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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz - Four Way Interview

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Bren Professor in Biology and Bioengineering at Caltech. She has published over 150 papers and book chapters in top scientific journals and her work on embryos won the people’s vote for scientific breakthrough of the year in Science magazine.Her new book, co-authored with Roger Highfield, is The Dance of Life: symmetry, cells and how we become human.

Why science?

I fell in love with biology when I was a child because I loved doing experiments and seeing what happened. It was fascinating and enormous fun. I also fell in love with art at the same time. Art and science are both based on experiments and uncovering new paths to understand the world and ourselves. Why do we think the way we think? Where do our feelings come from? Is the 'right' answer always right? Where do we come from? How do parts of our body communicate with each other?  What is the nature of ti…

The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on…

Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people…