals something of Ferris’ ability to make his message understandable. He is a great bridger of the gap that many still experience between the “two cultures,” the sciences and the humanities, a gulf that C. P. Snow tried to cross in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with his famous novels and essays (for example, The New Men, 1954, and Science and Government, 1961). If the chasm has begun to narrow, much of the credit must go to writers such as Sagan and Ferris who have taken science to the people. Ferris is at home in broadcasting as well as print. He wrote and narrated the award-winning ninety-minute PBS special “The Creation of the Universe,” and he has agreed to serve as science correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.
Ferris’ ability to write in an engaging way on difficult concepts in astronomy and physics does not mean that he sacrifices breadth and depth. There is much carefully documented historical exposition in Coming of Age in the Milky Way, because Ferris knows that the majority of his readers will have a surer grasp of the developments in philosophy and intellectual history than of the evolution of scientific theory. He is also convinced that the layman will be more open to learning about science if he can be persuaded that there is more of the artist in the scientist than is usually believed. Ferris manages to establish these ideas early in his book, in a clever and highly insightful discussion of Aristotle’s contribution to the mapping of space. The very qualities that are always singled out as being Aristotle’s greatest strengths—his close observation of phenomena and powers of classification—are seen by Ferris as obstacles; they actually interfered with the philosopher’s effectiveness as a scientist. His addiction to description and explanation made Aristotle “intolerant of ambiguity,” a quality “not salutary in science”; his “cast of mind . . . propelled him to the extremities of empty categorizing.” The result was occasional illumination, but he also left whatever he touched “anesthetized.” It was Plato, says Ferris, from whom science inherited a profound skepticism “about the ability of the human mind to comprehend nature by studying objects and events.” Science cannot succumb to the temptation of settling for perfect descriptive models of the universe. Were it to do so, says Ferris, science itself would come to a stop.
Although beautifully constructed, Ferris’ own book avoids the pitfall of too schematic an appearance by concentrating on the history of our way of thinking about the universe rather than on the history of the...
(The entire section is 1334 words.)