© 1969 Far West Editions
A STAR CALLED THE SUN
BY GEORGE GAMOW
A Bantam Pathfinder Edition
QUANTA AND REALITY
Meridian Books M178
These two books, so strikingly different in their approach to scientific knowledge, both express the need of contemporary scientists to communicate their efforts to the public.
Gamow brings to the reader the current knowledge of the sun and of the stars accessible through ordinary scientific investigation. In Quanta and Reality, a collection of BBC discussions dealing with the crisis in microphysics, the very means of scientific investigations become the subject of the inquiry. The whole concept of matter is in question—including our way of putting questions about matter. The participants even have reservations about the language used to describe atomic and sub-atomic phenomena. Obviously something fundamental is at stake here.
What is at stake goes beyond questions and answers, problems and solutions; what is called for is a mercilessly searching inquiry into the process of thinking itself.
Professor Gamow tells us what to see, and how to interpret what we see. Quanta and Reality asks us how we look. If we are sure we know how we look, Gamow’s book is of great value.
It reports on some of the most recent data regarding the phenomena of solar energy and how the pattern of energy flow indirectly relates to the measurement of surface temperature. We learn how two of the most important properties of a star—its brightness and the distribution of its light with respect to wavelength—are both used to estimate the star’s size, mass, chemical composition, its distance from us, and so on. Occasionally Mr. Gamow reminds us that there yet remain a number of problems to be resolved, but the general impression left is that contemporary science manages more or less to keep the situation well in hand.
In contrast to this is the tone of Quanta and Reality. Here, it is quite evident, the authors feel in need of help. They come to the public for aid: not that they expect the public to tell them the solutions to their equations, rather it is the conceptual interpretations behind these equations which are now thrown open to discussion. The authors suggest to us that the very conceptual modes of thought we use to pose a problem may be interlaced with arbitrary and sometimes invisible assumptions. One such assumption, as David Bohm points out, may well have been introduced over three centuries ago with the invention of the Cartesian Co-ordinate System. The specifying of precise mathematical points, says Bohm, has no real counterpart in physical space and time. It is a mathematical convention—nothing more. But because we do not take it as a convention, as merely an instrument of thought, it has come to represent for us the sole means by which the structure of matter reveals itself. As a result we find ourselves in “impossible” dilemmas of thought regarding the behavior of sub-atomic particles.
But it is the very effort to communicate their own problems in this conscientious way that—one may hope—may lead to the new quality of thinking they so earnestly desire. For these physicists and philosophers are also the public; that is, they hunger as do we for unity in thought and life.