Future shocks

What Remains To Be Discovered

John Maddox <em>Macmillan, 434pp, £20</em>

It was Benjamin Franklin, a natural scientist manque if ever there was one, who observed that "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes". It's John Maddox's aim in this splendid book to modify that opinion in a novel way. According to Maddox, if I've read him right, nothing much is certain in this universe save for the second law of thermodynamics (ie, death), and the lack of available fiscal appropriation for scientists who wish to study the second law of thermodynamics (ie, taxes).

It's entirely appropriate that it is Maddox, the former influential editor of Nature, who should attempt this compelling tour d'horizon of the current frontiers of our knowledge of pure science and the possibilities for their rapid extension into the hinterland of ignorance. What is altogether more surprising is how lucid - and indeed readable - this tour turns out to be.

Half a century ago C P Snow remarked on how the "two nations" of arts- and science-educated graduates who comprised the British establishment found it impossible to speak to one another. While it is still fair to level this accusation against the arts lot, scientists, in recent decades, have been doing their best to reach us arts lot. In the fields of evolutionary biology (Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould), cognitive theory (Daniel Dennett) and particle physics (Stephen Hawking), commendably clear pedagogues have made their fields surprisingly intelligible to a wider audience. Such a transmission, I fear, has not occurred in the opposite direction: all too often scientists find artists' incorporation of their recent discoveries into scenarios and motifs, tropes and metaphors, simplistic, if not absurd.

There's nothing simplistic in Maddox's work. Still, I have to say that it's the first book that made me feel - as an arts graduate - that I understood 20th-century particle physics with any depth at all. With Hawking's A Brief History of Time, despite his use of only one piece of mathematical notation in the entire text (or, more likely, because of it), I found myself grappling uneasily with his paragraphs. Small wonder, then, that this was the most widely bought - and least read - book of all time. It is Maddox who deserves Hawking's sales, since he succeeds, through clear, concise prose, in leading his readers deeper and deeper into the paradoxical worlds described by contemporary physics.

Ever since Murray Gell-Mann, at Cal Tech in the 1950s, seized on the Joycean word "quark" to describe unstable subatomic particles, science has become a remarkable source of new coinages. But it isn't just his analysis of "solitons", "hadrons", "skyrmions" and "gluons" that makes Maddox's approach so entrancing; it's his ability to make you visualise them. I suddenly realised, reading this book, that when physicists talk of subatomic particles having a "right-angled spin", they mean this quite literally. And that the best way of comprehending this is to imagine yourself in the kind of brightly coloured, topsy-turvy, arsy-versy cosmos depicted in old Marvel comics. Yes, looked at through these Stan Lee lenses, the paradoxical nature of our universe becomes easier to grasp.

I harp on about this because it was quite an epiphany; and one that stayed with me through the sections on genetics and molecular biology as well. Given his ability to provoke vivid pictures in his readers' minds, these parts of Maddox's book became like that film Fantastic Voyage, where the scientists are miniaturised and injected into a human blood stream. With such a competent helmsman I was able to cruise into the human genome, side-swing strings of Alus - or genetic "junk" - and tie-up to the essential nucleotides.

Maddox is careful in his analysis of the "arrogance" involved in the search for GUT and TOE (respectively the "Grand Universal Theory" and the "Theory of Everything"), identifying them as blind alleys which the pace of discovery has drawn scientists into. But with cellular biology and genetics he is more forceful. Both, he argues, have set themselves up as being in a position to offer total explanation - whereas all that they are currently capable of is increasingly thorough description.

Maddox's remarks on the current prospects for genetic engineering are equally compelling. It may interest lay people to learn that while a cure for cancer may be relatively close, the possibility of selecting for favourable, heritable characteristics among humans remains remote. The "eugenics scare" - according to Maddox - is still precisely that. When it comes to his own descriptions, Maddox doesn't eschew the proper language of science - mathematical notation - but by golly he makes it work for the ignorant. In his section on artificial intelligence he helped me understand the algorithmic basis of computer science, Fermat's last theorem and Godel's conjecture - and he was addressing a reader with a flat C in O-level maths.

What Remains to Be Discovered is a fighting title if ever I heard one, and Maddox works to make it prevail by consistently reflecting on the forecasts scientists were making on the brink of our century. He shows how scientific discovery continually throws up the unexpected, and he makes powerful arguments against the Luddite thinking which drives lay people into imagining that a restriction in the "pace" of such discovery will somehow make for a better world.

From the exciting search for the point of our own origin as a species, to the philosophically queasy notion of the "beginnings" of our own consciousness, to the truth or otherwise of global warming, this book is an invaluable guide. If anyone requires further confirmation that Maddox's long years beneath the green eye-shade have made him an expert at holding the front page - well, while I was reading this book, two of the areas he identifies as ripe for new discoveries (the synthesis of human flesh and the discovery of "missing mass" in the cosmos) actually took place. Now that's a promise fulfilled.

An original short story by Will Self will appear in the next issue of the "New Statesman", a Christmas books special