Outside magazine, October 1996
Verse of a Natural Beat
The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by John Horgan (Addison-Wesley, $24), and Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, by Stephen Jay Gould (Harmony Books, $25). "The great era of scientific discovery is over," declares John Horgan. It's a bold assertion for any writer to make--especially for a journalist who is completing his first book. But Horgan, a senior writer for Scientific American who presents his ideas with clarity and a healthy measure of uppitiness, makes a startlingly compelling case. After interviewing dozens of the world's leading scientists and philosophers, Horgan concludes that "the greatest barrier to future progress in pure science is its past success," inasmuch as scholars have already sketched out an accurate picture of the universe. The work that remains, says Horgan, will involve filling in the details of existing theories. "There will be no great revelations in the future comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein," he writes.
In another new book, Harvard zoologist Stephen Jay Gould takes a more upbeat view of the future of scientific research. Conceding that after Darwin, "no one will ever again experience the ultimate intellectual high of reconstructing all nature with the passkey of evolution," Gould nonetheless insists that "we have so many puzzles far from solution." In Full House, Gould devotes himself to one of the most important of those puzzles: "How, when, and why did we emerge on the tree of life?" Describing Full House as a "philosophical companion volume" to his 1989 best-seller Wonderful Life, Gould echoes that earlier work's conclusion: "No pervasive or predictable thrust toward progress permeates the history of life." In other words, humans "are here by luck of the draw"-- a concept, argues Gould, that's hard for us to grasp because we're so bad at mathematics. Thus most of Full House is devoted to giving readers a lesson in probability--including a 46-page exploration of why no baseball players hit .400 anymore. Written with Gould's usual wit and panache, Full House offers proof that science still has plenty of room for discovery. But as Gould points out, he's interested only in "completing Darwin's revolution," not upending it. Such a fundamental breakthrough, both Horgan and Gould agree, could only happen once.
Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures, by Helen A. Cooper, with contributions by Martin A. Berger, Christina Currie, and Amy B. Werbel (Yale University Press, $30). In this era of multimillion-dollar NBA contracts, it's hard to believe that rowing was once one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. But it
was, and one of its more ardent fans during the last century was Thomas Eakins, a rower who spent his early career drawing and painting his fellow oarsmen. Now, all of Eakins's rowing pictures have been brought together for the first time in a traveling exhibit, and Yale University Press has released an elegant volume devoted to these masterpieces of American realism. The essays
are interesting, if somewhat arcane, but the images are spectacular, agile explorations of line and light that capture the sport in a way no photograph could ever match. --miles harvey