cover image Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order

Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order

George Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf, $30 (379pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41192-5

New York Times science writer Johnson (In the Palaces of Memory) presents an extraordinary look at vanguard areas of scientific research where information science, molecular biology, cosmology and subatomic physics converge. Remarkably, much of this work is being done at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (home to the wartime project that built the first atomic bombs) and an affiliated think tank, the Santa Fe Institute. These investigators are at the forefront both of chaos theory, seeking hints of order in seemingly random phenomena, and of the new science of complexity, which studies how the universe could arise from pure nothingness in accordance with fundamental rules that apply to cells or galaxies. One team of biochemists runs computer simulations designed to show that life evolved through self-organizing processes rather than by Darwinian selection. Other scientists posit information as a basic building block of the universe, like energy and matter. If science is an artful construction, Johnson suggests, we should not scoff at traditional faiths. In that spirit, he visits three other New Mexican locales: an adobe chapel in Chimayo, reputed site of miraculous cures; the Tewa Indians' ritual dances to bring plentiful crops and insure good hunting; and the secretive Hermanos Penitentes, a Catholic lay brotherhood whose members practice self-flagellation. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Sept.)