Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The View from the Center of the Universe

Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos

I have just been made aware of the book called, “The View from the Center of the Universe,” and I think that it will be on my short list for reading very soon.

In The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, Joel Primack, a leading cosmologist and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his wife Nancy Ellen Abrams, a lawyer, writer, and musician, tell us that this cosmic alienation has its roots in the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions and a Faustian deal brokered by René Descartes and Francis Bacon.

This very important and fascinating book powerfully describes the scope and depth of human connections to our universe. Primack and Abrams make clear the revolutionary concepts and implications of the modern understanding of time, space, dark matter, dark energy, eternal inflation, and the stardust filling our bodies, and how that knowledge can affect our feelings about ourselves and our future. Drawing lessons from the history of creation myths in many cultures, and from the changing perspectives of science over the centuries, they use many complementary approaches, including images and symbols, to paint a comprehensive picture of the value of our place in the universe as we now know it, and our opportunities for action in this critical century. Their well-supported admonition to "think cosmically, act globally" can be a vital guide to build a "sustainable prosperity." This topic demands the attention of nearly every thoughtful adult at a time when our impact on our home planet is rising dramatically, as are conflicts between science and religions. So far, scientists have not succeeded in helping most people sense meaning or purpose when considering the vastness of space that astronomy has revealed over the past few hundred years.

We humans occupy an insignificant place in the grand scheme of things, and there is no evidence that the universe has taken or should take note of us. I suspect many other scientists, as well as nonscientists, have had a similar experience. Carl Sagan summed it up well: "We live on a hunk of rock and metal that orbits a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy"—and he said it before dark matter and dark energy were discovered and were found to account for 96% of the stuff in the universe.

In the wake of Galileo's bad experience with the Catholic Church, scientists adopted a policy of noninterference with religion, dividing the world into the material (realm of science) and the spiritual (realm of religion). This division allowed science to flourish unfettered. And flourish it did with profound advances in our understanding of nature, from quarks to the cosmos, and dramatic advances in our quality of life, from electricity and medicine to science-based agriculture and today's quantum-based information economy.

Yet Primack and Abrams argue that the bargain had a significant downside: the severing of humankind's connection with the universe. They also contend that the present revolutionary period of cosmic discovery is the right time to re-establish a widely shared cosmological myth that connects us to the universe. Reconciliation 400 years after a messy divorce is not easy; but with their complementary backgrounds and a decade of jointly teaching a course on cosmology and culture at Santa Cruz, this husband-and-wife team is well qualified to start the conversation.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a review of the cosmological myths that preceded the divorce of science and religion, from the cosmology of ancient Egypt to the heavenly spheres that survived from Ptolemy to the Middle Ages. The second part is an exposition of our present understanding of the universe; it focuses on recent breakthroughs such as inflation, dark matter, and dark energy. The third part is an exploration of how we might take advantage of this quantum leap in our knowledge to reconnect with the universe, and even learn lessons from the universe. In the authors' words, "think cosmically, act globally."

The discussion of contemporary cosmology is built around five simple and engaging questions: What is the universe made of? What is the "center of the universe"? What size is the universe? Where do we come from? Are we alone?


  1. I can relate to the premise of this book very easily. I believe that non western religions, the religions that accentuate the ability of man to have inner knowlege, like varieties of budhism and hinduism...give us access to techniques that give us a glimpse of understanding the relationship and the ability to "see" concepts. To understand the atomic level of existance.

    The concept of god and supreme beings are a simplified face which are the common way man relates to these concepts which most do not or cannot ever understand.
    Everyonce in a while, for us the curtain is parted and we are allowed or can gain a glimpse of this reality. Concepts become cystal clear, we understand what we feel.
    Cosmic reality can be ike a lightning bolt out of the blue, like the feeling that Nikola Tesla had when he discovered the principle of AC Current when he was walking in a park...he said it just came to him and struck him speechless.

    Perhaps, being a semi autist as Tesla was enabled him to short circuit the banality of the static of everyday reality and connect with this grand flow.
    Perhaps that was the great attraction of LSD and psychedelic drugs. For a brief time, someone could short circuit reality and see over the edge.

  2. I would love to be in a book club with this book as its focus. It's right up my alley for sure.

    I am still trying to understand [or pretend to] bubble universes. Fascinating stuff. Sadly I was born too soon and so much of my life was 'wasted' before space exploration got serious.

    Perhaps in another life, in another universe..

  3. I am looking for this book at my earliest opportunity. It's on my list, for sure! Thanks for writing about it here!!