How to Trouble Isaac Newton

by Sean Pidgeon, 2022 PROSE Award Judge, editor of the 2009 PROSE Awards R.R. Hawkins Award Winner, and Senior Editor at Association of Computing Machinery

Since 1976, the AAP has sponsored the PROSE Award for Excellence in Physical Sciences & Mathematics. Every year, upwards of 20 judges spend our precious hours reading about the mineralogy of meteorites, or the ecosystems of California, or solutions to boundary-value problems in diffusion science (to name but a few of the recent winning topics). You may ask, why does AAP offer this prestigious award for Physical Sciences & Mathematics? To my mind, the answer is simple. The world needs more great science books and great science books deserve to be celebrated. You may not immediately agree with that statement, but hear me out.

First, a small philosophical digression.

Ever since Heraclitus, humanity’s deep thinkers have doubted the capacity of the human mind to comprehend the mysteries of the cosmos. In the modern era, proponents of a position known as mysterianism have followed this line of argument, suggesting that the solutions to certain “hard problems” (most notably, how consciousness somehow arises from physical processes in the brain) lie beyond the cognitive reach of Homo sapiens. After all, they say, everything we are, biologically speaking, is the result of a random process of evolution. Unless our distant ancestors were assisted in spreading their genes by a deep knowledge of the workings of the universe, why should we expect that evolution would have endowed our brains with such esoteric capabilities?

There are others who find this to be an overly pessimistic view. Having identified a mystery, are we not already on the path to solving it? The philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it this way: “As soon as you frame a question that you claim we will never be able to answer, you set in motion the very process that might well prove you wrong: you raise a topic of investigation.” Speaking for myself, a mere mortal with a limited grasp of these questions, I confess to (a) a headache brought on by thinking too hard and (b) a preference for the latter, more optimistic, approach.

What has all this got to do with books? Well, if hard problems are hard to think about, they are even harder to write about. And if you can’t write about them in a convincing way, your ideas are unlikely to gain much traction. Compelling writing is no less important in the scientific realm than it is in works of literature, say, or young adult fiction. In the sciences, I would argue, books (or, to use a more scholarly descriptor, monographs) provide the ideal setting for the careful laying out of a complex argument. Journal articles, with all their constraints and conventions and need for speed, are simply not suited to this purpose; they serve a rather different function in the research ecosystem.

As an exemplar of the power of the scientific monograph, I direct your attention to the winner of the 2021 PROSE Award for Excellence in Physical Sciences & Mathematics: David Merritt’s A Philosophical Approach to MOND: Assessing the Milgromian Research Program in Cosmology, published by Cambridge University Press. If this seems a challenging topic, see above, and I don’t propose to go into too much detail here. Just bear with me through the next paragraph.

Sean Pidgeon, is a 2022 PROSE Award Judge, editor of the 2009 PROSE Awards R.R. Hawkins Award Winner, and Senior Editor at Association of Computing Machinery

In brief, MOND refers to Modified Newtonian Dynamics, a theory advanced by the physicist Mordehai Milgrom as an alternative explanation for an apparent anomaly in the dynamics of galaxies. The speed at which stars or gas clouds orbit at a certain distance from the galactic center can be predicted by applying Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, given the observed distribution of mass in the galaxy. Astrophysical measurements have shown that this holds true near the centers of most large galaxies, but perplexing deviations begin to appear farther out in the galactic disk: the orbital speed is found to be systematically larger than that predicted by Newton’s laws. In the “standard model” of cosmology, this observation is explained by assuming that galaxies are embedded in haloes of “dark matter,” a mysterious substance that has never been directly observed. By contrast, the MOND theory posits the radical idea that Newton’s laws are themselves modified in regions of very low mass density, such as the outer reaches of galaxies.

Is MOND an accurate description of what’s really going on, or should we stick with invisible dark matter? I have no idea, and Merritt does not claim to have answered that question definitively. What he does demonstrate, though, is the value of a carefully reasoned long-form scientific argument. Constructed with exquisite care over 270 pages and beautifully written for its intended audience, his book builds its argument with devastating logic. A glance at the reviews shows that even the skeptics are impressed with the way he develops his thesis. As a physics graduate myself (though in ancient times), I confess that I found the book entirely gripping, despite having to skim over some of the really complicated stuff. In some distant foggy recess of my brain, I am still pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and wondering whether modified Newtonian dynamics might have a part to play in that.

If Sir Isaac Newton is furrowing his brow, that’s got to be a good thing: it’s how the hard problems get solved. And so, in closing, here’s my heartfelt plea to the deep thinkers of the world: write more books like this, please. And to my fellow science publishers: publish more books like this, please, and don’t forget to submit them for the PROSE Awards. If we work together, maybe we can keep those pessimistic mysterians in their place.