A novelist’s search for (divine) life in the universe

A novelist’s search for (divine) life in the universe

Herman Wouk’s “The Language God Speaks” (Little, Brown) is a short, lucid meditation on science and religion. Wouk takes the title from Jewish physicist Richard Feynman, who told him to learn calculus because that’s “the language God speaks.” The book, a friendly counterargument to the late Nobel laureate’s committed secularism, is a loose collection of meditations on topics from scientific history, Wouk’s life, and world events. Feynman is used to tie together the stories and serves as a foil for Wouk, the author of “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”

Wouk has a deep reverence for the talmudic tradition he was taught in his youth and has returned to study throughout his 95 years. But can the God who created what science has revealed to us are billions of galaxies with billions of stars
really be concerned with human life, or is, as Feynman says, that stage “too large for the drama”?

Review The conclusion, in which Wouk imagines confronting an imagined Feynman for one more meeting of the minds, is not fully satisfying for someone who can imagine how the real Richard Feynman (the subject of a biography by James Gleick titled “Genius”) might have replied. The real Richard Feynman would have intellectually stymied this seeker more than his pliable ghost has.

Still, Wouk is a rare humanist who takes seriously the implications of the scientific worldview and wishes to engage with science not as obscure gadget-producing wizardry or through its negative function as dismantler of myths, but as a source of insight into the natural world and its origins.

After returning from Navy service in World War II, Wouk wanted to learn about the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb, so he began questioning physicists, eventually meeting Feynman. It seems it was only Feynman, with his blunt confidence and unpretentious curiosity, who really stayed in Wouk’s mind, continuing to haunt him well after Feynman’s death from cancer in 1986.

It was Feynman, in Wouk’s story, who knells in the demise of the U.S. manned space program, revealing the defects of the shuttle’s O-rings by dipping one in the ice water he was served while testifying to Congress. Didn’t the Apollo program and the shuttle show that humanity can step out into a larger stage?

Wouk deftly sketches the history of modern astronomy, how we came to know that the “spiral nebulae” seen in telescopes were actually “island universes,” galaxies on a par with our own. We pass from Henrietta Leavitt, the pioneering woman astronomer at Harvard who died too early to be nominated for a Nobel, to sparring observers Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble. Wouk makes clear that he is not a guide to science who is versed in the primary sources; having failed to understand calculus (the divine language, for Feynman), Wouk teaches himself about science from popular books.

Wouk’s digressions are always absorbing, but sometimes the connection to the main investigation seems tenuous. Wouk tells us about his Chinese friends and compares and contrasts Confucian and Jewish culture. He treats us to a summary of his epic novels and their reception and the history the novels are based on (World War II and the Holocaust). The latter brings us to part of Wouk’s answer to Feynman, that the enormity of the Holocaust argues against seeing human life as “too small for the stage.”

Feynman, with his Far Rockaway roots, was as down to earth as gefilte fish, a real cut-the-carp character, and scornful of obscure philosophy. I doubt he would be much moved by Wouk’s invocation of the airy “anthropic principle” (an idea more impressive to popular science authors than to scientists) or Wouk’s attempt to go over Feynman’s head and appeal to the physicist’s thesis adviser John Wheeler’s speculative ideas. Just as people can come away from similar experiences and learn different lessons, so also the mathematical theories of modern physics can support different interpretative worldviews.

Calculus may be God’s language, but whether it was written for us may be beyond our knowing.

Bram Boroson is an associate professor of astronomy and physics at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga. This review took first place in the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists’ competition for 2010.

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