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Brown, Jones, and Robinson

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Atom and Cosmos. By Hans Reichenbach. Translated and revised by Edward S. Allen. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. The Expanding Universe. By Sir Arthur Eddington. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. Science and Human Life. By J. B. S. Haldane. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

Writing is a kind of magic; novel writing is black magic. When Fielding and Thackeray sat them down with pen and paper, they conjured up, by necromantic arts unknown, a host of men and women, creatures whose inmost lives were bared to the authors. But among those who came in answer to the summons was one unbidden. Over him the author had no power, rather it was he who had power over the author. Unknown by name, and only vaguely seen, he stood at the author’s elbow, approving, criticizing, questioning. To this shadowy figure our older novelists addressed from time to time propitiatory epistles. If today the presence of the “gentle reader” is not so openly acknowledged, his presence is none the less real. In all writing, he is the unseen collaborator.

Concerning the authorship of a book, our knowledge is usually fairly voluminous; the publisher sees to that. But while anonymous authorship is relatively rare, anonymous “readership” is the rule. It seems to me that if a reviewer could make this nebulous figure take sharper outlines he would go a long way in the performance of his task, which is to bring the right books before the right readers.

Brown, Jones, and Robinson all read popular scientific books, but their tastes show certain well-marked differences. No great harm or injustice will be done to any of them if, in the interest of fiction, I somewhat exaggerate these differences. I think the main types will be recognizable.

Brown likes facts; not for any particular purpose, but with a sort of collector’s instinct. If he takes an interest in theories and generalizations, it is a detached interest; they have for him no practical or ethical corollaries. In his worst phase Brown is fortunately rare; for we find his devastating prototype in the advertising pages as the man who spent fifteen minutes a day among the classics of the five-foot shelf, and who thereafter could browbeat all comers in conversation. In a less virulent form Brown is himself a scientist in some other field; a biologist, say, who wants to know what the physicist is cooking up about atoms, or an astronomer seeking reprieve from parallaxes in the love-life of the oyster.

I think Dr. Reichenbach’s “Atom and Cosmos” is written for Brown. The author is a well-known philosopher, whose centre of interest is the philosophy of science, and the book is a transcription of a series of radio talks to his German audience. The result is a clear, readable, but otherwise unimpressive account of modern atomic physics. The physicist will find this familiar material unillumined by any special philosophic insights which the author’s interests might lead him to expect; the non-physicist, to whom mathematics is mystification, will probably find it as intelligible as most works of the kind.

Our second reader, Jones, is something of a poet. His imagination thrills to ideas with a cosmic sweep, colored with the sunset and the rainbow. The real humanists, the lovers of tradition, the theologians and philosophers are among the Joneses. Too often science is for Jones only the destroyer of the ancient certainties, but so far as science appeals to him it must be as an adventure of the human spirit.

Jones will read Eddington. Perhaps there is no need especially to commend “The Expanding Universe” to his attention; he has doubtless been on the lookout for it. But even among books of its kind it stands out with virtues and faults so exaggerated that some account is in order.

The universe is finite, but unbounded; so much seems to follow from the equations of Einstein. Like its two-dimensional analogue, the surface of the earth, this approximately “spherical” space of three dimensions is of a finite, if enormous, radius. If we should start in any direction and keep going, we would eventually find ourselves home again. That is, we should do so if things remained as they are. But a spectroscopic study of distant nebulae indicates that this huge “sphere” is “swellin’ wisibly,” and at a constantly accelerating pace; so unless we travel pretty fast we would find, like Alice and the Red Queen, that it takes all the running we can do to keep in the same place. Professor Ed-dington thinks that this program of cosmic inflation will lead to a disruption of the universe, and this (cosmically speaking) very shortly; that is, in a billion years or so. There’s a cosmic thrill for Jones with a vengeance, though Mr. H. G. Wells must find it rather depressing; for with disaster so to speak just around the corner many of his best projects for the human race will have to be abandoned.

Writing for the layman, Sir Arthur Eddington must perforce use metaphor in place of mathematics. The expert himself will have some difficulty in weighing the cogency of the arguments. Even if these are unsound, his conclusions may be right. Sir Arthur Eddington is a great genius, with great powers of divination; and more than once in the past these have led him safely through almost trackless regions of the intellect. But the reasoning is all one can go by, and it seems to me that in addition to his program of cosmic inflation, the author has embarked on a career of intellectual inflation as well, and to have issued fiat currency not backed by anything tangible. That is, though definite disproof of his views is not now attainable, the positive evidence is as tenuous and nebulous as the matter in his universe.

Most sciences have their subsidiary arts, with which they live in contented wedlock. Physics has engineering. Biology has medicine. Chemistry has brought alchemy up to date in its modern technology. Astronomy, which once lived amicably with astrology, has alone among the sciences sought the divorce courts. Sir Arthur Eddington’s book gives some promise of a resumption of happy relations; certainly some of the numerology with which the reasoning is supported gives the work a flavor which has been missing since the days of Johann Kepler.

But we must get on, and consider our third reader, Robinson. You all know Robinson. He is a man of action, who prides himself on his realism, and who likes to get things done. He believes in scientific method as an instrument of human betterment, and wants his books to have a moral. Abstract theory leaves him cold, and statistics are the only sort of mathematics that appeals to him. He believes that the social sciences will find a development comparable with the physical, and that this will result in a vast improvement of mankind. This improvement will consist mainly in making the individual life as effortless as possible.

Robinson will like Haldane. “Science and Human Life” is a collection of essays and addresses, most or all of which have been separately published before. In spite of this diversity of occasion, the collection shows remarkable unity of outlook. The general theme of Professor Haldane’s discourse is that Western civilization is a mess, and that this is because we are trying to reconcile a mechanical framework which is built by science with a polity which is essentially mediaeval. On this theme Professor Haldane is a witty and trenchant critic. For example:

How little importance is attached to truth itself in our society appears very clearly in a recent judgment of Mr. Justice Humphreys in a case where a beauty specialist sued a rival for using a phrase which he had invented to advertise his business. The judge held that the phrase was arresting and original—for one thing, because it was obviously untrue —and that it came within the Copyright Act. I do not think that he would have adopted so complacent an attitude had the phrase been obscene or seditious, and I doubt if a state permeated by scientific ethics would allow its courts to be used to support private property in lies.

The temptation to quote must be resisted. But though I admire Professor Haldane as a social diagnostician, I have not the same confidence in him as a therapist, He himself admits that the present situation is unique in history; why then is he so sure of the proper treatment, or even of the need of treatment? But more than that, he seems committed to a theology which I dislike. On all the matters concerning which our forefathers were so sure he professes himself an agnostic. For this position I have sincere respect; whatever the sins of the agnostic, they do not include pride of intellect. But when our agnostic talks of “human happiness” or the “good life” as a goal, he assumes a sort of adding-machine God, who totals up the good hours of A and B, subtracts C’s toothache and D’s disappointment, and arrives at a balance. The application of science will turn the business, now heavily in the red, into one showing a handsome profit. Jeans’s mathematician God is a relatively superior creature, in spite of the narrowness of his interests, to this Benthamite and efficiency expert. Brown does not feel any interest in him. Jones, I am sure, would rather be “a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” But Robinson will like him.


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