Monday, March 27, 2023

 The Upright Thinkers:

The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

By Leonard Mlodinow

Book Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

Our last club meeting spurred me to finish reading this book and report on it. The reason is that I believe in science far more than religion. This book balances those ideas by presenting a magnificent commentary on the evolution of our understanding of planet Earth and beyond. 

A physicist with a PhD from U Cal Berkeley, Mlodinow is a terrific writer, with a style that ranges from delightful humour to serious commentary on political developments. But throughout this book he is a scientist first. Also, he’s Jewish, so not opposed to religion.

He demonstrates how scientific developments are not only the product of isolated genius, but depend on the convergence of systems, technologies, and happenstance. This book is a witty and thought-provoking account of the history of scientific discovery.

A subtext to this story is the story of Judaism over the years. Mlodinow comes from Jewish stock; the story of his father in a Nazi concentration camp appears in the first chapter, and he reappears throughout. Near the end, the author talks touchingly about his death.

A California Institute of Technology physicist and bestselling author, Mlodinow offers readers a grand history of science in this book. Spanning more than three million years, his account of how humans came to ask questions about the physical world and the meaning of their own existence is a powerful read about the development of scientific thought and process. His explanations are clear, even when they concern the most puzzling developments in quantum mechanics. In short, it is a concise and engaging introduction to the history of science and to history’s most important scientific developments.

Long overarching histories sometimes risk overlooking complexities, smoothing over contradictions and disputes. The Upright Thinkers embraces them, skillfully showing that the progress of science depends as much on happenstance, culture, and institutional backing as it does on the passion and persistence of its main cast of scientist characters. Although the book recounts the stories of already well-known figures in science, such as Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, their profiles offer rare glimpses into the social contexts of the scientists, their tribulations, and their shortcomings. The “vision of the great discoverers of intellectual history is more often muddled than clear, and their accomplishments more indebted to their friends and colleagues – and luck – than the legends show and than the discoverers themselves often wish to admit.”

For example, in the chapter on Newton, Mlodinow writes about the rigid class hierarchies at Cambridge, while highlighting Newton’s tendency to work alone. These aspects of a person’s life show that scientific developments do not occur at a stroke of genius. The story of the apple falling on Newton’s head is apocryphal; it took years of work and failure, along with coincidental meetings with other scientists and mathematicians, for Newton to develop his laws of motion. That said, Newton’s “progress required many hits on the head, and many years in which to process ideas and come to a true understanding of their potential.”

This book is full of characters with deep curiosity and an urge to understand how the physical world works. It is this curiosity that makes human beings distinct as a species. But incoherence and unpredictability constantly assault our capacity to ask questions and think. Beliefs and feelings animate science almost as much as mathematical or lab expertise. The author deftly illustrates this mishmash of ideas with personal anecdotes of his own encounters with physics and with physicists, some of whom would give the cranky Isaac Newton a run for his money in terms of temperament.

The author describes the ingenuity with which Heisenberg contributed to subatomic physics – first in the work he did in respect to the positioning of electrons around an atom; later by introducing the uncertainty principle, which added a lot to quantum theory. Although many of the key scientists behind nuclear physics in the 30s and 40s were Jews (Albert Einstein, for one), when Nazism took over Germany Heisenberg proclaimed that “Now we at least have order, an end is put to the unrest, and we have a strong hand governing Germany which will be to the good of Europe.” 

The Upright Thinkers pays detailed attention to the systems and technologies that played roles facilitating scientific developments. For Newton, it was the recent availability of paper that enabled him to scribble ideas into a notebook, which he called the ‘Waste Book’. This process was integral to his formulations of calculus. Charles Darwin  relied on the efficient ‘penny post’ system to share his ideas with colleagues to gather feedback for what eventually became On the Origin of Species, the first detailed account of natural selection.

This attention to the material contexts – such as the development of glass lenses, changes to the postal system or the availability of specific metals – that limited or enabled certain scientific developments makes for a nuanced account of how scientific thought progressed. It challenges a common view that science is a product of genius and hard work, while embracing the randomness through which discoveries are made. Alongside Newton, Heisenberg and Darwin stood friends and family members, stationery, academic gowns, religious institutions and communication systems, all of which played interesting and crucial roles in providing the environments in which scientists and innovators thought.

I found the last two chapters – titled, respectively, “Invisible Realm” and “The Quantum Revolution” – to be difficult reads. I attribute that to my limited background in hard science. But then came the epilogue, which speculates on what science may one day reveal about the cosmos. 

It almost left me breathless.

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