The Universe Within, by Neil Shubin

The Universe Within

The Universe Within is a popular science book that traces the story of the universe, and how the various things that happened in that history led to the Earth and humanity being the way they are today.

The book is mostly reasonably easy to follow, at least as easy as one can hope for with material that in reality is extremely complicated. Shubin includes a lot of anecdotes and a lot of personality sketches of key scientists and such, which adds little substantively but makes the book more entertaining for laypersons. Most of them, anyway. I’m sure some readers would find all the tangents and the conversational style distracting, and would prefer a book that sticks more to the science itself.

But it’s a good book for those who not only want to know more about how the universe works, but also how we’ve come to find that out, or are coming to find that out since much is still being worked out.

Included are accounts of scientific theories that initially met with considerable skepticism, if they weren’t ignored entirely, but that are now widely accepted because eventually enough evidence was gathered to show that they were more likely than alternative explanations to be true.

An example of this would be continental drift. At first it was a highly speculative notion that most scientists dismissed, but over time more and more evidence was gathered until it became the consensus view.

Pseudo-scientists and quacks often appeal to cases like these—“They laughed at so-and-so too, but who’s laughing now?!”—but this is a misleading tactic. A theory like continental drift isn’t accepted unless and until the evidence warrants accepting it. That’s the key—the evidence. Continental drift wasn’t unfairly barred from science due to some nefarious conspiracy; it was judged on its merits, and it was accepted once those merits were sufficient for acceptance.

Yes, something like homeopathy is scoffed at by mainstream science just as continental drift once was. But that’s where the similarity ends. No one later produced sufficient evidence to accept homeopathy. I’m sure if they had, scientists would have been happy to embrace it.

Continental drift was rejected by mainstream science when the evidence didn’t justify its acceptance, and later accepted when it did. It doesn’t follow from this that whatever is currently rejected by mainstream science is being wrongfully rejected.

The book is a reminder of just how many things we don’t normally think of as connected really are. The way stars break down, the object that crashed into the Earth to create the moon, the size and distance from Earth of the other planets in the solar system, even the nature of the big bang itself affected such things as the composition of our atmosphere, the length of a day, the fact that we have seasons, etc., which in turn explain why we evolved the way we did and not some other way (or not at all).

Speaking purely subjectively, I found just about the whole book modestly interesting but was never drawn in to a high degree. It didn’t grab me the way some popular science books I’ve read have. I found Where is Everybody?, for instance, about why we haven’t yet discovered extraterrestrial intelligent life, to be far more of a page-turner. I got into Guns, Germs, and Steel, about how the physical environment has affected human history, slightly more than this one.

I’m certainly not saying I disliked The Universe Within or that it is not a good book. I enjoyed it to a degree, but when I got to the end I didn’t feel much, and I doubt I’ll retain many specifics from it. Like now even trying to write about it, I’m mostly drawing a blank, whereas the majority of books I read provoke a lot of thoughts in me that I want to work through in writing in these essays.

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