four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
user_rating: 
0

Our Part in the Creation of a Universe

A-The Human TouchIn The Human Touch, Michael Frayn acts on a half-century infatuation with philosophy as he explores the role of human consciousness in defining the universe. The author tackles some heady topics—the nature of space and time and the role of art and language in shaping reality, for instance—with the purity of a genuinely inquisitive spirit. Because he is an educated outsider in the world of science, Frayn does not subscribe to any particular school of thought. Instead, he remains aloof, working within the contradictions of science and philosophy and using his skill as a storyteller to ask questions and search for answers that have occupied us all at one time or another. "What gives the world around us form and substance is our contribution," Frayn writes. And off he goes.
Metropolitan. 512 pages. $32.50. ISBN: 0805081488

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Human Touch is a profound, personal account of [Frayn’s] work on a range of topics. … These difficult ideas are effortlessly dealt with, leaving the reader with a sense of mild intoxication." Seth Lloyd

Independent (London) 4 of 5 Stars
"With lashings of wit to leaven his erudition, a host of funny anecdotes and some exuberantly Fraynian digressions, The Human Touch develops its vision of a world spun from human stories. … The full-blown intellectual sneeze of The Human Touch conveys, at many points, the virus of laughter." Boyd Tonkin

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Philosophers these days rarely write fat tomes taking on the whole gamut of philosophical themes: space and time, language and truth, determinism and free will, consciousness and the self. But this is what Frayn has done, with immense erudition (especially linguistic) and more than a dash of wit." Jim Holt

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Though Frayn writes with a light touch, not many who open this book are likely to consider it light reading. It is characterized by close analysis and an insistent pursuit of exactitude in sometimes terrorizing detail." William S. Kowinski

Sunday Times (London) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"No philosophical treatise, surely, has ever been so alive with stories as The Human Touch. Its hypotheses and thought experiments throw up shoals of characters who get impatient with being teaching-aids and set off refreshingly on adventures of their own." John Carey

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Frayn’s intention is to use his gift of language and imagery to make these scientific frontiers understandable to the nonspecialist. … The flourishes are at best frosting on a cake that remains resolutely indigestible." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

In less-skilled hands, Michael Frayn’s observations might strike the reader as self-indulgent and esoteric, or worse, inaccessible. After all, Frayn spans the range of human experience in this hefty tome—from the origin of consciousness to the infinity of the universe—in an attempt to describe "the great mutual balancing act." Overall, Frayn has a remarkable grasp of science, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, and related disciplines, and he possesses an intuitive ability to connect with an audience (sharpened, no doubt, by his stage work, most notably in Noises Off and Copenhagen). Also, a keen sense of humor never hurts. The result recalls James Burke (he of the popular history-of-science series Connections) working on a higher plane and with a greater wealth of anecdotes.

Also by the Author

Spies (2002): 3.5 of 5 Stars Summer 2002. Fifty-year-old Stephen Wheatley recalls his childhood during World War II in a suburban English village. He and his best friend would pretend that his best friend’s mother was a German spy, and they tracked her movements. Slowly their innocent world collided with adult reality, where everyday events can seem mysterious to the young but where adults may indeed have secrets to keep.