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Category: Non-fiction

Ernst Peter Fischer

Die Verzauberung der Welt
[The enchantment of the world: An alternative history of the natural sciences]


The return of mysteries

The writings of German scientific journalist and bestselling author Ernst Peter Fischer  about the wonders of the cosmos, the great questions of natural scientists and the unsolved mysteries of creation are so full of enthusiasm and humility that you'd almost expect them to end in a confession of religious faith. But Fischer's main belief is of a different kind - remarkably for a man who was born in 1947 and got his doctorate in mathematics, physics and biology in California. Fischer considers religious commitment and scientific rationality as two complementary ways in which the human mind apprehends reality, as two opposed, but equal and by no means mutually exclusive forms of interpreting the world.

The title of Fischer's book makes it clear that he intends to offer an alternative view on the purpose and status of the natural sciences. Fischer has formulated an antithesis to the concept of the "disenchantment of the world," advanced by Max Weber and picked up by Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. As popularly understood, it holds that with their ruthless insistence on calculability, modern science and science-oriented technology have robbed nature and human life of all their secrets, rationalizing and explaining everything.

In lively and vivid fashion, Fischer shows that this not only a mistaken, but a positively "grotesque" idea, which restricts human thought and encourages inappropriate skepticism toward or exaggerated faith in science. In its stead, the author proposes an "alternative history of science," which doesn't set faith and knowledge at odds with one another. Fischer argues that every instance of scientific progress raises new and more complex questions and that the most advanced explanatory models of the world deepen the mysteries of the cosmos rather than dispelling or eradicating them. One of his examples is the law of gravity, which seemingly explains why bodies fall to earth but which also raises questions about "the deeper mystery of gravitation pull." Tellingly, at the start his book, Fischer cites Albert Einstein's definition of the mysterious as "the basic sensation that occurs at the cradle of all true science and art."

Fischer directs a polemic against school and university teaching that aims to take away this basic sensation and our sense of wonder. He attempts to reconcile science and art, the natural sciences and the humanities, which have drifted further and further apart since Einstein's day, by recalling their common roots in the Romantic era. He treats scientific theories as creative products of the mind and researchers as storytellers whose interpretations of the world border on poetry. His plea for greater amazement and curiosity, which would relativize the dualistic view of the world in the West, is no dry argument. On the contrary, Fischer has written a rather unsystematic, passionate work full of surprises and anecdotes. It's easy to read and completely current in every cultural context.

Translated by Jefferson Chase

Book cover The enchantment of the world: An alternative history of the natural sciences

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.