The twenty essays in this thought-provoking and very personal collection explore the insights and limits of science and religion. Lightman, a physicist and novelist, views these disciplines as two different but equally essential routes to the truth. Science describes and explains the physical world. Its discoveries are always provisional and are constantly being tested and revised. Religion looks inward. Its truths are unprovable but incontrovertible. The universe has room enough and questions enough for both, and though reason and spirituality operate in distinct spheres, they touch on similar matters. What existed before the Big Bang? Where was the creator before creation? Does the Buddhist belief in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, one that had no beginning but just WAS, match quantum theories that have seemingly disproven causality? Lightman’s pursuit of certainty involves explorations of infinities, large and small; meditations on the problem of consciousness and humanity’s bio-tech future; field trips around Pole Island to look at hummingbirds and ants; and vivid glimpses of his heroes, among them Galileo, Einstein, St. Augustine, and his friend Yos Hut Khemacaro, a Cambodian Buddhist monk. As he has in previous books, Lightman gives us vast, complicated subjects in lucid, engaging prose.
The two protagonists of Mann’s deeply researched and passionate study of climate change may not be household names, but they have shaped how we view the planet and humanity’s role here. The “wizard” of his title is Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), one of the key figures of the Green Revolution and the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. In his view, people have never faced a problem they couldn’t solve with technology. Starvation, for instance, could be eradicated with the right combination of genetically modified seeds, artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. By contrast, William Vogt (1902-1968) believed that humanity is constrained by the natural limits of the planet. Since resources are finite, it’s irrational at best, suicidal at worst, to push for infinite economic development. A “prophet,” Vogt, like John Muir before him and Bill McKibben after him, foresaw the end if we let our consumption and our population exceed Earth’s “carrying capacity,” a scenario he outlined in his 1948 Road to Survival. Mann gives a thorough profile of both Borlaug and Vogt. He explains the science behind the Green Revolution and outlines the mechanics of photosynthesis and the role of nitrogen in the soil. He reports from around the world on the triumphs and shortcomings of both the Green Revolution and the organic movement. He asks real, and urgent, questions about sustainability, ethics, and economics. Ultimately, neither wizards nor prophets have all the answers. While Mann’s books seems to chart a dichotomy, it’s telling that he used “and” in the title rather than “or.” We need both technological solutions and an environmental ethos. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, despite their contentious history. To save the planet we have to draw on the best ideas of both wizards and prophets.
If you’re like me, you pick up Henry Fountain’s new book, The Great Quake, and you immediately assume it’s about some California disaster. It’s not. This one happened in Alaska on March 27, 1964. At 9.2 on the Richter scale, it was the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America and the second most powerful in world history. The human tragedy and physical damage of it all are dramatically and vividly captured by Fountain, a New York Times reporter, but that’s only part of the story. Fountain also explores how this major natural disaster ended up spurring scientific inquiry, largely thanks to the efforts of one individual, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey named George Plafker. The study that Plafker produced to explain what caused the earthquake in Alaska helped confirm idea of plate tectonics, which was then a controversial notion but is now widely accepted.