The Breakfast Table

George Johnson and Matt Ridley

Dear George,

This is a big week for life science, perhaps the biggest yet. I’m referring to the impending announcement of the completion of the Human Genome Project, expected any day. You may protest that nothing can be big news if we know it’s coming, still less if we know it’s just a catalogue of unpunctuated letters long enough to fill 800 bibles. But to me what the genome represents is a gigantic nugget of ignorance–a whole universe of enigmas, mysteries, and surprises to explore. It’s like walking into a cathedral at night and switching on the lights. As Craig Venter of Celera Genomics put it in The New Yorker last week with less pretension: “My view of biology is we don’t know shit.”

In fact, I have a pet theory about this. Science, to me, is the search for new mysteries. Ask scientists what fascinates them and they will tell you not what they know, but what they don’t know. Once they have discovered something, it bores them. Over here in the UK, the science curriculum misses this point totally. It teaches science as a catalogue of known facts, which is as dull as any other catalogue of known facts. What it should do, instead, is take the student to the frontier of knowledge, show him or her the wilderness beyond and say: “This is what we do not know; one day all this could be yours.”

I think we science writers instinctively realize that this is our job, or at least we do now. Our books sell best when we dress them up as explorations of mystery, not as recitations of wisdom. You captured this very well in your book Fire in the Mind by drawing attention to just how mysterious physics still is, and to how magic and science seem to rub elbows in the mountains of New Mexico. Science books did not use to do this. They tended to tell the reader facts about the world that the eminent author knew and the rest of us mortals did not. That all changed somewhere in the 20 years between The Double Helix and A Brief History of Time (I hope you drink an occasional toast to Stephen Hawking, as I do, because he–along with James Gleick–started the wave of wage inflation for science writers whose crest you and I still ride).

Readers prefer mysteries to facts, which is why books about astrology, telepathy, and the Bermuda Triangle sell so well. But science need not concede mystery to the occult. It can match it or better. Mysteries like deep geological time, a boundless universe, the big bang, relativity, quantum mechanics, the double helix, natural selection, mass extinction, and chaos theory–these are richer fare than anything the occult can offer.