The Polymath Who Wrote the History of Science in Poetry

In ‘Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World,’ Oren Harman offers up an enlightening, concise chronicle of the universe

David Green
David B. Green
Oren Harman holding a copy of his book "Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World."
Oren Harman holding a copy of his book "Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World."Credit: Moti Milrod
David Green
David B. Green

All his life, Oren Harman has been torn between the part of him that is an artist and romantic, and the scientist within him.

In his new book, “Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), he gives expression to both of these identities.

“Evolutions” is a concise history for the intelligent layman of the universe and Earth, recounted in the form of short, stylized myths. Like the traditional myths we grew up with, each of these narratives comes with a moral or theme – but the moral never comes at the expense of the science.

Harman’s choices of moral themes are far from obvious. Chapter one, for example – about the Big Bang and its aftermath – is subtitled “Fate.” It suggests that the nature of the universe was determined from the moment of its creation, while at the same time it is but one in an infinite number of cosmos.

The one about the evolution of cephalopods (octopuses and friends) is called “Memory” and imagines an octopus pondering the history of its species’ neural development. And the chapter about the short-lived flying dinosaur called Quetzalcoatlus intersperses the account of its evolution and extinction with the more recent story of John K. Northrop’s never-produced design for the B-49 bomber – a “flying wing” that would be invisible to radar, and that shared aerodynamic characteristics with the dinosaur. That chapter is called “Solitude,” because, as Harman writes, “Prematurity would be both creatures’ undoing: no lonelier destiny has been known to date.”

In the book’s final chapter, Jerusalem-born Harman tells us about the oversize picture book “The World of Myth and Legend,” which accompanied him through childhood, captivating his imagination with accounts of Daedalus and Icarus, Rungnir and Thor, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. “Why had Icarus not heeded his father’s words?” he wanted to know. “And why had Theseus forgotten to raise the red flag? The answers did not come.”

"Daedalus and Icarus" by Jacob Peter Gowy, Museo del Prado, Madrid.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Harman would lay in bed at night pondering such questions. “The myths,” he writes, “had invaded my dreams.”

During the daytime, Harman studied geometry and chemistry, played soccer and the piano, and spent summers working at a marine biology lab and doing medical research. As an undergraduate at the Hebrew University, unable to decide between biology, history and musicology, he concentrated on all three.

To this day, Harman continues to straddle the worlds of the humanist and the scientist. A professor at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, he runs the school’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society. Two evenings a week, he sings in the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir. And his new book is a reflection of his parallel passions and interests.

A single draft

Although Harman says he’s been thinking about the themes explored in “Evolutions” his entire life, he began planning the book in earnest about 15 years ago, during a canoe trip on the Zambezi River in southern Africa. His partner on that sojourn was Samantha Power – the journalist and policy expert who later served as President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador. “I started telling her about this dream about connecting myths and science, and she tried to figure out what I was talking about,” he says.

Then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speaking at a peace conference in 2015.Credit: Erica Gannett / IRL Productions

When he finally sat down to write, he needed only a year – and a single draft. “Writing is almost like composing,” he explains. “The music almost comes before the meaning. When I’m writing a sentence, I hear the way it’s supposed to end and I go searching for that word, and then I don’t tamper with it.”

My first encounter with Harman came several months ago, when I began attending an occasional lecture series he has been curating at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, “Talking about Science in the 21st Century.”

In the second session, titled “Life According to Icarus,” he himself was the featured speaker. He previewed his forthcoming book, talking about the relationship between science and mythology, and reading aloud the first chapter.

He writes: “Nearly 14 billion years ago was when ‘The All’ began; if you had blinked, you would have missed it.”

In the first second of its existence, Harman goes on to explain – in an essay that is as scientifically reliable as possible, but also lyrical in tone – the universe (what Pythagoras called “The All”) grew “from a speck of nothing” to a cosmos “100 billion kilometers in caliber.”

But that’s just the beginning. The universe – that is, our universe, as there may be another 10^500 (i.e., 10 to the 500th power) universes out there – continues to expand, and at an accelerating rate: a counterintuitive phenomenon that can only be explained mathematically if we admit the existence of something scientists call dark energy. Although we can only infer the presence of dark energy, we know that it must exist “in precisely the density of Planck units revealed to us by the astronomers: 0.[122 zeros]36.

“Even the smallest deviation in this cosmic number would forever change reality,” writes Harman. “Subtract one zero after the decimal point and the Universe would be so dense that the galaxies would collapse in on themselves; change the 6 on the tail to a 7 and Gravity would paradoxically be pushing out so fast against the mist that galaxies wouldn’t form at all. With even the slightest tweak to the amount of Dark Energy, ‘the All,’ as well as the possibility for love and every departure from it, would vanish like a morning mist.”

