13 November 2021


Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings, The University of Chicago Press, 2017

A Final Story is a study of those sweeping scientific epics, presented in books such as Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes or television extravaganzas like Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos, which confidently set out the entire story of the universe from Big-Bang beginning to middle (our time) and on to its possible ends, pulling all the great discoveries of science into a single narrative to give the big – the biggest – picture, and putting humanity in its place (in all senses). 
Epic tales of "science seeking the ultimate origin (or matter, of life, of thought)" and to define "the nature of everywhere and everywhen". The ‘final story’ is the narrative equivalent of the much-sought ‘final theory’: the story of everything.

Nasser Zakariya, assistant professor of rhetoric and the history of science at Berkeley, presents a historical survey and in-depth analysis of these ‘universal histories’, defining and categorising the different forms they’ve taken – ‘genres of synthesis’ as he calls them – looking at what they have in common and where they differ, and showing how they’ve changed along with science itself. Above it all, though, hovers the question of whether the whole of science can ever be reduced to one story or whether meaning is being imposed by the storytellers, who are really engaged in constructing a mythology for the secular age.

Such a study is an epic undertaking in itself – the book weighs in at 430 pages of main text and another 100 of notes – and the scope is so wide, both because of the science that has to be covered and the ramifications that the search for a final story has for so many other areas, that it’s nigh-on impossible to do it justice in a review (even of this length). There’s way too much going on in the book for it all to sink in from a single reading.

There’s the backdrop of the history of science over the last couple of centuries, all the game-changing discoveries – and the false trails - that have transformed the big picture, as well as the many individual players whose own stories have to be told. There are the implications that the quest has for the philosophy of science (and philosophy in general), such as what it tells us about science’s limits, as the various forms of the final story ‘also provide a kind of grammar of ignorance, delimiting what it means not to know, shaping what progress or its lack amount to and further indicating what might be in principle unknowable.’

That’s before we get to attempts to apply lessons, real or imagined, drawn from the universal history to social issues, with the many moral and ethical questions that doing so raises. There are political dimensions, too: how different tellings of the final story have shaped, or been shaped by, the ideologies of the scientists involved, and the story’s impact on the policies of governments. Not to mention how they mould the public’s perception and understanding of science.

And the real biggie is, of course, the relationship between science and religion, both at the theological level and as manifested in issues such as the evolution-vs.-creationism (and intelligent design) clash.

So, big questions, and a lot of ground to cover.

The book is written by an academic for academics, so it certainly isn’t a casual bedtime read. From the 40-page introduction, defining the scope and historical and other contexts in dense academia-speak, I feared the rest of the book was going to be hard going. But when Zakariya starts to set out the story in the book’s first part, dealing with nineteenth-century efforts to produce a universal history, his writing becomes less demanding, if still rather dry. Then, when the tale enters the twentieth century in part two the tone perks up, becoming more engaging until by the third and final part it’s much livelier. Even so, I did have to keep running to the dictionary to look up words (‘imbricate’, ‘aporia’, ‘ramifying’) that are, presumably, workaday to his target audience.

It’s almost exclusively a Western story – even more exclusively focussed on the USA and Britain (or ‘England’ as Zakariya persists in calling it), nearly all of the European scientists discussed being ones who ended up working in those nations – but why science has such a ‘Eurocentric focus’, and how it fits (or doesn’t) with today’s multiculturalism, is one of the issues he explores.

Although attempts to tell a ‘universal natural history’ had been made in the late eighteenth century by the likes of Kant and Laplace – summarised in the introduction – Zakariya starts his story proper in the 1830s, a period of great expansion of the various branches of science that led scientists such as John Herschel and William Whewell to explore the question of whether or not it was possible to reconcile them into a single story.

For me, a highlight of this part was the remarkable Mary Somerville, the self-taught (‘despite family proscription’) and highly respected polymath whose 1834 On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was one of the first attempts at such a synthesis. Also discussed, along with works by Alexander von Humboldt, T.H. Huxley and others, is Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844 – which caught the popular imagination but was dismissed by the intelligentsia as Chambers was an amateur – that was really the first stab at telling the story from the origins of the solar system to the appearance of humankind (with, inevitably for the time, Caucasians at the pinnacle).

Part two "focuses on twentieth-century networks increasingly based in the United States, networks that expanded with the emigration of scholars in the 1930s". During this period, largely as a result of the impact of Einstein and astronomical discoveries revealing that the universe was a lot bigger than had been thought – astronomical, in fact – science really began to be viewed as something epic.

