April 25, 2019
(++++) ALL THE WORLD’S A WEIRDNESS
Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe. By Marcus Chown. Diversion Books. $16.99.
Carl Sagan’s notable comment about whether he preferred science or science fiction makes an early appearance in Marcus Chown’s Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, and is in effect a motto for the book. Which field did Sagan said he preferred? “Science. Because science is stranger than science fiction.” Chown offers 50 short chapters demonstrating just how true this is – and since most chapters refer to multiple elements of some phenomenon or other, there are really far more than 50 wonders here.
A science popularizer in the Sagan mold, Chown is also adept at chapter titles and opening quotations. How can a reader not want to find out why a chapter is called “The Disposable Brain”? Or read one whose subhead states, “Every breath you take contains an atom breathed out by Marilyn Monroe”? Or one with the subhead, “If the sun were made of bananas it would not make any difference”? How can anyone with even a slight interest in scientific oddities not enjoy a book that, in addition to chapter-opening quotations from Shakespeare, Galileo, Richard Feynman, Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and William Blake (from whom the book’s title is taken), offers comments from Joan Rivers, Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” and, from Pink Floyd, “There’s someone in my head and it’s not me”?
That Pink Floyd remark is a fair example of how cleverly Chown weaves popularized science and popular culture together. It comes in a chapter called “Living with the Alien,” whose subhead reads, “You are born 100 percent human but die 50 percent alien.” What this is about is the fact that around half the cells in the human body are bacteria – humans are, essentially, symbiotic organisms (although Chown does not say exactly that). A study of all foreign microorganisms in the human body found “more than 10,000 species of alien cells in your body – forty times the number of cell types that belong to you. In fact, every square centimeter of your skin is home to about five million bacteria. That is about five hundred in every pinhead-size patch.” This is how Chown explains things: taking a scientific finding, emphasizing its weirdness, and thus showing how extraordinary everyday, taken-for-granted things are.
He also deals with non-everyday things, which means, for example, time travel, which “is not ruled out by the laws of physics” but turns out to require the would-be time traveler to “take the earth and a region near a black hole and connect them with a wormhole,” using “a type of matter with repulsive gravity that we do not know exists” but that has been calculated, plus “the energy emitted by an appreciable fraction of the stars in our Milky Way during their lifetimes.” Simple! Equally so is Chown’s explanation of the reason “you could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube,” wryly adding, “albeit a very heavy sugar cube!” The sugar-cube discussion, which focuses on how much of an atom is empty and why that is important, is one of Chown’s best in Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, because in it he does what he can to make quantum theory sort of understandable, aptly referring to it at one point as “quantum insanity.” Readers who cannot grasp the complexities of the quantum world – that would be everybody – will be relieved when Chown explains, “Don’t even try to imagine how this can be. It is impossible. The truth is that the electrons and photons and so on that make up the world are neither particles nor waves but something [with] which we have nothing to compare them in the everyday world and for which we have no word in our vocabulary.” That is not only accurate but also refreshing: reality is made up, we are made up, of things that we can comprehend mathematically (well, a very, very few of us can), but are literally incapable of envisioning. There are inherent limits to what the human brain (which performs all its wonders using the power of a 20-watt bulb, as Chown explains in one chapter) can calculate, just as there are limits to what any computer can possibly do (limits that Alan Turing set out to discover, as Chown discusses in another chapter).
The reason Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand works so well is that it does not “dumb down” abstruse science: instead, it shows how utterly wonderful and wonder-filled scientific discoveries are, even when (especially when) applied to mundane life and things we generally accept without thinking much about them. There is something exhilarating in Chown’s writing, something captivating in the way he casually tosses about a variety of fascinating facts and discoveries while explaining how many things remain unknown and perhaps, given the inherent limitations of the human mind, unknowable (although don’t bet on it). If Carl Sagan’s comment on the strangeness of science could be this book’s motto, then a remark by J.B.S. Haldane that heads one of the chapters here could be a pithy summary of what Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand is all about: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”