For all you folks out there wondering what’s the next nerdy book you should have on your book list, I recommend You Are Here. In a mere 274 pages (in my hardbound edition, at least), you will come to know everything from the far reaches of space to the smallest charmed particle in quantum physics.youarehere.jpg

Unlike other books I’ve ready about physics and the universe, this book is NOT written by a scientist. That’s right, Potter is an ordinary citizen like you and me except that he is a British fellow and who lives half time in London and half time in New York City — which doesn’t sound much like my friends or me. But he is a layperson, albeit a particularly nerdy one given the science covered in his book, and we do like very nerdy nerds.

Some books on similar topics by scientists really are commonly either too difficult or too dry. If you’ve attempted to read Einstein’s explanation of the Special Theory of Relativity or Stephen Hawkin’s The Universe in a Nutshell you know of what I speak. One exception to this would be Alexander Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes., which I believe is significantly helped along by Vilenkin’s propensity to illustrate sophisticated concepts with his cute cartoons. He’s a funny guy. Hawkin’s book has hecka illustrations, all beautiful full-color graphics, but they never seemed to help me as much as one of Vilenkin’s silly cartoons (for an example, see pg. 11, “A chunk of gravitationally repulsive material).

Although there are no illustrations in You Are Here, cute or otherwise, Potter clearly leads us through not only the history of the universe but the history of histories of the universe. I found out many tasty nerges so I must say one to you right now. Did you know there was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher names Democritus , who thought up the idea of atoms? I’ve never heard of the guy, and the idea of atoms were lost for centuries after his demise. Yeah, you here all about Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, but here’s a guy who actually came up with something relevant to actual science, and you never learn about him in school.

So, back to the universe, specifically the Big Bang. There are a couple of brilliant methods Potter employs to explain things. One is to break things down by scale or time (which overlap occasionally). He first does this by explaining the relative size of things, starting with things that are 1 meter (100) to 10 billion light years (10 26). This give one a (false) sense of perspective on the size of the universe, which we cannot actually perceive with our pea-size brains, but with this explanation, one FEELS, momentarily, that understanding the immensity is in one’s grasp.

With the Big Bang, Potter uses this same technique with time to explain how the universe evolved from 10 -43 seconds to 3 minutes to 380,000 years. Besides breaking it down in time, he explains when things crossed over from energy to matter via a particle called the Higgs boson. (Really, one particle is responsible for the creation of matter? That’s some particle!)

He also clearly explains quantum physics in a way that gives you just enough information to understand the concepts but no more. Which is good, because any more information usually makes it all sound like a bunch of made up crap. (Really? You call it a particle zoo? He also explains (simply, again) why the quantum world has different laws than the “classical” worlds, and how it’s hard to find the bridge between the two. Going back into scientific history, there’s a strong propensity for physicists to try to find a unifying theory of everything. E=mc2 is one of those great moments when this sort of happened. The Theory of Relativity unified a hell of a lot but not everything. Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s behind EVERYTHING. Which is a question not too very different from WHAT THIS ALL ABOUT, ANYWAY?

While I was reading this book, K was reading a book on mindfulness called Coming to Our Senses. He read a quote to me which I fail to recall but had to but we saw a definite intersection between our books. A long time ago, philosophy and science were intertwined. Granted, the science wasn’t very … scientific, but there you have it. It’s very difficult to write about something as awe-inspiring as the entire universe and not have philosophical thoughts about it and the meaning of life. Conversely, it’s difficult to think about the meaning of life (by which, we usually mean “my life”) without wondering about the universe. These schools have been artificially separated so that science can progress unencumbered, but we see how well that has gone for the world. Although, their separation is probably for the best, as “philosphy” often becomes “religion”, and then people start throwing god into the picture and it all become mired in emotion (see the film Contact for an excellent exploration of this problem).

Oddly enough, the part of the book you’d think was the most interesting — the development of life, and consequently of thought — was the least interesting to me. I wonder if this is because we have a basic understanding of biology — you see it all around you every day — but where is quantum physics or quasars? We can only be exposed to them in books or computer animation. The interesting part, though, is that he demonstrates the line between alive and inert is a blurry one. We all came from the big bang, you, me, and the rocks outside. There’s a strong relationship between volcanoes and other earth activity of the planet and the creatures on the planet. We are all made of the same stuff, and we are all intertwined together. Many peoples over the history of time knew this; unfortunately, the dominant culture of the world does not. The majority of humanity is destructive and cancerous to the planet. In fact, we may not really be around much longer in the scheme of things. But the earth should exist for 5 billion years, so it’s very likely that if we don’t make it, lots of other creatures will. Dragonflies have existed for 300 million years, so it’s likely if we don’t make it, they will still be flitting about. What will happen to the development of thought, with or without humans, is about as opaque as a black hole.

Comments

2 Responses to “You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter”

  1. Exoplanets : the nerge on September 27th, 2010 3:04 pm

    […] my favorite Greek philosopher, Democritus. I only learned about Democritus recently while reading You Are Here. He thought of the idea of atomic structure, but what I learned last evening is that he also […]

  2. The Origin of Everything : the nerge on December 17th, 2010 10:12 am

    […] K2 & H both venture into Big Bang territory. But why was there a Bang? Theories talk about the Higgs boson, and theorists can talk all they want about a particle emerging from nothingness to cause the bang, […]

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