Let There Be Light


It’s strange to think that less than 200 years have passed since science became this culture’s “New Story,” replacing religion as the dominant source of truth. Almost half of Americans today profess fundamentalist Christianity, as The New York Times recently reported; yet even the most devout feel the need to couch their belief in a scriptural story of life’s origins by advocating the teaching of “creation science.” But ironically, science remains ecclesiastically remote from common experience. For the layman, then, popular science writing is a Reformation, translating the Greek of equations and the Latin of biological terms into the vulgate. Like the classics of the genre (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Einstein’s The Evolution of Physics), such books promise to enlighten us with an unmediated experience of revelation.

This spring, three new books make just such a promise. Two young scientists in England, cosmologist João Magueijo and evolutionary biologist Andrew Parker, explicate their splashy theories of life and the universe. And in a parallel development, former Scientific American writer John Horgan consults science for an entirely different set of ultimate answers—generated within the human mind.

Magueijo’s Faster Than the Speed of Light (Perseus) offers more than a fresh interpretation of the mechanics of the universe; it is a new species of science book. Volleys of hype greeted the book’s February debut—features in the Times and London’s Guardian; a lead profile in Seed, the new magazine dedicated to the union of science and pop culture, which anointed the photogenic Magueijo one of this “third culture” ‘s new celebrities. Magueijo, a lecturer at London’s Imperial College, presents a theory that turns the one thing everyone knows about physics on its head: What if the speed of light is not a constant? If light moved much faster at the beginning of the universe than it does now, he argues, it would neatly solve many of the nagging questions of contemporary cosmology, starting with the “horizon problem”—the fact that the Hubble telescope has observed galaxies in opposite directions from the Earth that are farther apart in light-years than the universe is old. The book chronicles the development of Magueijo’s Varying Speed of Light (VSL) theory from the time it was dubbed “very silly” to its achievement today of some currency.

FTSL provides the vicarious thrills that the poetically or mystically minded reader looks for in a book on theoretical physics. “Cosmology was for a long time the subject of religion,” Magueijo writes grandly. “Why should a system as apparently complex as the universe be amenable to scientific scrutiny? The answer may surprise you: The universe is, at least in regard to the forces at work, not that complex.”

Magueijo, like many scientists a committed atheist, shies away from the metaphorical impact of his work. “I don’t understand why science should interfere with people’s religious beliefs,” he tells the Voice. “The universe I talk about is not the mystical universe. There are, in a sense, two different universes.” However, the book does make claims on the reader’s credulity. With hardly any math, or even much in the way of diagrams, Magueijo’s muscular narration is the only source of authority.

The simplification, and the author’s interest in topics outside his research, also make the book a less than demanding read. Just as one’s mind starts to wander from the intellectual narrative, Magueijo jaunts off with his girlfriend to India and his native Portugal, or aims potshots at university administrators (“pimps”), a scientific journal editor (“moron”), and a variant of string theory (“masturbation”). Luckily for his sales, the physicist does not express the same contempt for his general audience. “I love giving lectures,” he says just after a three-week U.S. book tour, “because people ask very interesting questions. Especially children. I really feel that it’s a two-way street with them.” In the book and in interviews, Magueijo waxes romantic about his own childhood hero worship of Einstein, the first modern celebrity scientist. Ever the rebel, he claims, “[Other scientists] pay lip service to this beautiful idea that science should be open to the public, but in fact they’re very conservative. People will really criticize you for doing what they call selling out.”

Andrew Parker’s In the Blink of an Eye (Perseus) is a less successful attempt at selling out. A research fellow in the zoology department at Oxford, Parker makes a traditional and polite guide through the thickets of evolutionary biology, paleontology, and even optical physics. His groundbreaking theory, like Magueijo’s, centers on light.

Parker’s research concentrates on an early period in evolution known as the Cambrian explosion, or “evolution’s big bang.” About 543 million years ago there were just three phyla of animals, defined by their shapes, while only 5 million years later there were 38, the same number that exist today. This sudden appearance of a wild variety of external body plans—mostly outlandish oceanic creatures, like jellies, sponges, and mollusks—was a “macro-evolutionary” event that baffled Darwin and has eluded convincing explanation since. After more than 200 deliberate pages of groundwork, Parker’s explanation appears with the beauty of inevitability: The arrival of camera-type eyes in the early Cambrian, after generations of carefully documented steps, created the ability to hunt, which in turn created the need for weapons and camouflage. When everyone was blind, it didn’t matter that everyone was a worm. Once someone could see, everyone else had to hide from them or fight.

“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.”

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.