Every profession has its rite of passage, a crucible guaranteed to roil doubts and second thoughts about career choices. Pilots have their solo flights, surgeons their operations. For science journalists, it’s that first crucial interview when they realize, with mounting unease, that they don’t understand a single word of what some scientist is telling them. It happened to me several years ago. I had just started working as a reporter for Discover magazine and managed to convince my editor that I was ready to write a feature. One of the people I needed to interview for the story was an eminent physicist, a Nobel laureate. He graciously set aside two hours of his time one wintry afternoon in Princeton to talk to me about a perplexing problem in his field, a problem that was to be the subject of my article.
I turned on my tape recorder and asked my first question. In reply the physicist said something about an “antisymmetric total eigenfunction.” It wasn’t the sort of answer I was looking for. Worse, it wasn’t the sort of answer I could understand. From there the gap between what the physicist said and what I followed could have been measured in megaparsecs. For the next 7,200 seconds I had almost no idea what this kindly, renowned, thoughtful gentleman was talking about. Sure, I could recognize the odd phrase here and there, but entire sentences might as well have been transmitted in a frequency range audible only to canines for all they meant to me. Somehow the few questions I sputtered during the remainder of the interview didn’t betray my utter befuddlement and growing panic. For the most part I sat silently perspiring, nodding or grunting now and then to foster the illusion of comprehension.
When the interview finally ended I walked from the snow-covered campus to the train that would take me back to Manhattan, wondering how I would ever wring a story from such impenetrable raw material before my deadline. Over the next few weeks, after many more hours of interviews and phone conversations with perhaps a dozen physicists, I finished the assignment. The work was grueling, but satisfying.
That first interview turned out to be similar to many others in the years ahead. Although the panicky fear of failing to deliver a story eventually faded, the hard labor of translating the work of scientists into something that people will pay to read hasn’t changed at all. Good writing is never easy, but writing about science is extraordinarily challenging. Most journalists, whether they’re covering crime, politics, or business, can at least assume a common vocabulary, a certain degree of shared knowledge, on the part of their readers, not to mention their interview subjects. Science writers don’t have that luxury. First they need to understand enough of the subject at hand to ask relevant questions. Then they must mold their interview notes and background reading of sundry science journals into a narrative that a reader will not just understand but enjoy. Not an easy profession.
Fortunately for us, there are many people who do it extremely well. The stories they tell are compelling, perhaps the most important of our time. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the controversial physicist who headed the Manhattan Project during World War II, once said, “Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics.” The stories science tells us are not always comforting. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate physicist (not the one who so confounded me years ago), has said that the more physicists study the universe, the more pointless it all seems. Scientists have not found any evidence of a special role for humanity in the scheme of things. Instead, human life looks like a very marginal phenomenon. Knowing that countless other species have arisen and disappeared on earth over the past 3 billion years, the existence of Homo sapiens seems less and less divinely ordained and ever more contingent. When asked about Weinberg’s bleak view, Jim Peebles, a Princeton astrophysicist, said, “I’m willing to believe that we are flotsam and jetsam.” But maybe those cold truths from the unflinching, vast perspective of science are what we need to hear. Genetic evidence suggests that every person now alive descends from the members of a small group of humans who lived in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Maybe the knowledge of our tentative, fragile place in the cosmos, and of our relatively recent common origin, marks the beginning of our maturity as a species. Maybe it’s time to set aside the myths and legends that still sustain — and divide — so many of us..
Of course, such knowledge isn’t welcome everywhere. As Frederick Crews writes in “Saving Us from Darwin,” creationists still refuse to accept the full implllllications of The Origin of Species 143 years after its publication. They prefer to cling, using the most tortured reasoning, to a god who is “a glutton for praise,” Crews writes. Their efforts to distort and suppress the teaching of science might seem ludicrous were they supported by only a few in our society. Unfortunately that’s not the case, which makes Dennis Overbye’s “How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science” disturbingly relevant. Science — and the liberal culture of tolerance and dispassionate inquiry that makes possible its pursuit — has many enemies. Perhaps the articles collected here will help win it a few more friends.
Working with Natalie Angier has been a particular pleasure for me — she was once my professor at New York University’s graduate program in science writing. The only disadvantage of having Natalie as the guest editor is that none of her own writing could be included. Her reflections on the extraordinary sacrifices of New York’s firemen, policemen, and other ordinary people on September 11 would have been one of my top picks for this volume. Search a library or the Internet for her story — “Altruism, Heroism, and Nature’s Gifts in the Face of Terror,” published in the September 18 edition of the New York Times. I am very grateful to Deanne Urmy and Laura van Dam, my editors at Houghton Mifflin, for their good humor, guidance, and suggestions. Peter Brown, the former editor of The Sciences, put me in touch with Laura and Deanne. I keenly regret the demise of The Sciences, one of the country’s best magazines, which ceased publishing last year. Had it survived, I’m sure that it would have been represented in these pages. Burkhard Bilger, the editor of this series for the past two years and a contributor this year, offered much valuable advice. Finally, I can’t adequately express my gratitude and love to Anne Nolan, who gave up Manhattan — and Brooklyn — to join me in Gallup, New Mexico.
Introduction In the immediate aftermath of September 11, when all light and sense, inflection and comprehension, seemed to vanish overmorning right along with those gorgeous, goofy, minimalist-maximalist twin towers, I was wracked with apocalyptic visions of a desolate world to come. The ancient curse of millennial psychosis had struck at last, I thought, and now my daughter would grow up in a time of brutal piousness, intolerance, and de- encephalization, as brigades of Truth Police roamed the streets, snarling Presa Canario dogs in tow.
So I wept and whined and flailed, and wrote violent little fantasy vignettes about mothers and daughters who figure out how to kill Osama bin Laden; and like so many people I couldn’t sleep, night af...