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

Mars - Stephen James O’Meara ****

This is the latest in the excellent ‘Kosmos’ series from Reaktion Books (who clearly have a thing about the letter k). They’re beautifully packaged, with glossy paper and hundreds of colourful images, but the text is so substantial and insightful they can’t simply be dismissed as ‘coffee-table books’. My earlier reviews of the Mercury and Saturn titles, written by William Sheehan, gave both books 4 stars. This new one by Stephen James O’Meara is up to the same standard.As with the previous books, this one goes into more detail than you might expect on the ‘prehistory’ of the subject, prior to the advent of space travel. The first three chapters – about a quarter of the book – deal in turn with mythological narratives, ground-based telescopic discoveries and romantic speculations about the Red Planet. Some of this is familiar stuff, but there are some obscure gems too. The Victorian astronomer Richard Proctor, for example, decided to name dozens of newly observed features on Mars after…

Nicholas Mee - Four Way Interview

Nicholas Meestudied theoretical physics and mathematics at the University of Cambridge.  He is Director of software company Virtual Image and the author of over 50 multimedia titles including The Code Book on CD-ROM with Simon Singh and Connections in Space with John Barrow, Martin Kemp and Richard Bright. He has played key roles in numerous science and art projects including the Symbolic Sculpture project with John Robinson, the European SCIENAR project, and the 2012 Henry Moore and Stringed Surfaces exhibition at the Royal Society. He is author of the award-winning popular science book Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered. His latest title is Celestial Tapestry.Why mathematics?Mathematics has its own inner beauty. But it also represents far and away the most powerful set of intellectual tools that we have and it contributes enormously to our understanding of how the universe works and our place within it. Furthermore, it enables us to control and manipulate the world with great pr…

Celestial Tapestry - Nicholas Mee ****

There was an old tradition amongst the landed gentry of collecting a 'cabinet of curiosities' - an unstructured collection of interesting stuff they had picked up on their travels. In many ways, Celestial Tapestry feels like a cabinet of curiosities of the mind, with interesting things linking maths and the the world, particularly the arts, that Nicholas Mee has picked up.It is delightful being able to be transported by Mee on a number of distinctly varied trains of thought and diversions, all with shiny, full colour illustrations. (If I have one complaint about the pictures, it would have been better if this had been a coffee table sized book, so the beautiful images could have been bigger.)The book is structured into six sections: the fabric of space, time and matter; weaving numbers and patterns; drawing out the golden threads; higher space and a deeper reality; wandering round the knot garden; and casting the celestial net. However, these heading don't really give a fe…