The Universe Within: A book review by Bob Morris

Universe WithinThe Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
Neil Shubin
Pantheon/A Division of Random House (2013)

A sublimely beautiful truth: “Within each of us lie some of the most profound stories of all.”

Scientists are especially adept at making connections and this is certainly true of Neil Shubin who, in a previous book (Your Inner Fish), analyzed “clues to the human story [that] reside within impressions of worms in rock, the DNA of fish, and clumps of algae in a pond. While I was thinking about that book, it became clear that worms, fish, and algae are but gateways to ever deeper connections – ones that extend back billions of years before the presence of life and Earth itself. Written inside us is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origins of days themselves.” In that brief excerpt, he creates a context for all manner of “journeys” within and beyond that are shared with those who read his latest book. He explains how and why natural phenomena “can be windows to the past” and reveal “deeper realities.”

It seems ludicrous to suggest that Shubin tells a story in this book, “Once upon a time, about 13.7 billion years ago…” but in fact, that is what he does when tracing a timeline during which the universe resulted from the big bang, stars formed and died, and our planet congealed from matter in space. “In the eons since, Earth has circled the sun while mountains, seas, and whole continents have come and gone.” All that in only 13.7 billion years. The story he relates is best understood in terms of the key characters and developments on which he focuses his attention. That said, he also asserts, “Within each of us lie some of the most profound stories of all.”

These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me, a non-scientist, and are also listed to indicate the scope of Shubin’s coverage.

o Edward Charles Pickering and the “Harvard Computers” (Pages 19-22)
o Big Bang Theory (22-28)
o Fusion Reactions (28-33)
o Calendars in Rocks (62-63)
o Genetic Mutations (69-74)
o Continental Drift (98-119)
o Global Catastrophes (120-139)
o The Alvarezes and the Astroid Theory (130-132)
o All of Chapter Eight, “Fevers and Chills” (140-156)
o Orbital Changes of the Earth (164-172
o Jonathan Pritchard’s research on DNA patterns of structure and sequence (177-178)
o Significant Inventions (181-188)

For me, Neil Shubin’s most important points include these three. First, although recognizing man’s connections to the natural world “is like detecting the pattern hidden inside an optical illusion,” we must continue to view the world through that “lens” to identify other connections so as to increase our understanding of “the sheer vastness of the [previously] unknown as well as, meanwhile, our understanding of human nature, our “universe within.” Also, we must always keep in mind “Life changes Earth, Earth changes Life, and those of us walking the planet today carry the consequences within.” Finally, therefore, “the success of our species resides inside the offspring of our minds.”

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