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Teller probes science itself; The Pursuit of Simplicity, by Edward Teller. Malibu, Calif.: Pepperdine University Press. $10.95

By Robert C. CowenRobert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor. / September 14, 1981



Most books, Edward Teller warns his readers, are "partially right and partially wrong." He adds that "this book . . . claims to be no exception." This is Teller at his best. With insight and wit, he has given readers a vision of the beauty, power, and romance of natural science. Now near the end of his book , while exhorting humanity to surmount its fears and problems to ensure survival of its civilization, he takes himself with a grain of salt.

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However, it is hard not to take this outstanding physicist a bit more seriously than he may choose take himself.

An architect of the hydrogen bomb, historically identified with the hawks on arms control, even ostracized in the 1950s by many other physicists for his role in the persecution of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his public image has had its dark side. Yet this has never been the whole, or even the half, of Edward Teller. This delightful and challenging little book, refined from a series of lectures given at Pepperdine University, helps one appreciate both his intellectual power and his essential humanity.

Here Teller, the physicist, cuts through the technical complexities and the jargon to reveal the essence of natural science. He presents it as a quest for simplicity and order -- a search for those few general principles with which humans can make sense of their awareness of the natural world -- hence the title of the book. This is the work of a skilled expositor. Readers can gain an appreciation for the thought modes that have prodiced scientific knowledge. they can share the sense of beauty a scientist feels in seeing the underlying simplicities emerge.

They also can share some of the puzzle-solving fun if they tackle Teller's "invisible appendices." These are a group of problems where the reader, with some guidance, is asked to work out such things as measuring the distance of the sun from Earth or deriving laws of planetary motion. They are discretely tucked into the back of the book and are in no way necessary for reading or understanding the main text.

Indeed, this is not a textbook presentation of physicists' findings. It is, rather, an essay on key insights that have been gained and their relevance to larger issues. Chief among these, for the purposes of this book, is the concept which Danish physicist Niels Bohr called complementarity. This holds that to understand the essential nature of things one must consider them simultaneously in terms of antagonistic or contradictory images. Thus atomic particles can only be understood as having the nature both of particles and of waves. Neither image alone suffices. Both are needed.

In physics, theories that embody complementarity have done much to bring order to what Teller calls "the ambiguous, even paradoxical nature of what which we accept as reality." Teller would use the concept to bring insight to the ambiguous, paradoxical issues of national security, peace, and human progress and survival. He deals with the "conlict" between individual freedom and social cooperation or between national security through military strength and world peace in these terms. This cast ancient dilemmas in mod terms wihtout getting us much further toward resolving them. Nevertheless, his outlook is cautiously hopeful. He believes humanity does have the spiritual, and the technical, strength to struggle through to a better world.

This is Teller, the humanist, straining to bring a fresh viwpoint to seemingly intractable human problems. To seome extent, he succeeds. Certainly, he is provocative. Yet one wonders if the paradigm of complementaril may not be overdone, or indeed whether poets and prophets may not have grasped it long before the physicists. If so, readers can make use of that grain of salt. On the whole, though, this is a thoughtful, provocative book which will more than repay the investment in reading, pondering, and even arguing with its author's perceptions.