Book Review: Malicorne

Malicorne. By Hubert Reeves. Translated from the French by Donald Winkler. Stoddard Publishing Co., Toronto. 1993. 226 pp., cloth. $28.95. ISBN 0-7737-2689-6.

Hubert Reeves is a Canadian-born astrophysicist who now lives in France, where he is Director of Research at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique. His books explaining science for the general public have been very successful in the French-speaking world, but until recently he has been almost unknown in English Canada. He is clearly a man of very wide interests, and the book is dedicated to lovers of science and poetry. Malicorne is a small village in Burgundy, where the author lives on an old farm. During his rambles through the countryside he is in the habit of dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder, and subsequently transcribing them into notebooks. This book is based on some of this material, and has a somewhat discursive tone, reflecting its origin.

The author begins with an experience he had early in his career, when he was working at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia. He was watching the sun set over the Pacific, when it suddenly occurred to him that the beautiful pattern of shifting light and colour represented nothing more than the solution of Maxwell’s equations. This thought caused him acute distress, and continued to trouble him for many years.

Such thoughts have disturbed many people, more often perhaps lovers of the arts rather than scientists. They have never bothered me. I find that the sensual pleasure derived from experiencing something beautiful and intellectual pleasure of understanding it tend to augment each other rather than to conflict. In any case, the author uses this experience as a starting point for a journey through a wide range of topics in science and the arts. A discussion of the nature of numbers leads to a consideration of memory and the human mind. He goes on to discuss thermodynamics, chaos theory, the expansion of the universe, and the nature of life. Memories of shopping in Archambault’s music store in Montreal lead to a discussion of the creative process in music, and in art in general. The sight of smoking factory chimneys in the Eastern Townships suggests the need to reconcile economic growth with the protection of the environment, and the relation between natural and human laws. He concludes with a discussion of the relationship between science and religion. He illustrates his points by quotations from a wide range of authors, from Aristotle to the Acadian writer Antonine Maillet. Although he does not specifically state that found a solution to the problem that had troubled him so long, hope he did and can now enjoy sunsets like the rest of us. I found this book interesting and stimulating, and it should give pleasure to anyone with an interest in ideas.

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