One in a Million

Debunked! is short and highly readable. It tells good stories about human foolishness masquerading as science. It offers useful assistance to citizens trying to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. When it was published in France, the title was Devenez sorciers, devenez savants, which means literally, “Become magicians, become experts,” or more freely translated, “Learn to do magic and learn to see through it.” The English title misses the point. The book is saying that the best way to avoid being deceived by magic tricks is to learn to do the tricks yourself.

The translator is a medical school faculty member who has written books about probability theory for doctors designing clinical trials. His knowledge of French language and culture was acquired from his family. He has added a preface explaining how he dealt with the problems of translation. He says, “Very long sentences in a distinctive, glorious Gallic rhetorical style have been reduced in frequency by rewriting but not eliminated completely…. I opted for intelligibility rather than the unalloyed preservation of style.” Few of his sentences are painfully long, and none are unintelligible. What remains of the distinctive Gallic rhetorical style is to be found in some passages where the authors express a lofty contempt for those who disagree with them. “Is it acceptable,” they ask, “that university colleagues, due to laziness, lack of rigor, lack of competence, or love of media attention, should go along with a pack of errors, untruths, nonsense, or lies, and label it an honorable point of view?” The translator has retained enough of the elegant style to give us the flavor of the French original. But the polemical passages are few. The greater part of the book is straight storytelling. The stories are well told and are allowed to speak for themselves.

The name of Georges Charpak brings back memories of fifty years ago, when I was living on the side of a mountain above the village of Les Houches, in the high alpine region of France close to Mont Blanc. I was teaching physics at the Les Houches Summer School, an institution that was then three years old and is now still flourishing. It was founded by Cécile DeWitt, who was then a young postdoctoral student, with the avowed purpose of rejuvenating French physics. Cécile is no longer running the school, but she is still very much alive and helping to keep the enterprise going. In 1951, when she founded the school, theoretical physics in France was at a low ebb, with academic jobs in the leading universities monopolized by old men out of touch with new developments. Cécile raised her own meager funds and built her school in a faraway corner of France, out of reach of the mandarins in Paris. She bought an abandoned farm and made the buildings more or less habitable as best she could. Students flocked to the school from all over Europe. The class of students that I taught that summer were the best I …

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