WONDERING ABOUT by David Strumfels


Email this review


Strumfels' clinically precise exploration of science is also, "at the risk of sounding snooty," an intellectual autobiography.

Wonder and curiosity have sparked in Strumfels a deep hunger to understand how things work—from cosmic scale down to subatomic particles—and our human place in the great mix of it all. In an easy but watchful, thoughtful voice, he explains why his preferred mode of inquiry is scientific: "exactness and precision, rigorous data collection and interpretation, parsimony in explanation, all combined with our seemingly infinite human capacity for creativity and imagination." Plus he appreciates the humility of the best science—its openness, broadening of perspective and willingness to believe in its fallibility. He sallies forth as both a generalist, ranging all over the scientific map, and specialist, peeling away layers to be as near an issue's essence as possible. He is happy to explore the Big Bang and planetary objects scientifically misbehaving as he is poking about in the wave function of electrons. There is plenty of hard science—astronomy, physics, chemistry (his particular bailiwick), biology and math—and the compression of ideas in these 250 pages makes the book read like twice that. But Strumfels breaks the material up into discreet, if linked, chapters and there is playfulness in the counterintuitive concepts and the breath stealing of discovery to keep readers' heads from exploding. He delves into organic chemistry, bosons and fermions, matter/antimatter asymmetry and mass extinctions, meanwhile sending probes into prognostications about life a hundred years from now and the roles of complexity, design and intentionality in evolution. He even throws in a couple science-fiction stories. Some comments go awry: "Actually, there are no mysteries either: there is only what we have not yet understood," sounds rather circular. And his claim that scientific thinking in its modern form evolved "in only one culture in human history, the European culture of the latter half of the second millennium AD," leaves, for starters, the Japanese and Indians dangling. But sparring with Strumfels is half the fun.

These are the wanderings and musings of a lively mind, ripe for understanding, meaning and purpose—a scintillating mix of science and humanism.

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4500-1850-0
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: