Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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Since the beginnings of science, every age has had its tradition of explainers, often scientists themselves, who clarified new and difficult ideas. In the 19th century, T.H. Huxley served as the spokesman of Darwinian evolution. Later such skilled popularizers as Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell helped interpret the startling new worlds of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Today more and more scientists seem to be matching their talent for experimentation with a surprising gift for exposition. One of them is a Harvard paleontologist named Stephen Jay Gould, 39, author of two pellucid collections of essays on evolution (Ever Since Darwin, The Panda's Thumb). Another is Dr. Lewis Thomas, 66, whose humane writings on biology and medicine in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine became the basis for two bestsellers (The Lives of a Cell, The Medusa and the Snail). Others include Physicists Jeremy Bernstein, 50, a regular contributor to The New Yorker; Robert Jastrow, 55, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and Princeton's Gerard O'Neill, 53, the leading apostle of space colonization. There is also the British physician Jonathan Miller, whose medical series The Body in Question is running on PBS and is the basis of a current book. Most prolific of all is Isaac Asimov, 60 (with 218 books to his credit at last count), a chemistry Ph.D. and onetime medical-school instructor.

A decade or so ago, much of the public would have turned a deaf ear to these voices of science, eloquent as they are. The subject was unpopular, even in disrepute. Science, or more accurately its offshoot technology, was being blamed for much that was wrong with the world: the growing despoliation of the environment, the chemical devastation of the Vietnamese countryside, the spread of nuclear weaponry. Even the first flush of excitement about landing men on the moon quickly turned into boredom after repeated video exposure of the dusty, lifeless lunar surface. Many people pressed loudly and insistently for more attention to earthly problems. NASA is still suffering budgetary blues from this outcry. Indeed, only last week the space agency's beleaguered boss, Robert Frosch, announced he was quitting, reportedly because of lack of financial support.

But even when science was attracting little popular interest, plenty was going on. Investigators were making enormous strides, especially those involved in basic research—inquiries with no immediate practical payoff. Some researchers were probing the inner secrets of the atomic nucleus; others, like Sagan himself, looked out to the mysteries of the planets and the stars. Still others discovered how the earth's surface, found to be unexpectedly mobile, has been shaped and reshaped over the ages. Perhaps most startling of all were the explorations on the very frontiers of life. For the first time, scientists were beginning to understand and manipulate DNA, the basic stuff of heredity.

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