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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
History, Science & Current Affairs
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
With black-and-white line drawings throughout
From one of our finest and most popular science writers, and the best-selling author of Your Inner Fish, comes the answer to a scientific mystery as big as the world itself: How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us?
In Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin delved into the amazing connections between human bodies - our hands, heads, and jaws - and the structures in fish and worms that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. In The Universe Within, with his trademark clarity and exuberance, Shubin takes an even more expansive approach to the question of why we look the way we do. Starting once again with fossils, he turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe's fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.
Having spent the better part of my working life staring at rocks on the ground, I've gained a certain perspective on life and the universe. My professional aspirationuncovering clues to the making of our bodieslies inside the baked desert floor or deep within the frozen Arctic. While this ambition may seem eccentric, it is not much different from that of colleagues who peer at the light of distant stars and galaxies, map the bottom of the oceans, or chart the surface of barren planets in our solar system. What weaves our work together are some of the most powerful ideas that mankind has ever developed, ones that can explain how we and our world came to be.
These notions inspired my first book, Your Inner Fish. Inside every organ, cell, and piece of DNA in our bodies lie over 3.5 billion years of the history of life. Accordingly, clues to the human story reside within impressions of worms in rock, the DNA of fish, and clumps of algae in a pond.
While I was thinking about that book, it became clear that worms, fish, and algae are but gateways to ever deeper connectionsones that extend back billions of years before the presence of life and of Earth itself. Written inside us is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origin of days themselves.
During the past 13.7 billion years (or so), the universe came about in the big bang, stars have formed and died, and our planet congealed from matter in space. In the eons since, Earth has circled the sun while mountains, seas, and whole continents have come and gone.
Discovery after discovery in the past century has confirmed the multibillion-year age of Earth, the sheer vastness of the cosmos, and our species' humble position in the tree of life on our planet. Against this backdrop, you could legitimately wonder if it is part of the job description of scientists to make people feel utterly puny and insignificant in the face of the enormity of space and time.
But by smashing the smallest atoms and surveying the largest galaxies, exploring rocks on the highest mountains and in the deepest seas, and coming to terms with the DNA inside every species alive today, we uncover a sublimely beautiful truth. Within each of us lie some of the most profound stories of all.
Excerpted from The Universe Within by Neil Shubin. Copyright © 2013 by Neil Shubin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Universe Within is paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin's exhilarating and accessible history of the universe for non-scientists, a grand tour of the 13.75 billion years from the Big Bang to speculation about the future of humankind, our planet and the cosmos. Shubin surveys inner and outer space he examines cells, genes and atomic particles, as well as global geological catastrophes and massive cosmic events. Though the trip is dizzying in scope, we keep our bearings because a central idea, one that Shubin repeatedly demonstrates and celebrates, steadies us: everything in the universe is connected to everything else, ourselves included. As Shubin explains, "Written inside us is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origin of days themselves."
Shubin begins and ends his book with an account of an expedition to Greenland during which he and his fellow paleontologists searched for and found fossilized teeth the size of grains of sand. The teeth belonged to a 200 million year-old shrew-like animal that is important because its teeth, ears, shoulders, limbs and skull are mammalian in structure, illuminating the development of our own mammalian anatomy. The book's middle includes chapters on the birth of the solar system; the formation and development of our planet; on time and the cells in our brain that measure it; the appearance of life on earth and its development from single cells to large, gravity-bound creatures; the relationship between oxygen, living things and the planet; tectonic plates and continental drift; global catastrophes and extinctions; the way rock erosion and weathering affect climate; and ice ages and climate change. No summary can do justice to the range of information or rich details Shubin gives the reader, or his knack for presenting complex ideas in sharp, clear language.
