THE UNIVERSE WITHIN: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. By Neil Shubin. Panteon Books. 225 pages. $25.95.
Exuberant, provocative, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable: What else does a book have to be?
Neil Shubin, a remarkable and successful science writer, not only traverses the terrain from smaller than microscopic to larger than macroscopic in one unifying volume, he also establishes the connections between them. Somewhere near the center of that ratio of scales lies our planet, Earth.
Numerous authors, with varying degrees of success, have explained to the layman how Earth came to be by starting with the “big bang.” Few, if any, have woven in the narrative of how closely integrated was the formation of the basic elements and how they have determined the composition and attributes of everything from the human body to an exploding super nova.
The book not only deals familiarly with physics (Newtonian and nuclear), chemistry (organic and inorganic), biology and evolution, it also enlivens the tale with many snippets of biography from the giants along the way who developed our understanding of these wide-ranging mechanisms. Have you ever heard of a science book referred to as a “page-turner”?
Shubin is the associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago and author of “The Inner Fish,” the National Academy of Sciences 2009 Book of the Year.
A reviewer should not be content to repackage the jacket notes. Nonetheless, the following comment from author Carl Zimmer is particularly appropriate: “ ‘We are stardust’ goes the old song, but most of us don’t give the fact much thought. ‘The Universe Within’ will change that. Shubin roots around our physiology and finds the history of the cosmos lodged in our cells. And in the process he makes the familiar wondrous.”
When one sets out to create such a book, the challenge is to not let the essential demands of scientific thoroughness detract from the joyful adventure that the journey offers. Shubin has reset the bar in this regard, too. The bibliography, footnotes and suggestions for further reading are carefully arranged to permit more in-depth investigations without intruding on the “plot.” If you would like to read just one book to better understand our universe and our connections to it, this is the book.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer and Hanahan resident.