New World Picture

by George W. Gray
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.50]
THE model magazine article was once defined by R. U. Johnson as one ‘that interests alike the person who knows all about the subject and the one who knows nothing about it.’ George Gray has demonstrated in the Atlantic that he is one of the few interpreters of science who writes this kind of article, and now he has achieved the more difficult feat of writing a book satisfactory alike to scientist and layman. I have talked to several physicists who have appraised the book with a professional eye, and they agree that New World Picture is sound, balanced science. For the layman seeking comprehension I can add that it is illuminating and convincing interpretation.
It is also timely. The past forty years have witnessed the greatest revolution in scientific thought since Copernicus, and the next few, judging from the excitement and expectancy that prevail among scientists, may bring achievements even more far-reaching. Transmutation, the dream of the alchemist, and artificial radioactivity are accomplished facts; the powerful mathematics that sired Einstein’s relativity, Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, Lemaitre’s expanding universe, and Dirac’s unifying atomic analyses promise further reconstruction and synthesis of our world outlook; the 200-inch telescope will soon be ready for a deeper probing of the heavens; and the powerful cyclotrons and high-voltage generators are swinging into action against the nucleus, last citadel of the atom. All this Mr. Gray describes or prepares us for, and who among us interested in mental and spiritual adventure can afford to be uninformed?
Too many books interpreting science, particularly those deriving from England, are sicklied o’er with the pale cast of fatuous metaphysics and theology. They obscure the true picture and distort the most fundamental and enduring aspect of science — its method. Mr. Gray has neatly sidestepped this pitfall by limiting himself to objective reporting; even his epilogue on the philosophical implications of science is free of the easy editorializing that we have come to expect in nonmathematical books of this sort and that usually causes the experimental scientist to retch.
Man occupies a happily strategic position midway between the largest body he has been able to measure, a giant star, and the smallest atomic particle, the hydrogen nucleus. Mr. Gray has taken this median point as a bench mark, and his survey is about equally divided between the structure of the heavens and the structure of the atom, between macrocosm and microcosm. The former is easier to interpret than the latter, although I feel that some of the chapters on atomic physics are not so well distilled as they might be. Throughout the book, the necessary historical perspective is skillfully given, but some of the early history of astronomy seems needlessly detailed for material so familiar.
These are minor dark spots in a well-designed illumination of the arcana of physical science. It is not beyond hope that lay expositors such as Mr. Gray may aid even the narrowly specialized scientist to see science as a whole. I hope that he can extend his picture beyond physics into the domain of biology and the other sciences in order that we may better understand not only the science of the universe, but of man.