Shubin humanizes science. He includes descriptions of the "bad choices" he made as a novice Arctic explorer - his slippery, leaky boots, too-small tent, large flashlight, too large for a place with 24 hours of sunlight. There are comic interludes among rhapsodic passages, and through biographical sketches of revolutionary scientists, Shubin show us how advances in science really happen. He describes the way scientists do their work - whether crawling over rocks, collecting masses of data, building new tools or persevering after being told an idea is worthless. These scientists, Shubin says, knew "how to look" at the world. For them, "...rocks and bodies" are not inert lumps of matter but, "...time capsules that carry the signature of great events that shaped them." Notable are Henrietta Leavitt (see Beyond the Book), whose charting of stars' brightness provided a way to measure distances in space, and the shy but intrepid archaeologist Dorothy Garrod, discoverer of Natufian culture, who provided the following description of her archaeological work: "You crawl on your stomach for hours...climbing up yawning abysses and get knocked on the head by stalactites...and in the end arrive at all sorts of wonders."
To read The Universe Within is to arrive at all sorts of wonders: "The molecules that compose our bodies arose in stellar events in the distant origin of the solar system. Changes to Earth's atmosphere sculpted our cells and entire metabolic machinery. Pulses of mountain-building, changes in orbits of the planet, and revolutions within Earth itself have had an impact on our bodies, minds, and the way we perceive the world around us." Shubin illuminates our inner and outer selves and our world, and demonstrates how beautifully connected, transitory, rare, and changeable we are.
About the Author
Neil Shubin deserves a place among the fascinating scientists he profiles. He is the Robert R. Bensley Professor at the University of Chicago, and is also the Associate Dean, Biological Sciences Division. He is a Professor on the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, and serves as a Provost at The Field Museum in Chicago. Shubin works in the fields of organismal biology, anatomy, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, searching for "mechanisms behind the evolutionary origin of new anatomical features and faunas." In 2004 he was part of the team that discovered 375 million-year-old fossil Tiktaalik, the "missing link" between sea animals and creatures that walked on land. His first book for non-scientists was Your Inner Fish, A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. See Neil Shubin explain to Stephen Colbert how our bodies contain a "tree of life" and how human beings will control their evolutionary futures, by clicking on the video below:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
Reviewed by Jo Perry
Neil Shubin describes The Universe Within as a "timeline" covering great events and processes of the history of the cosmos, the planet and life on earth. But his is also a timeline of scientists and scientific discoveries that enlarged our understanding of the world. One scientist who stood out for me was Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921).
Leavitt became interested in astronomy while a student at Radcliffe College. After graduation, an illness robbed her of her hearing and she became a researcher at the Harvard College Observatory where she cared for telescopes and directed the photographic photometry department. Edward Charles Pickering was director of the observatory and hired his maid, Williamina Fleming, Leavitt and other women to do research. As Shubin explains, "What Pickering could never have planned was that from this team grew some of the greatest astronomers of the time, or any time for that matter. These women collectively became known as the Harvard Computers: they sat with the raw data of astronomy - pictures of the heavens - and made sense of them."
Leavitt catalogued photographic plates of stars and discovered how to measure the true magnitude of a star: "Leavitt became fascinated by one type of star that changed regularly from bright to dim over the course of days or months. Mapping seventeen hundred stars, she charted every property she could measure: how bright they were, where they sat in the sky, and how rapidly these variable stars went from bright to dim. With all of these data, Leavitt uncovered an important regular-cycle from bright to dim and their real brightness. Leavitt's idea seems awfully esoteric, but it is utterly profound. Starting with the principle that light travels at a constant speed, and knowing how bright the star actually was and how bright it appeared, meant that the distance of the star from Earth could be estimated. With this insight, Henrietta Leavitt gave us a ruler with which to measure distances in deep space."
Stars can appear dim or bright from earth. It's hard to tell when looking at a star if it's bright because it's close to the earth or because it really is bright. By studying the Cepheid variable stars in the Milky Way, Leavitt figured out how to find the real brightness of stars despite differences in distance from the earth. Her findings, published in 1912, plotted the periods (the period of a star is the time it takes to complete one cycle of brightness) of 25 stars and correlated them to their apparent brightness. Using this, astronomers only need to know the period of a Cepheid star to figure out how bright, and therefore how far away it was.
This way of measuring stars helped Edwin Hubble confirm that the universe was much larger than previously thought. Hubble's work with one particular Cepheid star in the Andromeda Nebulae led him, through Leavitt's distance calculation work, to figure out that the Andromeda was much further away than our own Milky Way.
Leavitt, through her groundbreaking work, paved the way for many advances in modern astronomy.
By Jo Perry
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