How peo­ple evolved from small mam­mals to space trav­el­ers.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY MAR­CIA BAR­TU­SIAK book­world@wash­post.com Mar­cia Bar­tu­siak is a pro­fes­sor in the MIT Grad­u­ate Pro­gram in Science Writ­ing. She is the au­thor of six books on as­tron­omy and as­tro­physics, in­clud­ing her latest, “Black Hole: How an Idea Aban­doned by N

‘The no­bil­ity of the hu­man race lies in our drive to know,” says Leonard Mlodi­now. And by trac­ing that vo­ra­cious im­pulse through the mil­len­nia, Mlodi­now has fash­ioned an en­tranc­ing tale of sci­en­tific history in his book “The Up­right Thinkers.”

This is, of course, a fa­mil­iar jour­ney, fea­tur­ing all the usual sus­pects: Galileo (check), New­ton (check), Dar­win (check). But what makes this oft-made trip worth­while is Mlodi­now’s cap­ti­vat­ing voice, sly hu­mor and in­tel­lec­tual vi­tal­ity. If high school history were taught in this way, col­lege history de­part­ments would be swamped with ap­pli­ca­tions.

He starts not with the Greeks or the Egyp­tians but much fur­ther back— with Pro­tun­gu­la­tum don­nae, a small mam­mal from the age of the di­nosaurs whose prog­eny evolved over the eons into pri­mates, in­clud­ing us. Once we ac­quired the abil­ity to fash­ion tools and ob­tain pro­tein-rich meat, our brain size in­creased, thus boost­ing our cere­bral pow­ers. So, upon en­coun­ter­ing the un­known, our prim­i­tive species moved be­yond mere in­stinct and be­gan to ask, “Why?” “The act of ques­tion­ing is so im­por­tant to our species,” the au­thor writes, “that we have a uni­ver­sal in­di­ca­tor for it: all lan­guages . . . em­ploy a sim­i­lar ris­ing in­to­na­tion for ques­tions.” We be­gan to think.

Hu­man­ity’s queries con­tin­ued as we erected first vil­lages, then cities. A di­vi­sion of la­bor freed us from farm­ing alone, with weavers, builders and brew­ers serv­ing as hu­man­ity’s proto-engi­neers and chemists. We started to seek ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tions for such nat­u­ral dis­as­ters as earth­quakes, wind­storms and floods. Be­fore this, Mlodi­now writes, “the gods were thought to be con­stantly caus­ing calami­ties through their anger . . . as if they were bulls in a china shop and we were the china.” Now early philoso­phers be­gan to view the uni­verse as or­dered, not ran­dom. Pythago­ras and com­pany un­cov­ered math­e­mat­i­cal laws be­hind this or­der. “It is hard to over­state what a pro­found shift that was, or the de­gree to which it has shaped hu­man con­scious­ness ever since,” the au­thor notes.

But there were lim­its ini­tially. Aris­to­tle, who resided in the top tier of Greek philoso­phers, was not fond of quan­ti­fy­ing his ob­ser­va­tions. “He had just a vague un­der­stand­ing of speed — as in ‘ some things go far­ther than oth­ers in a sim­i­lar amount of time,’ ” Mlodi­now points out. “That sounds to us like a mes­sage we might find in­side a for­tune cookie.” What Aris­to­tle sought was the pur­pose or in­ten­tion of all nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, an em­pha­sis that, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, im­peded science for some 2,000 years.

That changed as Greek knowl­edge, val­ued and ex­tended by the Is­lamic world, was re­dis­cov­ered by Euro­peans in me­dieval times. The rise of univer­si­ties and im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy — print­ing presses, clocks, me­chan­i­cal de­vices — en­cour­aged the re­ex­am­i­na­tion of its tenets. No one did this bet­ter than Galileo. Rather than carry out ex­per­i­ments merely to il­lus­trate var­i­ous phe­nom­ena, as scholars had done for cen­turies, he used them to gather quan­ti­ta­tive data that tested his hy­pothe­ses. More than that, he didn’t throw out the mea­sure­ments that went against his pre­con­ceived no­tions. It was that turn of mind that later al­lowed Isaac New­ton’s break­throughs to emerge.

