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Three Cosmologies

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Flights from Chaos. By Harlow Shaplcy. New York: Whittlesey House. $2.50. The Mysterious Universe. By Sir James Jeans. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $2.25. The Dynamic Universe. By James MacKaye. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.50.

When i turn the advertising pages of a popular weekly, or those of a mail-order catalogue, I wonder continually at the number and variety of the human race—and its needs. What sort of people eat jello, or learn French in six easy lessons, or wear those ardent garments? A similar problem is presented by the book advertisements, though often from a slightly different angle, for our problem here is to understand the current fashion in ideas. Just now there seems to be a wide market for universes. Everyone is concerned with whences and wheres and whithers, with a few hows thrown in, and the publishers rush to meet the demand. We have here three books, each about the cosmos. That is, their subject matter, though not identical, is sufficiently similar to justify our considering them as a group. This common material is handled, however, in widely different manners, and the divergencies in treatment reveal widely divergent points of view — and widely, differing sets of readers. “Flights from Chaos” is an adaptation of a series of five lectures given at the College of the City of New York. The title page describes it as “a survey of material systems, from atoms to galaxies.” Neither the title, which i? too fanciful, nor the subtitle, which is too literal, will give an adequate idea of the interest of this book. This interest is genuinely scientific. Here is an astronomer dealing with his own subject—and on this subject no man has a better right to be heard than Professor Shapley. The scientific expert will find profit in these pages—and yet the treatment is so un-technical that even the layman can understand most of it. “Flights from Chaos” is not popular, in any meretricious sense—the author refuses to pander either to the public appetite for signs and wonders, or to the wide-spread craving for dogmatic and authoritative assertions of fact. The conclusions are tentative and suggestive and the center of interest is in the unknown rather than the known. To classify material systems, atoms, crystals, planets, star clusters, galaxies and so on, grouping them under headings and subheadings, distinguished by Roman and Arabic numerals, by Greek and Roman letters, is on its face the driest and dreariest of tasks—but Professor Shapley, strings on this thread a delightful discourse. Because the author does not talk down, or try to be chatty and entertaining, but gives genuine voice to his own genuine interests, “Flights from Chaos” is one of those infrequent visitors to the skies of bookdom — a genuinely scientific work which is also genuinely, readable.

A clerical friend of mine once remarked to me that all scientific men were philosophers or theologians in their weaker moments. It is in one of these that we find Sir James Jeans in “The Mysterious Universe.” For although the first three-fourths of the book deals with matters of fact, or at least with conjectures concerning fact, these pages are really prolegomena to the concluding chapter, which is philosophical and theological. The factual material is selected for its philosophic implications, and the book is intended as a philosophic sequel to “The Universe Around Us.” Sir James Jeans is modest in his philosophic pretensions—he is evidently fully aware of his melting mood — and frankly avows himself ‘in amateur. I think this shows proper prudence, for though I too know little of philosophy, I have seen something of philosophers and know that the mark of the professional is his ability to find any supposedly new idea in Plato or Aristotle, or at any rate Kant. And I fancy, that Sir James Jeans’ philosophy will not offer much of a problem to these derivers. I am rather betting on Plato, because of the mathematical form of his thought. Those who enjoyed “The Universe Around Us” will certainly want to read this/ sequel. Philosophers will read it for the science, and scientists for the philosophy, and everybody will be happy.

I wish I could say as much for “The Dynamic Universe,” by Professor James MacKaye of Dartmouth. Professor MacKaye is Sir James Jeans in reverse—he is a philosopher turned scientist. He is dissatisfied with the way the physicist has constructed his universe, and in particular with Einstein’s cosmology, Now it is doubtless true that Einstein, like many of his brother physicists, has uttered a good deal of philosophic foolishness, and should be taken to task for it. If Professor MacKaye had confined himself to a critique of the philosophy which has been built on modern physical theories, he might have done good work, for he shows penetration in some of his comments. But he attempts not only to shatter the current scheme of things to bits, but to remould it nearer to his heart’s desire, and the result is appalling. Only charity could describe Professor MacKaye’s “Radiation Theory” as even half-baked. He seems utterly unaware of the mass of “stubborn and irreducible facts” which a physical theory must meet, or of the nature of the physicist’s tests. Einstein’s views may, be discarded next year for all I know, but they constitute a real theory. The theory of relativity formulates precisely ascertainable relations between observable phenomena, and by its mathematical form makes possible the unfolding of all implications. If Einstein had succeeded only in bringing all known facts into one system, he would hardly have commanded the attention he got. It was because his theory asserted some of the laws to be different from what they had been thought, because some new and verifiable consequences flowed from these new laws, that the theory won its place. To Professor MacKaye and his cosmology the physicist puts one question: what experiment is suggested by which your theory can be tested? Philosophically, any theory is vulnerable; all physics is vulnerable. But, as physics, a theory bows only to measuring microscopes, to galvanometers. Of this cardinal and fundamental fact Professor MacKaye has apparently, no realization. His theory has all the power over facts which any myth exhibits. The trouble is that facts have no power over the theory. You can no more disprove it than you can disprove the medieval hypothesis of an angel directing the motion of each planet. Those little anomalies in the motion of the planet Mercury that so bothered Newtonian astronomers are all in the day’s work for an angel. Until Professor MacKaye can tell the physicist how to test his theory, or until at least he formulates it so precisely that tests are deducible from it, it is safe to say that no physicist will stop to look at it.


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