Stonehenge, the Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral, a poem by Mallarme, and this book have at least one thing in common: They bear witness to man's recurrent need to understand his place in the overall order of things.
Hubert Reeves is director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research. As ''Atoms of Silence'' amply demonstrates, he is at home with the whole gamut of cosmic phenomena, from quarks to galaxies to immensity itself. His method of researching the cosmos is that of physical science, but physical science with a difference. Because physics now enters realms where precise numbers no longer determine what is real, he has developed the ways of the poet - metaphor, analogy, story - to explore further the nature of things. He is not limited by his method.
Reeves is so open to the unmeasurable that he is sure chance itself plays a creative role in the cosmos. Along with progress (the fact that life tends to create situations conducive to more life) and the ''anthropic principle'' (''Given that the observer exists, the universe must have the properties necessary to produce that observer''), chance is his great theme.
Paraphrasing Einstein, Reeves quips: ''Surely God does play dice. But he ignores losing rolls.'' This is a symbolic way of saying chance will occasionally ''play along.'' ''Miraculous coincidences'' are, well, to be expected. For example, ''A quite extraordinary coincidence involving certain nuclear parameters made possible the birth of carbon in red giant stars.'' And without carbon, no nitrogen; without nitrogen, no organic life.
Reeves is, in effect, a historian of the cosmos. To learn the history of the cosmos, one learns to read the cosmos backward, from complex to simple phenomena. Complex phenomena contain their history; information is stored in things. ''For a reader who has never seen a meteorite,'' Reeves suggests, ''I recommend a visit to a museum of science. To touch the polished surface of a meteorite that has spent many years roaming among the planets of the solar system can make you dizzy, just like gazing at the Milky Way on a dark summer night.'' That dizziness comes from being hurtled back, far back, in time; if one is disciplined enough, to the threshold of time.
But we must be patient with cosmic phenomena, and with ourselves. Reeves asks at one point, paraphrasing the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, whether all phenomena of life seem destined to end up in a book. There is a lot of thinking ahead for us, and for the cosmos.
The title of this book comes from a poem by Mallarme's greatest admirer, Paul Valery. The context of the phrase ''atoms of silence'' is illuminating.Reeves's thought may be seen as the fruit of an attitude expressed in these lines from Valery's poem ''Palme'': ''Patience, patience,/ Patience dans l'azure!/ Chaque atome de silence / Est la chance d'un fruit mur!'' (''Patience, patience,/ in the sky's blue! Each atom of silence/ is a chance for ripened fruit.'') Patience leads to understanding; understanding to hope.
What has been seen as the silent abyss, the terrifying void, becomes, to the thinker of Reeves's stripe, a source of vitality. Reeves belongs to the great line of thinkers, at once scientific and poetical, of which Greece was the fountainhead. Pythagorean music of the spheres! Atoms of silence indeed. For Reeves, whose vision embraces benign chance, the music of the spheres sounds like jazz. And yet, at one point he reflects on the irony that the most complex form of life we know of, guided by science, now has the capability to return its environment back into its simplest state. Facing these remarks are photographs of the cloud over Bikini and wasted Hiroshima, or, as Reeves puts it, ''how to kill the music.''
Photographs, drawings, figures, and tables enhance what is at every point a charming text. (The really abstruse stuff is reserved for eight fascinating appendixes.) Hubert Reeves is clearly one of the shaping minds that provide and clarify the images that orient contemporary thought. His book is full of those happy surprises that he teaches us to expect as we get to know the cosmos.