Let There Be Light

What's So Popular About Popular Science? Three New Books Take on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

"I nearly became an artist," Parker tells the Voice, explaining his unusually interdisciplinary approach. "It's very enjoyable writing for popular science, because I can include a creative element—I can be an artist after all!" But while he laudably devotes much more careful attention than Magueijo to the technical details of his theory, Parker's writing can be comically ponderous, especially when he attempts to add that creative element. "I set out . . . in the hope that the weather would improve," he says of a trip to a mother lode of Cambrian fossils. "It did not. But the mist actually created an enigmatic atmosphere, which somehow seemed appropriate. I knew something exceptional lay ahead, but at the same time I did not know what to expect."

Whatever his limitations as a writer, Parker's research has that pop-science "wow" factor—dramatic transformations over aeons of time, alien-like life forms, fragments of the secret of our own emergence. It's exactly the stuff that John Horgan might have covered as a senior writer for Scientific American. However, since his controversial 1996 book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Broadway), Horgan has altered the direction of his search for awe. "What science can tell us about our place in the universe, it has already told us," he tells the Voice. "At the end of End of Science I was suggesting that mysticism and science can be reconciled—that they're complementary in some way. Mysticism explores the wonder, awe, miracle of life. Science too has shown us that life is infinitely improbable—what you could call a miracle."

illustration: Insu Lee

Horgan's new book, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches From the Border Between Science and Spirituality (Houghton Mifflin), attempts to begin that reconciliation with a journalistic survey of more or less scientific approaches to the study of enlightenment. Among many others, he talks to "neurotheologists" who use brain-imaging on meditating nuns to map the experience of "absolute unitary being"; maverick chemist Alexander Shulgin, who has developed and personally tested over 200 psychotropic compounds in his home lab; and Michael Persinger, developer of the "God machine," which attempts to produce mystical experiences by electromagnetic stimulation of the brain. Unfortunately, though, there's an inverse relationship here between the reputability of the scientist or scholar and the scope of their claim of knowledge about the true nature of mystical experience. The search for intelligent insight into the universe hits a low point when Horgan straps on the vaunted God machine, a "Velcro headband covered with wires and film canisters," and sits down to experience . . . virtually nothing.

Nevertheless, Horgan's grand unified quest—bringing the universal, rational apparatus of science to bear on the search for ultimate truth—is suited to our skeptical time, even if the research itself is still in the amateur stage. Both "mystical technologies"—prayer, meditation, and psychedelics—and good works of popular science, like Parker's and Magueijo's, renew our sense of wonder at the world. And that experimental effect alone is worth the best application of human intelligence.

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