How often do we encounter scientific writing that reads like poetry, and that is philosophical as well as informative? I was curious to meet the author.

A matter of degrees

Oren Harman greets me at his north Tel Aviv apartment, an airy rental on a tree-lined street that he shares with his wife and two young children. He is all informality, dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved blue work shirt, with an open smile and a curly mop of hair.

At the Van Leer series, too, he exudes the casual ease of a graduate student – his only concession to the presence of an auditorium full of retired Hebrew University professors being long pants instead of shorts.

Harman, 45, is the grandson (on his father’s side) of Abraham Harman, who was Israel’s ambassador to the United States during the Six-Day War, and later a president of the Hebrew University, and Zena Stern Harman, an Israeli social-service pioneer who also served as a Knesset member for the Labor Alignment. They were perhaps the most distinguished members of a highly accomplished clan whose members collect degrees the way some people collect art.

Take Oren, for example. Following his bachelor’s degree in Jerusalem, he picked up both a master’s and PhD at the University of Oxford; taught for a year in the history of science department at Harvard; and did a postdoc in genetics back in Jerusalem. Somewhere along the way, he had decided to forgo a career as a concert pianist.

Quetzalcoatlus northropi. Harman's book intersperses the account of its evolution and extinction with the more recent story of John K. Northrop’s never-produced design for the B-49 bomber.Credit: Mark Witton and Darren Naish/Wikimedia Commons

Harman’s doctoral thesis was on Cyril Darlington, an English scientist whose research focused on the connection between genes and heredity, on the one hand, and natural selection. The thesis served as the basis for Harman’s first book, “The Man Who Invented the Chromosome” (2004).

That was followed six years later by “The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness,” which examined the little-known life of a brilliant but mentally unstable scientist who, after making important contributions to the Manhattan Project, computer science and cancer research, decided he would identify the evolutionary basis of human selflessness. Eventually, obsessed with the conundrum of whether it was truly possible to help others without deriving some personal benefit from the act, George Price gave away everything he owned to homeless people and eventually joined them on the street, before killing himself.

“The Price of Altruism” was critically acclaimed in the United States, and was brought to the stage in two separate productions in London. (In 2006, Harman also hosted, together with the biophysicist Yanay Ofran, a Hebrew-language TV series about Israeli and Jewish identity.)

Science doesn’t have all the answers

Perhaps it was the success of two conventional scientific biographies that instilled Harman with the audacity to take on such an unconventional, hybrid writing endeavor as “Evolutions.”

Although Harman says he sees the book as “a love poem to science,” he also feels strongly that science does not have all the answers, nor can it deliver happiness. World mythologies appeal to him, he says, because they are “in the process of constantly revisiting the existential questions, and recognizing them as the mysteries they are. We lunge at them, coming as close as we can to touching them, while also realizing that they’re really untouchable.”

Harman does not speak directly about politics or name names, but he does acknowledge that one incentive for writing the book “in this day and age, is that you see this assault on facts and assault against truth – where facts are challenged because they’re claimed to be produced by elites, so they can’t be trusted, and facts don’t matter because everyone has their own facts, and so forth. On the other hand, there’s this backlash that says, no, facts are the only things that matter, and so with the help of science we can answer all important questions, and the only mysteries worth solving are the ones that will succumb to science some day.”

He believes it’s important to acknowledge that “science is produced by human beings, and human beings use language, and language invariably has metaphor embedded in it, and our metaphors are very sensitive to our cultures and to our times and to our politics.”

Harman points, for example, to the changing analogies that have been used – by scientists – to describe the brain.

“In the 17th century,” he says, “we imagined it to be a kind of miniature hydraulic system encased in our skull. Fast-forward to the 19th century: Now, it was a telegraph switchboard. And going into the 20th century, with the advent of brain sciences, we thought of the brain as a neural network. And today we often speak of the brain as a quantum computer.

“Each one of these ‘brains’ is a different entity. It’s a different thing, and we ask of it different questions. And the reason is that we can only know reality filtered through the stories that we tell ourselves – that draw from lives around us, and from our context, and draw on metaphor and allegory, and all of that.”

