Monday, 9 June 2008

The Tao of Physics – Fritjof Capra ***

Currently enjoying its fourth revised edition (the UK version is the third edition), this book has been around for over 30 years – and indeed enjoys a bit of a cult status. It is not without its critics however! Sadly, physics (in particular quantum theory) has been subverted by new age mystics in order to make ridiculous claims – the atrocious film What The Bleep Do We Know? is a recent example. Capra’s work does not set out to do the same.
Capra draws out the parallels between quantum theory, relativity and Eastern mysticism and belief. Capra’s treatment of this is not as pseudo scientific as you may think, he does a very good job of describing what physics has to say about the nature of the universe and in particular our theories about space and time, and points out the similarities in how Shintoism, Buddhism etc. view the universe by comparison. As with most Westerners I was unaware of what Eastern religions had to say about the nature of the world around us, so this was a doubly enlightening read for me.
Niels Bohr famously adopted the t’ai chi t’u (better know as the yin-yang symbol) as his family coat of arms after a trip to China in the 1930s as he felt it symbolized the concept of wave-particle complementarity. Heisenberg was also another physicist who was well aware of what Eastern religions’ perceptions were about the universe. So Capra’s ideas are not without some precedent.
I would say that you have to take a work like this with a pinch of salt – Capra does do a very even-handed job of describing the parallels between modern day physics and Eastern religions, but there is a danger here that readers may interpret this as Capra claiming that such mysticism somehow has a deeper understanding of our universe than physicists have to offer. This as far as I am aware isn’t this fine book’s intention, as Capra himself says in his epilogue:
“Physicists do not need mysticism, and mystics do not need physics, but humanity needs both.”
Review by Scotty_73

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