By LeRoy Lawson
Fermat’s Last Theorem
London: Fourth Estate, 2002
Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
Edward J. Larson
New York: The Modern Library, 2006
Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science
New York: Basic Books, 2010
Confession is good for the soul, the saying goes—and it is. Whether it is good for the column is quite another matter.
Today’s books are held together by a common theme: things I don’t know. I am way, way out of my field here. But just as when driving you get lost and find yourself drinking in sights and sounds you’ve never seen or heard before, so sometimes dipping into books whose authors and subjects are new to you can do the same.
We’ll start with mathematics.
As I was planning for my senior year of high school, I asked my minister whether I should take algebra II or world history. I had already felt called to become a preacher, so I wanted my preacher’s counsel. He knew what I didn’t, that I’d be studying history the rest of my life. So he recommended math.
I didn’t take his advice, and I’ve regretted it ever since. To make up for my ignorance, I crack open a history of math book from time to time. I seldom understand the math, but the history fascinates me. Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem is my latest attempt.
One of mathematics’ many fields is called numbers theory. It attracts devotees who have fallen in love with numbers as numbers, who find certain of their configurations and combinations beautiful in themselves. Out of such beauty comes practicality, as in the algorithms that govern our computers; out of it also comes a host of puzzles.
One of the most daunting of all such puzzles is known as Fermat’s last theorem, which states that no three positive integers can satisfy the equation xn + yn = zn for any integer value of n greater than two.
Don’t worry if you can’t solve it. Nobody else could for 350 years, from the time amateur mathematician Pierre de Fermat in the 17th century proposed it in a note he scribbled in the margin of his copy of an ancient Greek text (Arithmetica by Diopohantus). The note wasn’t discovered until after Fermat’s death, preserved in a book by his son. Fermat claimed he had discovered a proof that the so-called Diophantine equation has no solution—but he didn’t offer that proof.
So for centuries mathematical sleuths hunted for it. And failed. And failed again. Not until Princeton University Professor Andrew Wiles, working primarily on his own, triumphed in 1995, and in effect, brought an end to an era. Singh wraps his book around Wiles’s obsession, building suspense as a good whodunit does, until by the climax no other outcome is acceptable. Professor Wiles must prevail.
A friend of mine read an interview with Wiles. “I remember him saying that he wasn’t the brightest mathematician in the world,” he wrote me, “but that he did have the ability to stay with a difficult problem for a long, long time . . . nibbling away at it . . . leaving it and coming back to it . . . viewing it from different angles,” and finally solving it. You can’t help cheering for such a man.
What really captured me in Fermat’s Last Theorem was not the math; it was the stories of commitment, of humility, of religious fervor, which drives men of science like Andrew Wiles.
Let’s tackle evolution next.
One semester, Mr. Whitney, my high school biology teacher, challenged his sophomore students to contract with him for our grades. Average work was worth a C, better work and more of it earned a B, and going all out could get you an A. I opted for the A.
My project was to write a paper on evolution. I didn’t know anything about it but I knew I was against it. To make my case I read pretty widely for a sophomore, interviewed several experts, and eventually turned in a 60-page tome.
I got my A. And Mr. Whitney—not then but later, when I realized the extent of the man’s integrity—got my admiration. A convinced evolutionist, he must have disagreed with everything I wrote. Yet he heard me out, rewarding my diligence, even while questioning my conclusions. Not every student is treated so respectfully.
The subject was evolution, but the larger lesson learned was an educational one—to be certain to hear all sides of an issue, to read and listen to authors and commentators you agree and disagree with before rushing to judgment. Mr. Whitney modeled this for me.
It was with him in mind that I picked up Edward J. Larson’s Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. My teacher would have liked this book. Larson succinctly traces the great evolution debate from its early (earlier than Charles Darwin) proponents to today’s political shootouts as creationists (or intelligent designers) and evolutionists try to protect tender young minds from the “other side.” Along the way he introduces prominent names (Alfred Russel Wallace, Thomas Henry Huxley, Ronald Fisher, James Watson and Francis Crick, et al.) and briefly details the developments and arguments among evolutionists and between them and their creationist opponents.
If you pick up this book, stay with it until the final pages. Larson brings the reader up to date on recent discoveries in genetics, the field that explains why we look like our ancestors—and why it’s so hard to pin down flu viruses. Helpful information.
So much has happened since my high school years. Evolution helped me fill in some blanks. I found myself reading respectfully. Mr. Whitney would be proud.
A third huge hole in my education is physics. I chose chemistry instead. No harm done, I thought, since I wouldn’t be using this science as a minister.
What was I thinking? In my lifetime human beings have been to the moon and back; we’ve probed Mars, developed nuclear power (for better or for worse), populated cyberspace, and gone subatomic. The absolutist world of Newton has yielded to Einstein’s relativist one. Remember when the smallest divisible things were atoms? Now we talk about quarks and protons and neutrinos and. . . .
And the Higgs boson. We aren’t even sure it exists. It needs to, though, if scientists are going to resolve some inconsistencies in nuclear physics. Scientists conjecture there is a large elementary particle that is critical in turning energy to mass (hence the title of Ian Sample’s Massive). It is so critical, in fact, that governments are spending billions constructing immense “colliders” so they can shoot particles at each other to see what happens.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Europe and the Tevatron at Fermilab in America are competing for the honor of being the first to discover Higgs boson. If it exists.
Almost 50 years ago, Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh asked the simple question that has had physics in an expensive uproar ever since: why do most basic particles have mass? Why aren’t they like light particles, which don’t? Higgs guessed that particles get their mass (or at least part of it) by interacting with a so far undetected field. They want to detect it. They’re calling it Higgs boson in his honor. They think it’ll be heavy (by atomic standards) and have a very brief life, something like a hundred trillionths of a trillionth of a second!
The hunt is on.
Why have I written so unauthoritatively about three books that betray my ignorance? To be honest, this has been a spiritual exercise for me, a reminder of the prayer of the Breton fisherman, “O, God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” I may be tempted, from time to time, to feel a little puffed up. I have a college education. I preach and teach and write. Some people may think I’m somebody or that I know something.
In case you are one of those people, I wrote this column for you. Now you know better.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City. Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.