A Tale of Two Galaxies

Reviews / by Thomas Levenson /

Two radically different approaches to the story of modern physics reveal how we learn — and learn to love — science.

The scene appears idyllic. A shepherd leans on his staff while his flock grazes around him. Two ships, sails bellied to the breeze, move slowly up the bay. A plowman walks the furrow, tickling his horse gently with his whip. In Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, no one notices anything out of the ordinary, not even the fisherman, sitting by the shore. But just a few yards out in the water, two legs beat against the spray.

In an instant those thrashing limbs will be gone, sunk beneath the surface, as Icarus drowns. He had ignored his father’s warnings against flying too close to the sun with his wings made of wax, and now Icarus is dying before our eyes. Yet no one in his world notices. Their lives continue, one second melting into the next, even while they are eternally frozen for us, the onlookers.

Time’s strangeness, with its brutal indifference, lies at the center of Brian Greene’s Icarus at the Edge of Time, in this, his first book for children. It is a moving and successful fiction, but as important, Greene offers a solution to one of the perennial questions of his trade: What attracts a popular audience to science in general, and in particular to the difficult abstractions of modern physics? Joy Hakim, whose series for younger readers on American history and on science have won numerous awards, offers a very different answer to this same question in her The Story of Science: Einstein Adds a New Dimension. Hakim’s work is much less successful than Greene’s, but even its flaws are instructive. Taken together, the books provide a primer on how, and how not, to engage the public with science in a meaningful way.

Greene, a string theorist and bestselling science popularizer, places his audience in a fictionally familiar setting, a cosmos in which interstellar journeys have become possible. There’s one catch: Adhering to the ground rules of physics, Greene cannot give his interstellar explorers any faster-than-light spacecraft. So it will take five generations for his crew to reach the nearest star. Icarus, a member of the fourth generation, has been condemned to live and die in transit.

Like his namesake imprisoned on the island of Crete, Icarus chafes at confinement. His spaceship world is too small for him, and when the vessel encounters a black hole, he can’t resist the urge to go sightseeing. The logic of the tale and the brute facts of the physics of gravity take over from there. Icarus does not die. But he is dead to his own world, emerging, as general relativity says he must, 10,000 years after what felt to him like just an hour of skimming the intense gravitational field near the event horizon. His loss — and that of his father — is absolute, with the extra pathos that Icarus lives to feel the pain.

Appropriately for a children’s book, this myth is beautifully illustrated. Each block of text is printed onto spectacular — taken mostly by the Hubble telescope — of galaxies and critical moments in the lives and deaths of stars. The images frame the deep and complex thought at the heart of the tale: Time is not an absolute, a constant for every observer.

That’s a subtle idea for a subtle book, one in which Greene tells as little as possible, allowing the action convey his meaning. There is nothing so reticent about the third installment in Hakim’s series, The Story of Science. Her account of Einstein’s century employs the full arsenal of modern textbook publishing, with something to grab the reader’s eye on every page: sidebars, boxes, multiple typefaces. Despite the author’s good intentions, these devices fall short.

Partly, the problem is simple execution. For all the impressive packaging, there are problems of basic historical and interpretive accuracy. Early on, for example, we are told that electricity powered the industrial revolution (remember steam, anyone?). Many of the mistakes are trivial — as when she misdates Edwin Hubble’s discovery of galaxies beyond the Milky Way by two years and somehow manages to promote Senator Harry Truman to vice president in 1940. Other mistakes are more substantial, but it is the cumulative erosion of trust in the author that weighs the project down.

The book’s deeper flaw lies with a fundamental if common misunderstanding about what it actually takes to convey science to popular audiences. In a quarter century of writing and making television about science, I’ve attended conference after conference to hear funders and educators press the need to personalize science for the readers or viewers, especially for children. The idea is to reinforce the truth that science is a human activity, pursued and advanced by people whom engaged and excited kids will want to emulate.

Unfortunately, an easy trap lurks within that thought: It is the idea that all it takes to humanize science is to show that its practitioners are average Janes and Joes and not scary aliens spouting formulas. A famous example that veterans of the science-TV business shudder to recall come s f rom a PBS series that aired more than a decade ago: A divorced scientist fixing breakfast for his kids muses about the difficulty of balancing work and family.

What did that banal scene tell anyone about what is hard or fun or fascinating about science? Nothing. And it left out the real drama — the risks and reversals that accompany any effort to discover something new about nature.

Hence the biggest trouble with Hakim’s book: She tells many colorful stories about her characters, but too many of her anecdotes run astray of the reason she wants us to read about these heroes of science in the first place. We learn that Bohr was an athlete, for example, but of his greatest scientific achievement we read only of “the soon-to-be-developed Bohr model….” No telling of where that model came from, nor of how he worked it out. In the same vein, the author’s description of Cockcroft and Walton’s accelerator experiment asserts that it “proved” E=mc2, without a single word to explain what was actually observed to provide the confirmation. Hubble simply “figures out that ours isn’t the only galaxy” — somehow.

To be fair, Hakim’s book does collect an impressive number of such discoveries into what becomes a convenient, one-stop summary of many of the breakthroughs and themes of 20th century physics. But when, too often, she portrays science as really smart people doing something incomprehensible to figure out cool stuff, she transforms the practice of science into an almost magical activity, reserved for adepts — exactly the opposite of the message she is trying to convey.

But what of Brian Greene and his Icarus? After all, he offers none of the process of discovery. He too describes what happens in nature — the time dilation experienced within a strong gravitational field — but not the how: neither how to calculate the time dilation measured by observers in different frames of reference, nor how Einstein worked out the physics of gravity in the first place. But Greene does something else. He weaves the wonder of modern physics through the fabric of his story — and thus enables his readers to confront its strangeness themselves. We witness that dreadful gap of time that is lost to Icarus forever. Icarus himself testifies that this seeming impossibility is real.

From there, if we are moved by the tale, we are almost compelled to dig deeper, to ask how gravity slows time. We are no longer outside the story, having been invited into its — into our — cosmos. Breughel’s Icarus was earthbound, literally. Greene’s reenvisioning of that heedless, luckless boy leads his readers to explore a much wider universe — which is how scientific curiosity awakes.  — Thomas Levenson is a professor of science writing at MIT.

Originally published December 15, 2008

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