Why does this book turn sci­ence into mys­tery?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Ja­cob Bro­gan

Some­times sci­ence aligns with the lyri­cal. “Perhaps po­etry is an­other of sci­ence’s deep­est roots: the ca­pac­ity to see be­yond the vis­i­ble,” writes quan­tum physi­cist Carlo Rovelli in his re­mark­able book “The Or­der of Time.” When we care­fully at­tend to the world’s work­ings, Rovelli sug­gests, we can some­times tune in to its rhythms and rhymes, rev­el­ing in the me­ter of re­al­ity it­self.

writer Ste­fan Klein sets out to prove a sim­i­lar point in his new book, “How to Love the Uni­verse,” but he does not af­fil­i­ate him­self with the po­ets so much as at­tempt to cor­rect them. As he ex­plains, he hopes to as­suage “sen­si­tive peo­ple” — by which he means po­ets and their like — who sup­pos­edly worry that learn­ing about the na­ture of things makes re­al­ity less mys­te­ri­ous. He takes Edgar Al­lan Poe to task for char­ac­ter­iz­ing sci­ence as “a preda­tor on po­etry” and sin­gles out an un­named but “well-known” Ger­man poet who sup­pos­edly “de­tested our ever more pre­cise knowl­edge of genes be­cause de­coded man was a bore.”

Not so, Klein as­sures us: Po­ets need only rec­og­nize that na­ture’s won­der is ev­i­dent in the enig­mas that emerge from new dis­cov­er­ies, enig­mas that show just how comS­cience plex our world can be. Bor­row­ing an ex­am­ple from Richard Feyn­man, he writes that the botanist’s gaze does not wilt the rose’s beauty but am­pli­fies it, lead­ing us back to the daz­zling ori­gins of life it­self and ul­ti­mately to the re­al­iza­tion that the flower’s del­i­cate pe­tals are “meta­mor­phosed star­dust.” It’s a lovely im­age, but it’s also one that’s now decades old. Push­ing ahead, Klein pro­poses to demon­strate “how twenty-first-cen­tury physics changes our think­ing, the way we see the world.”

If he hopes to sub­stan­ti­ate his cen­tral premise that sci­ence makes the world stranger, Klein

must do two things. First, he has to ex­plain chal­leng­ing sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies. Sec­ond, he has to show us that new puz­zles en­sue once we make sense of those rev­e­la­tions. Over the course of 10 chap­ters, he tries to do just that, lead­ing us through an ar­ray of top­ics, from the big bang to the seem­ingly lim­it­less scope of the cosmos, touch­ing on dark mat­ter, the or­ga­ni­za­tion of time and the im­ma­te­ri­al­ity of mat­ter.

Many of these top­ics al­ready ex­ude an in­her­ent gee-whiz qual­ity, but Klein wants to show us that they are even more pe­cu­liar than they seem. Tack­ling the im­men­sity of space, he writes that there must be count­less earth­like plan­ets or­bit­ing sun-like stars. From here, he leaps to an­other con­clu­sion, ar­gu­ing that, given the near-in­fi­nite mul­ti­tude of stars, there must be other worlds that ex­actly du­pli­cate the con­di­tions of our own, such that “with a prob­a­bil­ity close to cer­tainty, each one of us has an in­fi­nite num­ber of dou­bles in the cosmos.” It is math­e­mat­i­cally likely, he con­tends, that a per­son ex­actly like me is writ­ing a book re­view ex­actly like this one over and over again across the uni­verse.

Here we see Klein’s method at work: Yes, there are a lot of stars. And yes, many of those stars have plan­ets or­bit­ing them. Once we ac­knowl­edge these es­tab­lished facts, we can let our minds wan­der. Are we alone in the uni­verse? Al­most cer­tainly not. If not, is it pos­si­ble that there are other worlds like our own, even if they are very far away? Al­most cer­tainly! If there are, is it pos­si­ble that some of those worlds ex­actly re-cre­ate the con­di­tions of our own, down to the pre­cise de­tails of our in­di­vid­ual lives? Maybe! Al­ways squint­ing at the fuzzy edge of the hori­zon, Klein in­sists we should be most amazed by the things we sus­pect but can never fully know.

He gets at this point most di­rectly when he tack­les the lim­i­ta­tions of pre­dic­tive sys­tems such as me­te­o­rol­ogy. The more pre­cise our at­tempts to an­tic­i­pate the fu­ture be­come, he ar­gues, the more data we re­quire, and hence the more likely it is that er­rors will creep into our anal­y­sis. He writes, for ex­am­ple, of a storm that sci­en­tists failed to pre­dict be­cause the equip­ment at a sin­gle out­ly­ing weather mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion wasn’t cal­i­brated prop­erly. By my read, this feels more like a fail­ure of sci­en­tific in­stru­men­ta­tion and process than like ev­i­dence that we can never fully un­tan­gle the knot of re­al­ity. Nev­er­the­less, such events lead him to oddly meta­phys­i­cal mus­ings: “It is as if na­ture had en­sured that it would keep on sur­pris­ing it­self,” he en­thuses. “To me it seems that it is pre­cisely this un­pre­dictabil­ity that marks the bound­ary be­tween life and death.”

Such non­sen­si­cal phrases sug­gest that Klein longs to be one with the po­ets he crit­i­cizes. Perhaps this is why he, a trained physi­cist, tends to treat hard-won sci­en­tific re­al­iza­tions as if they were still-mys­te­ri­ous puz­zles, of­ten mak­ing them more dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand than they would be oth­er­wise. He weaves a bizarrely com­pli­cated fic­tional crime story, for ex­am­ple, to ex­plain quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment, but the re­sult­ing nar­ra­tive is so ob­tuse that it is dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. Klein’s tale finds a de­tec­tive in­ves­ti­gat­ing a se­ries of si­mul­ta­ne­ous thefts in Lon­don and New York, an im­plau­si­ble se­quence of events that is pro­foundly puz­zling on its own terms. Though he never catches the perps, the de­tec­tive does con­clude that “all the places in the world are in re­al­ity just one place,” which may ex­plain the be­hav­ior of pro­tons un­der ex­per­i­men­tal con­di­tions but makes no sense within the world of his story.

Go­ing into that tale, I thought I had a layper­son’s un­der­stand­ing of quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment — the way ob­jects can act in con­cert even when they have no clear causal re­la­tion­ship — but read­ing Klein drove me to other sources for a re­fresher on the topic. It wasn’t that he re­vealed new com­plex­i­ties, just that he ex­plained things so strangely that I ended up doubt­ing my own knowl­edge. As a rule, if you hope to ar­tic­u­late some­thing that chal­lenges our un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity, you must do so in re­al­is­tic terms. Klein, mean­while, seems com­mit­ted to mak­ing ev­ery­thing a lit­tle more un­real from the start.

Ea­ger to as­ton­ish, Klein prizes mys­tery over so­lu­tion. Thus, we find him work­ing by sleight of hand, of­ten start­ing with ques­tions be­fore es­tab­lish­ing a foun­da­tion of un­der­stand­ing. Sci­ence may well make the world stranger, but it helps no one to es­trange us from sci­ence.

HOW TO LOVE THE UNI­VERSE A Sci­en­tist’s Odes to the Hid­den Beauty Be­hind the Vis­i­ble World By Ste­fan Klein Trans­lated by Mike Mitchell The Ex­per­i­ment. 222 pp. $18.95


A so­lar eclipse in Ja­pan this month. Ste­fan Klein writes that learn­ing more about nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena leads, in many cases, to new mys­ter­ies.

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