July 11, 2005
Volume 83, Number 28
p. 39


  A Thumb To The Universe

THE SCIENCE OF THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, by Michael Hanlon, Macmillan, 2005, 256 pages, $24.95 (ISBN 1-4039-4577-2)



There's money to be made in classic science fiction, as anyone who has seen the recent screen adaptation of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" knows. But even so, Douglas Adams' novel, the first in a five-book "trilogy," is a strange launching point for a pop exploration of modern science. Adams' parody-cum-homage to sci-fi is more about tongue-in-cheek humor and clever wordplay than the gee-golly marvels of more technologically sophisticated--but much drier--genre work.

So it's quite a feat for author Michael Hanlon, science editor of British newspaper the Daily Mail, to make the concept pay off, more or less. In "The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," he takes readers on an impressive tour of a number of cutting-edge topics in contemporary science. Nothing too in-depth, mind you--this is science for the relatively educated masses.

Even from the brief introduction, it's clear that Hanlon has a deep knowledge and respect for "The Hitchhiker's Guide." He constantly weaves the series' most provocative ideas into his discussions, framing each chapter with a selection of memorable passages from the books. The depth and breadth of the subjects covered is equally impressive; Hanlon switches from cosmology to robotics to genetics and back with skill. And his prose is a pleasant combination of clever, though occasionally too flip, banter and vivid scientific imagery that complements Adams' playful writing style, even if it can't match his effortless ease.

Not all subjects are covered equally, though. Hanlon's real love is science at the edges: the science of the very, very small and the very, very big. Thus, more immediately practical topics, such as genetic engineering and machine translation and artificial intelligence, garner only a handful of pages each, while the bulk of the book is devoted to the wackiness that is modern physics: quantum paradoxes, relativistic high jinks, and the strange worlds of superstrings and M-theory that one day might unite them.

In one of the longer chapters, for example, Hanlon takes his sweet time detailing the fate of the cosmos: both the Big Crunch scenario, the gravity-fueled reversal of cosmic expansion most scientists now agree will never happen, and the more likely heat death outcome, with the universe expanding forever until even black holes disintegrate. The intricacies of the Big Bang, relativity-approved time travel, quantum mechanical teleportation, and the possibility of parallel worlds also receive substantial chapters.

It's good, then, that Hanlon has a remarkable ability to simplify complicated concepts and make the vast numbers employed in modern science manageable for the reader. His light touch and ear for metaphor help transform difficult concepts into language that's understandable--necessarily ditching some of the more technical, but still interesting, details.

Pure science isn't Hanlon's only concern, however. He claims early on that, "like all the best science fiction, the Guide is as much about philosophy as it is about science." Almost every chapter of his book attempts to reinforce this connection. It's an admirable goal; science and philosophy have been intertwined throughout history, science continues to raise thorny philosophical issues, and some modern science has even become indistinguishable from philosophy. Take, for example, some concepts of the multiverse, which are essentially untestable and unverifiable.

But this attempt is also the weakest aspect of Hanlon's book. He betrays, in a stereotypically scientific fashion, an undeserved disdain for those who work primarily with ideas instead of materials. His discussions of ethical and philosophical issues range from shallow to obvious to incomplete--which is most clearly evident in his chapter on proofs and counterproofs of God--and compare poorly with the more technical topics mentioned in his book.

All in all, Hanlon mostly succeeds in his task to use Adams' classic series as a launching point for a discussion of modern science. By the end, savvy readers will understand many of the big questions that puzzle and excite today's scientists, and they will be ready and willing to read more about them.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2005