California Literary Review

From Galileo to Gell-Mann: The Wonder That Inspired The Greatest Scientists of All Time in Their Own Words


August 27th, 2009 at 10:14 am

From Galileo to Gell-Mann
From Galileo to Gell-Mann: The Wonder that Inspired the Greatest Scientists of All Time: In Their Own Words
by Marco Bersanelli and Mario Gargantini, translated by John Bowden
Templeton Press, 336 pp.
CLR [rating:2]

A Trinity of Problems

In a sort of reverse alchemy, Marco Bersanelli and Mario Gargantini in their work From Galileo to Gell-Mann: The Wonder That Inspired The Greatest Scientists of All Time in Their Own Words, have transmuted the gold of exceptional achievement into the base metal of inanity. The major problems with this work are three fold and involve: Focus, organization, and biography.

The authors stated intent is, “to catch the experience of those who have lived and still live the adventure of research in the first person.” More realistically, the book might be titled, “How Religion Inspired Science.” And there is the point, sidled up to again and again as a sort of stealth agenda: Religion, in particular Christianity, provided the inspiration for great science and great scientists. As the authors state, “Science, as we have noted, had its historical roots in Christian soil.”

Some might demur here, noting this to be only partially correct, recalling the substantial contributions of the Sumers of antiquity with written numbers, or the ancient Greek’s many contributions. Arabs, particularly during the period of the Middle Ages in Europe made notable additions to scientific knowledge as did the mildy affirmative deists of the enlightenment, statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin being one of many possible examples.

Quotes from Russian Orthodox priest/scientist Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) provide a learned discussion comparing ice, which is crystalline, and glass, which is amorphous. The lecture may sound familiar to those who first encountered chemistry in a parochial high school: “…in molecular structure the ice is superior to glass, just as the sound of an orchestra is superior to the sound of a bazaar.” Continuing his interesting simile cum metaphor, Florensky asserts, “…there is music in the ice, but noise in the glass; in the ice there is harmony and order, in the glass chaos and disorder.” This is “…like a symbol of the difference between the psychological and spiritual man….therefore the objects of the religious conception of the world are more symphonic….”

Duccio Machetto opines in the book’s introduction that, “Today science and theology are more aware of the specific nature of their methods, and take care to avoid ‘incursions’ into what is clearly the field of the other.” Apparently, young earth creationists are not a factor in Italy. The Holy See, however, does feel obliged to weigh in on scientific endeavor from time-to-time, this on a range of issues from Alzheimer’s research using fetal tissue to new and improved techniques of in vitro fertilization. Conversely, scientists such as Richard Dawkins write bestsellers insisting that religion is disproved by science. One suspects this is not Machetto’s most precise quote.

Only Machetto’s name is provided, with no further identification. In the likely event that the reader has no idea who Duccio Machetto is, he or she is on their own to determine from the modest amount of information on the internet or elsewhere that he is a physicist with the European Space Agency.

An additional major problem with this work is organizational. The back matter of the book is extensive at 111 pages. It includes the scientists’ thumbnail biographies. There is also a glossary which is generally alphabetical with the curious exception of “Exponential notation,” which is listed first, before “actinium.” Avogadro’s number is listed, incorrectly, as 6.022 X 1023, the lack of superscription for 23 doubtless simply a typo and quite forgivable. The glossary is followed by end notes, then an index.

The index is useful up to a point. Some of the scientists quoted are listed with page numbers, e.g. Leo Esaki, making it easy to locate their contribution again. Also in some cases, it is fairly easy to locate the source of the quotes for a given scientist. This was not true, however, in the case of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that fiercely intelligent Jesuit paleontologist and mystic. There is no clue from which of his works his page 33 quote is derived.

In attempting to pin down specifics, it was necessary to flip back and forth between the body of the book and the back matter enough that my copy began to disassemble.

Coauthors Marco Bersanelli and Mario Gargantini, though this is not stated in the book, are known for their writings on, “religion and science.” So is the translator, who turns out to be, “The Rev. Dr. John Bowden,” a priest of the Anglican Church as well as a skilled translator, one competent in several languages. Such information might well be stated up front, trumpeted from the rooftops as it were. These are credentials to be proud of, ones that help the reader to understand the author’s intent and purpose and one that is also likely to help the book reach an appropriate audience.

A considerable number of the ten dozen or so scientists /philosphers/theologians mentioned in thumbnail biographical notes in the back of the book and quoted elsewhere not only led productive and creative lives, but in a number of cases lives marked by pain, ostracism and struggle. Father Pavel Florensky again provides an intriguing example. Investigation of other sources indicates a remarkable, complex and creative human being who met his death before a Stalinist firing squad in December, 1937. He was executed for reasons that were cruel and needless to the point of incomprehensibility. Adding some portion of such background information could create a page turner that drives the narrative briskly to its destination. To incorporate such into the body of the book to avoid the necessity of flipping back and forth would make for a more compelling and informative read.

The long lists of writings from scientists’ works address, more or less, the awe-inspiring qualities found in their study of the natural world as well as, occasionally, the unity of science and theology. This is achieved in part by including such notables as the Dominican Albertus Magnus and the Jesuit theologian-paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Theological considerations are also emphasized in many cases by the authors adding religious commentary after the quote from the scientist who may in fact be, like Albert Einstein, (“For me, God is nature.” he once said.) a thorough going humanist.

Nobel Prize winning Physicist Leo Esaki (1925–) developed the tunnel-effect diode and won a Nobel Prize (1973). In the three brief paragraphs quoted from Esaki’s writing, he states that observation of scientists and the scientific method at work is more important than what they say, and quotes Einstein to that effect. One face of science, he maintains, “…is logical, objective, cold, and rational or rigorous….The other face is fantastic, subjective, individualistic, intuitive, and lively, and reflects the process by which the new is created.” What the book doesn’t do is to convey enough about Dr. Esaki, who is not a highly recognizable researcher, to give heft to his comments.

The table of contents lists general titles and subject headings from “Wonder and Reality” to “Purpose and Praise.” Listing the scientists quoted and their pages would be useful.

Simply to gather the contents for a book of this size represents a tremendous amount of effort. This being the case, it is unfortunate that it doesn’t work at all well. Like the title, it is clumsy and pedantic. To extend Father Florensky’s metaphor, the book is less than crystalline. It can, though, be used as a springboard for investigating researchers, some of whom, like the star-crossed Father Florensky, are likely to be unfamiliar, yet on investigation their lives and works prove to be spell-binding.

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