August 29, 1995
Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous system, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? To the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from another galaxy find them as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as the world’s religions?
In this stunningly original book, set among the mountains and canyonlands of northern New Mexico, George Johnson explores the human hunger for pattern, the innate drive to find (or impose) order in our capricious world. In this land of strange juxtapositions were magic and science, religion and reason, constantly bump up against each other, Johnson introduces us to an amazing diversity of people who see the world through varied lenses, who find vastly different pictures in the night sky.
Just north of Santa Fe, the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso sits at the bottom of the plateau on which stands the laboratory city of Los Alamos. While the people of San Ildefonso carry out secret ceremonies in their kivas and dance to the rhythms of the seasons, the physicists of Los Alamos struggle with some of the most complex ideas of quantum theory, particle physics, and a new science called the physics of information, which seeks to understand the very source of pattern and order in the world.
Los Alamos and San Ildefonso are just two pieces in this jigsaw puzzle of world views. In the dizzying heights of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains, the faithful flock to an old Catholic Church for samples of holy soil said to cure all ills. Descending from this land of miracles to the foothills around Santa Fe, we visit a revolutionary think tank called the Santa Fe Institute. Here scientists are focusing their research on questions that seem to hover within the penumbra between science and religion: How, from the random jostling of molecules, did life arise and evolved to the point where it can contemplate its own beginnings? Are we accidents of the universe – miracles – or is there a reason for us to be here?
By examining some of the most radical new theories of physics and biology emanating from the laboratories of northern New Mexico and comparing them to the intricate belief systems of the Tewa Indians, a Catholic sect called the Penitentes, and other inhabitants of this land, Johnson casts the scientific enterprise in a startling new light. The result is an intellectual adventure story of the highest order, a journey to the far reaches of the scientific frontier where the human soul struggles to make sense of life’s deepest mysteries.
George Johnson writes about science for The New York Times, and has written regularly for The New York Times Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of three previous books: Architects of Fear, Machinery of the Mind, and In the Palaces of Memory. A former Alicia Patterson Fellow and the recipient of a Special Achievement in Nonfiction award from the Los Angeles chapter of PEN, Mr. Johnson grew up in New Mexico and now lives in Santa Fe.