Stories From the Field Offer Clues on Physics and Nature

Shadow of a Star

By Alfred K. Mann

W.H. Freeman & Co.

210 pp., 22.95

The Pony Fish's Glow: And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature

By George C. Williams

Basic Books

184 pp., $20

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

By Janine M. Benyus

William Morrow & Co.

256., $25

In the pre-industrial age, savant and superstitious alike believed that human destiny was controlled by invisible forces ruled by the planets. Twentieth-century astrophysical theory suggests that in fact our planet and everyone on it is subject to a continual sleet of invisible particles from outer space.

One difference is that in current theory these particles, or neutrinos, interact so weakly with matter that only the most heroic experiments are even capable of detecting them. In Shadow of a Star, Alfred Mann details in a straightforward and readable style the scientific background and implications of individual neutrino discovery.

Led by Professor Mann and others at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tokyo, a large, international group of physical experimenters has succeeded in developing a way to detect neutrinos and to determine their origin. Two enormous devices, one located in a tin-zinc mine in the Japan Alps near Kamioka and a second, larger detector in a salt mine beneath Lake Erie in the United States, were originally intended to search for evidence of proton decay.

The research teams never found any events that could be regarded as evidence of this result, but the detectors did record an event on Feb. 23, 1987 that astonished and delighted the observers with its timing. A burst of 20 neutrinos was detected, 12 at Kamioka and 8 under Lake Erie, that coincided exactly with the destruction of a star in the Large Magellenic Cloud in an enormous supernova explosion.

These few events, occurring within a 12-second period, yielded a significant scientific harvest. In the hands of the US and Japanese physicists, the number and intensity of the recorded neutrinos led to confirmation of contemporary theories about the life and death of stars, and by extension, of the universe itself. This is one of the success stories of large-scale physics.

Biology has had its success stories as well, none so widespread in impact as Darwin's original idea of natural selection. In the adaptationist program in biology, scientists ask of each attribute of an organism: How does this relate to the organism's efforts to survive and pass on its genes? In this view, every adaptation has a function. Not all biologists agree, most notably Stephen Jay Gould, who calls these "Just-So" stories, after Kipling's "How the Camel Got His Hump."

In The Pony Fish's Glow: And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature, by George Williams, the author begins his exploration of natural selection by examining how the pony fish got its glow from a light source deep inside its belly that shines downward. He questions the function of this curious organ.

It turns out that the light closely matches the intensity and spectrum of the down-dwelling light from an open-ocean surface far overhead. It makes for good camouflage for the small fish, against predators coming from the deep.

In his final chapter, "Philosophical Implications," Williams states that in his opinion, the adaptationist program leads inevitably to the conclusion that natural selection is morally unacceptable because, "In the adaptationist view, the ultimate purpose in life is to reproduce; genes are successful if they result in their own perpetuation. Survival of the fittest requires the destruction of the unfit."

Science writer Janine Benyus's Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, offers an enlightened alternative to Darwinism.

A naturalist and author of several field guides to wildlife, she visited the laboratories of a number of scientific researchers who are taking a more modest approach to unraveling nature's secrets. The theme of "biomimicry" is that we have much to learn from the natural world, as model, measure, and mentor. What these researchers have in common is a reverence for natural designs, and the inspiration to use them to solve human problems.

Perhaps the most astonishing chapter describes work now going on at Arizona State University in Tempe and other research labs to understand a simple miracle: the creation of energy from light by photosynthesis. Using electron microscopes and other devices, scientists can show us where photosynthesis occurs, but not how. Benyus compares this process to building solar batteries: "Every morning, as our technicians don their white suits and static-free moonboots to assemble high-tech solar cells in toxin-laden factories, the leaves and fronds and blades outside their windows are silently assembling themselves by the trillions."

The scientific effort to discover how we can live lightly and sustainably by learning from nature may well be the most important task now going on. If we cannot answer this question, the other answers may not matter much in the long run.

* Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer living in Hull, Mass.

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