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A BOOK THAT TOUCHES THE SPIRIT

We are living in the golden age of astronomy, and how frustrating it is. We see pretty Pathfinder pictures of Mars, and even more glorious Hubble pictures of distant galaxies. We know that scientists are acquiring extraordinary new knowledge of the universe -- leaps into the cosmos more profound than any since the invention of the telescope itself -- and yet the layman has no real idea what is going on.

There is the occasional breathless story in the newspapers reporting, say, that the universe is 5 billion years younger than previously thought, and we are supposed to make sense of this. But, in fact, those outside the scientific priesthood have as little real understanding of the new discoveries about the state of the universe as the average Florentine had about Galileo's discoveries about the laws of motion.

Books are almost as bad. Popular accounts generally talk down to the reader, delivering a kind of romper room metaphysics. Books by scientists, on the other hand, tend to be incomprehensible.

An exception to the rule is Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics, whose "The First Three Minutes" is a nearly comprehensible account of the Big Bang. But none can compare with Timothy Ferris, the brilliant science writer, whose latest book "The Whole Shebang, A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report," is a marvel.

Books with dust-jacket blurbs that say "If you read only one book this year, read this one" usually strike me as designed for the dunce with a one-book limit. Nonetheless, I say: If you have time for only one more book this summer -- it's almost August -- read Ferris. Indeed, once you start, it probably will be the only book you read, because it is meant to be read slowly.

It has to be. It is a very rich meal. The subject matter -- the current state of knowledge about the origin, evolution and fate of the universe -- is weighty and dense. Nonetheless, Ferris renders it in a prose so lucid that you actually begin to understand.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, for example, is not an easy topic. It was once said that only three people understood it and two had gone mad. That was long ago. Now it is grist for the average physics graduate student. But it is still far out of reach of the layman. Yet in two or three pages Ferris offers as intuitive an account of its essential idea -- the curvature of space -- as I have ever read.

The material may be tough, but Ferris' touch is always light. This, on the blandness of black holes: "Toss in anything you like -- encyclopedias, nuclear submarines, whole faculties of social scientists -- and the black hole, like a prisoner of war reciting only name, rank, and serial number, will tell you nothing more than its mass, its rotation, and its electrical charge."

The book has simpler joys, too. There are the quick brush strokes, such as this, on what lies at the center of the Milky Way: "a chalice-like congress of rapidly orbiting stars." The felicitous phrase, such as this subtle echo of Rousseau: "The universe was born restless and has never since been still." And pathos: "All maps are imperfect; this is the sadness of maps."

All very nice, you say. But why read this stuff at all? Because mathematics is the language of the cosmos. Because the cosmos -- all those pulsing, chattering quasars and pulsars and neutron stars -- is speaking to us. And because we are living in a wondrous age in which we are finally beginning to understand the words. How can one live in this age and not be curious?

Theologians have been talking about ultimate meanings forever. But if you are (as I am) of a secular bent, science is the more accessible route to the mysteries of creation. The Big Bang may be the poor man's Burning Bush, but you take your enlightenment where you can.

And in this season of such pseudo-religious silliness, a book like Ferris', a book of discovery and reflection, is a balm to the spirit.

Washington Post Writers Group

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