Timothy Ferris

Disregarding our illusory firewalls of thought, he boldly goes where no science writer has gone before.


William Speed Weed
March 21, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Five hundred years ago, philosophers thought the universe was a few hundred
thousand kilometers across (with the Earth at the center). These days, scientists estimate the observable universe to be about 15 billion light-years across (with the Earth at the center of nothing because the universe has no
center). That's a change of 14 billion trillion kilometers in 500 years.
Do the math and you discover that our conception of the cosmos has expanded
at a rate of about one light-year per second over the past half-millennium.

Science is fast.

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It is also frighteningly accurate: Using equations provided by 16th
century astronomer Johannes Kepler, we sent a tiny hunk of metal called Voyager on a billion-mile journey to the outer planets and beyond. Our aim in sending Voyager is as accurate as that of a sharpshooter firing a bullet from
Earth and hitting a 1-foot target on the moon. It's not easy to get one's mind around science's achievements, and most of us -- who left science behind
when we lost our high school textbooks -- regard science with a mixture of suspicion and the cold fear that it's generally over our heads.





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Timothy Ferris has written eight books on science, three of them enduring
bestsellers: "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," "The Mind's Sky: Human
Intelligence in a Cosmic Context" and, his most recent, "The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report." Under Ferris' pen, science is
never frigid or remote -- even for the science-wary reader. Packed with the
colorful human beings that scientists actually are, his work gives us the
real juice: Science is a process, a crazy, dynamic struggle of quirky
turns, blind alleys, sleepless nights, absurdities and breakthroughs.

Here's how he introduces Tycho Brahe, a contemporary of Kepler's,
in "Coming of Age in the Milky Way":

Tycho was an expansive giant of a man who sported a belly of Jovian
proportions and a gleaming metal alloy nose -- the bridge of his original
nose had been cut off in a youthful duel. Heroically passionate and wildly
eccentric, he dressed like a prince and ruled his domain like a king,
tossing scraps to a dwarf named Jep who huddled beneath the dinner table.

Ferris goes on to tell how Tycho died of a burst bladder at a formal
dinner in his honor because it would have been impolite to excuse himself. Oh
yes, and another distinction: Of the billions of human beings who had lived on
Earth up until his time -- all of them looking up at the same night sky --
Tycho was the first to document the positions and motions of the stars and
planets with scientific accuracy. Such precision allowed Kepler to write
the equations that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration used to send Voyager to the outer planets and beyond.

Ferris' own nose sits on a handsome and rugged face beneath a wavy frame
of brown hair. Sixteenth century lordly airs are hard to come by in these times, and it would be wrong to call the 56-year-old Ferris haughty. But the man has a solid and confident look to him -- the writer at the top of his game. He is given to
tweed jackets and khakis that always smell of cigar smoke (he says he has
never written a worthwhile sentence without a lighted cigar in hand), and he
works from a grand, book-lined office on the bottom floor of his house in
San Francisco. It's a remarkable setting: His house is the highest-set
private property under Coit Tower, which crowns San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. His view of the Bay Bridge is stunning, and the four floors he shares with his wife, Carolyn Zecca, and son, Patrick, are tastefully
rich -- with colors chosen by design guru Don Kaufmann and paintings by his
talented wife. He is king of a castle in a sense, and his fellow royalty are such grand-vizier writers as Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Harrison -- all of whom he considers friends.

Like each of them, Ferris has carved out his own literary niche. But while reading a Ferris book may be as easy and
entertaining as reading a Dillard book, it's important to remember that
the underlying subject matter is very different.

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In some ways, science writing is tougher than science itself. At least, it
is tougher to do well. A scientist must be rigorous and accurate. A
science writer must be accurate, clear and also entertaining. Niels Bohr, a
grandfather of nuclear physics who believed in communicating science to
the masses, complained of what he called "complementarity," by which he meant
the impossibility of being both accurate and clear at the same time -- let
alone entertaining. As a scientist, Bohr could duck out of the clarity
requirement by saying, as he did famously, "I try not to speak more clearly
than I think." Science writers don't have the duck-out option, and
Ferris' genius is his ability to meet all the criteria for good science writing. Critics acclaim him as "admirably lucid." He "sets the standard
for clear-headed science writing today." He achieves "a heroic synthesis
of cosmic knowledge" in "good, clean, poetic prose."

