The Infinite and the Infinitesimal

TIMOTHY FERRIS is a member of an elite club - best-selling science writers. By dint of erudition, curiosity, and linguistic virtuosity, they link intellect and imagination to fascinating thought adventures based on scientific inquiry. Other members of the club include John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould.

In his earlier book "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" (Doubleday), Ferris made intelligible the infinite dimensions of interstellar space. Now, in "The Mind's Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context," his topics range from the infinitesimal byways of genetic tissue and the cerebral cortex to a light beam bouncing off distant galaxies.

He compares the relationship of the inner space of the mind and the outer space of the universe to the way the roots of a tree connect to its branches. The better we understand the one, the more likely we are to understand the other.

For Ferris, the big questions, the most profound questions, center on the nature of intelligence: What does it mean to have a mind, and what does one do with a mind after one knows one has one? How does the human mind organize reality itself? Is there intelligent life on other planets? Is there a God?

Ferris says the power to speak and reason derives from the same part of the brain that allows football quarterbacks to throw touchdown passes with such precision. In "Joe Montana's Premotor Cortex," he argues that the San Francisco quarterback is the best person to ever throw a football; he also claims that the better National Football League quarterbacks are as brilliant as any of the great abstract philosophers.

The chapter "Dog's Life" presents a cautionary note based on the hard lessons of history (especially for Trekkies who fantasize high-fives with alien life). With his trademark irony, Ferris writes:

"Military history does not suggest that the technologically inferior customarily benefit from contact with the technologically advanced. One searches in vain for instances in which peoples possessing the stirrup, the longbow, gunpowder, or the machine gun acted in a beneficent spirit of education and handed over these inventions to their fellow men who lacked them; more often, they simply mowed them down." Any extraterrestrial beings we happen to contact in our search for intelligence in space might well

end up making slaves of us all, Ferris says.

"The Mind's Sky," is divided into a tidy three sections. But the content of each, upon closer examination, squirms away from any linear organization and must be approached more like a picaresque novel, vignette by vignette.

Perhaps such randomness is inevitable. Ferris simultaneously attempts to unify phenomenon larger than the Milky Way with ones smaller than a neutrino, while trying to save the Amazon rain forest and contemplating the practical consequences of extraterrestrial life.

Then again, the book's organization may not be random at all. It simply needs to be understood the way Ferris thinks the human mind works, like a microprocessor in a personal computer simultaneously sorting data on multiple levels, with all sorts of unseen activity going on inside the machine. Only a relatively small amount of information appears on the computer screen itself.

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