Monday, 7 March 2011

Life as Energy – Alexis Mari Pietak **

I am in a real quandary with this book. It has some severe problems that make it difficult to recommend, and yet at its heart is a very interesting idea that merits further thought.
The author is a biophysicist, so has scientific credentials, yet at the same time the book has some worrying aspects that make it feel like what New Scientist would refer to as fruit-loopery… and let’s face it, some perfectly respectable scientists have had bizarre ideas in the past.
Let’s get the good bit up front, because it really is rather impressive. As I have limited experience with biology, I don’t know how new an idea it is, but let’s give Alexis Pietak the benefit of the doubt. It goes something like this. In physics we can look at the behaviour of individual particles like atoms, and to do so we apply quantum theory to great effect. Yet quantum theory isn’t our only weapon when looking at, say, matter. We can also apply macro physics to come up with things like mechanics and thermodynamics. We get benefit from operating at more than one level.
Also in physics, we often apply more than one model or metaphor to describe a physical concept. So, for example, when talking about electromagnetism we sometimes use particles, sometimes waves and sometimes fields. In principle you could probably do everything just using particles, but fields particularly have lots of benefits both in terms of understanding and in developing new theories. Pietak then contrasts this with biology. On the whole biology seems to try to apply the equivalent of a quantum theory approach to everything. There isn’t the equivalent of thermodynamics or field theory that gives us a different view that makes it easier to take in the whole. She argues this should be attempted, and gives some suggestions as to how it might be done.
To this extent, the book has a lot of merit. But there are two problems with the approach taken.
Firstly the author simply isn’t very good at explaining science to the general reader. Her approach is repetitive, and her explanation of quantum theory is one of the worst attempts I’ve seen in popular science.
That isn’t what really drags the book down though. Unfortunately she wraps the whole thing in a New Age appealing wrapper that immediately puts off any reader with an interest in the science. She keeps telling us about how mankind’s early beliefs almost always imbued living things with a ‘life force’ or ‘living energy.’ So what? Mankind’s early beliefs almost always put a static Earth at the centre of the universe, but it doesn’t make it true, nor is it useful to understanding cosmology to be receptive to an Earth-centred picture. Pietak also has a habit of pointing out that the concept of ‘life energy’ is central to the likes of Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic systems. If this is supposed to encourage us to be supportive of her ideas, it has exactly the reverse effect.
To make matters worse, the author employs the classic language used by practitioners of woo to attack rational science. She refers to reductionism with negative tones. She even falls into the ‘so-called’ trap. This is a standard indicator that we’re dealing with pseudo-science, when a writer refers to something within the scientific field using ‘so-called’ as a put down. Pietak refers to the ‘so-called life sciences.’ Immediately the reader’s woo detector goes into overdrive.
Finally, Pietak makes the mistake of referring to Rupert Sheldrake’s work without the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Whatever you think of Sheldrake, he is a highly controversial figure, and doing this only brings doubts on Pietak’s own ideas. It doesn’t help that she uses the term ‘morphogenetic field’, which sounds too much like Sheldrake’s morphic fields, though the concept is different. She also, near the end of the book, puts in some thoughts on applications of her ideas to ecology that seem thin and poorly thought out. (For example, while trying to take a holistic view, she seems to think it’s okay to deal only with the plant life in an ecosystem, ignoring bacteria, animal life and physical factors like weather.)
Overall, then, a puzzling book. It has a really interesting idea at its heart but the way it is presented I can’t see it appealing to anyone. Those with an interest in science will be put off by the New Age wrapper, those wanting to take a New Age view will be scared off by the heavy dose of science. Like the nuns in the Sound of Music we have to ask what we will do with a problem like this book?
Review by Brian Clegg

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