The very warp and weft of Ferris' texts are subtle storytelling threads
that bring the reader to understand in words what scientists think of in
math. Take supersymmetry. It's a centerpiece of modern big-bang cosmology.
People win Nobel Prizes for achieving partial solutions to supersymmetry,
but it is very hard to explain to the nonphysicist. Most physicists you
ask get lost in jargon: gravitons, weak-gauge bosons and, uh, neutrinos --
yeah! Ferris just tells a story. Cosmologists believe, on the basis of some
evidence, that once upon a time all the forces of the universe (gravity,
electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces) were the same
force -- in a state of supersymmetry. Something happened soon after the big
bang to break supersymmetry and make these forces the radically different
entities they are today (they pull on different things and at different
strengths). If we can only figure out how they were once the same and
discover what split them, we'll have come a long way toward understanding the
origin of the universe.

Then comes a simple metaphor. In the beginning, the forces were a group of
pencils, held together and standing on their points. Looking down on them
from above, all you'd see was a neat group of identical erasers. But something
happened. The hand that held them let go, and the pencils fell out in
different directions. Now they look like separate items, like the
separate forces in the broken symmetry of today's universe.

That Ferris can create simple metaphors and entertaining stories is probably not surprising. He was born to writing and fell in love with science early and
actively.

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Ferris' father had been a journalist and a public affairs officer, but
hard times hit the family. The senior Ferris took his wife and two boys to the
truck-farming community of Deerfield Beach, Fla., where, just after World War II, they rented a house for $45 a month. Though his father drove a truck
for a living, young Timothy saw his father's passions emerge when he wrote
fiction on the weekends. His mother had once been a literary critic. These
parents encouraged their boys to enjoy literature, driving them once a month to
a bookstore in a neighboring town where each was allowed to buy one
hardcover book.

When he was 8, Ferris got a book called "The Child's History of the World,"
which was a tour of the Earth from astronomical and geological
perspectives. He's pretty sure he didn't read it all the way through, but Ferris says
the book hit him hard. "I just found it astonishing to realize that all of
this stuff, the sort of loamy soils of the fields in which I was playing as a
boy -- this is a small town in rural Florida -- that all this stuff hadn't
always been here. That it had had a history. And that if you wanted to
understand how it came to be part of the Earth, you had to understand
astronomical processes. So I started to study astronomy."

But never to be an astronomer. The literary lineage was too strong for
that and, says Ferris, the scientific ability too weak: Once in a
college astronomy class, he tried to measure the width of Lake Michigan, using an
astronomical technique called parallax. He came up with 800 miles wide, an
answer that was 700 miles too large.

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Instead, the young Ferris looked at
Mars through a backyard telescope and then wrote about it. When he was 16 he
acquired an agent for the science fiction novels and the astronomy
textbook he was writing, none of which was ever published.

Working-world realities pressed him after college into writing jobs with
steady incomes. Sitting on his top-of-the-world balcony
overlooking San Francisco Bay, he tells the story of growing
up dirt poor and pursuing writing because he loved it. He was warned, as
writers still are, that there is no money in this craft and only a select
few will make it. Why did Ferris become one of the select few? Like all
greats, because he created something new. He crossed a '70s funky-cool
style with a passion for hard science and came up with a product people loved.

After stints with UPI and the New York Post, Ferris took a job as the New
York bureau chief for Rolling Stone in 1971, a heady time to be at that
magazine, when rock's social revolution was in full force. Two years later, Ferris
wrote an article about cosmology called "How Do We Know Where We Are If
We've Never Been Anywhere Else?" It was an unusual piece for the magazine -- no
musical figures, no social relevance -- but there's no doubt, the piece was Rolling Stone cool. "That humans know they live in a galaxy is astonishing,"
Ferris wrote. "It is as though a society of plankton confined to an inlet in the Philippines had managed to draw a rough but accurate chart of the entire
Pacific Ocean." The article generated what Ferris calls surprising praise. People really liked it because it was simultaneously down to earth and
very far out. It was easy to read and they'd never read anything like it
before.

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That was it. Time to write a book.

