Exposing Disreputable Side of Human Enquiry

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Exposing Disreputable Side of Human Enquiry


Byline: John Derbyshire, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. "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. …

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