Friday, 6 October 2006

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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