Two types of readers should like this book and benefit from it: readers with no experience of the writings of the truly remarkable scientists/writers who are the book’s subject will gain a reliable introduction to the works of all ten authors in the time it would take to read any one of them; readers familiar with the work of the authors will benefit from Gross’s discussion, for he places the authors in conversation with their critics and offers his own informed judgments. Gross also brings readers into his subject’s lab or study, giving us a glimpse of the personality behind the scientist.
The “sublime” of the title refers to what we experience when we are in the presence of something that astonishes us, puts in awe, an experience beyond our comprehension: the wonder we feel at the Grand Canyon, crossing the Alps, or reading Homer. Gross posits that a similar wonder arises in us when we contemplate the second law of thermodynamics, the evolutionary process, the Hadron Collider, or the relationship of e=mc2 to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He then identifies each of the ten writers whose work he analyzes with a type of the sublime, so that Richard Feynman’s ability to explain so much with reference to the most mundane laws of physics becomes the “consensual sublime,” Steven Weisberg’s ability to infer the origins of the universe from laws operating around us becomes the conjectural sublime, and Richard Dawkins’ ability to explain mathematically how the seeming order of evolution is thoroughly a matter of chance becomes the mathematical sublime. Since the ethical sublime (Rachel Carson) and the balanced sublime (Stephen Jay Gould) seem to me oxymorons, one might question the ability of Gross’s central trope to do all that he hoped, but this quibble does not compromise the value of Gross’s discussion of all ten writers, including Carson and Gould. In the last chapter, Gross confronts questions of how the science these writers advance as explanations of all matters of origins intersect with religion, and he cautions scientists to be humble before what their methods are not in position to explain entirely in his view. It is a remarkable book and I highly recommend it.
In the interest of honest disclosure, the author of this review is a friend of Alan Gross.