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The Dancing Wu Li Masters – Gary Zukav **

Whoa, man, this whole physics trip is like, far out!

Okay, that’s a bit over-simplified, but there is a certain amount of dated charm in Gary Zukav’s 1979 book on what was then “the new physics”. To be fair, it isn’t as it might appear to be an attempt to combine physics and Eastern philosophy. It is a book on physics, but presented in a way that is supposed to be amenable to the navel-gazing generation.

One requirement here is absolutely no maths, and Zukav makes this premise from the start. This isn’t Hawking’s restriction on not having equations, but rather trying to describe things in English rather than mathematics. This is all very well, but it’s a pretty frightening challenge when dealing with quantum theory, were certain aspects have very little meaning outside the maths.

In fact, given its age, Zukav does pretty well at explaining the basics, but for anyone with an aversion to New Age bunkum the style will occasionally irritate – as, for example, when he uses some blatant mistranslation to achieve his desired ends. He points out that Wu Li, the “Chinese” (his term) for physics means “patterns of organic energy”. This sounds great if you love woffly touchy-feely meaningless phrases, but when you come to think about it, it’s almost entirely senseless as organic is a purely human level concept and has no meaning at the level of practically all of physics. (Zukav tries to get round this by saying that organic means living and trying to show that physics applies to living things, but apart from the obvious “so what?”, he’s cheated by misinterpreting organic. Methane is organic, but it’s hardly living!)

However, he also says that Li has several meanings, including “universal order” or “universal law”, and Wu can be matter or energy. Given that “the universal order of matter/energy” is actually not a bad description of physics without getting all mystical, it’s hard to avoid the fact that he is twisting things to meet his requirement. Zukav might quote Newton as saying “I frame no hypotheses” (actually he misquotes this as “make no hypotheses”, which is subtly different), but Zukav himself had a clear hypothesis from the start which he spends the rest of the book massaging physics into.

Another example of this explicit hypothesis framing is the statement “the language of Eastern mystics and Western physicists are becoming very similar.” It’s just not true. As one quantum scientist put it “we don’t spend all our time talking about these sorts of things as [Zukav] suggests.” Science is still about developing models and finding facts to better understand the universe, usually (as Zukav himself) admits in maths – as far removed from Eastern mysticism as you can get. The fact that occasionally the oddities of quantum theory have led to some speculation about the interplay of mind and matter is neither here nor there (and when it has, the scientists have always come at “mind” from a scientific viewpoint, not “matter” from a mystical viewpoint).

Rant over. There is a fair amount of good stuff in here, and Zukav really does manage to explain some aspects of physics quite well – but it’s very sad this book is still selling when there are much better explanations now available that don’t feel the need to resort to this sad packaging. You also should be warned that despite being read and commented on by many physicists, there are some bizarre mistakes. For example, he thinks the early “plum pudding” model of the atom is a plum (presumably not knowing what a plum pudding is).

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Review by Brian Clegg

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