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Fire In The Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order Hardcover – August 29, 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0679411925 ISBN-10: 0679411925 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the mountains of northern New Mexico, the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso and the laboratory city of Los Alamos coexist, representing two distinct, yet not entirely dissimilar world views. In this land of strange juxtapositions where magic and science rub elbows, Johnson introduces us to an amazing diversity of people who see the world through varied lenses, who find vastly different pictures in the night sky. At the core of the book is the question of the human view of the universe: are there really innate patterns in creation, and why do we honor them so highly? Johnson examines some of the radical theories of physics and biology emanating from Los Alamos and compares them to the intricate beliefs of the Tewa Indians, the Catholic sect of the Penitentes, and other inhabitants of the high New Mexico desert in this startling work of intellectual adventure.

From Publishers Weekly

New York Times science writer Johnson (In the Palaces of Memory) presents an extraordinary look at vanguard areas of scientific research where information science, molecular biology, cosmology and subatomic physics converge. Remarkably, much of this work is being done at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (home to the wartime project that built the first atomic bombs) and an affiliated think tank, the Santa Fe Institute. These investigators are at the forefront both of chaos theory, seeking hints of order in seemingly random phenomena, and of the new science of complexity, which studies how the universe could arise from pure nothingness in accordance with fundamental rules that apply to cells or galaxies. One team of biochemists runs computer simulations designed to show that life evolved through self-organizing processes rather than by Darwinian selection. Other scientists posit information as a basic building block of the universe, like energy and matter. If science is an artful construction, Johnson suggests, we should not scoff at traditional faiths. In that spirit, he visits three other New Mexican locales: an adobe chapel in Chimayo, reputed site of miraculous cures; the Tewa Indians' ritual dances to bring plentiful crops and insure good hunting; and the secretive Hermanos Penitentes, a Catholic lay brotherhood whose members practice self-flagellation. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 379 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (August 29, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679411925
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679411925
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,050,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.6 out of 5 stars
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Emil L. Posey on March 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book started out slow and then became an epiphany. The book is set against the backdrop of the greater Santa Fe area of New Mexico. Johnson uses places and cultures in this area as a vehicle to lead into his description of current scientific thinking in cosmology and evolution. I didn't understand the connection at first, but one piece of rationale did emerge: the various high-powered scientific conferences held at the Santa Fe Institute beginning in 1989 that dealt with information and physics. This is where the epiphany came in, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The other reason he used this backdrop, I believe, is his obvious love for the area - its history, geography, and cultures.
The first part of his book is a fairly straightforward tour of cosmology, albeit at a bit more intellectual level than most popular descriptions. One theme he starts with, and to which he returns several times throughout the book, is that our interpretation of the universe is determined by our inherited ability to understand, by our genetic evolution. That is to say, we see the universe through our own lens, tempered by our limitations. Nothing startlingly different here from my previous readings. In fact, it's rather intuitive. However, he delves into chaos theory, with which I am only slightly acquainted, and brings attractors into the discussion, about which I know nothing. The point about attractors is that they may account for the evolution of the universe (and, as I would see later, the evolution of complex organisms on Earth). Things were starting to warm up.
He goes on into an understandable discussion of quantum mechanics and quantum physics. Wrapped in here is the epiphany: the fundamentals upon which the universe are built (as we understand it) are mass, energy, space and time.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By William F Harrison on February 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
George Johnson has taken on some of the most difficult issues and questions woven into the fabric of science and religion and seperates them into their component threads to be examined by ordinary readers. He explores various world views as seen from the mountains and plateaus of northern New Mexico, truly a Land of Enchantment. The vast majority of modern human beings take most of the information we process each day on faith, no less our ideas of science than our religious verities. Johnson explores these faiths in the context of the pueblos, mountains, cities and research institutions of this ancient land, and presents each of them with no hint of condescension or disparagement. A truly remarkable feat given his subject matter which ranges from bar fights in remote villages to sunsets brilliantly firing the walls of the Sangre de Cristo mountians to the rituals and traditions of the Catholic Church and the Assemblios de Dios, to those of the Tewas and the myths and rites of the most primative peoples of the region. This is the best book exploring the escatologies of science and religion that I have ever read. It makes me anxious to retire so that I can attend lectures at the Santa Fe Institute and explore the mesmerizing landscape of nortern New Mexico. Read it. You will never again think of the struggle between science and religion in the same way.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on March 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
In his book "Fire in the Mind" George Johnson explores the frontiers between religion and science, between chaos and order, and between complexity and simplicity. This exploration forces the reader to rethink what "reality" is. In the process we realize that we "know" very little about reality. Despite the huge databases we are developing we actually have not answered the big questions about existence. Nor are we likely to do so in the near future.

Fundamentalists who try to fit earth history (and indeed the history of the whole universe) into 6,000 years are almost certainly wrong. However, because of the nature of science we cannot congratulate ourselves just yet. While our data tell us that the earth itself is several billion years old, we also have made some unsupported assumptions (certainly not as many as the fundamentalists, but more than a few). Even mathematics and physics are not completely free of assumptions that cannot be tested, at least not yet.

Researchers such as Murray Gell-Mann and Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute are busily probing the frontiers of complexity and in the process may be starting to get glimpses of just how weird our universe really is. Johnson, who is not a scientist, but a science writer, captures the excitement of this possibly ground-breaking research which may eventually show us a universe much different from that we had previously imagined. Questions arise about our immediate corner of that universe, the part with which we should be the most familiar. Is the evolution of life contingent as Steven Jay Gould might imagine it, or is it inevitably to result in creatures such as ourselves, as Simon Conway Morris believes?
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Edelman TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
The most important new scientific paradigm of the last two or three decades has been the notion of complexity- especially as it figures in the questions of the emergence of structure in the physical (and mental) world. Where do the chemicals that make up life come from? Where, for that matter, does life come from? Is the chemestry of life inevitible- or is it purely accidental? Or is it, as many would still hold, the sign of an intellignet designer?
A good many authors have taken a shot at illuminating these questions in the popular press, with varying degrees of success. Too often the author falls into the trap of proferring metaphor in place of explanaition, and finally settling for a bit of hocus-pocus handwaving- "and then something magical happens, and life arises".
Johnson's book is different. He manages, without recourse to excessively complex mathematics, chemestry or biology, to clearly elucidate the big questions as well as the various theoretical approaches that have been taken to answer them. And the way he does so is as entertaining as it is educational.
Johnson's stories all begin in Santa Fe, where three very different entities serve to illustrate many of the principles he discusses. One is the landscape of Santa Fe itself, the rocky outcroppings that serve not only as an illustration of geography, but also as metaphor for the notion of a "fitness landscape" and as the home of the Pueblo Peoples of New Mexico.
The second entity is the peoples of the Pueblo themseves. Through the evolution of their culture and their biology, Johnsom explore change in a population as it interacts with its environment, including other populations.
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