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The Scientific Sublime: Popular science unravels the mysteries of the universe, by Alan G. Gross 

11 January 2019

Adam Ford on science writing and the sense of the sublime in it

A SENSE of the sublime has often led to religious awe — as in the psalmist’s conviction that “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

The origins of the concept can be traced back to the lofty language and great thoughts of early Greek literature; it is found again in the prose of 18th-century travellers marvelling at the grandeur of nature — the awe-inspiring power of a great waterfall for example, or the vertiginous view of vast mountainous crags. The language is always recognisable; words of wonder and astonishment, mystery, terror, awe and beauty predominate; the experience elevating the spirit, enthralling the imagination — for some lifting the mind to the mind of God.

Alan Gross in The Scientific Sublime explores how the sense of the sublime reappears in the eloquent writings of science popularisers in the 20th century.

Gross focuses on ten well-known writers; Lisa Randall is over-awed by the Great Hadron Collider at Cern and its discovery of the Higgs Boson; Stephen Pinker finds wonder in the daily miracle of language; Richard Feynman explores the mysteries of the quantum world through mathematics and probability theory; Stephen Jay Gould awakens surprise and then wonder in his essays — and an unsettling recognition of the contingency of evolution (we might not be here).

The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson finds the sublime in the astonishing world of ants, while Stephen Hawking encounters it in the speculative contemplation of the origins of the Universe or the fate of black holes.

The author admires these popular writers for the way in which they introduce complex topics to the ordinary reader, each conveying a genuine sense of the sublime in his or her own field; but he is not uncritical in his assessment of their work. He is quick to highlight overblown rhetoric, for example, and is rightly judgemental of scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, when they stray into theology and “dismiss what they do not understand”.

Science, he concludes, can say nothing about the meaning of life or of the good life. The sense of the sublime may or may not, open our minds to the divine.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

The Scientific Sublime: Popular science unravels the mysteries of the universe
Alan G. Gross
OUP £19.99

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