Science Observed

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Trained as a physicist, Jeremy Bernstein is widely regarded as the finest science-writer now working. The range of his interests is evident in this collection. Part 1, “Mind and Machine: Profile of Marvin Minsky,” is a three-part profile in The New Yorker. The remaining essays are drawn from various journals, including The American Scholar, The Dial, Geo, and Mountain Gazette; two of the essays are reprinted from an earlier book by Bernstein, A Comprehensible World: On Modern Science and Its Origin (1967). They are divided, apparently according to their degree of seriousness, into part 2, “Science Observed,” and part 3, “Out of My Mind: Entertainments, Serious and Otherwise.” Indeed, considerations of seriousness, humor, and playfulness provide one thread running through the book. Both in the content of some of the essays and in his own style, Bernstein displays the naïve, almost childlike humor and playfulness characteristic of many physicists.

“Topless in Hamburg” (a reference to the fact that the so-called “top” quark had not been discovered) provides a lucid account of developments in the theory of elementary particles following the discovery of the quark by Murray Gell-Mann and, independently, George Zweig, in 1963. The account also includes Bernstein’s shaky hypothesis concerning the etymology of the term “quark” which Gell-Mann took from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) (For the definitive treatment of this ever-vexing question, see Hugh Kenner, “The Word Police,” Harper’s, June, 1982). This venture into word-lore leads to a discussion of the whimsical terms that particle physicists have invented to describe various kinds of quarks: their “flavors”—up, down, strange, and charmed—and “color,” as well as “top” and “bottom” quarks. Particles in which charm and anti-charm cancel each other out are said to have “hidden charm”; particles made up of charmed and noncharmed quarks exhibit “naked charm.” The characteristic physicist’s humor is evident in such stories as that attributed to the Italian theoretical physicist Sergio Fubini, who, after touring the bars in New Orleans, reported that he had observed a great deal of naked charm but had found no evidence of hidden charm.

Bernstein’s first of many examples of the playfulness of scientists appears in his introduction with historian of science I. Bernard Cohen’s account of Albert Einstein’s delight in a toy given to him on his seventy-sixth birthday by his neighbor, physicist Eric Rogers. The toy, which looked like a curtain rod with a plastic ball on the end, demonstrated the equivalence principle which was formulated by Einstein and which formed the basis for the theory of general relativity. In his innumerable anecdotes about great scientists, Bernstein repeatedly associates humor and playfulness with the elegance and beauty of scientific creativity.

Notwithstanding his focus on humor, there is no doubt that Bernstein takes science very seriously and is manifestly concerned with making it comprehensible. He is intolerant of those who are not serious about science or who appear to be more concerned with romanticizing science than with making it comprehensible. When he is provoked, his humor can take on a caustic quality. His treatment of scientific cranks—and he does clearly distinguish between cranks and people who ask questions which may be awkward but which do deserve a decent answer—is unsympathetic. He is intolerant of popular science magazines and television programs such as Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and becomes highly dogmatic in areas where he sees real science as misunderstood and threatened.

“A Cosmic Flow,” for example, presents an extremely hostile view of Fritjof Capra’s popular book, The Tao of Physics (1975), in which Capra attempts to demonstrate a unity between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. Bernstein classifies Capra’s views, along with those of the scientific cranks, as, in Wolfgang Pauli’s phrase, “not even wrong.” Without defending Capra’s position, it may be pointed out that, while ideas which are seen as “not even wrong” may sometimes be utter nonsense, there is another possibility: they may arise from within a paradigm incompatible with that of the person who so characterizes them. In his book The Psychology of Consciousness (second edition, 1977), Robert Ornstein imagines two groups of investigators, one group working only in the daytime, the other only at night. The observations and theories developed by the night people (whom Ornstein is comparing with the Eastern or esoteric psychologists), no matter how valid or useful, are totally incomprehensible to those (the scientists) who work only in the daylight.

Bernstein is...

(The entire section is 1977 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Choice. XX, October, 1982, p. 288.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXIV, June, 1982, p. 71.

Library Journal. CVII, February 15, 1982, p. 465.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 28, 1982, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, January 1, 1982, p. 40.

Science Books and Films. XVIII, November/December, 1982, p. 68.

Technology Review. LXXXV, October, 1982, p. 84.