Oren Harman. Retains a refreshing sense of wonder about the world.Credit: Moti Milrod

Each of the 15 chapters of “Evolutions” describes a turning point in natural history and, through the use of “metaphor and allegory, and all of that,” associates it with the emergence of a human quality or social construct such as pride, sacrifice, freedom, curiosity, truth, hope. In this way, they resemble ancient myths – and also in some cases Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” with their fanciful explanations of “How the Camel Got His Hump” and the evolution of the armadillo.

In chapter 12 and its appendix, for example, we learn that some 50 million years ago, the whale’s ancestors walked on land and resembled a deer or coyote; fossils displaying whale-like characteristics (for example, an ear bone) were found by paleontologists in modern Pakistan, on what were the shores of the prehistoric Tethys Sea.

Harman postulates that the terrestrial creature began venturing into the water when food was scarce on land. “He stuck his head in, and his snout grew longer, and he stuck it in further and the legs started to disappear. And suddenly he was swallowed.”

Harman titles this chapter “Sacrifice: Return to the Sea,” and in its telling, that’s precisely what the whale did in giving up its limbs and taking up residence in the oceans. He then anthropomorphizes a bit more by having his whale address the water in order to explain just why whales breach the surface of the sea: “Some say we are trying to dislodge parasites, for the force of our lunges is enough to slough off skin. But none knows us, honestly, for I will tell you the truth of it: remembering our origins, we vault to escape you. If only for an instant, we yearn to surrender once more to Gravity. That is why we breach.”

Harman says he wanted to challenge the assumption that sacrifice is “a form of moral highness, that someone who sacrifices is doing something very altruistic. But the evolution of the whale teaches us that sacrifice is often just a form of blindness. It had no idea that it was going to become a whale.”

In the chapter called “Freedom: Symbiosis,” Harman recounts the story of the evolution of mitochondrion – the unit that powers the eukaryotic (one with a nucleus) cell, creating the chemical energy that allows complex organisms to function and develop. What is curious about the mitochondrion is that when its ancestor, Alphaproteobacteria, was swallowed by the eukaryote’s precursor, the former continued to maintain its own identity – which is to say, its own DNA – and thus to this day replicates independently of its host cell.

Only in recent decades did scientists learn that the nearest genetic relation of human mitochondria is the rickettsia bacterium, which causes the deadly disease typhus. Which suggests that these two organisms have a common ancestor.

In “Evolutions,” Harman imagines two Alphaproteobacteria “brothers.” One of them is swallowed by a failing prokaryote called methanogen, giving it a new lease on life by allowing it to metabolize oxygen. “Eons passed,” he writes, “and the engulfed Alpha morphed into Mitochondrion. Thanks to its efficient use of Oxygen it became the powerhouse of the living world [and] the sine qua non of all future animals.”

One day, a boy – a distant, highly evolved descendant of the methanogen, as are all humans – sees and woos a girl who is “walking gently through a hollow.

“Nine months later as the lovers lay in a meadow, embracing beneath a tender morning sunlight, a louse climbed the leg of their cooing baby.” The infant quickly develops a fever and within hours it dies. And although the grieving young couple can not possibly be aware of this, it turns out that “the vicious parasite within the louse that had felled their loved one was not a stranger but rather a kin to us” – rickettsia – “the yet autonomous descendant of the Alpha who retained his freedom. This is what happened when Methanogen pounced, praying to a heathen Universe all those years ago: Chance had separated two brothers, fashioning one lineage life givers, the others killers. The Alpha that had been trapped thought itself a victim but was mistaken. And now the brother who got away returned to exact his revenge. The gleam of liberty is a deception, the dishonor of incarceration an emancipation.”

I found Harman’s book enlightening, provocative and well-informed. The “Illuminations” – the appendices at the end that explain and elaborate on the scientific background to each of the 15 myths, and that include suggestions for additional reading – helped clear up a number of obscure elements in the tales (for example, spelling out just what it was that killed the baby in the “Freedom” chapter).

Nevertheless, not all of the morals to each of the new-fangled fables are of equal profundity. And while Harman does give an ironic twist to our standard understanding of, for example, “sacrifice” and “freedom,” it’s not clear to me that these alternate understandings are especially edifying, or offer special insight into the complex and mysterious thing called life.

Still, Harman is a marvelous intellectual companion, whether as writer, lecturer or one-on-one interlocutor. He retains a refreshing sense of wonder about the world – both the parts that have been deconstructed and deciphered, and the parts that remain mysterious – and he is able to balance his awe for the human species and its accomplishments with his sense of irony for just how insignificant we truly are.

In the book, Harman recalls a line attributed to Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” That’s a sentiment that seems to infuse Harman’s career and, when reading him, it’s easy to second the motion.

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