By LeRoy Lawson
Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010
The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century
New York: Penguin Press, 2008
“What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit in that all-time favorite children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.
“What is REAL?” asked some of the 20th-century’s most brilliant scientific minds.
We’re still waiting for their definitive answer. Manjit Kumar’s Quantum records their best guesses and their most heated debates.
Albert Einstein believed, “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.” Niels Bohr disagreed, at least beneath the microscope: “There is no quantum world,” he said. “There is only an abstract quantum mechanical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” And so they went at it.
What they are arguing about is the world smaller than the microscope can see, where subatomic beings (or nonbeings) dwell and cast their magic spell over all reality (or nonreality).
Their ongoing debate is the core of Quantum, around which orbit such luminaries as Erwin Schrödinger (and his famous cat), James Clerk Maxwell (of the electromagnetism), Ludwig Boltzmann (of the Boltzmann Constant), Werner Heisenberg (of the Uncertainty Principle), and several others. Kumar’s deft biographical sketches read like brief novels. You want to learn more about the characters, if not the physics.
For years now I’ve been trying to make sense out of quantum mechanics, which often strikes me as more philosophy than science, more mystery than mathematics. I’m in pretty good company. Bohr once said that if you weren’t shocked by quantum theory, you didn’t really understand it. Well, I didn’t. And don’t.
I’m more at home with literature and theology, but these disputes have a familiar ring. They remind me of those late-night Bible college standoffs concerning what’s real and what’s unreal. Where we argued determinism and free will, they pit Newtonian physics against quantum probabilities. Isaac Newton is not dead (his classical physics works just fine at the macro level); quantum mechanics is not heresy (“probabilistic motions of electrons” seems to be the only viable explanation at the micro level). Neither side has the last word; it looks as if each side has some truth in it. Like theology?
What I find refreshing whenever I dip into scientific literature is that science at its best is dedicated to finding the truth, even if some cherished theories have to be tossed.
Child of Missionaries, Author of Controversy
Sometimes reading a good biography is a disappointing experience. Though the writing is excellent and the subject is interesting, disillusionment sets in. It’s not Hilary Spurling’s fault that midway through her Pearl Buck in China I had to force myself to keep going. Too much information! I didn’t want to know what I was reading. I wanted Pearl Buck to remain the literary icon of my youth.
My father shook his head when I told him I was reading The Good Earth. He’d heard it was pretty racy and wondered whether a teenager should be exposed to such adult fare. This was in the 1950s, just a few years after the author had received both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes (the first woman in America to receive the Nobel). I was entranced. The lady could write.
She could also stir up controversy. As a child of missionary parents in China, she grew up more Chinese than American. Her dedicated, obsessed father poured himself into his labors, neglecting his long-suffering wife and children. The precocious Pearl didn’t miss a thing and later cranked out book after book recollecting—and reconstructing—the China of her childhood.
It was her frankness that caused my dad and then her readers in China to question and eventually desert her. She offended China by her realistic depictions of the rural life there (the floods, diseases, superstitions, prejudices, famines, frank sexuality, and wars); she upset westerners who suspected her of harboring communist sympathies.
She wouldn’t have so disturbed if she hadn’t become so famous. For two years she was the most widely read author in the United States. The Good Earth was her only lasting literary achievement, but it kept her on the best-seller list for two years.
The second half of her life was a clash of accomplishment and controversy. Her marriage to agricultural economist John Lossing Buck did not last. She married Richard Walsh, her publisher, after a much-gossiped-about affair. Her devotion to her mentally disabled daughter and others like her and her compassion for the overlooked and abused led to her adopting several needy children and establishing benevolent foundations. There was much good in Pearl Buck.
But in time she succumbed to celebrity’s corruption. It’s embarrassing to read of her limousines and furs and liaisons and lapses of judgment. She overcompensated for the poverty of her childhood by flaunting the opulence of her final years, her childhood immersion in evangelical Christianity discarded in favor of a kind of vacuous universalism.
As I said, the lady could write. But she could, like the rest of us, also disappoint.
One Man’s Religious Fanaticism
People who don’t think very deeply about religion love to quote the old shibboleth, “It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere.” They should read Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens, a fascinating study of Osama’s family. Here they will look at what’s (and who’s) behind al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; here is a captivating recounting of the birth and growth of one man’s religious fanaticism. Osama bin Laden is no hypocrite. He’s a true believer who puts his money—and his formidable talents—where his mouth is. And what he believes now matters to the whole world.
Coll’s investigation starts with Osama’s father Mohamed, the penniless, illiterate immigrant from Yemen to Saudi Arabia who rose from bricklayer to builder for the king, heading up his own very large construction company. An ambitious, restless man, Mohamed collected airplanes and automobiles and properties and women. His ascent coincided with Saudi Arabia’s oil boom; for the ruling House of Saud he built palaces and roads and renovated shrines at Mecca and Medina. The Saud and bin Laden families are so entwined in this story that from time to time I had to back up a few pages to be certain which one I was reading about.
Mohamed bin Laden married countless times (but never had more than four wives at once, in accordance with Islamic law). He fathered 54 offspring and when he died left each of his 25 sons 2.7 percent of his estate, his daughters 1 percent. On his death, his eldest legitimate son Salem succeeded as head of his companies; he also inherited his father’s profligate ways. He was the worldly one.
Osama, Salem’s half-brother, was the religious one. He grew up in Jeddah with a stepfather Mohamed had selected for his castoff wife. Quiet, studious, decidedly average, Osama came into his own only following the 1979 Iranian revolution that ignited Islamic militancy in the Middle East. Disapproving of the Saudi government’s coziness with the United States, he became so disruptive that the king finally ostracized him.
Eventually he founded al-Qaeda, settled in, and was driven out of Sudan to take up “residency” in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. There he backs the Taliban and stirs up Islamic militancy worldwide. You know the rest of the story.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll has given us a rich, detailed, instructive look at one of the world’s most influential families and its most prominent, most powerful black sheep.
Read this book and then try to tell us it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.