Monday, February 2, 2009
The Seven Mysteries of Life: An Exploration of Science and Philosophy by Guy Murchie.
I can’t remember how I first heard of this book--it was probably from reading book reviews on Amazon.com. I must have been impressed with the reviews because I bought one but when I received my first copy I was disappointed to find that the copyright was dated 1978 and every third or fourth page was illustrated with detailed, hand-drawn sketches that reminded me of my high school Biology class where I made similar drawings of cells and plants. My first reaction was that the book was a little less than cutting-edge. Nevertheless it was a new book and I started to read it.
After several nights of reading the book in bed before falling asleep and I distinctly remember that one night I stopped reading, opened my eyes wider, looked at the cover of the book, and I said out loud slowly, “This is a good book.” The next night I said to myself, “Every single page of this book is full of interesting ideas. I could pick any page of this book at random and really enjoy reading each page.” There was no filler in the book at all. Every page, even every sentence was a work of art, thought provoking, and delicious. I reconsidered my opinion of the hand-made illustrations and instead of seeing them as low-tech productions I saw them as the careful drawings of a masterful philosopher, scientist, poet, or artist—I wasn’t sure which.
Guy Murchie began his book’s preface with these words: “When I undertook this work in the spring of 1961, I was quite aware that I would almost certainly be thought presumptuous in attempting to write about all of life in one book. But I have to go ahead in the faith that any such seemingly impossible, if not harebrained, project on such a universal theme could hardly help being worthwhile—largely because of its rarity.”
Rarity is an understatement. Murchie’s book is more densely packed with great ideas than anything I had ever read before. Unlike many popular science books that spend 300 pages restating the same three ideas, or unlike other science books that are impenetrable because of a masochistic writing style that heaps abuse upon any would-be reader, Murchie’s book is a sheer delight to read and constantly surprises the reader with insights about life, the universe, and what it all means—insights that are expressed so freshly that they seem new. Murchie took seventeen years to write this magnum opus and “averaged less than one finished sentence a day during all this time,” he said in his preface. He called his writing, “painstaking” which must be true because I can’t imagine any poet laboring more over word choices than Murchie obviously did. His writing flows, is enchanting and reveals a universe that is more beautiful, rational, and caring than anything I had ever heard from science before--although later I would discover similar joy from guys like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.
Unlike a magician who astounds by what he does not reveal, Guy Murchie astounds by what he does reveal that we have not been seeing but which has always been in plain sight. Murchie is, then, in this sense, a revelator.
Toward the end of his book, on page 614, Murchie wrote some kind words about the prophet Baha’u’llah. I immediately started to worry that the author of this great book that I had been falling in love with, would suddenly reveal himself to be yet another unbalanced screwball. I researched the Baha’i Faith religion that Baha’u’llah founded and encountered what seemed to be a peace-loving-enough community. After reading a list of their core beliefs (and after reading Murchie’s book), I honestly felt that I had never read a one-page list of beliefs written by someone else that I could agree with more than this one. Nevertheless, I knew that what looks good on paper may not necessarily be so beautiful when practiced as an institutional religion. So I haven’t attempted to learn much more about the Baha’is except to find out they conduct meetings in San Diego that I would like to attend once just to get an idea about how successful they have been at putting their wonderful ideas into the realm of organized religion. I wish them well.
I searched for “Guy Murchie” on the internet and learned that he was a tall man and just as gracious and charming, by others’ accounts, as I had imagined him to be. Although I would love to read a little biography about him, it is not really necessary for his writing sufficiently reveals the man Murchie to be one of my all-time favorite human beings whose hand I would be honored to shake while expressing a little gratitude for creating a work so beautiful that I can only describe it as art, an odd choice of words for the book that I would most like to take to a deserted island.