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Leonardo. Yol. 15, No.2, p. 158-173. 1982 Pergamon Press Ltd. Printed in Great Britain. BOOKS Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man KnowsIt. 2nd Ed. Victor F. Weisskopf. M.I.T. Press. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1979. 290 pp., illus. Paper, £4.20. ISBN: 0-262-2309804. Reviewed by Waldo E. Haisley* Two major handicaps to 20th-century science in communicating its findings to the public have been the rapidity of its discoveries and the increasngly abstract level of its perspectives and research problems. Even for well-educated lay readers the effort to obtain an up-to-date and accessible version of the scientific world view has become increasingly difficult, a misfortune both for the scientific enterprise itself. which needs continued support, and for societies desperately in need of the kind of illumination science is uniquely qualified to provide. This book is noteworthy for the contribution it makes to furnishing such an overview. a task which it carries out with both clarity and charm. The original version appeared almost 20 years ago as one of a collection of paperback volumes (The Science Study Series), published as collateral reading for the prestigious PSSC physics course initiated in the U.S.A. in the 1950s to upgrade the teaching of secondary school physics with the explicit purpose of providing 'a survey within the grasp of the young student or the layman'. Professor Weisskropf, a distinguished theoretical nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed his book in 1962 out of a series of school lectures he had given locally. the idea of which was, in his words, 'to sketch our present scientific understanding of natural phenomena and to try to show the universality of that understanding and its human significance'. The present edition represents a more thoroughgoing updating and revision of the revised edition of 1966. incorporating as new material some major extensions and clarifications, over the intervening 13 years, of our understanding of subnuclear physics (quarks, etc.) and of molecular biology with its newly found coding for the construction of protein chains out of their amino acid 'beads'. The book provides a graphic and insightful summary of the contemporary scientific picture of the universe, beginning in Chapters I and 2 with a description of the relative placement and age of its various parts and presenting with convincing concreteness the physical evidence on which this picture is based. The ninth and final chapter summarizes the current scientific account of its creation, beginning with the 'big bang', now thought to have occurred about 20 billion years ago. It then discusses the evolution of the chemical elements, the solar system and the materials, living matter, organic species and human civilization on Earth, ending on an optimistic note regarding the importance of human life, which Weisskopf suggests occupies a singularly privileged position in the scheme of things, no matter how spatially and temporally insignificant within the cosmos may be the earthly stage upon which man has evolved. The story he tells is a gripping and persuasive one, though he is careful to lace the narrative with caveats to indicate where the details of the picture are either sketchily or uncertainly known and will probably need revision in the light of new knowledge. In between there is an impressively detailed account of basic physics, basic chemistry, basic biology and basic genetics, upon all of which the author builds when relating the summary story of *Depl. or Physics and Astronomy. University of North Carolina, Phillips Hall 039A, Chapel Hill. NC 27514, U.S.A. 158 the final chapter. In particular, modern quantum mechanics is incorporated very effectively, convincingly and even quantitatively into these various conceptual and phenomenological summaries, each of which is done with admirable finesse and insight. A basic thematic idea woven into this framework is that of the 'quantum ladder', a phrase denoting a series of somewhat discontinuous energy levels at which matter isorganized, ranging from its highly energized but relatively undifferentiated state in the hot interior of stars, down through the lower energy and more definitively differentiated elements, down to the highly differentiated molecular compounds, at a lower level still. and, still further down, to the large macromolecules constituting living...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
pp. 158-159
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-04
Open Access
No
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