THE SCI­ENCE OF COM­BI­NA­TION

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Mar­cia Bar­tu­siak is a pro­fes­sor in the MIT Grad­u­ate Pro­gram in Sci­ence Writ­ing. She is the au­thor of six books on the fron­tier and his­tory of as­tro­physics. A new edi­tion of her book on grav­i­ta­tional-wave as­tron­omy, “Ein­stein’s Un­fin­ished Sym­phony,” will b

How chem­istry, bi­ol­ogy and physics all shaped one an­other’s de­vel­op­ment.

Mary Somerville would have been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally elected into the Royal So­ci­ety of Lon­don in the 1800s — if women had been al­lowed to join. Cel­e­brated in her time as an ex­pert math­e­ma­ti­cian and thinker, she wrote a num­ber of books on sci­ence, in­clud­ing “On the Con­nex­ion of the Phys­i­cal Sciences,” pub­lished in 1834. Her aim, writes Pe­ter Wat­son, “was to re­veal the com­mon bonds — the links, the con­ver­gence — be­tween the phys­i­cal sciences at a time when they were other­wise be­ing carved up into sep­a­rate dis­ci­plines.” She showed how dy­nam­ics, stat­ics, hy­dro­dy­nam­ics, op­tics and elec­tric­ity could be placed un­der one roof of study. In fact, the term “sci­en­tist” was first in­tro­duced in a re­view of Somerville’s book to de­scribe the mem­bers of this broader en­ter­prise.

Wat­son con­sid­ers this a sem­i­nal mo­ment, the start of an avalanche that pro­gressed into the 20th and 21st cen­turies. “Con­ver­gence” is his whirl­wind exploration show­ing us “how link­ing one sci­ence with an­other could am­plify un­der­stand­ing . . . con­verg­ing and co­a­lesc­ing to iden­tify one ex­tra­or­di­nary mas­ter nar­ra­tive, one over­whelm­ing in­ter­lock­ing co­her­ent story: the his­tory of the uni­verse.” When ge­ol­o­gists re­vealed the time re­quired to form sed­i­men­tary rock and pa­le­on­tol­o­gists found fos­sils within those lay­ers, ques­tions in­evitably arose con­cern­ing the ori­gin of species, cul­mi­nat­ing in the work of Charles Dar­win and Al­fred Rus­sel Wal­lace. Their work, in turn, would in­flu­ence Karl Marx in his Dar­winian model of so­ci­etal change.

Physics came to af­fect chem­istry, chem­istry en­tered into bi­ol­ogy, and bi­ol­ogy im­pacted the cog­ni­tive sciences. Wat­son of­fers the reader a “big his­tory” of the mod­ern sciences from this spe­cific per­spec­tive. Those seek­ing a grand overview of sci­ence’s great­est hits over the past cen­tury will find it here.

The first wave in this amal­ga­mat­ing march was dom­i­nated by the ap­pli­ca­tion of physics to an ar­ray of fields. Dmitri Men­deleyev found a dis­tinct pe­ri­od­ic­ity in the prop­er­ties of the chem­i­cal el­e­ments that hinted at an un­der­ly­ing struc­ture, which was ul­ti­mately re­vealed by physi­cists who dis­cov­ered that the ar­range­ment of elec­trons around a nu­cleus of pro­tons and neu­trons de­ter­mined an el­e­ment’s chem­i­cal be­hav­ior. The chemist Li­nus Paul­ing, ab­sorb­ing the new laws of quan­tum me­chan­ics that de­scribed the be­hav­ior of those elec­trons, was able to go even fur­ther, ex­plain­ing in the 1930s the mech­a­nisms be­hind el­e­ments bond­ing to one an­other to form mol­e­cules. This trans­formed the field of chem­istry. And Paul­ing didn’t stop there. In the suc­ceed­ing decades he played a vi­tal role in tak­ing this new­found knowl­edge into bi­ol­ogy, help­ing forge the field of molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy.

Wat­son chose a dy­namic time in sci­ence to sum­ma­rize. So, be­cause of the wide breadth of dis­cov­er­ies be­ing de­scribed, the pre­sen­ta­tion can at times feel rushed. The achieve­ments of a list of no­ta­bles — from Wil­helm Ront­gen to Henri Bec­querel to Pierre and Marie Curie, for ex­am­ple — are con­densed to a few pages. The arc from ar­ti­fi­cial dyes to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals is swept through in just sev­eral more. It is when Wat­son slows his pace to go deeper into a par­tic­u­larly piv­otal de­vel­op­ment that the book be­comes more en­gag­ing.

One such episode is the “friendly in­va­sion of the bi­o­log­i­cal sciences by the phys­i­cal sciences,” as de­scribed by Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion of­fi­cial War­ren Weaver, who per­suaded his or­ga­ni­za­tion to fund this new ven­ture. Physi­cist Er­win Schrodinger started the stam­pede in the early 1940s with his in­flu­en­tial book “What is Life?,” in which he sug­gested that the gene, then a mys­te­ri­ous en­tity, must be a highly sta­ble mol­e­cule that con­tains a code. A decade later, two avid fans of Schrodinger’s book, James Wat­son and Fran­cis Crick, fi­nally cracked that code. The ap­pli­ca­tion of physics to as­tron­omy has wielded sim­i­lar rev­o­lu­tions in our un­der­stand­ing of stel­lar and cos­mic evo­lu­tion. The au­thor goes on to ex­am­ine the de­vel­op­ment of such paired sci­en­tific en­ti­ties as so­cio­bi­ol­ogy, be­hav­ioral eco­nom­ics, evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science.

Th­ese di­rect meld­ings of sci­en­tific fields get less tight in the clos­ing chap­ters. The au­thor, for ex­am­ple, shows how sci­en­tists traced the ori­gin of the Indo-Euro­pean mother tongue to Ana­to­lia around 6500 BC. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney, but this re­sult did not in­volve an ac­tual union of sciences. It was the ev­i­dence, separately ar­riv­ing from ar­chae­ol­ogy, lin­guis­tics and ge­net­ics, that con­verged on a com­mon an­swer.

With the rise of com­pu­ta­tion and in­for­ma­tion the­ory, it’s likely that fu­ture con­ver­gences will more and more in­volve math­e­mat­ics — as the au­thor puts it, “Whether or­der, as de­fined by math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions, is not just an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of re­al­ity, but re­al­ity it­self.” Un­for­tu­nately, while ex­plor­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion, Wat­son goes off the path of set­tled sci­ence. He of­fers in due course wild and spec­u­la­tive imag­in­ings, the pet the­o­ries of a hand­ful of sci­en­tists that are not yet ready for prime time, such as physi­cist Frank Ti­pler’s views on the “physics of im­mor­tal­ity.” I would have pre­ferred that “Con­ver­gence” stuck with sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion that is ei­ther well un­der­stood or testable. I think Mary Somerville would have agreed.

ISTOCK

CON­VER­GENCE The Idea at the Heart of Sci­ence By Pe­ter Wat­son Si­mon & Schus­ter. 543 pp. $35

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