You Are Here is simply an amazing book. Christopher Potter takes
his readers on a whirlwind tour that races from the vastness of the universe to
the subatomic particles that make up all of creation, touching on scientific
theory, history, and even evolution along the way. It is a fascinating journey
that can leave one's head spinning. There is a lot of information packed into
this slim volume.
Potter uses the clever technique of allowing exponentials of ten to enhance his readers' grasp of the immense (or infinitesimally small) distances and sizes about which he's writing. He lists, for example, items that are between 1 and 10 metres in length (humans, giraffes). Once the reader easily comprehends that distance, he progresses to items 10 to 100 metres long (pythons, some dinosaurs), and so on until he reaches distances of light years. This makes his subjects more approachable, providing a better sense of scale than if he had merely spouted facts at the reader. The information is peppered with remarkable observations that frequently cause the reader to stop mid-page in wonder.
One of the themes recurring throughout You Are Here is Potter's claim that scientists have been trying to prove humanity isn't "special" since Copernicus placed the Sun at the center of the universe, that our planet isn't unique. Yet, as scientists uncover more information about the universe, our world paradoxically becomes more remarkable. Potter points out that although there are many "Goldilocks planets" (just the right distance from their sun), the Earth and its solar system have other features that aren't present elsewhere that were essential to the development of life here.
Even the amount of uranium in the earth seems to be perfectly balanced for life. Too little and the earth would have cooled too quickly. It would have become something inert. Too much and the radioactivity levels would again have made this sort of life impossible. The level that we do have suggests that the sun is made of material from a third round of star making, which again reminds that not only are the conditions of the solar system finely balanced for our life, but the conditions of the universe are finely balanced too.
Potter's cosmology allows for the coexistence of science and faith. Early in the
narrative he quotes such scientific luminaries as Einstein and Hawking regarding
the possible existence of God. He includes a quote from American astronomer
Robert Jastrow on the last page of You Are Here: "
The scientist who has
climbed the highest peak may find 'as he pulls himself over the final rock,
[that] he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for
centuries.'" While some purists may object to the insertion of spirituality in a
popular science book, its inclusion is not intrusive.
At times Potter's writing can be a bit dry. He tends to drift into unnecessary recitation of data that does little to enhance the reader's understanding of a subject. In addition, the book's publicists do it a disservice in proclaiming its accessibility. Personally, I did not find this an easy read. The central sections which deal with quantum mechanics, string theory, and antimatter were particularly challenging. The reader is advised to peruse an excerpt before picking up a copy - You Are Here will not be everyone's cup of tea, and it's not a book that can be easily read in an environment full of distractions. Regardless of its difficulty, however, I did find the information Potter presented to be fascinating, and I was never tempted to abandon the book. Readers with a background in science in particular are likely to find much to enjoy here.
An interview with the author at The Guardian.
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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