"The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe" came out in 1977
and won the American Institute of Physics prize the next year, establishing
Ferris as an exacting reporter who knew his science. In 1978, his
popularity among scientists and his experience at Rolling Stone won him a unique opportunity. Along with scientists Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, Ferris
curated the audio recording "Murmurs of Earth" that the Voyager spacecraft -- thanks to Kepler's equations -- is carrying out of our solar system as you read this.

After two more astronomy books and one on journalism, Ferris wrote the
book that made him truly famous. "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" was
nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1989, and it won a host of other honors.
If you read one book on popular astronomy, this should be
it. The science and storytelling are equally vigorous, and as a tale of human
thought that includes difficult ideas of present astronomy, it is a
comprehensive tome, albeit in simple language. What really sets it apart
is its ingenious premise: We, as a species, are a child just reaching
maturity. Millenniums ago, when we were young, we thought the sky was a canopy held up by the mountains -- the heavens were as close to us as a mother's face to a child. As we grew, we were able to focus farther. As we learned to
count and write, as we learned to travel the Earth and as we pursued
science, we grew up to understand how vast a cosmos it is -- 15 billion light-years across at least.

Which leaves us with a very itchy question: Are we the Milky Way's only
children? This question underpins Ferris' second bestselling book, "The
Mind's Sky." Here he rambles (his word) through what is known about the
possibility of life on other worlds (billions of stars out there, probably
billions of planets, ergo lots of intelligent life) and what is known
about how the human mind thinks. Intelligence is a slippery concept, and, in us, it grew up in the specific evolutionary pressures of this little Earth,
which orbits a cookie-cutter star in a suburb of the Milky Way. So what we
know about our own selves says a lot about how we look at the cosmos -- and
look for other intelligent beings. But it says nothing about the nature of
other intelligences out there.

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"The Whole Shebang" is a return to cosmology, but it's not a history. It's a landscape, and its subject, as the title says,
is everything -- everything physicists and cosmologists and astronomers
know and are trying to know about the universe, including whether this one is
the only one out there.

Right now, Ferris is working on a book called "Seeing in the Dark," which
promises to be, like "The Mind's Sky," a more philosophical journey through cognitive science and astronomy -- what happens as starlight comes into the human brain through the eye. Ferris recognizes these books as more interpretive and likes their sense of discovery and creativity. But he knows the power of
his reportorial work. "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" and "The Whole Shebang" are both on the New York Times' list of the best books of the 20th century.
This is pleasing to him in and of itself, but a wry smile comes over
Ferris' handsome cigar-smoking face when he points out that Thompson --
his old friend from Rolling Stone -- has only one book on the list.

In all deference to the fear and loathing master, it's not hard to see
why. Ferris is a polymath. His thinking is broad enough to strike us more than
once, and probably more than twice. He uses Reni Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas
une pipe" to explain a theory of human cognition put forward by physicist
John Archibald Wheeler. Gertrude Stein and William Blake are heroes and he
quotes them -- appropriately -- in his work. The music of Alban Berg
serves as his metaphor for the complex subtleties of scientific thought.
Perhaps his range of thinking explains why musicians, poets and even dance
troupes have been inspired to create projects in their own
genres based on "Coming of Age."

It's probably also why Ferris is so good at explaining science to the
nonscientist. His range doesn't represent cultural sophistication for its own sake, though if you've never heard of Berg, you might think it does. To Ferris, music, philosophy, art and science are simply facets of the one
human intelligence we all have (a physicist might call this intelligence
supersymmetric). Pencil metaphors and stories about dwarfs help, no doubt,
but it is more important that Ferris writes to the center of our brains
and disregards the firewalls of thought we falsely assume are there.

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Of course, science is Ferris' first among equals. With its restless
skepticism and insistence on evidence, it is the fastest-moving mode of
human thought (at one light-year per second!), and Ferris considers it the
most interesting subject for books. He contends in "The Whole Shebang" that
being a cosmologist is a smart, stable career these days because our
knowledge of the universe is expanding so rapidly. The same should be
said, for the same reasons, about being a cosmology writer -- especially if
you're good.


William Speed Weed

William Speed Weed is a freelance writer and radio producer living in San Francisco.

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