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The Language God Talks: The Back Story

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Henrik Ibsen once wrote of the "life-lie" of authors, the resolve to create some day an enduring masterwork, the Big One that never gets written. For decades I harbored a title, A Child's Garden of God, for a book telling of my religious faith in a frame of modern science, not necessarily a Big One, but a work I felt born to give the world. Not being a scientist at all, I was a fool to dream of accomplishing this, but novelists are fools whose dreams every now and then take form, see the light, and last.

My notes on A Child's Garden of God go back to the 1960s. As they piled up I would comfort myself by recalling what Einstein said when asked how he worked: "How do I work? I grope." If that was really true, I thought, there might yet be a shred of hope for an aging storyteller getting nowhere, year by accelerating year, with his dream of writing A Child's Garden of God. At last I decided either to do something about it, or give it up as my life-lie. I first intruded on Professor I. Bernard Cohen of Harvard, who taught the History of Science for 60 years, and told him, in an ad lib farrago lasting perhaps 20 minutes, what I had in mind. "Wow, big," he commented. "I don't agree, of course, I think it's all stochastic, but I'd like to see how you do it." Years later, still haunted by Garden, I intruded on the famed theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton, and harangued him about the project. He heard me out and soberly nodded, saying, "It can work."

More years passed, more notes piled up. At last I met the man who got me to start writing the book -- do or die -- Maarten Schmidt of Caltech, who discovered the quasars. At a lunch with him and another Caltech astronomer I knew well, Jewish and utterly secular, I poured out the still-unwritten Garden. My Jewish friend appeared indulgently amused by the idea. Maarten Schmidt listened with an intense far-off look. When I fell silent he said, "It can be done, but it is very, very hard."

Those words became my mantra. I set out to write something brief, truthful, and readable on this gravest of themes. It took me four years and 40,000 words, based on notes running to some 30 file folders. The book starts with three chapters on science, followed by five on my faith. The science took most of the time, as I battled my ignorance all the way, making spectacular detours and blind alleys. One was a "thought experiment" in which Edwin Hubble himself appeared in my workshop and conducted me, a little like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, outward into space among the stars, horizon by receding horizon, to the misty margins of the universe. I thought this was pretty good stuff. My almost infallible wife read a draft of this first part. "Well, it's all right," she said, "but you'd better get rid of that spook." Half a year shot.

Two epigraphs frame The Language God Talks. In one Richard Feynman declares that in the view of religion, God created the universe so as to watch us struggle for good and evil, and "the stage is too big for the drama." In the second the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon cautions, "Remember, Herman Wouk, we are storytellers. Stories, pictures, people! No thoughts!" So it is that I devote three chapters to Feynman's Stage, five to his Drama, and try to do it all with Agnon's stories, pictures, and people. If a thought or two drifted in, I couldn't help it. The task totally engaged me. I never tired, never once thought of giving it up. The masses of discarded pages are in my archives, there to remain as silent evidence that it was very, very hard. With some trepidation I sent the finished manuscript to Freeman Dyson and Maartin Schmidt, among others. I. Bernard Cohen had long since left the Stage. For Dyson, whose critique was bruising and bracing, the book had worked in its fashion. Schmidt's response started with two words in boldface: "You succeeded." I will remember those words while I last.

But what of A Child's Garden of God, the title I cherished for so long? Well, when my almost infallible wife read the second part, she said, "Fine, but I don't like your title. The book is about science and religion, and the title should say so." I bethought me of my first meeting with Feynman, when he asked me if I knew calculus, and I admitted I didn't. "You'd better learn it," he said. "It's the language God talks." This casual remark by a towering scientist, an aggressively secular Jew, strikes the modern note with a resounding agnostic clang. The Language God Talks acknowledges my lack and offers something of what I have learned of His other language, which I know pretty well: the Bible.

Herman Wouk's new book, The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, was published in April 2010 by Little, Brown & Company.