On Science

We're at the center of the universe - unless we're not

By Anthony Doerr
April 19, 2009
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YOU ARE HERE: A Portable
History of the Universe

By Christopher Potter
Harper, 294 pp., $26.99

WHY US?: How Science Rediscovered
the Mystery of Ourselves

By James Le Fanu
Pantheon, 320 pp., illustrated, $26.95

We live on Earth, a clump of iron and magnesium and nickel, smeared with a thin layer of organic matter. It whirls along in a nearly circular orbit around a star we call the sun. The sun is made of hydrogen, a little bit of helium, and a few other things. It comprises 99.9 percent of all the mass in our solar system. Huge, right? Huge enough to put the energy in our salads, milkshakes, gas tanks, and oceans.

But the sun is merely a mote in the sway of the gravitational center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Along with our sun, the Milky Way contains perhaps 200 billion other stars.

The Milky Way belongs to a cluster of galaxies (we call it the Local Group), which in turn belongs to a vast conglomerate of tens of thousands of galaxies (the Virgo supercluster). Spiral-shaped, ellipse-shaped, sombrero-shaped - in the visible universe, at any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of millions of galaxies. Maybe as many as 140 billion.

All those galaxies, stuffed with all those stars, stuffed with how many worlds? If our sun is one in 10 sextillion, could our Earth be one in 10 sextillion as well?

Or the Earth might be one - the only one, the one.

Either way, the circumstances boggle the mind. "Who, after all," asks Christopher Potter, in his idiosyncratic, encyclopedic blitzkrieg of a book, "You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe," "wants to be told that they are insignificant specks in a vast, purposeless and uncaring universe?"

As a boy, Potter inscribed his unabridged address into a picture book like this: "Christopher Potter, 225 Rushgreen Road, Lymn, Cheshire, England, The United Kingdom, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy." Now an editor and writer, and a self-admitted layperson, Potter has written a personal, brilliant, and often amusing account of his quest to more deeply understand his cosmic address.

First he chases his curiosity out beyond the Milky Way, the Local Group, and the Virgo supercluster, to the very horizons of what we can observe in space and time. Two chapters later he investigates his location down into the limits of smallness, boring down by orders of 10 into the infinitesimal, from molecules through atoms through protons and neutrons and into quarks. "How," he wants to know, "can there ever be an end to smallness in a material world?"

After pressing the limits of what can be measured in space, Potter slides over to time, parsing through the seconds, then centuries, then billions of years immediately following the Big Bang. Along the way he touches on string theory, the Gaia hypothesis, how chemical life might have become biological life, human evolution, and lots of stray factoids. Pythagoras didn't invent the theorem that bears his name, for example, and Einstein didn't want special relativity called "relativity."

Even if you already know the science Potter surveys, his speed and style will keep you reading. He's a clean, swift writer, as likely to quote John Updike, Thomas Mann, or Friedrich Nietzsche as he is Richard Feynman or Isaac Newton. And this book is very briskly paced; in less than 300 pages, he left me dizzy.

Pretty much everything in "You Are Here" is steeped in the Copernican tradition: That is, we are reminded, constantly, that humans do not reside at the center of things. We're not located at the center of the solar system, or the galaxy, or the universe, and we're not perched atop the tree of evolution.

That said, "You Are Here" is anything but dwarfing or depressing. "To contemplate the universe," writes Potter, "is to find ourselves at two poles at the same time: We are uniquely special and we are insignificant. The scientific method progresses by insisting on the insignificance, but repeatedly discovers privilege."

Another English science writer, James Le Fanu, sends a quite different new book across the pond, called "Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves." Le Fanu begins by arguing, reasonably, that the human genome project has failed to live up to its soaring expectations, and that modern neuroscience will never be able to fully explain the profundities of the human self.

He then falls slowly off his horse. Basically Le Fanu believes that "we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves" in which Darwinism will be set aside and science will be "liberated from the dead hand of evolutionary certainty."

Le Fanu's is an anti-Copernican project. He believes that worms and bacteria are "vastly simpler than ourselves," that the physical differences between Homo sapiens and other primates are too large to be explained by a few subtle variations in our genomes. Man, he argues in his final chapter, needs to be restored to his pedestal.

Le Fanu is an articulate writer. Hidden beneath his borderline-creationist rationalizations lie some important questions. Is everything in the universe fundamentally explicable by scientific terms alone? Are awe and grief merely a wash of neurochemicals? Of course not. And Le Fanu is probably right: Maybe we should, in his words, "be enormously more appreciative of nature's ingenuity."

There is a place for wonder in science. Certain things are ultimately unmeasurable. But there are somewhere around 10 sextillion stars in the universe. We are almost genetically identical to chimpanzees. To know these things is a profound gift. And I'm grateful scientists have given it to us.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector," "About Grace," and "Four Seasons in Rome."

YOU ARE HERE: A Portable History of the Universe By Christopher Potter

Harper, 294 pp., $26.99

WHY US?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves By James Le Fanu

Pantheon, 320 pp., illustrated, $26.95