Skip to main content

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).


Paperback:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr