What happens next? Books allow us the option of skipping ahead to the end, but living in real time affords no such luxury. From the gas-huffing Delphic oracle to the equally crazy twists and turns of chaos theory, we've turned to prophets throughout our history to fulfill our desperate need to know the future. Physics professor Paul Halpern looks back on this ancient profession in The Pursuit of Destiny, a richly entertaining and informative work that draws heavily on the author's ample reserves of knowledge and wit. Focusing largely on scientific means of prediction, with occasional forays into astrology and punditry, the book recasts much of our history as a struggle to refine our methods of prediction. Halpern's clever side engages the reader without distracting attention from his subjects, as seen here in his comparison of two well-known partnerships:
It is doubtful that the lyricist Ira Gershwin would have been quite as famous if it weren't for the gifted ear for music of his brother George. Although Ira had a knack for clever lines, George's infectious tunes, heartfelt strains, and bold rhythms brought these ideas to life. What Tycho [Brahe] needed was a genius to round out the coarse data of his comprehensive survey of the solar system. When Johannes Kepler contacted him requesting to visit his observatory, he felt lucky indeed. As Ira versified such feelings: who could ask for anything more?
Few other writers would think to compare Kepler to George Gershwin, and few could express the nature of the relationship so nimbly. Moving with equal facility between physical, biological, and political arenas, Halpern also finds time to take notice of related oddities like free will and determinism. Though foresight is still weaker than 20/20, The Pursuit of Destiny reminds us that the still unknowable future remains the most interesting subject of all. --Rob Lightner