Suppose one’s task is to review Finnegan’s Wake. Daunting? I approached this task with a lesser version of that trepidation. Cosmic Imagery, as may be inferred solely from the titles of John D. Barrow’s other works, is conceived on a preternaturally broad canvas.
Accordingly, budget a generous space on the coffee table for this project, and an equally generous portion of time — and not leisure time.
Advice to readers might well include:
- Read with a netbook nearby. You may need some Wikipedia refreshers to catch up on science concepts that you have forgotten or neglected in your science education.
- Prepare for a roller coaster ride across disparate specializations — not just cosmology and astronomy, as the Cosmic’s title implies — but historical footnotes like the “anthropocentric piece of interstellar advertising” affixed to the Pioneer 10 Jupiter probe in 1972, drawings of flying saucers from science fiction comic artists like Alex Schomburg, and the frozen geometry of self-taught, snowflake-obsessed Wilson Bentley.
- While Barrow’s preface argues that pictures “save words . . . change the pace, alter the style and make things more memorable,” in fact you’ll have to do much more than simply stare at the ponderable images in his collection. The images sometimes require painstaking explanations — painstaking, because Barrow wants to avoid being sidelined by the underlying science. Laudable, but probably an impossible ambition.
- As with any good coffee table book, Cosmic Imagery can be opened to any chapter at random. Open to “Stepping Out: Laetoli Footprints” (p. 223) and you’ll be treated to a line of hominid footprints left in Tanzania 3.6 million years ago. In “Two Easy Pieces: Aperiodic Tilings” (p. 397), a gallery of Islamic tilings is presented in tribute to an “almost overwhelming” exploration of “symmetry and periodicity.”
To enjoy Barrow’s work, an extended sitting may not be suitable. His museum of artifacts from the history of science (subtitle: “key images in the history of science:) calls for a dizzying tour of divergent corridors and anterooms. Better to let the collection rattle around in the skull, as surely it did in Barrow’s. How else could one explain Chapter 19, “Shapeliness: The Symmetries of Life” (p. 255), which begins with a quotation, as does every chapter:
He had the sort of face that, once seen,
is never remembered.
– Oscar Wilde
The image is Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man from 1490. A tribute to symmetry — yes, but Barrow doesn’t leave it there. After remarking on the remarkable evolution of right-left symmetry in biological systems, he wryly observes that
The most interesting feature of the high degree of symmetry found in human faces and our external bodies is the contrast with the squalid muddle to be found under the skin. our bodies are not symmetrically engineered under the surface. Hearts are on the left, our brains are laid out in an asymmetrical fashion. . .
But there’s more. Hypercubes, the normal distribution, the periodic table — science-haters will begrudgingly admit and be fatigued by Barrow’s restless quest for images that inspire. The book is effort, and coffee tables will bow as if the book was ten times its weight. But Barrow’s work is it itself inspired, not by coincidence quoting from a great seer who got science wrong but understood its fearsome symmetry:
To see a World in a Grain ofSand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Cosmic Imagery succeeds to such an extent that the music its visual/verbal modalities lack can be heard rising up from the covers when the book is set down. It is a small achievement about the grand achievements of others, which is itself kind of a perfect symmetry.
(c) 2009 by Mark Underwood