This is why science books—long relegated to a quiet Powell's annex and haunted, for many people, by the specter of dusty, belligerent high-school chemistry texts—are becoming increasingly relevant. After all, now that centuries of trial and error have established the rudimentary laws of physics, we're launched headlong into the terrifying and exciting Big Questions.
No stranger to big questions—and no shrinking violet, either—is local and widely published complexity theorist James Gardner, whose most recent book, The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos ($25.99, 224 pages, New Page Books), takes to task just about every major quandary left in the cosmos, particularly that most important of mysteries—why, exactly, our seemingly barren universe is so conducive to biological life. The result is something of a primer on the rapidly changing future, sown from the fertile mind of a scientific generalist. Gardner (who also happens to be a former state senator and a current lobbyist for Big Pharma and Big Tobacco) encourages us to climb under Sputnik's wing and look at the Earth from a decidedly more galactic perspective, pummeling us with cogent, yet barely conceivable, ideas about the role of artificial intelligence in human evolution, superstrings, robotics and the potential impact of extraterrestrial contact on our metaphysics. Having laid out the outrageous fecundity of human potential, Gardner unveils his own theory, which in the interest of space and credibility, I will leave for you to discover.
The Intelligent Universe, like the emerging scientific community it heralds, champs at the bit of the believable; yet it is perhaps this flirtation with science fiction—teetering just within the realm of plausibility—that makes it so compelling.
James Gardner reads from The Intelligent Universe at Powell's Technical Books, 33 NW Park Ave., 228-4651. 7 pm. Monday, April 9. Free.