Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?

5th December 2003 at 00:00
ARE UNIVERSES THICKER THAN BLACKBERRIES? By Martin Gardner. Norton $25.95 (available on Amazon pound;13.76)

Scepticism is one of humanity's greatest gifts. The eminent American columnist Martin Gardner, philosophy graduate, author of more than 70 books and long-time contributor to the US magazine The Skeptical Inquirer (sic), is one of its greatest living exponents. This collection of his musings on science and pseudo-science demolishes, inter alia, the "multiverse" theory (a wacky extrapolation of quantum theory that suggests all possible universes exist as well as this one), the work of Bruno Bettelheim linking autism to "refrigerator mothers", psychic powers and Karl Popper's notion of falsifiability. Ernest Hemingway and the guru Krishnamurti also get a whipping. He does the demolition neatly, by slapping down inherent contradictions with a flourish.

Gardner's enthusiasms are also stern and commanding, be they for the logical positivist philosopher Rudolf Carnap, our own Ian Stewart's explanation of string theory and the 10 dimensions, the mathematician Godel or the novels of F Scott Fitzgerald.

His best pieces are those in which his intervention is minimal, where he lets folly condemn itself from its own mouth, for instance, reprinting the transcript of the transaction (one cannot call it a conversation) played at the trial of the "therapists" who "rebirthed" a difficult adoptive girl at a cost of $70,000 - and her 10-year-old life. Read it, as Gardner says, and weep.

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