Heinz Pagels (1939 – 1988) was an American physicist. He was an adjunct professor of physics at Rockefeller University, the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences and president of the International League for Human Rights. He obtained his PhD in elementary particle physics from Princeton University under the guidance of Sidney Drell. His technical work includes the Physics Reports review articles Quantum Chromodynamics (with W. Marciano) and Departures from Chiral Symmetry. A number of his published papers dealt with the source of the mass of elementary particles in quantum field theory, especially the Nambu-Goldstone realization of chiral symmetry breaking. The list of his graduate students incluces: Dan Caldi, Saul Stokar and Seth Lloyd.
Pagels was an outspoken critic of those who would misrepresent the discoveries and ideas of science to promote mysticism and pseudoscience.
In 1969, Pagels married theology professor, author, and MacArthur Fellow Elaine Pagels. They had a son Mark, who died in 1987, after 4 years of illness. Pagels died in 1988 in a mountain climbing accident–one disturbingly similar to the imagined fatal fall he described at the end of The Cosmic Code.
According to Michael Crichton, Pagels’s work in chaos theory inspired the character Ian Malcolm in his novel Jurassic Park However, the character’s pessimistic, anti-science philosophy bears little resemblance to Pagels own strongly held view.
The above mentioned ending of his book “the cosmic code” and its similarity to his death are of an uncanny likeness. This is the eerie passage on the last page of the book:
Science is not the enemy of humanity but one of the deepest expressions of the human desire to realize that vision of infinite knowledge. Science shows us that the visible world is neither matter nor spirit; the visible world is the invisible organization of energy. I do not know what the future sentences of the cosmic code will be. But it seems certain that the recent human contact with the invisible world of quanta and the vastness of the cosmos will shape the destiny of our species or whatever we may become.
I used to climb mountains in snow and ice, hanging onto the sides of great rocks. I was describing one of my adventures to an older friend once, and when I had finished he asked me, “Why do you want to kill yourself?” I protested. I told him that the rewards I wanted were of sight, of pleasure, of the thrill of pitting my body and my skills against nature. My friend replied, “When you are as old as I am you will see that you are trying to kill yourself.”
I often dream about falling. Such dreams are commonplace to the ambitious or those who climb mountains. I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it did not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss. Suddenly I realized that my fall was relative; there was no bottom and no end. A feeling of pleasure overcame me. I realized that what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed. It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.
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