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On Being – Peter Atkins ***

This isn’t so much a book as a musing. It is easy to imagine the author, seated comfortably in a leather armchair in the Senior Combination Room (or whatever they call it at his institution), sipping vintage port and holding forth on his topic, which the subtitle refers to as ‘the great questions of existence.’ Whether or not this slim volume works for you depends on how you react to that concept. I’m not saying it’s high falutin’ – the book is written in an approachable, chatty style – but the reader has to be in the mood for some contemplation, rather than an exploration of the history of science or an explanation of scientific fact.
Peter Atkins covers the beginnings and end of the universe itself – and also of a human being in birth and death. It’s a vast scope and the book works better in some sections that others. (It’s strange, incidentally, that a book that is ‘On Being’ concentrates on the beginning and the ending but not on the being bit in the middle.) I found the universe-focused chapters more interesting than the human-centred ones. In fact the chapter on human death, essentially describing what will happen to Atkins’ own body after death, seemed out of place. This was really just a description of a biochemical process happening to a piece of meat. It didn’t seem to have lot to do with ‘being.’
I found this book very interesting but I did have a problem with the approach. There is a fundamental assumption in the preface that sets up the book’s premise: Atkins tells us that he believes that the the scientific method can be applied to everything. I find the idea of basing an argument on a belief that there is nothing supernatural no better than basing an argument on the belief that the supernatural exists. It seems a little flimsy (which is, perhaps, why it is tucked away in the preface).
What comes across, oddly, is an approach that feels unscientific. Surely to be truly scientific (at least, when taking a wide, philosophical view like this book) we should start with the possibility of a creator god as one option. Saying, as Atkins does, that ‘even if in due course science has to throw in the towel and, heaven forbid, concede that the universe was created by God’ exhibits the sort of prejudice that science rightly condemns in religious believers. He hasn’t come at this with an open mind. It’s telling that in the final chapter Atkins spends a fair amount of time attacking millennialism and the concept of the rapture, which is hardly mainstream. This is a bit like picking on some silly goings on at the University of East Anglia to attack climate science as a whole. It seems to suggest a lack of a cogent argument.
This is not by any means a bad book – its great strength is that it really does encourage the reader to think about some deep issues. But the danger of straying into the old folly of attempting to prove or disprove the existence of a deity through scientific argument is too close to the surface for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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