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Dismantling the Universe: The Nature of Scientific Discovery

By Richard Morris. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983. 224 pages.

Richard Morris’s Dismantling the Universe is a responsible, insightful, and brisk discussion of the discontinuities, false-starts, and methodological issues connected with science; twenty years after its first publication it is a “popular science” book that still bears reading.

Let us dispense with its faults at the beginning: a good editor would have chopped redundant sentences and tightened both paragraphs and whole sections of chapters (this repetition leads to an at times pedantic air); some of the questions, such as those relating to the distinctions between science and pseudo-science (or crackpot ideas), are answered insufficiently and one has the feeling the author has no better response than “I recognize B.S. when I see it”; and in a similar vein, too many great scientists are evaluated as visionaries who were “intuitively” certain of the rightness of their theories. Neither the sharp, polemic bite of Hawins’s Hunting Down the Universe (1997) nor the passionate conviction of Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, both of which Morris’s book resembles at times, can be found here. That having been said, these weaknesses are not systemic; they appear from time to time, but do not mar the overall quality of Morris’s work.

At the beginning the author lays out his motivations; he started to write a book about creative imagination in scientific discovery, but was quickly side-tracked by questions such as “what does beauty have to do with truth?” and “how does one distinguish between a plausible scientific theory which has not been verified and a crackpot idea which is not supported by any empirical evidence either?” Morris then covers the breakdown of common sense (chapter 1), science versus science fiction (chapter 2), style (chapter 3), intuition (chapter 4), the primacy of theory (chapter 5), crackpot theories (chapter 6) and the building of connections (chapter 7); his “dismantling” of the universe thus concluded, he “reassembles” matters in the final chapter.

Morris’s discussions of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo are lucid, informative, and even witty at times. Likewise his explanation of Bohr and complementarity is to the point and comprehensible even for non-scientists. Morris not only deals with the break down of common sense, but he also tackles apocryphal stories and even misinformation regarding the formation of scientific theories, and this distinguishes his book in a positive fashion from many run-of-the-mill popular science volumes available. Scientific errors and flops, such as the 1859 “discovery” of the planet Vulcan and N-Rays, are both gentle reminders of human fallibility and little-remembered anecdotes from the dustbins of scientific failures; Morris’s analysis of continental drift, sea-floor spreading, and plate techtonics is likewise educational. And the respectful and cautious manner with which the author describes Dicke and Peebles’s theory of mini-blackholes as breeding grounds for new universes makes for a good read.

Examples of theories that gained widespread (even universal) acceptance before any reliable empirical evidence had been gathered in support, such as heliocentrism, are both fascinating retellings of the tradition history of science taught to school children, as well as demonstrations of the primacy of theory over experiment. Indeed, neither Bacon’s orthodox scientific method, nor Mach’s rigid positivism accurately model how many scientific advances come to pass. This reader, having explored the bibliography, was pleased to see Thomas Kuhn well represented, but at the same time disappointed that Kuhn made no actual appearance in the text itself. Thus, while the relative importance of theory compared to observation makes sense insofar as observations are not “evidence” until they are "evidence" for or against a theory, the privileging of theory ignores broader debates about rationalism versus empiricism in science, as well as contemporary debates concerning the differing cultures of theoretical and experimental physicists (although works such as Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes [1992] were not available when Morris’s book appeared). Still, Morris’s emphasis on theory focuses primarily on creativity, and not on the overall epistemology of science.

A particularly precious thought comes at the very end of the book when Morris continues his consideration of art versus science: “I sometimes wonder if science could not be described as an attempt to impose order upon physical reality, which would then make it rather similar to art, which could be described as an activity that imposes order upon all the myriad aspects of human experience.” The author dances around the topic of the “reality” of scientific theories (e.g. platonic ideals or human constructions?) until the end, but when he does get to to the point, he also gets the point, and such wonderful gems as that above are the result.