Skip to main content

The View from the Centre of the Universe – Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack ****

Not another book on cosmology, you might be inclined to cry – don’t worry it’s not. That’s to say, it is about cosmology, but it’s certainly not just another book. You may or may not agree with Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s thesis, but there’s no doubt it’s a topic worth reading about and discussing.
We’ve got a problem, they tell us. For most of civilization, humanity has had creation myths that link to the human race’s best understanding of where the cosmos came from, and that fixes for us, as human beings, a place in that cosmos. The myth in this sense isn’t just a fairy story – it’s a folk understanding of a complex concept, supported by metaphor and imagery. But here’s the strange thing. We believe we are now the closest we’ve ever been to an understanding of how the universe really works – yet we have no mythos to match the scientific theory. Abrams and Primack believe that (just as it always was) it’s important we have a myth to cling on to, and we need one that is integrated with the best modern science.
One of the most effective parts of the book is the way it helps put things into scale, to help us as humans establish our place in the universe as something different from Douglas Adams’ idea of driving people mad by showing them what an insignificant speck they were. I particularly liked the scaling comparison that we are as much bigger than one of the cells in our body, as the Earth is bigger than us. (Though the warm glow was slightly cooled when reading in John Allen Paulos’s highly respected book Innumeracy that the ratio was actually the same as that of a human body to Rhode Island – not quite as impressive as the Earth.)
Overall we get the picture that we are, once more at the centre of the universe – only no longer on a static Earth, but rather at the centre of the universal range from the largest to the smallest. And Abrams and Primack show how our material connection to the Big Bang and ancient supernova as the source of the atoms that makes us up also gives us that cosmic anchoring.
One concern about this book is that it’s too gung ho about how wonderful scientists are, and that it describes something like dark matter/ dark energy as if it were fact, rather than current best accepted (and still seriously challenged) theory. The authors comment “There is a popular idea that scientists get stuck in a paradigm and persist in their favorite (even if wrong) theories until the die. This has convinced many people that once scientists begin to think about something in a certain way, they won’t change… Today getting stuck in a paradigm is actually more likely among non-scientists.” This seems hugely over-optimistic. Take, for instance, the whole superstring/M-theory business – there is increasing concern that this is a classic case of scientists being stuck with an incorrect paradigm, and books like Not Even Wrong eloquently explain why this is likely to happen – because once a scientist has invested the first 10 years of his/her working life into a theory, they can’t afford to start again from scratch.
Despite this real concern about the over-enthusiasm of the authors, though, this is without doubt a stonking idea. (That’s a good thing, for non-UK readers.) Reading about our lack of a position in the universe makes a lot of sense, and with the dark matter proviso, the authors’ suggestion for a new cosmological myth works well. This proved to be nearly our second ever unrateable book, because it is based on such a great idea, but isn’t very well written. It’s much too long, repetitive and rambling. But don’t let that put you off a superb central theme.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…