Exposing the Disreputable Side of Human Enquiry
Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?
by Martin Gardner
W.W. Norton; 292 pp. $ 25.95
To get the title question out of the way up front, Martin Gardner says no, they are not. The book's title refers to the topic of the first essay in this collection: the "Many Worlds Interpretation" (MWI) of quantum mechanics. This is the theory that everything that might conceivably happen at any instant does actually happen, generating a swarm of those "parallel universes" beloved of science-fiction writers, all diverging from each other — and, of course, each splitting into a multitude of yet more universes an instant later.
There is, somewhere, a universe in which I typed "still" instead of "yet" in that last sentence, another in which my hair is red instead of brown, another in which I have 12 fingers on each hand, another in which bdelloid rotifers are the highest form of life, and so on. The scientific point is to avoid the problems inherent in the collapse of the quantum-mechanical wave function at the moment of observation — to restore strict determinism to physics, in other words.
Mr. Gardner makes short work of the MWI, noting that not only is there no evidence for it at all, but that it is hard to see how there ever could be any. "I can only marvel at the low state to which today's philosophy of science has fallen," he sniffs in conclusion.
This is Martin Gardner's 66th book. (By my count — the jacket flap says "more than seventy." As with the number of Donizetti's operas, the most impressive thing is the uncertainty.) A great collector and propagator of mathematical puzzles, a gifted expositor of difficult scientific ideas to the general public, and a fair literary critic, Mr. Gardner has said that his main interests are philosophy and religion, especially the philosophy of science. His real fascination, though, I think, has always been with the disreputable side of human intellectual enquiry — with scientific, literary and religious flapdoodle. Especially scientific: He has been patrolling the boundary between science and pseudoscience for more than half a century.
I think the first book of Mr. Gardner's I ever read was his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952, and still in print), a book which, given to a sensible young person at the appropriate age, will inoculate that person for ever against belief in flying saucers, spoon benders, homeopaths, and any new varieties of baloney that 21st-century mountebanks might come up with.
The book under review here contains 31 brief essays, divided into five categories: "Science," "Mathematics," "Religion," "Literature," and "Moonshine." Many of the essays first appeared in the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer, in which Mr. Gardner ran a regular column from 1983 until spring of last year. As can be seen from those section headings, the author's full range of interests is on display here, though I think it is fair to say that he brings an essentially scientific cast of mind to most of the topics he writes about.
The principal exceptions in this book are in the "Literature" section. "Ernest Hemingway and Jane" concerns Hemingway's sometime flame Jane Kendall. This is a nice little snippet of literary (or, depending on your opinion of Hemingway, sub-literary) gossip, confirming what we have long known, that Hemingway was a perfectly appalling human being, if one at all, and adding a curious account of Kendall's belief, later in life, that she was possessed by spirits. She subsequently underwent exorcism with the aid of an Irish medium, Elizabeth Garrett. The whole thing seems to have been nothing more than a bad case of the DTs — like most of Hemingway's circle, Kendall drank like an entire school of fish — but it offers a fascinating little sidelight on 20th-century American literature.
Also in this section, Mr. Gardner attempts, in two separate essays, a modest rehabilitation of the early-20th century mystery writer Edgar Wallace, or at any rate of his novel — "his single masterpiece," says Mr. Gardner — The Green Archer. Here the scientist is more in evidence. Where a literary critic would have been tempted to offer some comments on popular fiction in general, Mr. Gardner sticks close to Wallace's text, trying to show us (not altogether successfully in my case, I confess) why this book is worth reading. He adds another curiosity: a poem of welcome to Rudyard Kipling that the young Private Wallace wrote while serving with the British Army in South Africa, when Kipling paid a visit to Wallace's unit.
It is science and the penumbra of hokum that surrounds science that really shows Mr. Gardner at his best, though. In "A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper," he casts a critical eye on Popper's falsifiability criterion for scientific theories. I have been repeating for years, in that rather unthinking way one sometimes falls into, Popper's claim that Freudian analysis is unfalsifiable, and therefore a pseudoscience. Martin Gardner notes that not only is Freudianism falsifiable, it has actually been falsified. I am going to take his word for this and shall eschew that particular piece of cant in future; though, like Mr. Gardner, I retain my admiration for The Open Society and Its Enemies. As a human being, by the way, Popper seems to have been almost as unpleasant as Hemingway. Did they ever meet, I wonder?
Oddly, Mr. Gardner is most the scientist when he talks about religion. The four essays under this heading in the book are all gripping, though in very different ways; yet one is left with the feeling that Mr. Gardner is missing some key point in each case. He describes himself as a "philosophical theist," which is of course a perfectly respectable thing to be, but which perhaps is not the best vantage point from which to examine the odder extremes of religious faith.
Why does Garry Wills believe himself to be a sincere practicing Catholic? What keeps the messiah cult going in Judaism? What on earth has anyone ever seen in the weird doctrines of the Oahspe sect? What drew physicist David Bohm to the mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti? (The latter apparently another horrible person. Vladimir Nabokov claimed that one U.S. editor rejected Lolita because there were no nice people in it. That editor would have hated this book.) I should like to know the answers; but though Mr. Gardner makes four very readable essays out of these four topics, after reading them I was no wiser.
I was mightily entertained, though. Perhaps it is too much to ask that every page of a book offer both instruction and pleasure. Of Martin Gardner's books, I think it can very nearly be said that every blessed page offers, if not both, at least either the one or the other.