Zakariya traces the gradual consensus that was to lead to the Big Bang theory winning out over the ‘steady state’ model – and if the universe has a beginning then so does any final story. Also in the mix was the ‘evolutionary synthesis’ that finally brought genetics and Darwinism together, and which led to speculation about life elsewhere in the universe, as in Harlow Shapley’s 1926 Starlight, which linked the new astronomical discoveries to the evolution of life in general and mankind in particular, and explored what conditions were necessary for a planet to sprout life.

Another great populariser discussed by Zakariya was the physicist Georges Gamow whose picaresque ‘Mr Tompkins’ stories, about a bank clerk who takes dream-voyages to worlds with different laws of physics, sound just brilliant; Gamow dedicating the first volume jointly to Lewis Carroll and Niels Bohr gives an idea of where he was coming from.

Zakariya goes on to show how the new epic vision of science began to be discussed in the press and was increasingly related to political and social issues, with ideas and ideals such as Julian Huxley’s ‘scientific humanism’ emerging.

Zakariya also highlights the impact of the arrival of the atom bomb, both positively through the sense that science was unlocking the deep secrets of nature – and by helping acceptance of the Big Bang – and negatively through the threat of extinction it posed, focussing attention on how things might end: "The consequent intensification of humanistic deliberations that nuclear conflict provoked in the United States and England gave added weight to the universal history those such as Shapley, Gamow, Bronowski, and Huxley were already articulating, focusing attention on the value of science in relation to the meaning of civilization and the progress of history." The development of nuclear weapons also led to "the depiction of scientists manipulating mythic powers licensing them to tell mythic stories."

The different branches of science really began to be pulled together in the latter part of the twentieth century, the period covered in the book’s last part, when the notion of the final story was used to justify the public funding of big science projects, most obviously NASA’s Origins Project, a twenty-year programme begun in 2005 to find out more about such things as the birth of galaxies and to look for the ‘biosignatures’ of ET life: "NASA’s lobbying of Congress took the form of defining the purpose of the nation through the scientific epic, a purpose that looked toward a future goal, but that nevertheless was understood as embedded in an older notion of the American people leading the world in its noble-minded quest."

During this period television began "playing an increasingly important role in the construction and dissemination of a final story and a representation of science and scientists as meaning makers for a new age", as in Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in the early 1970s. There’s a chapter devoted to "the epic-mythic science" of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos (‘the American version of The Ascent of Man’) because of its popular impact and its expression of what had become the scientific consensus of the final story. The final chapter covers three science-epic TV series of the 2000s, Evolution (2001), Origins (2004) and the new Cosmos (2014), concluding that, "The ideas of myth and epic that were at work in the accounts of previous generations . . . are still at work in these documentaries."

It’s that theme of science as myth, which runs through A Final Story, that’s probably the most relevant from a Magonian perspective. Particularly in the final part Zakariya explores the extent to which these grand narratives provide a modern, science-based myth; how the writing of a final story "raised the question of whether it is the business of science, or of the tribe of scientists, to supply society with myths". He shows that "the supporters of a historical synthesis answered the question with increasing affirmation", marking the emergence of ‘mythic science’.

From the 1950s onwards scientists came to be regarded – and some even regarded themselves – as today’s equivalent of prophets and soothsayers, and popularisers of science increasingly framed their work in the image of myths and epic sagas. As Zakariya writes, science is "the one enterprise that held open the possibility of making the world meaningful, after itself having undercut older modes of meaning making".

Despite the amount of ground A Final Story covers, I did end up wondering if the subject is too vast even for such a mammoth work as this, as a lot seems to have been left unsaid or unexplored. For example, in the chapter ‘Political Cosmologies’ Zakariya presents the triumph of the ‘historical’ approach to the final story (the Big Bang to Big Crunch version) over the ‘foundationalist’ (starting with the subatomic realm and building up from there), giving as his prime example the green light given to NASA’s Origins Project while the rival Superconducting Supercollider planned to be built in Texas was cancelled. However, there’s no mention of CERN, the foundationalists’ great success story. (There’s only a single reference to CERN in the whole book, an aside in a quote by Weinberg, another sign of its Anglophone focus.)

Another relevant aspect only mentioned obliquely by Zakariya is the extent to which those who write the final story tweak the history of science to downplay elements that don’t fit. He has a couple of asides about the ‘increasingly untenable’ nature of the traditional aligning of the Enlightenment with secularism, and notes among the criticisms levelled at the new Cosmos its presentation of Giordano Bruno as "a casualty of a conflict between dogmatic religious authority and scientific imagination" (although without mentioning that Bruno was first and foremost an occult philosopher).

But even with these omissions there’s more than enough to chew over. Wherever you’re coming from, it’s bound to present some new perspectives on science’s place in the world. And it enlarged my vocabulary.
  • Clive Prince

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