Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bourgeois Book Review

I recently read You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter, another in the "overview of scientific knowledge for the lay audience" genre, but far above many of its fellows.

First, the nits I wish to pick. A former acclaimed editor, Potter's background is in mathematics and the history of science, and it does show. Though obviously well-researched and wide in breadth and accuracy, there are a few errors in the book, mostly having to do with biology. Stuff like: saying bears and raccoons are part of the the Canidae family, when, while they are closely related to dogs and part of the Caniformia suborder within Carnivora, they are not actually in the same family. Then there's a weird statement about the first time animals begin to eat each other was on land in the Devonian period, a surprise, no doubt, to plenty of bacteria who gobble their fellows to survive and have done for billions of years, not to mention all the sea life he had just got done talking about that were eating each other long before, too. He makes a similar mistake when he has arthropods beginning to leave the sea in the Carboniferous when he just got done talking about arthropods scuttling about the last two geologic periods. He also assigned the evolution of dragonflies, and thus flight, to the Permian and not the Carboniferous, which is famous for its dragonflies with huge wingspans.

His sentences tend towards the short, simple, and declarative, which is generally considered a desirable style of writing due to its clarity, but, in this case, occasionally shade into choppiness, creating tangential sentences dropped into the middle of paragraphs that jar the flow that would have worked better as clauses. The rhythm can sometimes feel a touch like a child being read a picture book. Of course, since most of this information, popular science book whore that I am, isn't new to me, this may make me overestimate the amount of background he needs to provide.

These really are fairly minor and inconsequential errata, though. Overall, the book is an amazing journey through the universe, from the smallest to the largest, from the simplest to most complex. What really makes it so special, though, is when Potter delves more into philosophical contemplation. It soars into poetry when he meditates on truth, science, and the human condition. There's a strange, soothing, contented melancholy when he expounds on these subjects (which this wonderful interview helps to explain), his
lyrical rhythm entrancing. Just some examples:

We do not like to think about the universe because we fear the immensity that is everything. The universe reduces us to a nub, making it difficult to escape the idea that size matters. After all, who can deny the universe when there is so much of it? "Spiritual aspirations threaten to be swallowed up by this senseless bulk into a sort of nightmare of meaninglessness, wrote the Anglo-German scholar Edward Conze (1904-1979). "The enormous quantity of matter we perceive around us, compared with the trembling little flicker of spiritual insight that we perceive within us, seems to tell strongly in favour of a materialistic outlook on life." We know that we must lose if we are to contest the universe.

Death and nothingness go hand in hand: twin terrors to put along our terror of the infinite; terrors we spend the rest of our lives suppressing into the shape of our adult selves.

I have friends who claim that they never think about the universe at all. And yet I can't help but feel that such rejection -- of the universe of all things! -- is evidence of deep repression rather than lack of interest. Who, after all, wants to be told they are insignificant specks in a purposeless and uncaring universe?

I want to know what this universe is that attracts and repels me, and which is described by a methodology that also attracts and repels. I am attracted to science for its power, beauty and mystery, and its call to live in uncertainties; I am repelled by its power, nihilism and smug material certainty.

History comes to an end where it meets the present, the point at which the story meets the storyteller. Now, that axis about which swings the past and the future, is where we find ourselves.

Scientists worry about what is to become of human life beyond even the long lifetime of the sun. But maybe this is our time in the universe. To be concerned about mankind's fate to the ends of time is a cover for that eternal dread: of our own mortality. We do not worry about the early days of the universe when we did not exist as humans, just as we do not worry about our non-existence before we were born.

In a modern world obsessed with certainty and things eternal, we might learn to live in the uncertainty of an unending scientific process (without necessarily believing in unending scientific progress). We want to believe that things last forever, whether it is love, life, Go, or the laws of nature. But death, a Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to live in uncertainty for as long as we can bear it.

(Disclaimer: If some of these passage echoes thoughts from my previous post, it isn't entirely accidental. That post was actually initially part of this review, the part I started while in the process of reading the book and not planning to do a full-on review such as this one. When I did decide to do the review, I separated the two posts for length and because I thought they were better standalone.)

In short, this is one of the best books I have read in quite some time, and I highly recommend it to anyone of a contemplative or scientific bent.

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