I rarely read books that are fresh off the press. Instead, they filter into my life through people I know, passing references in articles and happen-stance encounters years after release. This amorphous system filters through all the books I hear about (and many I don’t) and curates what I read.
William J. Broad studied the History of Science and brought that focus to writing for the New York Times. Along the way, he’s collected a few Pulitzers. His 2006 book The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi is a brilliant example of science journalism, covering both the science and what it means.
In this case, the science spans one hundred years of trying to understand the Oracle at Delphi, particularly the work of four scientists who managed to upend a scientific consensus that had stood for most of a century. It’s a gripping read that followed a range of players, delves into their field work and helped me understand the scientific intricacies in multiple fields including geology, archeology and medicine that the players used to build their case. If there’s a list of well written science books that are also page turners, this book deserves a nomination.
For me, the tour de force was the last forty pages or so where he stepped back from the details of the science and answered the question: “why does it matter?”. Why did these scientists spend years on this?
In one of those strange coincidences, I read the same story in this book today as I heard on a philosophy podcast a few days ago. The Delphi asked if you changed all the planks and parts of a boat, would it still be the same thing? Some philosophers, scientists and thinkers would answer “No”. After all, nothing in the boat is the same. There is no essence to a boat. There is no there, there. It’s just a bunch of parts. And, just as surely, if you took the boat, stacked the parts and asked that same group if they’d like to take a cruise on that disassembled boat, they’d answer “No”.
Even if they don’t think there’s a there there, a boat —like many things— is more than the sum of it’s parts.
The boat is a microcosm of debate that goes on and grows stronger. The sciences —Physics, Chemistry, Biology and so on— have power because they break things down and reduce them to their most essential pieces. That useful power has led to a certain hubris that leaves out the other side of the equation. As Broad says, “science—the most powerful institution of our day…sheds a very strong but narrow light that can leave many intriguing questions and possibilities lurking in the shadows”. Some things, like the boat or the oceans, are more than the sum of their parts. There are the pieces… and there is also the whole.
I understand the power of reductionism: I have a degree in Physics, I know how to program and I can explain the physics that makes the chips work in the computer with which I “pen” this review.
And I understand its limits. Reductionism is the voice that dismisses that there’s anything to the boat but parts. It’s the voice that dismisses mind as anything beyond chemistry. It’s the voice of the mathematician friend of mine who dismisses everything that can’t be rigorously proven. And it’s a voice that doesn’t hear the weird discontinuity between that stance and most of their own lives. My mathematician friend tells his daughter “I love you” and puts on “his music” like the rest of his. But, there is no proving love or music. Reduce them and you’re left with nothing: sound waves and meaningless words. There is no there there in any reductionist sense.
Broad’s last, shorter section, is a brilliant summary of this tension: the tension between reductionism and holism. It’s a testament to how we need both and a reminder of the fallacy that lies at the heart of claims that reductionism will find all the answers. I haven’t read another forty pages or so that better captures and explores this.