Here Mlodi­now vividly il­lus­trates that New­ton’s mo­men­tous laws of mo­tion and grav­ity did not arise from an ap­ple-driven “epiphany” but rather from years of dogged strug­gle. His suc­cess was so great that his find­ings and cho­sen lan­guage are now wo­ven into our very cul­ture and vo­cab­u­lary. “We speak of the force of a per­son’s char­ac­ter, and the ac­cel­er­a­tion of the spread of a dis­ease,” Mlodi­now writes. “We talk of phys­i­cal and even men­tal in­er­tia, and the mo­men­tum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been un­heard of be­fore New­ton.” Such in­sights are what make this book sin­gu­lar. Mlodi­now pro­vides many cul­tural touch­stones and tells per­sonal sto­ries, both poignant and amus­ing, about his ex­pe­ri­ences as a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist to draw us even closer to the history.

Af­ter New­ton, the pace of dis­cov­ery quick­ens, into chem­istry and the un­veil­ing of the ul­ti­mate na­ture of mat­ter. Be­ing rich helped, en­abling peo­ple like the English­man Robert Boyle and the French­man An­toine Lavoisier to draw on their fam­i­lies’ aris­to­cratic wealth to set up state-of-the-art lab­o­ra­to­ries for their piv­otal ther­mo­dy­namic and chem­i­cal ex­plo­rations.

Ad­vances in bi­ol­ogy are lim­ited to a sin­gle chap­ter in­tro­duced in the au­thor’s poetic style: “It is a great won­der that the sum of our cells’ ac­tiv­i­ties, the in­ter­ac­tion of a gal­axy of un­think­ing in­di­vid­u­als, adds up to a whole that is us.” In this sec­tion we learn about the as­tound­ing work of An­ton van Leeuwenhoek (the Galileo of the mi­cro­scope) and, of course, Charles Dar­win (whose “Ori­gin of the Species” serves as the bi­o­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of New­ton’s “Prin­cipia”). Once Dar­win in­tro­duced the con­cept of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, bi­ol­o­gists be­came com­fort­able with the role of chance in na­ture’s be­hav­ior. And soon physi­cists had to make a sim­i­lar ad­just­ment in un­der­stand­ing the go­ings-on of the atomic world, where light and mat­ter are ruled by prob­a­bil­i­ties rather than New­to­nian cause and ef­fect. It is a do­main where par­ti­cles are waves and waves are par­ti­cles — all at the same time. Though still dif­fi­cult for our macro­scopic minds to grasp, this re­al­iza­tion ul­ti­mately led to the won­ders of our 21st-cen­tury dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies.

Mlodi­now is se­lec­tive in the mo­ments he chooses to em­pha­size— we get the grand vista rather than the rugged to­pog­ra­phy— which is per­fect for those who are look­ing for an over­all arc of science’s evo­lu­tion. As he puts it, he fo­cuses on the thinkers who were “ca­pa­ble of look­ing at the world just a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently. Galileo imag­in­ing ob­jects fall­ing in a the­o­ret­i­cal world de­void of air re­sis­tance. Dal­ton imag­in­ing how el­e­ments might re­act to form com­pounds if they were made of un­see­able atoms. Heisen­berg imag­in­ing that the realm of the atom is gov­erned by bizarre laws that are noth­ing like those we ex­pe­ri­ence in ev­ery­day life.”

He has whet­ted my ap­petite for the day when fu­ture ex­plor­ers un­ravel to­day’s deep­est mys­ter­ies — such as dark mat­ter, dark energy, quan­tum grav­ity and the ori­gin of the mind of each up­right thinker.

SEAN SCOTT/ROOM RM VIA GETTY IM­AGES

THE UP­RIGHT THINKERS The Hu­man Jour­ney from Liv­ing in Trees to Un­der­stand­ing the Cos­mos By Leonard Mlodi­now Pan­theon. 340 pp. $27.95

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