This is a quality production, a beautifully produced and illustrated volume that would not be out of place on the table of the most fastidious and discriminating bibliophile. The author is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Sydney and he sets out to explain science to the public and to locate the adventure of science in a wider cultural context.
As the director of an observatory at Narrabri (NSW), and host at hundreds of half-hour tours, Professor Brown recalls
To me it was profoundly unsatisfactory to send people away from this beautiful, highly sophisticated, and yet apparently useless instrument, surrounded as it was by thousands of sheep and a vast expanse of wheat, without having shown them that it was really part of an even greater world of which most of them were unaware, the ancient and invisible college of science (p. vii).
This is the third book that has produced to make up for the lack of time on the tours. It is very clearly written and one has the feeling of a truly devoted and humane scholar speaking courteously and unpatronisingly as he presumably did with his visitors at Narrabri. The task of communicating with laypeople is an immensely important one, and many illustrious people have assisted, from T. H. Huxley to Sir Peter Medawar. Still, the scientists who accept their responsibilities in this field remain exceptions, with sad results for science and for society as well.
Professor Brown has painted a big picture, touching many topics in the history of science and technology, the philosophy of science, modern developments in physics and the religious dimension of science. Inevitably his account is thin in parts, leaving irritating loose ends. This may not matter too much if the primary purpose of the work is to lead laypeople some way down the path of understanding. But still, the contents need to stand up to criticism or the people will be misled. For example, Professor Brown promotes the idea that quantum physics has refuted traditional views such as the notion that there is an objective world of nature whose structure is independent of us.
This interpretation of the situation is disputed by Karl Popper in Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics and Unended Quest (his intellectual autobiography) where he argues that modern physics does not really vindicate any radical philosophical ideas, instead it is used to give status to ideas that physicists picked up from other sources.
Elsewhere the author is very much on target in confronting the problems, which arise from teaching science as though it is the only authority for belief. This (as Brown explains) leads to a futile conflict between science and religion; it also obscures the essentially conjectural nature of scientific theories and the dynamics of scientific advance. It produces the situation described by Gerald Holton. "The most sensitive, the most fragile part of the total ecology of science is the understanding on the part of the scientists themselves of the nature of the scientific enterprise" (p 106).
This problem is important and it may be asking too much to expect Professor Brown to rectify the situation in one book, or even in three. His heart is certainly in the right place and he makes some good points on the cultural value of science, noting that few scientists have tried to correct the limited 'instrumental' view of science as 'a box of clever tricks which can produce the things which we want; in that sense it is a modern Cargo Cult' (p. 106).
He notes that Francis Bacon had a great deal of influence on the image of science as a source of power and control over nature. Bacon makes frequent appearances in the text but Kuhn and Popper each rate only a single passing mention. This emphasis is significant because the lingering influence of Bacon in the form of an obsession with collecting information has done much to limit the vision of scientists, and their capacity to discover the wider implications of their labours. It appears that Professor Brown is not up with the state of the art in the philosophy of science, possibly because the cacophony of discordant voices from that direction has driven scientists to despair of ever gaining sustenance from the philosophers. His situation could be partly corrected by reading Oldroyd's The Arch of Knowledge.
Some ideas from Popper and from his colleague William W. Bartley might also help Professor Brown in handling the dilemmas of faith, reason and uncertainty, which he locates at the heart of the cultural and religious implications of science. A series of articles in the Age Monthly Review traced some of these ideas ('The Purpose of Popper', May 1985; 'Unchanged Meanings', August 1985; 'Bartley's Critique of Reason', October 1985; 'False Dichotomies', July 1986).
The Wisdom of Science is welcome as a delightfully presented introduction to a wide range of issues, which should be the subject of sustained public debate. It would sit well beside Jacques Barzun's earlier and more astringent contribution Science: The Glorious Entertainment (Secker & Warburg, London, 1964). Professor Brown should have a column in a quality national monthly and Robyn Williams of the ABC Science Unit should exploit him. Let us at least hope he is at work on his fourth book.
Cambridge University Press . Cambridge . 1986 . 194 PP plus viii. Index and illustrations