1979 The Dance of the Wu Li Masters
1984 The Looking Glass Universe
1984 In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat
1988 The Symbiotic Universe
1988 A Brief History of Time
1989 Coming of Age in the Milky Way
The 1970s and 1980s produced a rash of popular books on physics. In 1994 came Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, another book I bought along the way, but the curious thing is that string theory does not lend itself to popularization quite so much—either that or the hot air has cooled in this balloon: we don’t have a string of books on string theory; it is too evidently a theory based on pure mathematics. When one of those twin brothers goes off on a decades-long trip to outer space at speeds close to the speed of light—and returns to find the other twin an old man while he is still full of testosterone—why that’s a worthy plot. Trips into Hilbert space, a mathematical dimension, just don’t have the same sort of impact.
The less accessible a subject, the less it will be known to the public—and the more so, if it is deemed important, will it be wrapped in awe. Mathematics wins that prize hands down. I’ve been reading Morris Kline’s book, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, a Christmas gift from Brigitte—she who knows what I need. It is not an attempt at popularization, to be sure, but the closest thing we’re likely to get. It was published in 1980 by Oxford University Press and tells the (I’m not kidding) nail-bitingly suspenseful story of the history of math. As Brigitte will testify, I’ve read many, many books of which, at first, I’ve understood at most, say, twenty percent of the content. I have some of the characteristics of the junk yard dog. This book is one of them. It is my conviction that anything made by humans is accessible—if only one makes the effort to penetrate the subject. Eventually, as John von Neumann said of math, you get used to it. And after years, one fine day, we find out that it’s true. The grand old patterns of human nature appear quite clearly again, and what felt like impenetrable fog becomes the same-old. The mild reward is that, at that point, you can eventually feel the problems the great but largely unknown names (who’s ever heard of Kronecker, Borel, Lebesgue , and Baire, for instance) actually felt as real. In my own case, alas, once I’ve penetrated the actual pattern of the thing, I tend to lose interest. I’m interested in the shape of things. For me it’s all about orientation. I appreciate the work of popularizers, and almost-popularizers like Morris Kline, because they let me get there faster.