The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life
By Paul Davies, Allen Lane, 260pp, $A35
ISBN: 0 7139 9215 8
Reviewed by Damien Broderick
For a decade, Paul Davies has been an Australian national treasure. Before that, he was a British national treasure who fled Thatcher's UK because its scientifically trained Prime Minister was so mean to science (and to everyone else). He found a home at the University of Adelaide as Professor of Theoretical Physics, publishing controversial books on science, until his colleagues persuaded him that a chair as Professor of Natural Philosophy might be more to the university's taste.
Now, having collected the nearly two million dollar Templeton Prize for reconciling the ways of God to physics, he signs himself (in one of his many generous introductions to other people's books) simply `Cosmologist and author'. It's hard to know if he was run out of the lab on a rail by indignant atheists, or removed himself to his South Australian country property the better to produce an endless stream of splendid popular science books on topics ranging from the new physics, the origins and destiny of the universe, complexity theory, extraterrestrial and more homely life and, notoriously, the Mind of God.
He has had the good fortune to find an immense public audience for his ideas. Seeing yet another Davies book in the stores, some have been heard muttering at his prolificity. That is unfair. In the ring with the Hemingway of science writing, Isaac Asimov (who published hundreds of admirable books on a score of topics), Davies and his competitors are modest striplings.
What's more, Paul Davies has taken the trouble to know his stuff, even when - as in this case - he is writing away from his field. His gift is to synthesise knowledge from unlikely patches and convey it in clear, plain language, sometimes theatrical yet somehow measured and comforting. Davies at 50-something can put you in mind of an earnest, wryly clever schoolboy explaining hard things to his interested Mum.
None of this really explains his great and startling success as a popular writer. His own research topics are arcane. The scandal in his eminence, surely, is the suspicion that the crypto-theological loading of his titles is what sucks in hundreds of thousands of readers who have never picked up a calculator for any task more gruelling than totting up the weekly bills.
Here is a scientist in good standing whose books (when they are not called The Forces of Nature or The Physics of Time Asymmetry by P. C. W. Davies) have eerily New Age titles: The Cosmic Blueprint The Edge of Infinity God and the New Physics The Mind of God and now The Fifth Miracle These titles are not exactly misleading, since Davies has moved from atheism to a religious understanding of the world - though not the kind you'd be likely to hear at the local parish - via physics and now biology.
Yet they are at least somewhat disingenuous, all the way to the bank. Dreaming up titles with this ambiguity makes a tasty parlour game: Crystal Light Energy (on lasers), Maxwell's Demon! (on thermodynamics), The Shroud of Turing (on artificial intelligence)...
Consider these remarks from The Fifth Miracle a title Davies presumably chose or at least authorised. `I am not suggesting that the origin of life actually was a miracle' (p. xxi). `Science rejects true miracles' (p. 52). `For many scientists, biological determinism is tantamount to a miracle in nature's clothing' (p. 219). But note the slipping and sliding. What Davies means by `biological determinism' is not Creation Science, say, but traditional deity-free reductionism.
If life formed by sheer accident, Davies is saying, that in itself is a statistical miracle of biblical proportions. And if it happened because the universe is congenial to life, then something wonderful awaits us in the deepest equations: `a self-organizing and self-complexifying universe, governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. A universe in which the emergence of thinking beings is a fundamental and integral part of the overall scheme of things. A universe in which we are not alone.'
Not alone? Davies means alien intelligence is likely elsewhere in the cosmos, emerged without miracles and developed into its conscious estate by Darwinian selection. But one would be excused at seeing our reprieve from loneliness (reading between the lines only too easily) as the Hand if not the Mind of God, reaching down to cup us in our apparent contingency, our cosmic lack of meaning. Most non-scientific readers, I suspect, will take spiritual succour from such words. Perhaps that is what Davies intends, but his explicit claims are always carefully protected by provisos and cautions.
Despite these concerns, the book is a very fine example of accessible writing on new science. Davies has scoured the relevant journals, cites each item sparingly but with pith, poses one intriguing argument against another in a crescendo of logic and intellectual excitement. Life, we once supposed, coalesced in a warm pond or thin organic soupy ocean on the early earth, perhaps 3.8 billion years ago. Now that seems unlikely, and the new prime habitats are infernal or celestial. Life might have started deep beneath a crust relentlessly bombarded by ruinous debris from space - or fallen from the heavens, in comet-borne spores or meteorites hurled up from the surface of Mars, then more hospitable to life than our own poor smashed planet.
The details of each alternative are fascinating and copious. Davies tells his tale like a postmodern detective story with elective endings. That is just, since it is plainly too soon to know not only how the story comes out, but how it started, and where. Davies' own solution emerges at the very boundaries of current theory. As well as spacetime and mass-energy, he argues, information itself must be fundamental, creating altogether distinctive kinds of causation until now overlooked by reductive science.
This means `accepting that information is a genuine physical quantity that can be traded by "informational forces" in the same way that matter can be moved around by physical forces.' It is a bold proposal, echoed in papers only now emerging from quantum theorists and experimenters. I just hope it doesn't lead to Paul Davies' next book being called Quantum Angels.