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In Paperback: Human Universe

By (June 24, 2015) No Comment

In Paperbackhuman universe cover

Human Universe:

by Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

HarperCollins, 2015

Hugely popular UK physicist and science presenter Brian Cox’s BBC TV program “Human Universe” attempted to convey the pathos and wonder of the “intellectual avalanche” that was triggered only a few hundred years ago by pioneers in scientific thinking like Copernicus and Kepler and Newton, following the “avalanche” as it barreled forward to encompass special relativity, mind-boggling advances in astronomy, and intuition-defying breakthroughs in quantum mechanics. The companion book to the series, co-written with Andrew Cohen, manages to capture a good deal of the show’s sense of wonder, even though the US paperback edition breaks with what seems to be contractual guarantee to have Cox’s gamine puss plastered all over its cover.

“This book asks questions about our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe,” he writes at the outset,

This book asks questions about our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe. We have no right to expect answers; we have no right even to ask. But ask and wonder we do. Human Universe is first and foremost a love letter to humanity; a celebration of our outrageous fortune in existing at all. I have chosen to write my letter in the language of science, because there is no better demonstration of our magnificent ascent from dust to paragon of animals than the exponentiation of knowledge generated by science.

In short, punchy chapters on a predictable range of subjects – the course of anthropology, the biological nature of living things, the evolutionary record, and the statistical likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe – the book presents a fairly standard overview of science, pausing every so often for short digressions about some key historical figures. These digressions are always entertaining, although almost without exception, when “many historians” are invoked to buttress some ridiculous claim, the reader should be ready with a healthy pinch of skepticism – as in the case of poor martyred Giordano Bruno, here held up for some mockery:

Giordano Bruno is as famous for his death as for his life and work. On 17 February 1600, his tongue pinioned to prevent him from repeating his heresy (which recalls the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the admonishment ‘you’re only making it worse for yourself’ is correctly observed to be an empty threat), Bruno was burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome and his ashes thrown into the Tiber. His crimes were numerous and included heretical ideas such as denying the divinity of Jesus. It is also the opinion of many historians that Bruno was irritating, argumentative and, not to put too fine a point on it, an all-round pain in the arse, so many powerful people were simply glad to see the back of him.

“Two million years ago we were apemen. Now we are spacemen,” Cox writes. “That has happened, as far as we know, nowhere else. That is worth celebrating.” And it is indeed worth celebrating, and Human Universe celebrates it quite effectively. But the book can’t escape certain disquieting elements in its own genesis, and those elements are much more visible on the printed page than they were on the TV screen.

The foremost of these elements is absolutely unavoidable: this is a science primer for children. The subjects it covers – the discovery of the heliocentric solar system (indeed, damningly, the concept of the heliocentric solar system), the basics of classical physics, an idea of the vast distances involved in interstellar space, and so on – are conceived and presented about as basically as a 10th grade science book would do, only without the funny-animal pictures to sugar the pill. The fact that this book is nevertheless being marketed to adult readers should set off some quiet alarm bells, and two self-evident reasons for it all are even more alarming. The first of these reasons is accurate marketing demographics: it’s entirely likely that the average person-on-the-street in both the UK and the US really is about as ignorant of basic science as child on the first day of school. And the second of the two reasons is perfectly OK with that state of affairs: at several points in the course of Human Universe – in chapters with titles like “A Universe Made For Us?” and “Science Vs Magic” – Cox goes out of his way to address problems of belief … as in, problems some of his readers will have with believing the things he’s writing. About a fossil record that contains no trace of the Great Flood, for instance, or about an Earth that’s more than 6000 years old.

There’s a great enveloping fog against which Human Universe – show and book – can at times be seen to be straining. Giordano Bruno – arse or not – knew the cold reach of that fog quite well.