The Universe Within

Universe within coverI often mention the wonders of scientific discovery, but sharing one’s latest finding with a wider audience is difficult. Even the clearest analysis needs a huge amount of translating before anyone outside of the field, let alone a non-scientist, can appreciate it. I recently read The Universe Within, a book that succeeded in getting me genuinely excited about geology, which is a rare feat (apologies to geologists, I just lack the necessary training!) It also got me thinking about human history.

Neil Shubin is a paleontologist who’s fascinated by the deep history of the planet. The main narrative of the book centres on the origin of the universe and our place in it, with a good dose of geology on the way. Each chapter is a story of exploration and discovery, introducing the main—and often colourful—characters involved, and ends by showing what the cosmic or global upheavals described have to do with us. The overall message is that we, our bodies, and everything about them that makes us human, are the products of processes that started when time itself began.

Shubin is a fantastic teacher, and he tells a good story, using intrigue and suspense to carry the reader along. I laughed at the stories of field trip misadventures and “innovative” experiments with frogs. The appendix even includes a link to recipes that satisfy Arctic campers, but are also perfect for serving to “company you never wish to see again.” I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the discovery of continental drift (currently 1.5cm/year) and the carbon cycle. (If my summaries sound dry, the chapters are not.

There were quite a number of “wow” moments for me as I read this book, even when I was already familiar with the science that was being explained. Most of the starlight we see at night was emitted before the first humans walked the earth, and it has taken many thousands of years to travel the huge distance to earth—that’s how big the universe is. It was 300,000 years after the Big Bang before the first true atoms formed. Continental drift caused the planet to cool, and the body clock operates on a 24-hour cycle even when we don’t see the Sun.

Through reading The Universe Within, I gained a deeper insight into the timescales by which God works. It was worth waiting hundreds of thousands of years for atoms more complex than lithium, and two billion years of single-cell life was for a reason. Any Christian knows that God almost never works by quick fixes, and creation is the ultimate example of how he is happy to work on long timescales. Somehow all this beauty, diversity, and fecundity but also pain, death, and violence, were all part of God’s good world—fit for his purpose. The Garden of Eden was to be subdued, and that is what we have done, though we have made some gigantic mistakes on the way.

I am humbled by the fact that we are different to other animals not because of our own cleverness but as a result of forces (sustained by God) that shaped us over millions of years. Shubin’s book has helped me to realise just how extraordinary the development of human life was. Any number of factors could have changed the course of history and eradicated our ancestors, but here we are. I felt something similar when I saw the human evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian museum. I’m proud to be human, but I know that I’m here by grace.

This review by Ruth Bancewicz was originally published by Books & Culture, and is reposted here with permission.

2 thoughts on “The Universe Within

  1. Frank Schoenian April 25, 2013 / 1:32 pm

    Dear Ruth,
    thank you very much for your articles and reflections. I did not yet read all of them, I must admit that I just discovered your blog via Test of Faith. But the previous one I enjoyed very much.
    I am a geologist (a field geologist in sedimentology / event stratigraphy), although recently I did not work as one and do not have a current scientific affiliation. I just wanted to tell you that indeed I feel Awe and wonder when I understand how certain mountains form, how marine fossil got to the very top of the highest mountains, how ancient continents were orientated to each other and how we can reconstruct processes which acted on Earth millions of years ago (and affected life). Or how glaciers advanced and vanished or how the impact of a large asteroid changed the course of life forever (my stuff). By the way: 65 Mio years ago the Chicxulub impactor hit an oblique platform of carbonates and anhydrite to produce just the right amount of climatically active gases (COx, SOx) to cause the extinction (given it was the impact). 50 or 100 km to the east or to the west and everything would have been different!
    Geology is not an exact science! Being in the field you need a lot of imagination to reconstruct the structure of a certain study area and hence its geologic history. You have to interpret your observations correctly and try to draw a broader image if you want to find a model. Sometimes you even need some sort of ‘revelation’ to throw over board or correct what you have read and develop your own ideas. Finally, geologic (field) research is somehow ‘upside down science’ (at least for some ‘methodologists’): First you just go and look what you find, then you develop an idea, a model, based on your observations and at the end you try to find the evidence by applying useful methods to your samples and data. Starting with a fixed methodology usually doesn’t lead you anywhere… (That might be different for pure laboratory geology, e.g. mineralogy.)
    Well, I also do not have a special affiliation with any tradition or church, although I am tending towards christianity. Therefore I appreciate your thoughts. And I will for sure also read the rest of your articles. Again, thank you for your recommendation and review of Shubin’s new book, this is a must read for me!


    • Ruth Bancewicz April 25, 2013 / 2:03 pm

      Thank you Frank, it’s great to hear another geologist’s perspective!


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